Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Literacy among Anglo-Saxon Women

My new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, features the mothers, wives and daughters of the Anglo-Saxon kings, as well as a number of influential and powerful noblewomen, and not a few nuns and abbesses.

What struck me was that from as early as the seventh century and across all these groups of women, levels of literacy were high.

Bertha was the daughter of the Frankish king Charibert, and she married Æthelberht of Kent, but the date of her marriage and whether her husband was actually king at the time, are the subject of some debate. In the book I’ve suggested a date of 579 for the wedding. Much is made of Bertha’s being a Christian, and she’s often cited as being an influence on her husband’s decision to convert, but what is also interesting about her is that Gregory of Tours, writing around or before 580, said that she was literate, and if she corresponded with her family then this would amount to more than merely being able to read the Bible. 

Statue of Bertha. Cropped from Image by
Gordon Griffiths: Attribution Link

Cynethryth was the wife of King Offa of Mercia in the eighth century. Far from being a token queen, she attested charters, and had coins struck in her name. She exercised joint lordship with Offa over the Mercian monasteries and she retained possession of the lucrative Cookham monastery after his death, which led her into dispute with the archdiocese of Canterbury. She attested as the mother of Ecgfrith, her son by Offa who succeeded when Offa died, even appearing in charters without him, before he reached his majority. The monk and scholar, Alcuin, wrote to Ecgfrith reminding him that he should learn authority from his father and compassion from his mother and, tellingly, he asked that the king send greeting to her; he would have written to her himself but knew that the king’s business kept her too busy to read letters. 

As well as their son, Ecgfrith, Offa and Cynethryth had a number of daughters. One, Æthelburh, is known to have corresponded with Alcuin, who wrote to her upon the death of her brother-in-law, Æthelred, king of Northumbria: ‘Some of this ruin has brought you hot tears, I know, for your beloved sister.’ The sister who was widowed upon the death of the Northumbrian king was Ælfflæd and Alcuin also wrote to Ælfflæd’s mother-in-law expressing his condolences.

Replica of Cynethryth coin

Cwoenthryth was the daughter of King Cenwulf, who succeeded Offa’s son Ecgfrith (who only reigned for a matter of months). King Cenwulf was every bit as strong a ruler as Offa had been but it was his argument with the archbishop of Canterbury which was to have repercussions for his daughter. Cwoenthryth was named as his heir, not to the throne, but to his property, and she became abbess of the family house at Winchcombe, the burial place of Cwoenthryth’s father and brother. The argument that Cwoenthryth inherited centred around the king’s claim to the lands, which Wulfred, archbishop of Canterbury, insisted belonged to the Church. Cwoenthryth inherited not only Winchcombe in Mercia from her father, but houses in Kent, too: Minster-in-Thanet and Reculver. 

Minster (in -Thanet) Abbey, showing Saxon stonework
photo by kind permission of the Sisters of Minster Abbey

She cannot have overseen all three sites in person but she was clearly in charge of a wide network, and with the religious houses acting as centres for growing settlements, she would have been a powerful woman in charge of huge revenues. The eventual settlement of the dispute saw Cwoenthryth remaining in possession and in charge of Winchcombe and continuing her role as abbess of the Kentish abbeys but she had to surrender the Kentish houses and recognise Wulfred’s authority over them and the associated lands. 

It could be argued that the women who received letters from the likes of Alcuin had someone to read the letters to them and, indeed, someone to write their replies. But wealthy abbesses such as Cynethryth and Cwoenthryth would need to scrutinise documents, especially when in dispute with the Church. Letters, legal documents, land grants - they wouldn’t have been able to manage these huge, profitable estates unless they could be sure what was written on those important documents, and it seems unlikely that they would trust the word of someone reading them out loud. * 

King Edward the Elder of Wessex, who succeeded his father Alfred the Great in 899, had at least fourteen children by three wives. In his Chronicle of the Kings of England, the Anglo-Norman monk William of Malmesbury said that Edward the Elder brought up his daughters so that, ‘in childhood they gave their whole attention to literature, and afterwards employed themselves in the labours of the distaff and the needle.’ So not only were the royal daughters skilled in sewing and embroidery, it seems they were literate too. 

Queen Eadgifu, Edward the Elder's third wife

I’ve often written about tenth-century Queen Ælfthryth, wife of King Edgar. She was variously accused of regicide, witchcraft and adultery. What is perhaps less well known is that she often acted as advocate for other women in lawsuits. A letter survives which explains how a woman named Wulfgyth ‘rode to me at Combe, looking for me.’ The ‘me’ in question is Ælfthryth, and she goes on to describe how she interceded and helped bring a land dispute between Wulfgyth, her husband and Bishop Æthelwold to a conclusion. A lawsuit from the 990s involved a noblewoman named Wynflæd who brought witnesses to swear to her ownership of certain estates: ‘Then she brought forth the proofs of ownership with the support of Ælfthryth, the king’s mother.’ It is hard to see that the queen would have been able to follow the proceedings had she not been able to read.

Depiction of Ælfthryth welcoming her stepson Edward
to her house at Corfe, just before his murder

Another surviving and important document is the will left by another tenth-century lady who also went by the name of Wynflæd. In her will she disposes of several estates in Hampshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire and Somerset. Among her bequests there are tapestries, a filigree brooch, an engraved bracelet, clothing chests, and books. Although there is no indication that this testatrix had need to scrutinise legal documents, it is hard to believe that she would have kept books - and we needn’t assume they were all religious texts - unless she herself could read them.

Wynflæd's Will

As we move into the eleventh century, the story of powerful women is rather dominated by Queen Emma, wife of both King Æthelred the Unready and King Cnut. During her fight for her son Harthcnut’s right to the English throne, she commissioned a work called the Encomium Emmæ Reginæ which, one would assume, Emma would have wanted to read herself, and thus we must assume that she, too, was literate.

A page from the Encomium

In the book, I’ve also examined the evidence which strongly points to the existence of women scribes, from the writing stylii found at Whitby Abbey, to the amazing discovery last year of the ‘Blue-toothed nun’. I’ve mentioned her in another blog post HERE

You can read more about these amazing women in Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, out now.

(* A conclusion reached during a conversation with archaeologist Dr Cat Jarman at Repton 2019)


  1. There's no doubt elite women were literate. An interesting question to think on is why we tend to assume male authorship for anonymous works.

    1. Yes, it's something that's been occupying my thoughts recently. Not sure where the thought process is taking me though!

  2. Meant to add: enjoying working my way through your book. Some fascinating information you've dug up. Not got to Emma yet; looking forward to that.