Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Turning up the Past: The One Who Got Away

Once, at a parents’ evening, a teacher told me that history is an easy subject because it ‘never changes’. Well, I argued with him then, and I’d argue again. There are always new discoveries that constantly change how we view the past, and when I was writing my new book I was barely able to keep up. In fact, in one case the announcement came too late for me to include the details in the book.

I was already aware of the dig at Coldingham, where Dig Ventures were trying to find traces of the original Anglo-Saxon abbey. By the time I visited to take photos for the book, they were long gone, their trenches filled in. But the results came in thick and fast while I was writing the book. 

Coldingham, showing the dig site

The abbess about whom I was writing is known as Æbbe of Coldingham, but the location of her monastery was originally said to be at Coludi urbs (St Abbs Head, Berwickshire). Here, high up on a place now known as Kirk Hill, it is thought that the original monastery, a collection of ‘beehive’ huts, was built in the mid-seventh century.

St Abbs - looking across to Kirk Hill

St Abbs is about two miles from Coldingham, where a later, Benedictine, monastery was built for a community of monks in the eleventh century. The proximity to Coldingham would explain the naming of Æbbe’s monastery, of which all traces have been lost.

In March 2019, results were published of radiocarbon dating which shows that material sent for analysis from a dig at Coldingham Priory can be dated to between 660 and 880. There is a high probability, therefore, that there was an original Anglo-Saxon monastery on the same site, directly underneath the remains of the later medieval priory. As I sent the book off to the publisher, investigation was still ongoing, but it could yet prove that Æbbe of Coldingham’s abbey was indeed further inland than St Abbs and situated in Coldingham itself.

Another early abbess to feature in the book was Æthelburh, although she didn’t spend her whole adult life as a holy woman. She was the daughter of a king of Kent and she travelled north to marry King Edwin of Northumbria. Edwin had been sent into exile when a rival king invaded and married (most likely without her permission) Edwin’s sister. Through her, he had sons, two of whom became kings of Northumbria. Edwin was killed in battle and not long afterwards, one of his nephews, Oswald, came to claim the throne. It seems that Æthelburh felt unsafe so she returned to Kent with her children and step-grandson. She appears to have been given land there by her brother, who was now king of Kent, where she founded the abbey at Lyminge. 

Again, while I was still writing the book, the latest news came in from the Lyminge Archaeology Project, detailing their discoveries about the fabric of the original Anglo-Saxon church.

It appeared that the chancel was separated from the nave by a triple arch, which seems to be a Kentish style (See here for more) and the archaeologists were able to deduce that stone from a fragment of a column was imported from the continent. The conclusion was that the architectural style made it likely to  be the church founded by Æthelburh. Imagine my delight when I saw what they had uncovered, just as I was writing about this lady.

The Lyminge Excavation (Image Credit)

One of the most famous abbesses of the seventh century is Æthelthryth, founder of Ely Abbey. There’s a lot of information about her in the writings of Bede, and in the Liber Eliensis (the history of Ely Abbey). In summary, she was married twice, first to a nobleman of the South Gyrwe, and secondly to King Ecgfrith of Northumbria, nephew of the afore-mentioned Oswald. There’s a great tale about how she, anxious to preserve her virginity, escaped Ecgfrith’s clutches (see my recent post on the EHFA blog for the details) and many miracles were associated with her. As the book was going through edits and proofs, news came to light that the site of St Æthelthryth’s abbey at Ely had been found. Archaeologists pinpointed the site of the original building in the precinct of the abbey, having uncovered a boundary ditch. Obviously I will be following this story with keen interest.

Image credit
But it wasn’t just the religious ladies of the seventh century who hit the news. The story of the blue-toothed nun hit the headlines, again while I was writing the book. I’d been researching the history of Whitby Abbey, where there was an extensive library and evidence of female scribes producing copies of books. Suddenly my newsfeed was full of stories about a case in Germany where the remains of a nun were found to have flecks of blue on the teeth. It’s possible that she might have lived as long ago as the tenth century and the conclusion was that she was an illuminator, a skilled one at that, working with a pigment made from lapis lazuli and licking her paintbrush while she worked. Yet more evidence of female literacy and the existence of female scribes and illuminators.

Queen Emma - Encomium Emma Regina

Those who are familiar with the Anglo-Saxon period  won’t be surprised to learn that a large portion of the book focuses on the career of Emma, married to not one but two kings of England, Cnut, and Æthelred the Unready. She lived a long and full life and there is far more information about her than some of the other women featured, so tracking her down was not hard. She had sons by both her husbands, although for a short while she seems to have forgotten about the one who eventually became Edward the Confessor. Once he was king, her career was effectively over, but not for her a quiet retirement to an abbey and she lived out her years on her lands in Winchester. I’ve studied her life on and off over the years and nothing I turned up was a real revelation. Except that, once again, I had to add a footnote to the effect that while I was writing the book, news emerged from Winchester Cathedral that the bones of over twenty individuals found in mortuary chests might include the skeleton of Emma.

Mortuary Chest (Image Credit)

At least I was able, in some form or another, to mention these discoveries. There was one that ‘got away’ though. Before publication, but after everything had been signed off and sent to the printers, I was alerted to the news story that scientific tests on human remains kept for centuries in the church of St Mary and St Eanswyth in Folkestone, Kent, suggested that they are likely to be those of Eanswyth herself. 

Image by Mark Hourahane

Who was Eanswyth? Well, according to the Kentish Royal Legend, she was the daughter of King Eadbald of Kent. Which means that she was the niece of Æthelburh, founder of Lyminge. If these bones really are those of Eanswyth then they are - so far - the earliest identified remains of an English saint and the only verified remains of any member of the illustrious Kentish royal family, whom I’ve written about so much. It would have been so wonderful to be able to include the details of this discovery in the book, but sadly it was not to be.

But to that teacher who insisted that history doesn’t change? I’d say, on the contrary, I could barely keep up!

Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is available now at
Pen & Sword Books


  1. What a fascinating post, Annie!

    I definitely agree with you. We're always learning something new about the past.

  2. Sounds very intriguing Annie! It's as if I'm 'wondering' what The Light really is! Thanks so much for your preview. Michael Lane.

  3. Fascinating. Thank you. Enjoying your book. It's incredible how you bring everything together. Reading this, I can hear your exclamations of wonder mixed with frustration as things were being discovered but it was too late to include them in your book: a sort of "Amazing-dammit!" ��

    1. Thanks so much! Yes, it was pretty much exactly like that :)