Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Anglo-Saxon Women with Attitude

Many of the women who feature in my books got rather a bad press from the chroniclers: Queen Ælfthryth, for example, who was accused of witchcraft and of the murder of her stepson, Edward the Martyr, in 978. Or Cwoenthryth, abbess of Winchcombe, said to have orchestrated the killing of her small brother, St Kenelm. Queen Cynethryth of Mercia apparently persuaded her husband, King Offa, to have a visiting king of East Anglia beheaded. I’ve written about these women in this blog post but there are plenty of other women from the period who seem to have been rather ‘feisty’. Let me introduce a few of them:


Most of our information about Balthild comes from a Life written at the monastery she founded. From this we learn that Balthild, an Anglo-Saxon, was enslaved as a child and taken across the sea to Frankia and bought by a man named Erchinoald, the mayor of the palace of the Merovingian kings. His daughter was married to the king of Kent, so he had royal connections. Balthild became his cup-bearer, and her duties included serving his important guests, taking off their boots and washing their feet. 

The story goes that Erchinoald decided that he wished to marry Balthild, but the slave woman refused. She didn’t leave it there, though, saying that since she had rejected a king’s servant, she would marry the king instead. And in 648 she became the wife of King Clovis II who ruled the western part of Frankia. 

Her marriage and career are not in dispute, but her lowly origins may be. Erchinoald was no lowly servant himself and it is possible that it was he who arranged the marriage. Romantic as it sounds, it is unlikely that Clovis, a new king, would choose a slave of lowly birth as his bride. There were many links between the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons and it is feasible that Balthild was a noblewoman whose contacts might have helped strengthen his kingship. 

The eldest of her three children, Clothar, became king whilst still a minor and it seems that Balthild served in some capacity as regent. When Clothar reached his majority, Balthild retired to Chelles, one of the monasteries she’d founded.. Her youngest son Childeric was, according to her Life, received in Austrasia (the northeastern part of Frankia) as their king ‘by the arrangement of Lady Balthild.’ Clearly Balthild remained influential in the lives of her sons. 

We are told that she was pious, generous, and just. She gave gifts to churches, and she ended the enslavement and exportation of Christians, freeing many already enslaved, especially those of her own country. 

Not everyone remembered her so fondly. According to the Life of St Wilfrid, ‘the wicked Queen Balthild was persecuting the Church just like Jezebel…She spared priests and deacons but had nine bishops put to death.’ 

Balthilds’s relics were preserved at Chelles and were rediscovered in 1983. She was about five feet tall and was buried wearing a cloak made of coloured silk. A plait of her hair, found among the clothing, showed that at one time she had been blonde, but that her hair had faded to grey. A chasuble, thought to be hers, is in the Musée de Chelles and consists of a piece of woven linen, decorated with embroidery. 

Balthild's Chasuble: Image Accreditation

Edith of Wilton

Edith of Wilton was also venerated as a saint. She was said to have chosen the religious life for herself formally at the age of two, an occasion marked by a visit from her father, King Edgar, who came with royalty, clergymen and courtiers ‘as if to the court of Christ and a heavenly betrothal feast’. 

One story about Edith comes from the eleventh-century monk, Goscelin of St-Bertin, and concerns the murder of her brother, Edward (he who was reputedly killed on the orders of Queen Ælfthryth, mentioned in the opening paragraph above). Goscelin related that after the murder, the noblemen of England offered the throne to Edith. Given that Goscelin names their leader as Ælfhere of Mercia, known to be a staunch supporter of Æthelred the Unready, who succeeded Edward, it seems an improbable tale, especially given that Edith would have been no older than 17 and possibly as young as 14 and that queens, of any age, had not been allowed to rule in their own right.* Edith demurred anyway, and it’s probable that the story was a device merely to show her rejecting, once again, the secular life she had spurned when a child. 

My favourite story about Edith is that she reportedly favoured dressing in a more ostentatious style than most other religious women and Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester castigated her, telling her that Christ had taken no interest or delight in external appearances, rather it was the heart which He asked for. She replied that she had, indeed, given her heart to the Lord, who paid attention to the heart and not the clothing. Goscelin reported that a fire in the monastery destroyed many of the nuns’ possessions but Edith’s leather and purple garments survived intact. This story might have been designed to symbolise Edith’s inviolable status as a holy virgin, but it does raise a wry smile to think of Edith steadfastly refusing to take any notice of the bishop’s advice on sartorial matters, and it gives just an inkling of her forceful personality.

Edith of Wilton

Judith of Flanders

Judith had a slightly worse press than the two ladies above, but I can’t help but admire her plucky spirit. She was the second wife of King Æthelwulf, father of Alfred the Great. Her father was the Carolingian king Charles the Bald and her wedding took place in Verberie in 856 when Judith was probably no more than around twelve. She was crowned and anointed by the archbishop of Rheims. The anointing was unusual, blessing her womb and conferring throne-worthiness upon any future male offspring. Asser, the monk who wrote the account of Alfred’s life, reported that king’s wives were not known as queens in Wessex, so perhaps the Carolingians were anxious to ensure that Judith’s status was recognised by her adoptive country, but it stirred up resentment in Wessex. Æthelwulf had five sons already, and the eldest, Æthelbald, had been left as regent of Wessex while his father was abroad and evidently did not respond favourably to his return. It is perhaps not surprising that Æthelbald didn’t like the idea of any future stepbrothers having a stronger claim to the throne than his own. 

It didn’t happen. Two years after his remarriage, King Æthelwulf was dead. Æthelbald succeeded him but, scandalously, he married his father’s widow. Asser proclaimed that it was ‘against God’s prohibition and Christian dignity’. No doubt the aim was to maintain the alliance with the Franks, and to confer throne-worthiness on any future sons, but it is not impossible that Judith, a young woman, might have been more attracted to the son than the father and that they became close even while her husband was still alive. However, Æthelbald himself died in 860 and Judith, still only a teenager, returned to the Continent. She was said to have sold up her possessions and returned to her father who kept her under episcopal guardianship in his stronghold at Senlis.

And that, one would think, would be the end of her story. In fact, she fled from Senlis with the aid of Baldwin, count of Flanders and later married him. It is hard to know how much she was a willing participant, but it seems she considered the marriage preferable to a cloistered life. She had two children by Baldwin and her son, Baldwin II, later married Ælfthryth, daughter of Alfred the Great. If (and it is an if, for we can never be completely sure how the women felt/thought about such things) we can assume that Judith had any say in the matters of marrying her stepson and then eloping with her third husband, then she was clearly a spirited young lady who knew her own mind. 

19th-Century Depiction of Judith and Baldwin

*Seaxburh of Wessex being a notable exception, but it may be that she, in fact, was acting as regent.

There’s more detail about these ladies and over 130 other named women in my new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England


  1. Fascinating! I can never get enough of the stories of these women - thanks for sharing them - it's important that all this is told :)

    1. Thanks so much Jo - I'm rather passionate about these women and I just love the stories!