Monday, 7 March 2022

Great Escapes

 It's Women's History Month so it seemed appropriate to put together some stories about courageous women who most certainly did not submit quietly to a fate dictated for them by others:

Let’s turn first to seventh-century Queen Æthelthryth, a member of the East Anglian royal family but married to Ecgfrith of Northumbria. He was perhaps ten years her junior and, famously, she was said to have been encouraged by Bishop, later Saint, Wilfrid to remain celibate. Bede said he heard the details of the story from Wilfrid himself, and explained how Æthelthryth gained her husband’s permission to enter a monastery, staying first with Abbess Æbbe at Coldingham Abbey and then becoming abbess of Ely.

Image of Æthelthryth - with kind permission
 of the rector of Hexham Abbey

The Liber Eliensis (a history of Ely Abbey compiled in the 12th century) tells a dramatic tale in which Ecgfrith, having initially agreed to the divorce, tried to remove her forcibly from the convent. Æbbe advised Æthelthryth that her only option was to escape. The king set off in pursuit, but Æthelthryth and her two lady companions climbed to the top of a steep hill where divine intervention caused the water levels to rise, cutting off the hill and keeping the holy virgins hidden for seven days. The king could not get near, and eventually returned to York. Unfortunately the nuns on the rock began to suffer from extreme thirst. The abbess prayed for them and in answer to her prayers, a spring of water gushed forth and provided the nuns the means with which to slake their thirst. The Liber Eliensis states that this story was not based on the writings of Bede but came from those who knew the area of Coldingham and were witness to the events. Well, whether the story is true or not, she got to Ely safely and became abbess, being succeeded there by her sister.

A contemporary of Æthelthryth, Mildrith was the daughter of Merewalh (a sub-king of Mercia and possible son of King Penda), and Domneva (Domme Eafe) a Kentish princess. Mildrith was sent abroad, to be educated at the abbey at Chelles. Goscelin of St Bertin said that while she was there, the abbess attempted to force her into marriage with one of the abbess’s kinsmen. When Mildrith refused to comply, she was put in a hot oven, but miraculously managed to escape. The abbess then beat her so viciously that her hair was torn out. Mildrith sent some of this hair to her mother as an SOS signal. Domneva sent a rescue party, although Mildrith refused to leave until she had collected some holy relics from her room.

 The delay meant that they were pursued and were only successful in escaping because the tide turned. When she at last returned to Kent and set foot on land, Mildrith left the imprint of her shoe on the rock at Ebbsfleet and transferred to it healing powers. Mildrith entered Domneva’s house at Minster-in-Thanet and eventually succeeded her mother as abbess. This family was quite a force to be reckoned with. Though not involved in any dramatic escapes of her own, Domneva tricked a king, her cousin, who had ordered the murder of her brothers, into giving her the land where she built the abbey at Minster-in-Thanet. Incidentally, Minster Abbey is still home to a community of nuns. 

Tapestry showing the first three abbesses at Minster - with kind
permission from the community there

Osith,(alternatively Osgyth or even Osyth) was a relative of Mildrith’s, if she’s correctly identified as the the daughter of a sub-king of Surrey, Frithuwald, and his wife Wilburh, sister of King Wulfhere of Mercia (possibly Merewalh’s brother). According to later, twelfth-century, stories she was brought up in Aylesbury in the nunnery of her aunt St Eadgyth. On a journey to meet another aunt, St Eadburh, she drowned in the River Cherwell but was revived by the prayers of her aunts. She wanted to remain a virgin but was married off by her parents to King Sigehere of the East Saxons, but she avoided consummating the marriage, putting herself under the protection of a bishop named Beaduwine. (There are echoes here of the story of Æthelthryth, of course, who similarly was under the protection of a bishop). 

Sigehere seems to have accepted the situation and given her land at Chich, where she built her abbey. She thus escaped marriage, but perhaps not with her life, for she was apparently kidnapped by pirates and beheaded after refusing to renounce her faith. In one version of her story, she was buried at Aylesbury, while in another she was buried at Chich, taken to Aylesbury for nearly fifty years, and then returned. If Osith was indeed the daughter of Wilburh, wife of Frithuwald, then a connection with Aylesbury, a probable royal minster, makes sense. Her story might have been confused with that of another lady of the same name, because there were two feast days and one explanation is that the temporary relocation of the relics from Chich to Aylesbury was an attempt to reconcile two separate cults. 

Illuminated capital depicting Saint Osith

Let’s fast-forward now to the tenth century where we find a woman, sometimes a nun, sometimes not, sometimes a royal wife, sometimes not, but who, in one version of her story, also had a dramatic escape.

Wulfthryth was the mother of King Edgar’s daughter St Edith of Wilton, and possibly his son, Edward the Martyr. She became abbess of Wilton and was later venerated as a saint, but before that was the subject of much gossip. It is not known precisely when she took up the religious life. Some sources state that she was a nun when Edgar met and seduced her.

According to Osbern of Canterbury, writing in the latter part of the eleventh century, Edgar seduced a nun of Wilton who gave birth to a son, Edward. But another source, a young contemporary of Osbern’s named Eadmer, said that Edward was the son of Æthelflæd Eneda (Edgar’s supposed first wife). Eadmer decided therefore that Edgar, a married man, sinfully seduced a laywoman who wore a veil in an attempt to avoid the king’s attentions. He said that the king went to Wilton and, “captivated by the beauty of a certain young girl” ordered her to be brought to him while she, out of fear for her chastity, “placed a veil snatched from one of the nuns on her own head.” Edgar though, was not fooled and, saying, “How suddenly you have become a nun,” dragged the veil from her head.  

Goscelin of St Bertin said it was St Wulfhild, abbess of Barking, who was in fact the object of Edgar’s attentions. She evaded him by escaping naked down a sewer, and so the king took her kinswoman, Wulfthryth, a laywoman being educated by the nuns, instead. Goscelin was however adamant that Wulfthryth became Edgar’s lawful wife and that they were bound by ‘indissoluble vows’.    

Veils and sewers notwithstanding, Wulfthryth seems to have been a canny administrator of Wilton. She purchased a collection of relics, and lands which had been granted to her by Edgar were conferred to the nunnery, presumably so that the abbey would retain the lands after her death. She was influential too: Goscelin related how she brought pressure to bear on King Æthelred when his officers tried to remove a thief who had claimed sanctuary in the church and the royal servants were blinded as punishment, and how she interceded on behalf of two priests imprisoned by the reeve of Wilton.

St Mary (Old Church) Wilton - attribution LINK

One of the escape stories has a less happier ending, though it’s not wholly one of despair. A woman named Cyneburh is named in the Gloucester Cartulary. According to legend, she was a Saxon princess who fled to Gloucester in order to avoid an arranged marriage. She took service with a baker, who was so impressed by her work that he adopted her as his daughter. This aroused the jealousy of the baker’s wife, who murdered Cyneburh. She then disposed of the body by throwing it into a well. When the baker returned home and couldn’t find Cyneburh, he began calling her name and she, though dead, answered him, thus revealing where her body was hidden. She was buried near the well, and a church was then built on the site. Thereafter miracles were recorded, with one woman being cured having lost the use of her muscles down one side of her body, another’s withered hand was restored, while someone else was cured of dropsy.

Sadly, it’s impossible to identify this lady. She is not Cyneburh daughter of Penda, for she married Alhfrith, son of Oswiu of Northumbria, nor is she Cyneburh of the West Saxons, wife of Oswald of Northumbria, who is generally assumed to have taken the veil at Gloucester and become abbess there. This lady of the well must either be a figment of the Gloucester chronicler’s imagination, or she is yet another woman whose full story might never come to light. 

I mentioned St Edith of Wilton briefly, and she has an escape story, or rather her leather and purple garments do (!) while Balthild the slave escaped servitude, and Judith of Flanders, having caused a scandal with her first two marriages, was locked up for her own good by her father and made her escape before marrying a third time. For more about those three indomitable women, see HERE

All these women’s stories are included in Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, and almost all of them feature in my novels, too.


  1. Thank you for sharing the relatively unknown history.

    1. Thanks Tom - glad you enjoyed the article :-)

  2. Really enjoyed this and love the photos. Congrats and good luck.

    1. Thanks so much Jane - glad you enjoyed it :-)