Annie Whitehead, historian and novelist, writes about the women who had power and influence in Anglo-Saxon England.
Pre-Conquest women are rarely written about, so for my new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, I decided to track them down and tell their stories.
The original plan was to categorise them – queens, abbesses, witches, murderesses – but it soon became apparent that many of them fell into more than one category. What did present itself though was an opportunity to present them chronologically, grouping families of women together.
The earliest sources focus on the women of Kent and Northumbria, the first centres of Christianity and, therefore, literacy. Here, thanks largely to the writings of Bede, we have details of a group of women, all connected by family ties, who include an abbess who educated bishops, another who was instrumental in a king’s succession, a queen who sponsored a bishop and demanded retribution for the murder of her kinsman (the murderer being her husband, which made things a tad awkward) and an East Anglian woman who decided that she didn’t much want to stay married to the king of Northumbria, so escaped back down south and founded Ely Abbey.
Some of the Kentish family also married into the Mercian royal houses and this coincides with the period known as the Mercian Supremacy, so chronologically it made sense to focus on these women next.
One determined daughter of Kent, having decided that married life in Mercia was not for her, duped a king into giving her more land than he’d anticipated in order that she could build a monastery.
Another abbess, inheriting a legal battle from her father, angered the Church and was deprived of some of her religious foundations. Was it, I wondered, a coincidence that later stories, written by monks, told of her evil side, accusing her of arranging the murder of her small brother and chanting spells to avoid discovery?
In spectacular fashion (according to a later, Anglo-Norman, chronicler), her eyeballs fell out while she was reciting a psalm backwards to initiate the spell.
Later on, we meet a king’s wife so powerful that coins were minted with her image on them. (She, too, was accused of plotting murder. Funny, that…)
In Mercia, too, we find Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled as a queen in all but name. She was half Mercian, half West Saxon. Given that her father was Alfred the Great of Wessex, we’re now moving into a period of supremacy for the West Saxons. Many kings of Wessex practised serial monogamy, but also had the habit of dying at a young age.
Thus we find many powerful mothers of boy kings, ruling as regent, taking precedence over their young daughters-in-law and, in some cases, refusing to retire or be written off.
One such is Queen Emma, who championed the rights of her various offspring by not one but two kings; another is her rival, Ælfgifu of Northampton, who ruled Norway as regent for one of her sons and waged a propaganda war with Emma.
I also looked at the career of powerful women who weren’t royal, but nevertheless left their mark on history (if we look closely enough). Along with Lady Godiva, we have Lady Wulfrun after whom Wolverhampton is named and who was important enough to be mentioned by name in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a high-status hostage.
There were other wealthy noblewomen whose extant wills show that they owned their own property and were free to bequeath their wealth, lands and goods to whomsoever they pleased.
One rich lady left two wills, one before going off on her travels and one, presumably, after she returned. The content of the wills was fascinating, but so too was imagining where she might have been going, and why? A merry widow perhaps, off to do a tour of Europe?
Whilst the women didn’t necessarily always write the letters themselves, many had correspondence with contacts both in England and Europe, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that from royal daughters to abbesses and nuns, they were highly literate. (While I was writing the book, the discovery of the ‘blue-toothed nun’ who’d been licking her paintbrush provided yet more evidence of women scribes.)
One woman who accepted the challenge of St Boniface’s mission writes poignantly to her brother, explaining how lonely her life has become and begging to hear from him. We do not have his answers, but it is clear from one of her letters, thanking him for the gift of a ribbon, that he responded, and that there was a close bond between the siblings.
Some women get only the briefest of mentions in the sources, but those mentions can be loaded with significance. A simple entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that a queen burned a town to the ground.
Investigating the facts behind that stark statement was challenging but, by looking at the historical context, it was possible to produce a plausible hypothesis. In the proposed scenario, she was a powerful queen regent and I found a later story which demonstrated her influence over the king, when she ordered servants to trash a royal palace in order that she might prove a point.
Other queens were perhaps more subtle. When King Rædwald of East Anglia announced to his wife that he was taking the kingdom of Kent’s lead and embracing Christianity, she had a quiet word and persuaded him to change his mind and later advised him against accepting bribes to hand over an important guest to his enemies.
We are not told her name, but the fact that she is mentioned at all is a bonus and there is just enough information for us to form an opinion of her character.
That a mighty warlord, who is likely to be the man associated with the Sutton Hoo ship burial, listened to his wife and changed his mind, publicly, speaks volumes to me about this doughty woman.
It is a challenge piecing together the scant details of these women’s lives, but it is rewarding. And what we find is women who found ways, sometimes unconventional, to influence policy, to educate and inform, and to establish religious houses and royal dynasties, the latter being ones in which they remained politically active, even in widowhood.
Their stories are there, if we listen carefully, think about where to look, and, yes, follow every trail, however uninformative it might at first seem.
Annie is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an editor for English Historical Fiction Authors. She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, one of which was longlisted for the Historical Novel Society (HNS) Indie Book of the year 2016, and a full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, which is also published as a paperback in November, 2020.
She has written for Historia about researching the history of Mercia when the evidence is elusive.
Annie was the winner of the inaugural HWA/Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition in 2017 and has recently been a judge for the same contest, as well as for the HNS Short Story Competition.
Read her story, A Poppy Against the Sky.
St Æthelthryth of of East Anglia, Queen of Northumbria: via Wikimedia
Minster Abbey in Kent, showing Saxon stonework: supplied by author
Queen Emma in the Encomium Emmæ Reginæ, shown receiving the book: via the British Library Online Gallery under Public Domain Mark
Reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo burial: supplied by author