Updated: Nov 18
I’m so pleased to be a guest on Natalie’s blog today. Recently I was asked about the problems of researching the lives of the women featured in my new book and was able to say that, despite the period once being called the ‘Dark Ages’, we do have a wealth of written evidence: chronicles, the Lives of saints, land charters, and wills. There are also lawcodes, and political tracts such as the Encomium Emmæ Reginæ, commissioned by Queen Emma, wife of Æthelred the Unready and then of King Cnut.
But is there any physical evidence; is it possible to visit the places associated with these women of power and find the original Anglo-Saxon buildings? I’m very pleased to say that, while they are rare, the answer is yes. I thought I’d take the opportunity to showcase some of them here.
A place of deep significance for me, as it’s the burial place of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians and her husband. Æthelflæd is almost unique, being one of only two women to rule an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and she did it in a time of war, pushing back the invading Vikings. And she was, albeit briefly, succeeded by her daughter. A woman ruler would not succeed another woman ruler until Tudor times. Having written about Æthelflæd in a novel and now two nonfiction books, I was rather overcome with emotion when I visited St Oswald’s.
The abbey, known as Minster-in-Thanet, was founded by a lady usually named Domneva or sometimes Domne Eafe. A princess of Kent, she married Merewalh, king of a Mercian subkingdom and possibly a son of the great warlord, King Penda. Her brothers were killed by her cousin, King Ecgberht of Kent. In penance, he is said to have granted her some land on which to build an abbey; as much land as her pet hind could run around. According to the legend, and possibly by divine intervention, the hind ran further than expected and Domneva gained much more land than the king had expected to have to yield. The Saxon brickwork and crypt still stand, and the abbey is still a thriving community.
Sadly all that remains of this once thriving abbey is a collection of stones, now housed at nearby Sudeley Castle. Winchcombe’s most famous abbess was Cwoenthryth, daughter of King Cenwulf of Mercia, and it’s likely that Winchcombe was used as a royal archive. Legend has it that Cwoenthryth was envious of her little brother and arranged for his murder. Fearful of having her part in the murder discovered, she chanted a psalm backwards as a spell and her eyeballs burst from her head. Dramatic as it all sounds, there is scarcely any evidence for this. There was a man who was possibly her brother, but no evidence that he was murdered, or that he was a child when he died.
There aren’t even any stones to be seen here. The existing abbey building dates from much later but Æbbe, the Anglo-Saxon princess and abbess after whom nearby St Abb’s is named, may well have had an abbey at Coldingham and recent excavations appear to have unearthed evidence. I visited the dig site and had one of my ‘historian standing in field gets emotional’ moments. The accompanying photo of the priory shows the dig site to the fore. This area is well worth a visit. St Abb’s, just a couple of miles away, offers fabulous coastal walks and views and it’s thought that the very first abbey, no more than a collection of beehive-shaped huts, was perched on top of the promontory there. Incidentally, parts of Avengers Endgame were also filmed at St Abb’s, so there’s a sort of Viking connection via Thor!
Repton is most famous for having been the site where a huge Viking army over-wintered at the height of the invasions. Excavations in the vicarage garden at St Wystan’s revealed the remains of at least 264 people. Research is ongoing about this part of the ‘Great Heathen Army’. The main purpose of my visit though was to see the original Anglo-Saxon crypt, where the bones of several members of the Mercian royal family were laid to rest. It is a stunningly atmospheric place and, like St Oswald’s Gloucester, leaves you feeling a great connection to the people whose lives are chronicled in those ancient documents. St Wystan, or Wigstan, was another apparent murder victim, who seems to have got embroiled in an argument over the succession, when a rival wished to marry his mother. His mother, Ælfflæd, is barely mentioned in the records but, through her parentage and her marriages, she linked royal families. She was the cousin of the afore-mentioned Cwoenthryth (their fathers were brothers who both ruled as kings of Mercia) and she married into a rival branch of the royal house. Her father was King Ceolwulf I and it is possible that Ceolwulf II, the last king of Mercia, was her son. Wigstan’s remains rested at Repton. His mother, little heard of, was so important in the dynastic dispute that blood was fatally spilled.
Researching her life, and others like her, was fascinating for me, and being able to visit associated sites such as this one is a spine-tingling experience.
Other than churches, the Anglo-Saxons didn’t build much with stone, preferring wooden buildings which, alas, do not survive. There is something about stone, and its permanence, which gives such a strong feeling of being able to touch the past. (Minster Abbey photograph kindly supplied by the community at the abbey. Other photographs by Annie Whitehead)
Annie Whitehead Author Bio:
Annie’s book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, was published by Pen & Sword Books in June 2020. It can be purchased from P&S (https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Women-of-Power-in-Anglo-Saxon-England-Hardback/p/17769) and online (http://mybook.to/WomeninPower)
Annie is an author and historian and an elected member of the Royal Historical Society and has won awards and prizes for her fiction and nonfiction.
Published works include Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (Amberley Books) and novels and stories set in Anglo-Saxon England, including To Be A Queen, the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, longlisted for HNS Book of the Year 2016. She was the inaugural winner of the Dorothy Dunnett/HWA Short Story Competition in 2017.
You can connect with Annie through her Website (https://anniewhiteheadauthor.co.uk/), Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/anniewhiteheadauthor/), Twitter (https://twitter.com/AnnieWHistory) and on her Blog (https://anniewhitehead2.blogspot.com/) and Amazon Author Page (http://viewauthor.at/Annie-Whitehead)