Earlier this year I had the pleasure of reviewing Annie Whitehead’s seminal work, Women in Power in Anglo-Saxon England, and was bowled over by the scope of her research, and the readability of her book. Today, I’m thrilled to announce it is now available in the US, and would encourage anyone who has an interest (either as a reader or a scholar) to pick up a copy. Annie explains what captured her interest in these long-lost, but now not forgotten, women. (And what history fan can resist that opening to your post, Annie!)
Scrolling through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is something I do regularly, and it’s a great resource. Most of the time, anyway. (One entry forgets to tell us who won a major battle, but does report that marvellous adders were seen in one part of the country.) Often, we get pages and pages of information and then occasionally we get things like this: ‘Queen Æthelburh demolished Taunton, which [King] Ine had built.’ Wait, what? There must be such a story here and yet the entry is casual, throwaway, as if the event was barely worth mentioning. If you were to ask me why I wrote my new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, there’s the reason. Pre-Conquest history is loaded with such stories and I wanted to dig up the detail and bring them into the light.
Stories such as that of Judith, a teenager when she married Alfred the Great’s father, and still a teenager when she then married her own stepson. When she was widowed a second time her father put her under the watchful eye of a bishop, who clearly blinked, because she then eloped and married for a third time. Her son subsequently married Alfred’s daughter. Working that complicated relationship out quite made my head hurt!
There is also a tale of a nun escaping down a sewer to evade the clutches of a libidinous king, and of another who was put into a hot oven when she refused to marry. Yet another abbess spent a year living with Harold Godwinson’s brother and the sources are ambiguous regarding whether or not she was with him through choice.
But not all of these stories – many of them fanciful embellishments by later Anglo-Norman chroniclers – are so salacious.
How about Hild, princess and abbess, who educated no fewer than five future bishops? And her kinswoman Ælfflæd, whose testimony decided the outcome of a succession dispute? Whitby, their abbey, was a centre of learning where beautiful books were produced. Hild also encouraged her herdsman to write, and thanks to her we have Cædmon’s hymn, thought to be the earliest English verse.
And then there are the women who ruled countries in all but name. I don’t just mean the most famous, Æthelflæd Lady of the Mercians, either. When King Cnut conquered England, he had the foresight to marry the previous king’s widow, Emma. But he did not repudiate his first wife, who is known as Ælfgifu of Northampton. Not only did he not put her aside, he sent her to be regent of Norway on behalf of their son. I found quite a few instances of these queen-mother-regents and yes, it seems likely that the woman who torched Taunton was fighting on behalf of a son who had not yet reached his majority.
When King Cnut died, both his ‘queens’ had adult sons and the women waged a propaganda war as clever and nasty as any modern political campaign. Both lived to see their sons on the throne but one 20th-century historian was in no doubt that in Ælfgifu’s case, it was she and not her son who was in charge for his short reign.
Even the strongest, fiercest women faced tragedy. Some lived to see all their adult children die before they did, while some lost many children in infancy. The very fact that these infant deaths and stillbirths were recorded shows how devastating they must have been.
This is probably the main notion my research gave me, that these women went through so much that was relatable. I sympathised with those who had to travel huge distances in order to marry, and those who were caught up in bitter rivalries and feuds. What on earth was the human story behind the incident where one of Æthelred the Unready’s sons-in-law killed another? How did the two sisters get along after one’s husband had murdered the other?
As I researched and wrote, I was of course reading the history of men, of kings, of battles. But always I kept in mind the women’s experiences, reminding myself in one instance that when the chronicles talked of a king’s body being taken to an abbey for burial, it was his mother who was abbess there. I knew this, the chroniclers knew this, but for me the book became an exercise in ‘joining up the dots’. How must she have felt, receiving her own son’s body for burial?
I’ve long believed that history before 1066 is fascinating, vibrant, and filled with stories of interesting characters. After researching and writing this new book, I’m even more aware of the people who inhabited that world and especially the women who enriched every aspect of it.
Women of Power is an apt title for this absorbing volume of research, speculation, and postulation that comprises Ms Whitehead’s fascinating new release. But in this break-through study, there is a huge bonus for those of us not deeply familiar with this period of history. For behind the records lies something even more tantalizing — the whisper of legends that have grown up around powerful women in Anglo Saxon England, perpetuated by later chroniclers and extant in mis-information and myths.
Ms Whitehead’s grasp of family relationships is impressive, and the minute details of her research a powerful catalyst propelling the narrative forward. And yet, for me, the stories within the details are what enthralled. A record of a woman’s right to receive goods, cattle, and the residual of estates, hinting at a full life well-lived. An illustration of how a simple action of defense could be twisted by future chroniclers into a full-out war, with women as the hapless antagonists. And, perhaps the most poignant of stories, how the discovery of blue lapis lazuli in the mouth of a woman’s remains led to the conclusion that female scribes were not only in the monastery scriptoriums, they were entrusted with the most precious of volumes. In between her illustrations, she must have been licking her paintbrush.
The depth of research and breadth of detail in Women of Power is articulated on every page; family trees and carefully planned chapters help navigate us through these centuries of oral and recorded history, and Ms Whitehead’s steady hand on the wheel steers us through known and unknown territories. Her conversational style brings the records to life, and her inclusion of the personal details ensures the extraordinary, powerful women are not consigned to the shadows, but shine as personalities within their own right. Highly recommend for researchers, historians, and those genuinely interested in enjoying learning more about this formative time in English history.