Stepping back into Anglo Saxon England

Today, I’m thrilled to welcome historian and author Annie Whitehead, who has done a bit of her own family tree research. Annie’s books are brilliant at shining a light on the dark ages – and I am fascinated to read of tracing back 1000 years of relatives! Thanks for stopping by, Annie!

I’m delighted to be a guest on Elizabeth’s blog today to talk about my favourite historical people, the Anglo-Saxons, in a stop on the Stepping Back into Saxon England tour with Helen Hollick. Elizabeth’s wonderful series of novels and her ‘Counterpoint’ novelettes are fabulous reads, made even more interesting because they feature her relatives. Is there anything in my bloodline to match this?
Well, sort of.
I’m married to a Whitehead, at least five generations of whom have lived in the same northern county, and are quite possibly of ‘Viking’ heritage. But my maiden name was Swale, and there’s long been a story in our family about our being descended from the dukes of Normandy.
I was thrilled recently to be appointed keeper of the family archive, and am now custodian of indenture and birth certificates from the eighteenth century. I also have the family tree, which shows an illustrious forebear and so-called ‘gateway’ ancestor: Sir Solomon Swale, 1st Baronet of Swale Hall. From him, the line goes back not only to the dukes of Normandy, but – and this made me dance round the room – Ælfthryth, daughter of Alfred the Great.
She was, undoubtedly, less famous than her sister, Æthelflæd Lady of the Mercians, about whom I’ve written many times, in fiction and nonfiction. Thanks to the Welsh monk, Asser, we know the names of Alfred’s children. They were Æthelflæd, the first-born, Edward (later to be King Edward the Elder), then two more daughters, Æthelgifu and Ælfthryth, and another son, Æthelweard. Asser also poignantly said that in his list he leaves aside ‘those who were carried off in infancy by an untimely death and who numbered…’ How many? We don’t know. As historian Simon Keynes points out in the notes to his translation of Asser’s biography, the numeral, if it was there, is unreadable. Sadly it seems that even royal queens weren’t immune to miscarriage, stillbirth, or loss of infants.
Asser said that two of the royal children, Edward and Ælfthryth, were ‘at all times fostered at the royal court’ and were left under the care of tutors and nurses. We cannot assume though that the other children weren’t also schooled. Education was important to Alfred and it seems unlikely that only some, rather than all, of his children would have ‘attentively learned the psalms’ and read books ‘in English, and especially English poems’. The sad reporting of the losses in infancy of a number of other children and the careful nurturing of the surviving offspring suggest a close family relationship.
However, though they might have been a close family unit, marriage arrangements took the daughters away from Wessex. Æthelflæd famously married the Lord of Mercia, and went on to rule the erstwhile kingdom. Æthelgifu stayed a little closer to home, becoming abbess of her father’s foundation at Shaftesbury. But my apparent ancestor, Ælfthryth, went over the sea. She married Baldwin II of Flanders. He was the son of Alfred’s step-mother, who was also his step-sister. Maybe I should back up a bit?!
Alfred the Great’s father married, for the second time, a very young woman called Judith of Flanders, much to the chagrin of his grown-up sons who feared that any children of the union might displace them as heirs to the throne. 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. She was clearly a catch, and when Alfred’s father died, she married the eldest son. Thus she became step-sister to Alfred, having been his step-mother. This was really quite the scandal, and Asser proclaimed that it was ‘against God’s prohibition and Christian dignity’. Her second husband, however, only lived for two more years and Judith went back to Flanders and was virtually imprisoned by her father, kept under episcopal guardianship at his stronghold at Senlis. Clearly a spirited individual, she managed to evade the cloistered life and eloped with Baldwin I. It’s not clear whether she was fully a willing participant, but it would be nice to think that she preferred a third marriage to life in a nunnery and had a high old adventure running away with Baldwin.
I’m not sure of the technical relationship between her son and my Ælfthryth, but the marriage was clearly sanctioned by the church between these step-cousins once removed?? They had four children, and named one of the daughters Ealhswith, after Ælfthryth’s mother. I think this is touching. Ealhswith is an uncommon Anglo-Saxon name and, although she bore Alfred the Great all those children, Ealhswith was not mentioned by name in Asser’s biography of Alfred.
Ælfthryth’s marriage to Baldwin II seems to have been part of an alliance to help Flanders repel the Vikings, a reminder that England was not the only place to suffer such incursions. Baldwin died in 918, just a month or so after Ælfthryth’s sister, the Lady of the Mercians, died in Tamworth. Ælfthryth herself lived on until around 929, presumably remaining in Flanders after she was widowed.
Through the line of the various counts named Baldwin, the family tree which I own links the counts of Flanders to Gilbert de Gant, mentioned in Domesday Book and recorded as being present in York when English rebels opposed to William of Normandy’s reign attacked the city and set it alight. From him, the tree branches spread out and downwards until they reach the Swale baronets.
Just one eensy weensy problem: when examining the family tree more closely, I realised that although the present day family can be traced right up to William Swale (1780-1858) and his father who was possibly called Solomon, this tree does not connect with that coming down from Sir Solomon, the first baronet.
It would be lovely to think that I am directly related to Ælfthryth, who was not only the sister of my favourite Anglo-Saxon woman, Æthelflæd, but who also married into the energetic family of Flanders but, alas, I think I am only as closely related as any other person in England might be. However, this does not in any way dim my enthusiasm for the period, nor my interest in these fascinating and lively women.

Annie has written three novels set in Anglo-Saxon England. To Be A Queen tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. Alvar the Kingmaker is set in the turbulent tenth century where deaths of kings and civil war dictated politics, while Cometh the Hour tells the story of Penda, the pagan king of Mercia. All have received IndieBRAG Gold Medallions and Chill with a Book awards. To Be A Queen was longlisted for HNS Indie Book of the Year and was an IAN Finalist. Alvar the Kingmaker was Chill Books Book of the Month while Cometh the Hour was a Discovering Diamonds Book of the Month.
As well as being involved in 1066 Turned Upside Down, Annie has also had two nonfiction books published. Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (Amberley Books) will be published in paperback edition on October 15th, 2020, while her most recent release, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England (Pen & Sword Books) is available in hardback and e-book.
Annie was the inaugural winner of the Dorothy Dunnett/HWA Short Story Competition 2017.
Connect with Annie:


  1. Hmmm, not sure about being related to those Normans *laugh* (as many of my readers know I’m not too keen On William Duke of Normandy!) fascinating post Annie – I’m in awe of the amount of knowledge you have!

    1. Thanks Helen! (Although as my husband says, I actually only know a very huge amount about a very small period of history!!)

    1. Thanks Anna – yes, they certainly coveted more than the land, and took a fancy to the women, too…!

  2. At a family history meeting a little while ago, someone said they were descended from King Alfred. I scoffed, but thought about it later. I wrote an article for the FH group magazine, detailing how the Queen was descended from Alfred.
    Everyone has two parents, four grandparents etc, doubling every generation. Go back 1,000 years, the time of King Cnut, the number of your direct ancestors was 1,099,511,627,776 – many times more than the entire population of the world at the time! So everyone is descended from King Alfred and the slave working in the fields. The problem is proving it!

    1. Exactly so Christine! I was always sceptical, and rightly so. But it was a lovely excuse to revisit Alfred’s less famous daughter 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *