Today it is a pleasure to welcome Annie Whitehead to the blog. Annie’s latest book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, was also released yesterday.
Our books are twins!
Both books were commissioned, written and submitted at within days of each other. It has been a bit of a roller coaster experience, with the advent of the Corona virus. In order to get the books published on time, it was decided that they would be released in paperback first. But at the last minute, Pen & Sword changed their minds and went for the hardback release. As a result, the books look fabulous!
For me, it has been that bit more special, having Annie and her book taking the journey with us – having someone to talk to, who was going through the same experience – has made all the difference.
Annie and I have done an interview swap where we each answer the same questions, just to give you an idea of who we are and what we write.
I’d already written about a few of these women both in fiction and nonfiction. My first novel, To Be A Queen, tells the life story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians and my second, Alvar the Kingmaker, features Queen Ælfthryth, said to be the first crowned consort of an English king, and Queen Ælfgifu, who was accused of getting into bed, quite literally, with her husband and her mother. My third novel, Cometh the Hour, also has some strong, influential women in it, from King Penda’s wife, who was left in charge of a kingdom, to various queens and abbesses who made important policy decisions and had direct influence on the men in charge; women like St Hild, for example, founder of Whitby Abbey. My first nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, featured some equally powerful and notorious women, so I suppose this new book was inevitable.
The idea was to tell the stories of these women, with minimal reference to the men, and discover all I could about them. There are over 130 named women in the book, most of them royal wives, sisters and daughters, and some of them women who are familiar to us – Lady Godiva, for example – who weren’t royal but still left their mark on history.
What were the research challenges?
Tracking them down! The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sometimes mentions them but, up to the arrival on the shores of Emma of Normandy in the 11th Century, there are fewer than 20 instances in that chronicle where the women are named. However, a lot can sometimes be deduced: Wulfrun is named as a hostage taken by the ‘Vikings’ and from this it’s clear that she was high status. Luckily we don’t have to rely on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and through other sources we discover that she was the lady after whom Wolverhampton was named and that her son was known as Wulfrun’s son, rather than his father’s. So there’s a whole other story; was his father somehow disgraced? Of lesser status than Wulfrun? When doing this kind of research it’s as well to be prepared to drop down plenty of ‘rabbit holes’!
The other challenge is keeping pace with the archaeological discoveries, of which there were more than a few while I was writing the book. Often I had to add details to footnotes, because the editing process was too far advanced to allow me to alter the main text. All were truly exciting discoveries, including the siting of the original Anglo-Saxon abbeys at Coldingham, and at Lyminge in Kent, the possible identification of Queen Emma’s bones in Winchester and the fascinating tale of the blue-toothed nun, who, it’s believed, stained her teeth by licking her paintbrush whilst working on illuminated manuscripts. Here was yet more evidence that women worked as scribes.
Do you have a particular favourite amongst the women you’ve written about?
Too many to choose, really. Because I’ve written so much about her already, I suppose most people might expect me to say Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, but there are some others whom I grew to like and/or admire. Among them would be Eanflæd, Queen of Northumbria, for sheer determination and overcoming personal loss. She travelled north from Kent, no small undertaking, to marry a man who murdered one of her kinsman. She demanded, and received, recompense for that. She outlived most of her children, which must have been heart-breaking (although mercifully she had died by the time her adult daughter was murdered) and most likely had to tolerate her husband’s infidelity and fathering of at least one illegitimate child. She sponsored the career of St Wilfrid and it’s clear that she ran her own, separate, and highly influential household.
Other women brought a wry smile to my face, such as Queen Æthelburh who arranged for her servants deliberately to trash the royal residence while she and the king were out one day, so that she could demonstrate to him the transience of earthly pleasures. She gets the briefest of mentions in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but what a mention – she razed a town to the ground. We’re not told the circumstances, but I think it’s fair to assume she was a woman with a lot of personality and fortitude!
Another lady who intrigued me was Siflæd. We know about some noblewomen because their wills are extant. Siflæd is unusual because she left not one, but two wills. It seems as if one was made before she went off on her travels ‘across the sea’. I’d love to know where she went, and what sort of adventures she had. I think of her as the original ‘merry widow’, setting her affairs in order at home before going off gallivanting.
Can you tell us briefly about your other books?
As well as the novels and the nonfiction book I mentioned earlier, I contributed to 1066 Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagined the events of 1066. Lady Godiva featured in my story, as the elderly matriarch of a powerful Mercian family. She’s often thought of as a young woman – erroneously in my view – riding naked through Coventry but she lived to a ripe old age and was a witness to many extraordinary events.
I’ve just finished a collection of short stories about women in history, and am part of the Historical Fictioneers Co-operative who will be producing an anthology of stories centred on the theme of betrayal, for which I’m contributing a tale of scandal from the tenth century. I’ll also be writing the follow-up to Cometh the Hour, which will feature the sons and daughters of King Penda of Mercia and his nemesis, King Oswiu of Northumbria.
Finally, where can people find you on Social Media and where can they buy your books?
I would like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to Annie for taking the time to give such wonderful answers and wish her every success with Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. Look for my review of this wonderful book, coming in the next few days.
While researching Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest I came across some incredibly interesting characters. One of the most misunderstood women of the 11th century has to be Lady Godiva. Although she would have been known as Godgifu in her lifetime, we shall call her Godiva, the name we have all grown up with, and to distinguish her from several notable ladies of a similar name in this period. Known for her legendary naked ride through Coventry in order to ease the tax burdens of its citizens, finding the true story of Lady Godiva was a fascinating experience. She was the grandmother of three of the leading English characters of the Norman Conquest; Harold II’s queen, Ealdgyth and the earls of Mercia and Northumberland, Edwin and Morcar.
The origins of Lady Godiva herself, are shrouded in mystery and the distance of time. We know nothing of her parentage or relations. There is some suggestion that she was the sister of Thorold of Bucknall, who is said to have founded a Benedictine abbey on his manor at Spalding, Lincolnshire, which he then gave to the great abbey at Crowland. However, there does appear to be some confusion and the charter from Crowland which mentions Thorold could well be spurious. The situation is further confused by the fact the land later passed to Ivo Taillebois, who founded a church at Spalding as a satellite of the church of St Nicholas at Angers. Ivo’s wife, Lucy, was the daughter of Turold, Sheriff of Lincoln. It is difficult to say whether Turold of Lincoln and Thorold of Bucknall are one and the same person, but it is possible; Turold and Thorold are both a derivative of the Scandinavian name Thorvaldr. Later legends even name Lucy as a daughter of Earl Ælfgar and therefore a granddaughter of Godiva. However, there is no surviving evidence to support this theory and the identity of Thorold and his relationship to Godiva is just as uncertain.
Godiva was probably married before 1010 and so it is possible that she was born in the early 990s. She possessed considerable lands in the north-west of Mercia, suggesting that this is where she and her family were from. Mercia, in that time, covered almost all of the Midlands region, spreading from the Welsh borders across the centre of England. Her lands in Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire, which amounted to sixty hides, may have constituted her own inheritance.1 Godiva’s high family status is also attested by the fact that she made a very good marriage, to Leofric, who would later become Earl of Mercia.
Leofric was the son of Leofwine, who had been appointed Ealdorman of the Hwicce, an ancient kingdom within the earldom of Mercia, by Æthelred II in 994. While the family lands were given to victorious Danes on the accession of Cnut, Leofwine was allowed to keep his rank and title and may have succeeded the traitorous Eadric Streona as Ealdorman of Mercia after his death in 1017. The family’s lands and influence appear to have been in the eastern part of Mercia, where they were known religious benefactors; Earl Leofwine was recorded as a benefactor at Peterborough Abbey. Leofric’s marriage to Godiva, therefore, may have been a way of extending his family’s influence into the western parts of Mercia. He was attesting charters as minister between 1019 and 1026, perhaps as sheriff under Hakon, Earl of Worcester.
His father, Leofwine, probably died in 1023 or shortly after, as that was the last year in which he attested a charter. There is no clear indication as to whether Leofwine was ever Earl of Mercia, although Leofric certainly held that title through the reigns of four kings; Cnut, Harold Harefoot, Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor. Leofric’s backing of Harold Harefoot, over Harthacnut, may have been a result of his son’s marriage. Ælfgar is thought to have married Ælfgifu, who was possibly a kinswoman of Harold Harefoot’s mother, Ælfgifu of Northampton, sometime in the late 1020s. Such a relationship would explain Leofric’s support for Harold Harefoot. Of course, so would the fact that Harthacnut was in no hurry to return from Denmark and Harold was on the spot and able to take charge.
Lady Godiva and Leofric were great benefactors to the church and acted in partnership, particularly in their endowment of Coventry Abbey which, according to John of Worcester, was made out of lands held by each of them. They also endowed the minster church of Stow St Mary, just to the north of Lincoln, and an Old English memorandum included both Leofric and Godiva in a request to Wulfwig, Bishop of Dorchester-on-Thames ‘to endow the monastery and assign lands to it.’2 Stow St Mary is a beautiful building at the centre of the small village of Stow. Founded in the seventh century, it boasts the faded graffiti carving of a Viking longboat on one of its inner walls. The endowment included provision for secular canons, under the supervision of the bishop and was made between and 1053 and 1055.
It is often difficult to work out the extent of Godiva’s involvement in her husband’s religious endowments. The Evesham Chronicle names both Leofric and Godiva (as Godgifu, of course) as the founders of both Coventry Abbey and Holy Trinity Church at Evesham. The couple also gave a crucifix, with the supporting figures of the Virgin and St John the Evangelist, to Holy Trinity Church. Moreover, Godiva had a reputation as a patroness of the Church throughout Mercia during her own lifetime. Orderic Vitalis said that Godiva gave ‘her whole store of gold and silver’ for the provision of ecclesiastical ornaments for the foundation at Coventry and John of Worcester also records Godiva’s devotion to the Virgin.3
There is one example that counters this argument, however, which involves a joint grant by Leofric and Godiva, of Wolverley and Blackwell, Worcestershire. The Second Worcester Cartulary, compiled by Hemming on the orders of Bishop Wulfstan, claims that Leofric returned Wolverley and Blackwell, and promised that the manors at Belbroughton, Bell Hall, Chaddesley Corbett and Fairford, seized by his father Leofwine, would revert to the Church on his death. Hemming, however, claims that Godiva held onto the lands for herself, rather than returning them; although she is said to have given the Church expensive vestments and ornaments, and a promise not only to pay the annual revenues from these estates to the Church, but to return the lands on her own death.4 That Edwin and Morcar seized the lands after their grandmother’s death, surely cannot be laid at Godiva’s door?
During her marriage, Godiva held several manors in her own right. Coventry, although little more than a village at this time, and appears to have belonged to Godiva herself. She also had lands in various other parts of Mercia, including Newark, which she may have bought from her son, Ælfgar, as it was part of the comital lands (the earldom). Her lands at Appleby in Derbyshire were leased from Leofric, the Abbot of Peterborough, who was nephew and namesake of her husband, Earl Leofric.
Leofric died in 1057, on either 31 August or 30 September, at his manor of King’s Bromley in Staffordshire. John of Worcester said of him; this ‘man of excellent memory died at a good old age, in his own manor called Bromley, and was buried with honour in Coventry, which monastery he had founded and well endowed.’5 The 1057 entry of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported; ‘The same year died Earl Leofric, on the second before the calends of October; who was very wise before God, and also before the world; and who benefited all this nation’.6
Godiva was to live on as a widow for at least ten more years. She would be there to see her son’s inheritance of the earldom of Mercia. Although titles and land did often pass from father to son, it was not a foregone conclusion. Indeed, Ælfgar’s rebellion in 1055 – which led to a subsequent exile – may well have been in fear of losing his inheritance, given that Edward the Confessor had just given the earldom of Northumbria to Tostig, son of Godwin, on the death of Earl Siward in place of his son and natural heir, Waltheof. Waltheof was still a child, however, and this may well have been a practical decision, in that it would be dangerous to leave such a powerful earldom, and the border with Scotland, in the control of a child. Ælfgar was banished again in 1058, but for a very short while, apparently, with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reporting; ‘Earl Ælfgar was expelled but he soon came back again, with violence, through the help of Gruffydd.’7
We do not have the exact date of Godiva’s death. Most historians seem to believe that she survived the Norman Conquest and died around 1067. She is mentioned as a pre-Conquest landholder in the Domesday Book, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she was alive in 1066. Hemming, who compiled the Worcester cartulary, says that some of her lands passed directly to her grandsons, Edwin and Morcar, offering evidence that Godiva also outlived her son, Ælfgar, who probably died in 1062. If Godiva did live into 1067, then she would have seen the dangers that the Norman Conquest brought to her family. Although her son was dead, most of her grandchildren were very much alive, and at the heart of events. By 1065 her 2 surviving grandsons were both earls (a 3rd grandson, Burgred, died in 1060 while returning from a pilgrimage to Rome).
Morcar became Earl of Northumbria in 1065, chosen by the Northumbrians to replace the unpopular Tostig. His tenure, however, was of short duration and he was replaced with Copsig, an adherent of Tostig, by William the Conqueror. Edwin had succeeded his father as Earl of Mercia in 1062 but neither brother flourished under the rule of William the Conqueror. Their sister, Ealdgyth married Harold Godwinson (King Harold II) sometime in late 1065, or early 1066, and was the uncrowned Queen of England until Harold’s death at Hastings in October 1066. Following the battle, Ealdgyth was taken to Chester by her brothers, where she may have given birth the king Harold’s son, Harold, before disappearing from the records.
Godiva is believed to have died in 1067 and was most likely buried alongside her husband at Coventry; although the Evesham Chronicle claims that she was laid to rest in Holy Trinity, Evesham. In the thirteenth century, her death was remembered on 10 September, but we have no way of confirming the actual date. After the Conquest, Godiva’s lands were held by various personalities.
We have no contemporary description of Godiva, of her personality or appearance. Her patronage of such religious institutions as Stow St Mary and Coventry Abbey is testimony to her piety and generosity. Stories of this generosity and piety were known to later chroniclers, such as William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon. Henry of Huntingdon said of Godiva that her name ‘meriting endless fame, was of distinguished worth, and founded the abbey at Coventry which she enriched with immense treasures of silver and gold. She also built the church at Stow, under the hill at Lincoln, and many others.’8 Although Henry of Huntingdon’s geography is a little skewed – Stow is a few miles north of Lincoln, rather than to the south, which ‘under the hill’ would suggest – it is obvious that Godiva’s fame was still alive in the twelfth century.
Lady Godiva is, perhaps, the most famous Anglo-Saxon woman in history. Everyone knows her legend – or a variation of it. And that legend has only grown and expanded down the years; like the game of Chinese whispers, the story has been added to and enhanced with every retelling. It was probably her reputation for generosity that gave rise to the legend for which she is famous today. The story of Godiva’s naked ride through Coventry appears to have been first recounted by Roger of Wendover, who died in 1236:
The Countess Godiva devoutly anxious to free the city of Coventry from a grievous and base thralldom often besought the Count, her husband, that he would for the love of the Holy Trinity and the sacred Mother of God liberate it from such servitude. But he rebuked her for vainly demanding a thing so injurious to himself and forbade her to move further therein. Yet she, out of womanly pertinacity, continued to press the matter in so much that she obtained this answer from him: ‘Ascend,’ he said, ‘thy horse naked and pass thus through the city from one end to the other in sight of the people and on thy return thou shalt obtain thy request.’ Upon which she returned: ‘And should I be willing to do this, wilt thou give me leave?’ ‘I will,’ he responded. Then the Countess Godiva, beloved of God, ascended her horse, naked, loosing her long hair which clothed her entire body except her snow white legs, and having performed the journey, seen by none, returned with joy to her husband who, regarding it as a miracle, thereupon granted Coventry a Charter, confirming it with his seal.
Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover, translated by Matthew of Westminster
This legend has grown and expanded over time, providing inspiration for ballads, poetry, paintings and sculptures throughout the centuries, the most famous being the poem, Lady Godiva, by Alfred Lord Tennyson, written in 1840, which included the lines:
“The woman of a thousand summers back, Godiva, wife to that grim Earl, who ruled In Coventry: for when he laid a tax Upon his town, and all the mothers brought Their children, clamouring, ‘If we pay, we starve!’ She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode About the hall, among his dogs, alone, His beard a foot before him, and his hair A yard behind. She told him of their tears, And pray’d him, ‘If they pay this tax, they starve.’ Whereat he stared, replying, half-amazed, ‘You would not let your little finger ache For such as – these?’ – ‘But I would die,’ said she.”
Godiva by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
The legend arose from a story that Earl Leofric had introduced a toll on Coventry that the people could not afford to pay. Godiva went to her husband, begging that he rescind the taxes. He proved reluctant to offer the slightest reduction and is said to have told Godiva that he would only rescind the taxes if she rode naked through Coventry. In the earliest accounts Godiva rode through the market place, accompanied by two of Leofric’s soldiers, with her long, golden hair let loose to protect her modesty. In the early versions, the religious element of the story is highlighted, with Leofric hailing the fact no one had seen her nakedness as a miracle. While the legend is almost certainly distorted beyond recognition from the true story, it has guaranteed the immortality of a remarkable lady.
 Godgifu (d. 1067?) (article) by Ann Williams, oxforddnb.com;  ibid;  The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy by Ordericus Vitalis;  Godgifu (d. 1067?) (article) by Ann Williams, oxforddnb.com;  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles edited and translated by Michael Swanton;  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram;  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles edited and translated by Michael Swanton;  The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon. Comprising the history of England, from the invasion of Julius Caesar to the accession of Henry II. Also, the Acts of Stephen, King of England and duke of Normandy Translated and edited by Thomas Forester. London, H.G. Bohn, 1807.
The English and the Norman Conquest by Dr Ann Williams; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Norman Conquestby Marc Morris; Harold, the King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; The Anglo-Saxon Age by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; On the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams; oxforddnb.com.
Godiva’s story appears in my book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest. From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.