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.
Throughout history – and particularly in medieval times – strong, determined women have been labelled ‘she-wolves’. It is a term that has been used as a criticism or insult. It has often been applied to suggest a woman of serious character flaws who would invariably put her own interests ahead of others, who fought for what they wanted, be it a crown, their children or independence. Men who performed similar actions and had similar aims tended to be called strong and determined rulers. However, the term can also be used to show women in a positive light, women who didn’t give up, fought for themselves and their families. So I have chosen 6 women who could have been termed ‘she-wolves’ to show women from both viewpoints, and to demonstrate the strength of the characters and the challenges they faced. And while their actions were not always exemplary, their stories were always remarkable.
The daughter of King Alfred the Great, Æthelflæd was married to Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia. Æthelflæd was a strong, brave woman and is often regarded more as a partner to Æthelred than a meek, obedient wife. Although she exercised regal rights in Mercia even before her husband’s death, after Æthelred died in 911, it was left to Æthelflæd to lead the Mercians in the fight against the Danes. Alongside her brother, King Edward of Wessex. It is universally acknowledged that Æthelflæd helped to push back the Viking incursions. Losing four of her greatest captains in the battle to capture Derby in 917, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported:
‘With God’s help Ethelfleda, lady of Mercia, captured the fortress known as Derby with all its assets. Four of her favoured ministers were slain inside the gates.’
Anglo-Saxon Chronicles edited by Michael Swanton
In 918, Æthelflæd captured Leicester, ravaging the countryside around the town until the Danes surrendered. The combination of her indefatigable forces and compassion in victory saw the Danes soon suing for peace; in the summer of 918, the noblemen and magnates of York sent emissaries to Æthelflæd, promising that they would surrender to her. She personally led campaigns against the Welsh, the Norse and the Danes – though whether she actually wielded a sword in battle is unknown.
While often magnanimous in victory, Æthelflæd could be ruthless when it was her friends who were attacked; even she was not immune from the desire for revenge. In June 916, on the feast of St Cyriac, Æthelflæd’s good friend, Abbot Egbert, was murdered for no known reason. The Mercian abbot and his retainers were ambushed and killed while travelling in the Welsh mountain kingdom of Brycheiniog. The abbot had been under Æthelflæd’s protection and within three days she was leading an army into the Wales to exact revenge.
Æthelflæd’s army ravaged Brycheiniog, burning the little kingdom and taking many hostages. Although King Tewdr escaped Æthelflæd, his wife did not; Queen Angharad and thirty-three others, many of them relatives of the Welsh king, were taken back to Mercia as hostages. Æthelflæd’s strength and determination was complemented by her quick actions and an impressive ruthless streak. When the Welsh king eventually submitted to Æthelflæd, he promised to serve her faithfully, and to pay compensation for the murder of the abbot and his people.
Æthelflæd died suddenly in June 918. She did not live to see the successful conclusion to the work she and her brother had worked tirelessly to achieve; between 910 and 920 all Danish territories south of Yorkshire had been conquered.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France, Queen of England (died 1204)
Eleanor of Aquitaine is iconic. Probably the most famous woman of the middle ages, she is the only woman to have ever worn the crowns of both England and France. She has even been promoted as the first feminist.
Eleanor’s long life saw her weather the dangers of crusade, scandal, siege, imprisonment and betrayal to emerge as the great matriarch of Europe.
When her first husband, Louis VII, led the Second Crusade, Eleanor went with him, only to find herself mired in scandal. Eleanor’s uncle Raymond of Toulouse, Prince of Antioch, welcomed Eleanor warmly and lavished such attention on her that rumours soon arose of an affair. Despite a lack of concrete evidence, but accused of adultery and incest, Eleanor spent most of the crusade under close guard on her husband’s orders.
Louis and Eleanor’s marriage had been dealt a fatal blow; they left the Holy Land in 1149 and their divorce was finally proclaimed 21 March 1152. By May 1152 Eleanor was married again, to the man who would become her first husband’s greatest rival. Henry of Anjou would become King of England in 1154 and eventually built an empire that extended 1,000 miles, from the Scottish border in the north to the Pyrenees in the south and incorporating most of western France.
Later rumours again mired Eleanor in scandal, accusing her of murdering Henry’s lover Rosamund Clifford. In one extravagant version, Rosamund was hidden in her secret bower within a maze but, with the help of a silken thread, a jealous Eleanor still found her and stabbed her while she bathed. In another the discarded queen forced Rosamund to drink from a poison cup. Of course, a closely guarded prisoner in Old Sarum or at Winchester as Eleanor was at the time of Rosamund’s death, it was impossible for her to do any such thing. But who are we to let facts get in the way of a good story?
Eleanor did, however, commit one of the most heinous crimes a woman could in the medieval world. As a she-wolf, protecting her cubs, she rebelled against her husband. In 1173 her eldest son by Henry, also called Henry, rebelled against his father and fled to the French court for support. His father-in-law, King Louis VII welcomed the disgruntled Angevin prince and Eleanor of Aquitaine, having sided with her sons against her husband, sent two of her other sons, fifteen-year-old Richard and fourteen-year-old Geoffrey, to join their older brother at the French court, while she rallied her barons in Poitou to their cause. In 1174, when the rebellion failed, Henry accepted the submission of his sons.
Eleanor, who was captured as she rode towards safety in France, wearing men’s clothing – an act itself highly frowned upon – was not so fortunate. While it was not encouraged for sons to rebel against their father, it could be seen as boys flexing their muscles. For a wife to rebel against her husband was practically unheard of, and went against the natural order of society, and therefore deserved harsher punishment – where would the world be if women refused to behave?
Unforgiven and defeated, Eleanor was sent to perpetual imprisonment in various castles throughout southern England. She was only released after Henry II’s death in 1189, when her favourite son, Richard I, the Lionheart, ascended England’s throne. If she had done everything of which she was accused – murder, incest, adultery and rebellion – Eleanor would be the ultimate she-wolf. As it was, her rebellion, an act unprecedented for a queen, meant she paid the price with her freedom for the next fifteen years.
Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France
If all the stories of Isabeau of Bavaria were to be believed, she would be the most ruthless and wicked queen to have ever lived. For centuries Isabeau has been accused of almost every crime imaginable, from adultery and incest to treason and avarice. Variously described as being beautiful and hypnotic or so obese that she was crippled, the chroniclers have not been kind to Isabeau. According to them, her moral corruption led to the neglect of her children and betrayal of her husband and country.
However, they ignored the challenges faced by a queen whose husband was sinking deeper and deeper into the realms of insanity, going so far as killing four of his own knights during one mental breakdown and thinking he was made of glass in another. Married to King Charles VI of France, also known as Charles ‘the Mad’, Isabeau was left to raise her children and navigate the dangers and intrigues of court politics with little assistance from her mentally disturbed husband. Her political alliance with Louis of Orléans, her husband’s brother, led to her imprisonment amid slanderous rumours of adultery and incest – from the opposing political party.
To add to this, France was – not that they knew it at the time – halfway through the conflict with England that would become known as the Hundred Years’ War. The war was going badly for France – Henry V defeated them decisively at Agincourt – and Isabeau was forced to put her signature to the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. In that instant she disinherited her own son, the Dauphin, making Henry V heir to King Charles and handing France over to England. Much of Isabeau’s life and career has been re-examined in the twentieth century and she has been exonerated of many of the accusations against her, but, despite the fact Isabeau was backed into a corner, she still signed away her son’s inheritance in favour of a foreign power…
Although not all their actions were womanly, and some of what they did could be seen as dishonourable and ruthless, what is certain is that these women – and many others from their time – left their mark on history. With each of them, applying the term ‘she-wolf’ highlights their strengths, their determination, and the challenges they faced and overcame. They fought for what they wanted, often against impossible odds, and achieved much. At a time when the perceived main purpose of a wife was to produce and raise children, these women made a remarkable imprint on history that has ensured their stories are still being told today.
The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Bartlett; http://www.britannica.com; oxforddnb.com; finerollshenry3.org.uk; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swanton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by James Ingram; Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen, c. 1090–1143 by William of Malmesbury; The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon by Thomas Forester; Alfred the Great by David Sturdy; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; Mercia; the Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead.
Images courtesy of Wikipedia
A version of this article first appeared in the 2019 edition of All About History magazine.
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.
Today it is a pleasure to welcome author Annie Whitehead to the blog. Annie’s book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom was released by Amberley on 15th September and traces the fortunes of the Anglo-Saxon Midlands kingdom of Mercia, from its origins in the 6th century to its absorption into Norman England in the 11th century. The book is a fabulous, enjoyable read and I can highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Anglo-Saxon England.
A huge thank you to Annie for this fabulous article.
King Cenwulf, that’s who. He may not be all that well known, but he was one of the most successful Anglo-Saxon kings and was king for twenty-five years (796-821) during a period when most kings were lucky if they survived a year in the job.
So why don’t we know more about him? Probably because his reign was sandwiched between a lot of kings with odd names, and he was overshadowed by his more famous predecessor, Offa.
Cenwulf was supposedly descended from a brother of the infamous pagan king, Penda, but no one is entirely sure of the precise link (although my new book provides an intriguing theory…).
One thing is for sure, and that is that he had no direct connection with his immediate predecessor, Ecgfrith, who was Offa’s son. Offa had gone to great lengths to secure the succession of his son, even going so far as to have him anointed as his heir. But all his plans were for naught, because Ecgfrith survived only five months after being crowned.
Foul play? Maybe. There was no suggestion of it in the chronicles and many believed that he died for the sins of his father. It looks as if Cenwulf wasn’t around at court much during Offa’s reign, and may have been in exile. Perhaps he was the victim of the purges of which Offa had been accused, and for which the punishment was supposedly the untimely death of his son. No accusations of murder were ever levelled against Cenwulf.
Cenwulf’s reign was an impressive one of overlordship and conquest. We don’t know much about his marital history but it is possible that he was married twice, firstly to a lady named Cynegyth, although it’s by no means certain, as a charter naming her as queen has been declared unreliable. His – possibly second – wife was Ælfthryth.
Offa had controlled East Anglia (famously doing away with their king, whom he’d had beheaded) but after his death East Anglia seems to have regained its independence. That was short-lived, however, for while they had been minting their own coins, very soon after he came to power, the East Anglian moneyers were striking coins for Cenwulf.
East Saxon independence also appears to have been short-lived, with its last ever recorded king, Sigered, being reduced to the status of first sub-king, and then dux.
In 801, Cenwulf was attacked by King Eardwulf of the Northumbrians, ‘because of his harbouring of his enemies.’ A letter from Pope Leo III to Charlemagne in 808 mentions the nobleman, Wada, and seems to confirm the accusation that Cenwulf had indeed been harbouring Eardwulf’s enemies, because Wada was involved in a battle of 798 where he had fought against King Eardwulf. Eventually the two kings agreed to a truce.
Things were a little more violent when it came to Cenwulf’s dealings with Kent, however, and it was perhaps not Cenwulf’s finest hour.
In 798, the same year as the battle involving Wada, Cenwulf was busy ravaging Kent, and he captured the Kentish king, known as Eadberht Præn.
When Offa, who had been overlord of Kent, died, Kent had risen up in revolt against Mercia. Eadberht Præn had been in exile at the court of Charlemagne, and he returned after Offa’s death, forcing the archbishop of Canterbury – who was known to have Mercian sympathies – to flee.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cenwulf ‘seized Præn and brought him in fetters into Mercia’ where his eyes were put out and his hands cut off. But while one later chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, refers to the capture, he makes no mention of the mutilations and another twelfth-century writer, William of Malmesbury, called Cenwulf a ‘truly great man’ who ‘surpassed his fame by his virtues, doing nothing that malice could justly find fault with.’ His praise seems motivated by the latter’s having restored Canterbury, and he goes on to say that Cenwulf released Eadberht Præn out of pity.
For a short while, Cenwulf put his brother into Kent to rule there as a puppet king, but after his brother died, he took direct control.
For all William of Malmesbury praised Cenwulf for restoring order at Canterbury (Offa had fought to have the archbishopric moved to London and when that failed, established one at Lichfield. Cenwulf reversed this decision), Cenwulf had a fractious relationship with the Church.
He became embroiled in an argument with the new archbishop of Canterbury, Wulfred. The dispute concerned the Kentish minsters and whether it was right that the state should have control over ecclesiastical lands. The argument raged from 816 and was not resolved when Cenwulf died in 821.
The kings who followed him make up a list which looks a little like a cat has walked over the keyboard and show that the kingdom was troubled by a series of dynastic disputes between rival families. In amongst this, Cenwulf reigned successfully for a quarter of a century, and it seems as though he was on campaign against the Welsh when he died, but his reign is overshadowed by what (allegedly) happened to his children.
His daughter, Cwoenthryth, inherited not only her father’s lands but his dispute with the Church. Wulfred was accused of forging documents to support his case, but the Church Council found in his favour and whilst Cwoenthryth was allowed to keep the possession of Winchcombe she was forced to hand over the rights to the Kentish minsters. Winchcombe, where her father was buried and where she was abbess, became the centre of a scandal when she was accused of arranging for her little brother, Kenelm, to be murdered. Some of the stories say that her eyeballs dropped out as divine punishment, some that she was struck down dead. Reality was probably somewhat different, since it’s hard to prove that the young brother in question was even a small boy at the time of the alleged murder, and Cwoenthryth lived on as abbess of Winchcombe; some historians think she survived until the 840s.
When the history of this period includes Offa the Great, a murder of a little boy, and dynastic struggle which also ended in murder, it’s hardly surprising that poor Cenwulf gets forgotten. But as one historian pointed out, his achievement was ‘scarcely less impressive’ than Offa’s.
He controlled the whole of the south east, and while his influence was not felt over Wessex, he at least kept the Northumbrians at bay, and he increased pressure on the Welsh, to the extent that his eventual successor, his brother, was able virtually to overrun Powys. Old-fashioned warlord he may have been, but he was the only English king before the tenth century to be styled ‘emperor’. If only he’d lived at another time, or gone up against more famous adversaries, perhaps he’d be better remembered today.
Annie Whitehead graduated in history having specialised in the ‘Dark Ages’ and is a member of the Royal Historical Society. She’s written three books about early medieval Mercia, the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the Midlands. The first, To Be a Queen, tells the story of Alfred the Great’s daughter, and was long-listed for the Historical Novelist Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and was an IAN (Independent Author Network) Finalist in 2017, while the second, Alvar the Kingmaker, is the story of Aelfhere, Earl of Mercia in the 10th century. The third, Cometh the Hour, is the first of two volumes set in seventh-century Mercia. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down, a collection of alternative short stories. She writes magazine articles and has had pieces printed in diverse publications, including Cumbria Magazine and This England. She has twice been a prize winner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing Competition, and won First Prize in the 2012 New Writer Magazine’s Prose and Poetry Competition. She was a finalist in the 2015 Tom Howard Prize for nonfiction, and is also a contributor and editor for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, as well as blogging for her own site – Casting Light upon the Shadow. In 2017 she won the inaugural HWA/Dorothy Dunnett Society Short Story Prize.
Her first full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is published by Amberley and available from Amazon UK.
Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World, is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, in the US from Amazon US and worldwide from Book Depository. It will be released in paperback in the UK from 15 March 2019 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.
Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amberley Publishing and Book Depository.
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Many people know about Wessex, the ‘Last Kingdom’ of the Anglo-Saxons to fall to the Northmen, but another kingdom, Mercia, once enjoyed supremacy over not only Wessex, but all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. At its zenith Mercia controlled what is now Birmingham and London ‒ and the political, commercial paramountcy of the two today finds echoes in the past.
Those interested in the period will surely have heard of Penda, Offa, and Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians ‒ but remarkably there is no single book that tells their story in its entirety, the story of the great kingdom of the midlands.
Historically, the records are in two halves, pre- and post-Viking, in the way they have been preserved. Pre-Viking, virtually all the source material was written by the victims, or perceived victims, of Mercian aggression and expansion. Post-Viking, the surviving documents tend to hail from places which were not sacked or burned by the Northmen, particularly from Wessex, the traditional enemy of Mercia. The inclusion of those records here allows for the exploration of Mercia post-924.
Mercia ceased to be a kingdom when Alfred the Great came to power, but its history did not end there. Examining the roles of the great ealdormen in the anti-monastic reaction of the tenth century, through the treachery of Eadric Streona in the eleventh, and the last, brave young earls who made a stand against William the Conqueror, this book shows the important role the Mercians played in the forging of the English nation.
I have been waiting eagerly for Annie Whitehead’s Mercia: the Rise and Fall of a Kingdom ever since I knew she was writing it. Luckily, I got an advanced copy from the publisher – but it was well worth the wait! In her introduction Annie Whitehead promises:
This is the story of the Mercians, the kings, the queens, saints, sinners, earls and warrior women who governed the kingdom and shaped its history.
And she does not disappoint!
Mercia: the Rise and Fall of a Kingdom covers the story of the English midlands kingdom from its pagan origins, in the 7th century, to its absorption into the kingdom of England; a process started in the reign of King Alfred but not completed until after the Norman Conquest. Annie Whitehead traced the fortunes of Mercia from Penda, a king we know little enough about – and that from his enemies. As the author tells us, the problems with knowing anything about early Mercian history spring from the fact Mercia was a pagan land; they therefore had no monastic tradition of writing everything down. In which case, their history is taken from such as the Venerable Bede, who lived in the land of Mercia’s enemies, Northumbria.
As a result, Annie Whitehead’s first task was to assess the bias of her sources, all of whom had their own hostile vision of Mercia. She uses sources from varied fields, including charter and archaeological evidence, in order to reconstruct early Mercian society and tell the story of the land itself, and its relations to its neighbours, such as Northumbria, Wessex and East Anglia. Using primary sources wherever possible, Mercia: the Rise and Fall of a Kingdom brings the people of this ancient kingdom to vivid life. The author also uses alliterative analysis, to suggest familial links between such rulers as Coenred and Ceolred, for example. Although this is not an exact science, it does help to give the reader some perspective on the personal and familial relationships between the major players in the region.
Throughout the book, Annie Whitehead retells the story from the available sources, taking great care to avoid filling in the gaps with invention and clearly offering theories and analysis to explain the direction in which the narrative proceeded. She provides an ongoing assessment of sources, discussing their validity, honesty and integrity; clearly stating where charters are thought to be spurious or of dubious provenance.
The story portrayed is one of conflict, from within and without the region, marriage alliances, murder and betrayal and the shifting political tensions of the various kingdoms within England. The history, inevitably, draws on the history of Wessex, Northumbria, Kent and Wales. However, Annie Whitehead constantly retains the focus firmly on Mercia, while clearly demonstrating the shifting political alliances and the internal and external forces which decided the direction in which Mercian – and English history as a whole – would eventual be drawn.
It is difficult to piece together the circumstances of Æthelbald’s exile. It doesn’t appear that Ceolred was a strong enough king to stave off contenders, particularly ones of the calibre Æthelbald would prove to be. Perhaps, then, he had been in exile since the time of Æthelred, yet he did not emerge until after Ceolred’s death. Were there other contenders to the throne? Had he been chased out of Mercia because the kings there were strong, or because he was, and thus he was a threat? Dynastic disputes would become a feature of Mercian politics, particularly in the next century.
There is, in fact, a hint that the takeover was not so peaceful, provided by a reference in one source to a Ceolwald reigning between Ceolred and Æthelbald. This man, briefly mentioned in Chapter Three, could, if he existed at all, have been the brother of Ceolred. If so, and if he became king, he did not reign for long, for Æthelbald became king in the same year in which Coelred died. Perhaps there was a coup? If only we knew; but as we have seen, particularly when it comes to Mercian history, absence of evidence is most assuredly not evidence of absence, and we can only speculate when we come across these tantalising nuggets of information.
Annie Whitehead provides a thorough and in-depth analysis of Mercia, its history and its people. Where there is uncertainty or conflicting evidence , she carefully sets out the opposing theories, providing her own thoughts and analysis, while making it clear what alternative reasoning there is available. The text is supplemented by some wonderful illustrations, colourful photographs of locations and buildings closely associated with Mercia’s history, from the well-known statue of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great and Lady of Mercia, to Repton in Derbyshire, burial site of a number of Mercian kings.
On a personal level, it is fascinating to read another author’s interpretation of subjects I have researched myself. Annie Whitehead dedicates (and rightfully so) an entire chapter to the Lady Æthelflæd and her husband Æthelred. And it is good to know that her version of Æthelflæd does not contradict the lady I found when researching Heroines of the Medieval World. The same also happened with her depiction of Lady Godiva. Godiva appears in my next book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest; she was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and grandmother of the last Anglo-Saxon Earl of Mercia, Edwin, who was killed in 1071 after fighting against the Normans.
Mercia: the Rise and Fall of a Kingdom is written in an engaging and conversational manner, leaving the reader both entertained and informed. It is impossible to read this book without being made aware of the depth of research that has gone into producing such an authoritative depiction of Mercia. the
Rich in detail, this is a must-have book for anyone interested in the English midlands, and Anglo-Saxon history. Annie Whitehead delves into all the corners of Mercia, her history and conflicts and relates the story of not just the land, but of the generations of people who occupied it.
About the author:
Annie Whitehead graduated in history having specialised in the ‘Dark Ages’ and is a member of the Royal Historical Society. She’s written three books about early medieval Mercia, the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the Midlands. The first, To Be a Queen, tells the story of Alfred the Great’s daughter, and was long-listed for the Historical Novelist Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and was an IAN (Independent Author Network) Finalist in 2017, while the second, Alvar the Kingmaker, is the story of Aelfhere, Earl of Mercia in the 10th century. The third, Cometh the Hour, is the first of two volumes set in seventh-century Mercia. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down, a collection of alternative short stories. She writes magazine articles and has had pieces printed in diverse publications, including Cumbria Magazine and This England. She has twice been a prize winner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing Competition, and won First Prize in the 2012 New Writer Magazine’s Prose and Poetry Competition. She was a finalist in the 2015 Tom Howard Prize for nonfiction, and is also a contributor and editor for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, as well as blogging for her own site – Casting Light upon the Shadow. In 2017 she won the inaugural HWA/Dorothy Dunnett Society Short Story Prize. Her first full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is published by Amberley and available from Amazon UK.
Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amberley Publishing and Book Depository.
You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.