Mastodon The Writing Desk: Book Launch Guest Post by Annie Whitehead, Author of Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England

21 April 2020

Book Launch Guest Post by Annie Whitehead, Author of Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England

 New from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Many Anglo-Saxon kings are familiar. Æthelred the Unready is one, yet less is written of his wife, who was consort of two kings and championed one of her sons over the others, or his mother who was an anointed queen and powerful regent, but was also accused of 
witchcraft and regicide.

My new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, features over 130 named women. When I began the project, I wondered if I’d be able to find out enough about these ladies who played such significant roles and yet were not so often mentioned in the chronicles. 

The short answer, is yes, I was. It took a lot of detective work, and many turns down blind alleys, but I managed to identify them, and pull together what is known about their lives. Not a few of them had their identities confused with others of similar names, so there was also a fair bit of unravelling to do.

So, the question now is: which of these women do I talk about for this blog post? Well, since I have almost a whole alphabet of names, I thought I’d choose fairly randomly by using the book title and making a sort of acrostic.

W Wynflæd was a tenth-century noblewoman, and a very rich one at that. Her will survives, and her bequests were numerous and detailed. She owned many estates and, as well as land and livestock, she left a number of expensive items, including a ‘gold-adorned’ cup, and household items such as two chests, one including the bed linen housed within it. She bequeathed tapestries and, showing that she was literate, ‘books and such small things.’ We don’t know who Wynflæd was; she has sometimes been confused with a lady of the same name who was King Edgar’s maternal grandmother, but there is nothing in the will to back up this theory. Nevertheless, it provides a wonderful insight into the life of an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman.

Will of Wynflæd, circa AD 950 (11th-century copy,British Library Cotton Charters viii. 38)[1]
O Osburh was the mother of Alfred the Great and his four elder brothers. Alfred’s father remarried, his new bride being Judith of Flanders, who was not much older than a child at the time and who scandalised commentators by going on to marry her stepson. Osburh, however, remains in the shadows. Presumably she died before the second marriage, but she might have retired to a nunnery. Asser, Alfred’s biographer, says she showed her sons a book of poetry, telling them she would give the book to the first to memorise the contents. Alfred won. The point of the story is to emphasise what a quick learner Alfred was, but we shouldn’t ignore one other significance: Osburh must have been able to read in order to test Alfred’s ability. Sadly, we know little else about her, but that salient point adds to the body of evidence that women, certainly in the upper echelons of society, were literate.

P Pega was the sister of St Guthlac the hermit who loved her brother so much that when she heard of his death she fell headlong into a faint. Guthlac trusted her, and no other, to tend to his body, so she tenderly wrapped his body in a cloth and placed it not in a coffin, but in a monument, according to his instructions. One version of their story has her banished from the place where her brother was living because the devil used her form to tempt Guthlac, but I prefer the version where brother and sister maintained a close bond, even unto death.

I Iurminburg was a queen, and has sometimes been confused with a woman of similar name, Eormenburg. She was the second wife of King Ecgfrith of Northumbria and was described as a ‘she-wolf [who] corrupted the king’s heart.’ This harsh description may in part have come about because it’s contained in the Life of St Wilfrid, and it’s clear she and Wilfrid didn’t get on (Wilfrid had a habit of falling out with people). She disapproved of Wilfrid’s wealth and of his retinue of armed followers which rivalled the king’s when she felt it shouldn’t. I think it is telling that her sister also detested Wilfrid. Having read a great deal about Wilfrid and his spats with various people, I have to confess to a certain amount of sympathy for Iurminburg!

A Ælfwynn was the daughter of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. We don’t know when she was born or why she remained unmarried, but we know from charter evidence that she accompanied her mother on campaign, when Æthelflæd was busy building defensive burhs (fortified towns) to repel the Viking menace. It’s possible that Ælfwynn was being prepared for leadership. Certainly the portion of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle known as the Mercian Register says that Ælfwynn was ‘deprived of all authority’ when her uncle Edward took over Mercia after her mother’s death. If the Mercians really had declared her to be her mother’s successor then this is hugely significant. It means that, however briefly, a woman leader succeeded a woman leader. England would have to wait until Tudor times for that to happen again.

S Æthelflæd wasn’t the first woman ruler of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, however. Seaxburh was queen of Wessex for a short time. Many women are called queen, but they were really queen consorts. Not so Seaxburh, the only woman to appear on a regnal list. A later chronicler said that the West Saxons would not go to war under the command of a woman, so clearly she wasn’t ruling in a time of peace. Reading between the lines, and taking the dates of her husband’s death and of his successor’s accession, it’s clear that there was a scramble for the throne and every likelihood that Seaxburh was fighting on behalf of a son, who perhaps hadn’t reached his majority.

E Emma was Norman, not English, but she married two kings of England: Æthelred the Unready, and Cnut. She had sons by both but, when it came to a succession dispute, she favoured her son by Cnut, championing his rights to the throne over those of his half-brother, Cnut’s son by another woman. The fight wasn’t necessarily a physical one, but a political one and, in an early example of ‘spin’, Emma commissioned a work called the Encomium Emmæ Reginæ which backed up her son’s claims, completely airbrushed her first marriage out of the story, and thus ignored her children by that marriage. Unsurprisingly, a large portion of the Encomium tells her story and that of her rival, Cnut’s ‘other woman’. These two ladies were well matched for tenacity and had few equals when it came to political manoeuvring. Even if I couldn’t necessarily find it easy to like them, I admire what they managed to achieve in what was still very much a man’s world.

Encomium Emmæ Reginæ

Anglo-Saxon women had more rights and privileges than their later medieval counterparts but it’s still fair to say that women had to operate in a different way if they wanted to influence events and wield power.
But by and large, they did it. A whisper in a king’s ear here, fighting for their son’s rights there, or running huge estates; they certainly made their presence felt. 

Annie Whitehead

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About the Author

Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth-century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar, who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down, a collection of alternative short stories.  Find out more at Annie's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @AnnieWHistory


  1. A subject close to my heart; a book I shall be reading

    1. Thank you so much - I hope you enjoy it! And thanks to Tony for hosting me :-)


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