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

15 May 2020

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

Available 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. The last time Tony invited me to his blog I wasn’t quite sure how to choose which women to feature, so I went with an acrostic, using the initials of the book title.
Since Tony has kindly invited me back again, I thought I’d do the same thing, this time using the initials of the word: Women.
King Edgar,
husband of Wulfthryth
W is for Wulfthryth. She may, or may not, have been the wife of King Edgar in the tenth century. Edgar’s love life is hard to unravel, and the identity of his supposed first wife is difficult to pinpoint, if she existed at all. Edgar had a son, Edward, who definitely wasn’t the product of Edgar’s last marriage, and may have been the son of the elusive first wife, or of Wulfthryth. Wulfthryth was certainly the mother of St Edith of Wilton, and it’s my view that she was Edward’s mother too. Wulfthryth became abbess of Wilton and she was remembered as a very efficient administrator. However, doubt remains as to whether she was ever Edgar’s wife and, more scandalously, whether she wasn’t in fact ‘married’ to the church when Edgar seduced her. Stories abound: she was a nun, whom Edgar carried off and for his sins had to pay a seven-year penance; that she pretended to be a nun to ward him off; that she was caught up in a case of mistaken identity, the real object of his affections evading him by escaping down a sewer. Unravelling the details of her status was quite some undertaking!
O is for Osith/Osgyth/Osyth and it wasn’t much easier identifying her. She is associated with an abbey at Chich in Essex. One historian thought she hailed from the ancient kingdom of the Hwicce, centred around modern-day Gloucestershire. Conversely (and more likely) Osith was said to be the daughter of a sub-king of Surrey. There are several tales about her, which don’t always match up. According to twelfth-century stories she was brought up in her aunt’s nunnery at Aylesbury. Journeying to meet another aunt, she drowned in the River Cherwell but was revived by the prayers of her aunts. We are also told that she wanted to remain a virgin but was married off by her parents to King Sigehere of the East Saxons, but she avoided consummating the marriage, putting herself under the protection of a bishop. Sigehere seems then to have accepted the situation and given her the land at Chich, where she built her abbey. She was apparently kidnapped by pirates and beheaded after refusing to renounce her faith. Confusion surrounds her eventual burial place, with two feast days associated with her, possibly because she was mixed up with another lady of similar name.
Queen Margaret with her husband,
Malcolm III of Scotland
M is for St Margaret, who was half-English, half-Hungarian, and queen of Scotland. Her father was, briefly, heir to the English throne but died and, in any case, probably wouldn’t have survived the machinations of 1066. Margaret’s family fled and ended up in Scotland where she was married to King Malcolm ‘Canmore’ III of Scotland, in either 1069 or 1070. From her chaplain, Bishop Turgot, we learn that she had wanted to live the religious life and throughout her marriage strove to reform the Church in Scotland and ‘civilise’ her husband. Turgot records how ‘she made him most attentive to the works of justice, mercy, almsgiving and other virtues. From her he learned how to keep the vigils of the night in constant prayer.’ She was remembered as a saintly woman, deeply religious and highly educated. Through her daughter’s marriage, the Anglo-Saxon royal bloodline was absorbed into the line of royalty descended from William the Conqueror.
E is for Ealdgyth. What an eventful, and probably not particularly happy life this lady had. She was the daughter of Ælfgar, earl of Mercia, who allied himself as much with Wales as he did with the other English nobles and was a bit of a ‘loose cannon’. Ealdgyth was married to Gruffudd, king of Wales but Gruffudd was killed by Harold Godwineson. Ælfgar was succeeded in Mercia by his son, Edwin, while Edwin’s brother, Morcar, replaced Harold’s brother Tostig as earl of Northumbria. An alliance was needed, and Ealdgyth was married to Harold, her first husband’s killer. Harold famously didn’t put aside his hand-fast wife, usually known as Edith Swan-neck, so it’s probably fair to say that Ealdgyth got very little out of the marriage. She may have been pregnant with Harold’s son in 1066, with a boy who was possibly also called Harold. Her brothers whisked her to safety at Chester, which is where she may have given birth. Most leaders of Wales were princes, rather than kings, but Gruffudd was a king and so, however briefly, Ealdgyth had the distinction of having been married to both a king of Wales and a king of England. How much joy it brought her is debatable.
St Hild, painting by James Clark
N is a bit of a cheat – nuns. I have almost a complete A-Z of women in the book (Okay, no Z!) but no women whose names begin with N. But there are plenty of nuns: kidnapped, like Osith, or escaping down a sewer as mentioned above, and an abbess from Leominster taken hostage by Swegn, Harold Godwineson’s brother, during a rebellion in 1046 when he teamed up with Gruffudd of Wales. She may in fact have been a willing partner of Swegn’s. She was with him for a year and the sources aren’t clear whether she was rescued or arrested afterwards. Then there’s the likes of St Hild, abbess of Whitby, who trained other abbesses and educated five bishops, and Cwoenthryth, who took on the might of the Church to keep hold of her abbeys and was accused by later chroniclers of arranging the murder of her own brother. Apparently she was found out when she recited a psalm backwards as a spell and her eyeballs fell out.  
The stories of these women are often lurid, never boring, and always entertaining. Sifting fact from later fiction was a challenge but great fun. I have enormous respect for these women who were all pioneers in their way.
Annie Whitehead
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About the Author

Annie Whitehead is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an editor for EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors.) She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, one of which was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society (HNS) Indie Book of the year 2016, and her full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom is published by Amberley Books. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines, including winning the New Writer Magazine Prose Competition. She was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017. She has recently been a judge for that same competition, and for the HNS Short Story Competition. Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England will be published by Pen & Sword Books on May 30th 2020.  Find out more at Annie's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @AnnieWHistory

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