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. A royal abbess educated five bishops and was instrumental in deciding the date of Easter; another took on the might of Canterbury and Rome and was accused by the monks of fratricide.
Anglo-Saxon women were prized for their bloodlines – one had such rich blood that it sparked a war – and one was appointed regent of a foreign country. Royal mothers wielded power; Eadgifu, wife of Edward the Elder, maintained a position of authority during the reigns of both her sons.
Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, was a queen in all but name, while few have heard of Queen Seaxburh, who ruled Wessex, or Queen Cynethryth, who issued her own coinage. She, too, was accused of murder, but was also, like many of the royal women, literate and highly-educated.
From seventh-century Northumbria to eleventh-century Wessex and making extensive use of primary sources, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England examines the lives of individual women in a way that has often been done for the Anglo-Saxon men but not for their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters. It tells their stories: those who ruled and schemed, the peace-weavers and the warrior women, the saints and the sinners. It explores, and restores, their reputations
Annie Whitehead’s new book brings Anglo-Saxon women to life in a vivid and readable story, simultaneously challenging certain preconceptions about Medieval women as powerless pawns and placing them in the context of their times.
The women she chooses are sometimes controversial (Emma of Normandy and murderous Mercian Queens), and some saints. Literally, others like the mother of Oswald of Northumbria are largely lost to history. By discussing their families and the connections, Whitehead helps sheds some light on even the most obscure women of the various ruling dynasties.
The author follows the logical progression of the period from the age of Saints in the 7th century, to the supremacy of Mercia in the next, and the rise of Wessex in the 9th century under the dynasty of Alfred the great, to the women of the Norman Conquest and just after. Of course, my heroine Lady Aethelflaed is not forgotten. How could she be?
Not all of the women were “powerful” in the way that we would think today, but the author shows how power could be exercised in a real and credible way in early the Early Medieval world and royal families. Being an Abbess or nun did not mean a woman was powerless, as and abbeys were often not only centres of learning but produced diplomats and politicians. The women who ran the earliest English abbeys in the 7th and 8th century “were not considered in any way inferior but revered by men and in the eyes of God.”
Even charters can reveal women taking part legal and administrative processes in their own right, and Queens who might be considered unsuccessful because their dynasties did not survive were nonetheless influential.
Whitehead does subscribe to the idea that women’s rights and power were much reduced after the Norman Conquest. A position I am not sure I entirely agree with, but her book is a valuable and very enjoyable account of the women before and on the cusp of that pivotal event.
One of the final lines sums up the subject: “ for the women of power in Anglo-Saxon England, life was neither dark, nor typically medieval. They had rights, they were able to influence events and mindsets, and although they took up little of the scribes’ time and attention, they nevertheless left their mark, enough at least for us to find them.”
Thanks to Rosie Crofts for sending me my copy of this title. I was not required to write a positive review an all opinions expressed are entirely my own.