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Anglo-Saxon Double Monasteries

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Monks and nuns living together: not a cause for scandal but, as Barbara Mitchell explains, an intriguing window onto the variety of monastic life - under the aegis of remarkable abbesses - before the Conquest.

Depiction of the Venerable Bede from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493The double monasteries of Anglo-Saxon England have attracted the attention of historians recently, particularly those with an interest in womens' studies, because of the importance of their abbesses, who ruled over communities consisting of monks as well as nuns. This article is an attempt to reassess them in the light of some recent as well as some well-trodden paths.

They were a peculiar institution in the history of monasticism and relatively short-lived. Most were founded in the seventh century and had disappeared by the middle of the ninth. They were usually founded by or for a woman of royal or high birth who would rule a community of nuns and a parallel but physically separate community of monks, some of whom would be trained and ordained as priests who, since women could not be ordained, would celebrate mass and administer the sacraments for the whole community, which would usually worship in the same church.

In their original state both female and male communities were governed by the abbess. In some cases the first abbess, usually of royal birth, seems to have endowed the foundation, or it might be endowed for her by a royal relative. In this way they differed from joint adjacent foundations for men and women under an abbot and abbess and also from the family monasteries which existed in the early eastern church and from the seventh century in Spain, in which husband and wife or brother and sister might become abbot and abbess.

These were occasionally found in England but do not seem to have been common. They were open to abuse as a means of avoiding taxation by both church and state and as a prey to sexual immorality. Double and joint monasteries tended to be disapproved of by papal authority and this was, in my view, the reason for their eventual disappearance.

The importance of these monasteries for the status of women in Anglo-Saxon England was stressed more than fifty years ago by Sir Frank Stenton and by his wife, D.M. Stenton. Much earlier, they were well analysed and studied by Mary Bateson published in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (1899). More recently, they have been studied for the light they throw on marriage and kinship in their period. The still definitive analysis is that of the German scholar Dom S. Hilpisch in Die Doppelkloster, Entstehung und Organisation (1928). Although he rather unfairly criticised her scholarship, he reinforced Bateson's view that the model for them is to be found in the Prankish double monasteries of northern Gaul (northern Francia) rather than in any Irish institution such as St Brigit's in Kildare -though missionary monks from Ireland undoubtedly promoted monasticism in both Francia and England and Englishmen studied in monasteries in Ireland.

Faremoutiers, Chelles and Joaarre, all double monasteries under an abbess, had been founded earlier than any in England with the monastic boom which followed the missionary activity of the Irish monk Columbanus in Gaul around 600. He founded several male monasteries in Gaul and, later, Bobbio in Italy, but the double monasteries of northern Francia seem to have been conceived as a result of rather than by his mission. The double provision for both sexes in one foundation under an abbess is now usually recognised to have been a Frankish innovation in the western church and brought from there to England.

We know from Bede that m the mid-seventh-century English women of high rank went to the double monasteries in northern Francia, especially to Chelles, because few, if any, had yet been founded in England. Some returned to found similar houses in England, where they spread quickly during the next half century. The social and economic conditions in both societies were similar. Both were wealthy landed aristocracies, not highly urbanised. If a female house was founded on land belonging to an abbess or her family it was likely to be isolated, hence the need for a double monastery to provide priests.

Another important factor was the legal position of women. Under both Frankish and Anglo-Saxon law they could receive, own and bestow property. Burgundofara, the founding abbess of Faremoutiers, had been inspired by Columbanus as a young girl and her family founded the monastery for her. She was able to leave a will which secured property for the monastery after her death.

A parallel document from Anglo-Saxon England is the 'testament' of Mildburg, abbess of Wenlock (Wimnicas) in Shropshire; not actually a will but probably containing authentic documents which record and ratify the title to land she had acquired for her monastery by gift: and exchange and guaranteeing it in perpetuity.

There are also other records of what seem to be genuine seventh-century charters recording grants of land to abbesses. Alter the Anglo-Saxon period such grants to and by women would not have been possible but in the seventh and eighth centuries they were instrumental in obtaining and securing the land needed for the double foundations.

Once in existence, the double monasteries began to fill a number of social as well as religious needs and their abbesses and nuns acquired an education and training similar to that of monks. Indeed some monks themselves, though we do not know how many or what proportion, were also trained in them. The founding abbesses were often sanctified and this, possibly because of their higher social rank and the large number of double monasteries, explains the exceptionally greater number of female over male Anglo-Saxon saints.

Some of their cults are recognisable in place names and church dedications in many parts of England. For example, St Frideswide's, the cathedral at Christ Church, Oxford, is dedicated to an obscure seventh-century Saxon princess and female saint for whom, according to a later tradition, a nunnery with an attached community of 'religious men' was founded by her father so that she could avoid marriage with an unwelcome Mercian prince. There is earlier and better evidence for the cloister as an alternative to marriage for royal princesses with a vocation, of wives who preferred to leave their husbands for a religious life and royal widows who wished to take the veil or whose male relatives wanted to provide for them, so the tradition is not inherently improbable. The feasibility of divorce under Anglo-Saxon, as under Prankish law, made it possible for married women to leave their husbands without leaving the church, at any rate if they acquiesced, and some abbesses were divorcees.

Such women appear in Bede's Ecclesiastical History, notably St Hild of Streoneshalch, later Whitby, and St Aethelthryth (Audrey), the founder of Ely. His treatment of them is somewhat different. Both were royal: Hild was a princess of Deira, formerly the southern Northumbrian kingdom, and Aethelthryth one of several saintly daughters of Anna, King of East Anglia and twice married. Her first husband was a neighbouring noble, Tondberct, who was killed in battle. She was then married for twelve years to Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria, still in his teens and several years younger than she. According to Bede both marriages were unconsummated and this allowed him to use in his account of her the common hagiographical motif, the preservation of virginity. This is emphasised in the poem which he unusually includes in her memory, in which she is compared to the Virgin Mary and five virgin martyrs, a list also commemorated by Aid-helm, Bede's contemporary, in his De Virginitate.

It may be that she was unable to have children since Ecgfrith apparently divorced her willingly and agreed to her desire to become a nun, though he bore a grudge against Wilfrid, the bishop of Northumbria at the time, for encouraging her. Nevertheless, he sent her to his aunt Aebbe's double monastery at Coldingham and from here she returned to East Anglia to found the famous double monastery of Ely.

Bede's treatment of Aethelthryth is almost entirely hagiographical and miraculous. For him, history showed human events as the working of God's purpose and religious women exemplified it by their pious, chaste, and preferably virginal lives.

Bede's account of Hild on the other hand is a combination of hagiographical and secular material, although he leaves large blanks in the latter. She was the great-niece of King Edwin, whose family were rivals of the northern Bernician dynasty which superseded him under Oswald and his son Oswy. Bede casually tells us that during Hild's infancy her father Hereric was in exile at the court of the British king Cerdic, who died about 616, where he died of poison, perhaps because of his feud with Ethelfrith the King of Bernicia, who united and ruled Northumbria before being killed by Edwin in battle.

Hereric, being Deiran, may have been poisoned shortly before this, perhaps through a Bernician agent in Britain. In any case, Bede knew more than he has told us about Hild's early years. One detectable piece of misplaced hagiography is his story about Hild's mother's dream 'during her infancy'. Looking for her missing husband in her dream, she found beneath her garment a jewel which shone with such radiance that it illuminated the whole of Britain. Bede interprets this as a prophecy of the widespread reputation of Hild's goodness in later life. It is clearly the hagiographical motif of an ante-natal dream-prophecy, of which there are classical as well as Christian examples, though Bede oddly places it during Hild's infancy. Bede also tells us that she was baptised at Edwin's court at the age of thirteen by the Roman missionary Paulinus in 627. But thereafter, for the next twenty years, he says nothing of her.

These were a turbulent, violent twenty years, punctuated by a renewed struggle for supremacy in Northumbria between the houses of Bernicia and Deira. After Edwin's death in battle in 632 Deira and Bernicia split apart under separate kings until the Bernician royal house reasserted its rule under Oswald, who ruled over the whole of Northumbria from 633 to 642, when he was killed in battle by Penda of Mercia and was succeeded by his son Oswy. Deira, however, separated from Bernicia under Oswine until Oswy had him murdered in 651, reunited the two kingdoms again, and expiated the crime by founding a monastery at Gilling, the site of the murder.

These bloody struggles are the background to the monastic life of Hild, which began only when she was thirty-three, in 647, when she took the veil from Aidan, the Irish missionary abbot-bishop introduced by Oswald from lona and to whom he granted Lindisfarne off the Northumbrian coast as a site for a similar isolated Celtic-type male monastery. Christine Fell convincingly argues in 'Hild, Abbess of Streonaeshalch' (Hagiography and Medieval Literature: A Symposium, Odense 1981) that Hild had earlier been married, in view of her age and the fact that Bede never calls her 'virgin'. She had earlier gone to East Anglia, intending to join her sister Heresuid (divorced from Ethelhere, the brother and successor of King Anna) to become a nun at Chelles, but was recalled by Aidan to Northumbria. However, her intention to go to Chelles attests the Prankish influence on the type of monastery she was to rule.

Hild became abbess of two double monasteries, first of Hartlepool and later of Streoneshalch. Bede tells us that she was famous for her wisdom and that her advice was sought by kings and nobles as well as ordinary people. Able religious men trained under her, five of whom became bishops and a sixth was elected but died before he could be ordained. Hild probably instructed them herself. As with Aethelthryth, it is her Christian virtues which Bede emphasises such as justice, piety, asceticism and endurance of suffering, but it is possible to infer that she both had intellectual ability arid was educated, for he tells us that she learned the monastic rule from Aidan and other religious men who were eager to educate her, aware of her natural wisdom as well as her vocation.

Stephanie Hollis in her recent book Anglo-Saxon Women and the Church has discerned in Bede a male chauvinistic reservation of intellectual pursuits to men only and a corresponding tendency to pass over the public and scholarly achievements of religious women. While there is truth in this, it may also reflect Bede's own preference for the saintly virtues of unworldliness and asceticism which he praises equally in men such as Aidan and Chad.

However, we can wish he had not been so reticent about Hild's intellectual gifts and the part she played in secular affairs. We have to guess at her own learning and also at the intellectual achievements of Streoneshalch. It has been suggested that the seventh- or eighth-century Whitby life of St Gregory was written by a nun rather than a monk, but there is no evidence for this. However, the many styluses discovered at Whitby suggest that there may have been a scriptorium there.

Another gap is the absence of any testimony as to how Streoneshalch was endowed for Hild, though its close connections with the Northumbrian monarchy suggest that it was endowed by Oswy, since he had entrusted his infant daughter Aelffled to her to be dedicated to God. He also chose to hold the nationally important debate of 663 at Streoneshalch - the well-known 'synod of Whitby' - to settle differences between the Roman and the Celtic church about the correct dating of Easter and other doctrinal matters. It was soon used as the burial place for kings and other royal personages: the Westminster abbey, as it were, of Northumbria.

It is interesting that Oswy chose Streoneshalch, a double monastery ruled by an abbess, admittedly of his choice (perhaps to assist his reconciliation with the Deiran royal house), in preference to an all male one, to host the synod and as the royal cemetery, Had Hild not been a gifted administrator and teacher it is difficult to explain Oswy's choice. She evidently played a part in church politics, since she tried to prevent Wilfrid from regaining the see of Northumbria after his first expulsion in 678 (by Oswy's successor Ecgfrith) by supporting archbishop Theodore in writing to the pope against Wilfrid's claim. This is mentioned by Wilfrid's contemporary biographer Eddius but not by Bede. Hild had differed from Wilfrid in supporting the Celtic dating of Easter at the synod, though she accepted Oswy's decision for the Roman calculation, still to be found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

Aelffled, who was brought up by Hild and succeeded her as abbess, was certainly literate, independent and influential. A letter from her survives in the correspondence of Boniface (also called Wynfrith), the eighth-century English missionary to Germany, to an abbess from near Trier commending her pilgrimage to Rome. Eddius, less reticent about her public actions than Bede, calls her the best adviser in the kingdom and she was, like Hild, involved in the public life of kings, abbots and bishops. Unlike Hild, she supported Wilfrid's restoration to the see of Northumbria and in 706 spoke at the synod of Nidd, persuading King Aid-frith to change his mind and restore Wilfrid to the bishopric after his second expulsion, from which he had previously banished him, following the example of his father Ecgfrith. Unlike Hild at Streoneshalch, Aelffled won the debate.

To return to Aethelthryth: after her divorce from Ecgfrith and retreat to Aebba's monastery at Coldingham, she returned to East Anglia to found a famous double monastery at Ely. Her ascetic life of prayer, self-denial and example to others and the uncorruption of her body when reburied sixteen years after her death, in a grander tomb than she had wished, are what interested Bede, and he leaves us ignorant of how she managed to endow the monastery. A later Ely source says it was through her dowry from her first husband, Tondberct.

She was succeeded as abbess by her sister Sexburg, widow of King Eorcenberct of Kent (d. 664), who in turn was succeeded by her daughter Eormenhild, widow of Wulfhere, the son of Penda and first Christian King of Mercia. In spite of Bede's hagiographical treatment of Aethelthryth, there is plenty in the story of Ely, as in that of Streoneshalch, to illustrate the dynastic succession of abbesses and their royal connections which show links with Kent and Mercia in addition to Northumbria.

Other sources yield a more complex picture of the origins and organisation of the double monasteries. They confirm that the system was much more widespread and the interrelationships of the abbesses more intricate than might be guessed from Bede alone. H.P.R. Finberg's publication and discussion of St Milburg's 'testament' and D.W. Rollason's study of the legends about Mildrith, Mild-burg's sister, who was abbess of Thanet minster, have revealed a network of double monasteries with abbesses related to each other, some of them connected by marriage with several English kingdoms and often linked with Prankish monasteries.

The Kentish princess Eormenburh, also called Domna Eafe or Domneva, was married in a dynastic alliance to Merewralh, a son of Penda, King of Mercia, and brother of Wulfhere, the first Christian King of Mercia. His brother Aethelred, who succeeded Wulfhere, also retired to a monastery, at Bardney. Their sisters, saints Cyneburga and Cyneswith, founded a monastery at Castor, near Peterborough.

Merewalh ruled the Magonsaetan, a people who bordered on and were dependent on Mercia. He may have been one of the occupants of the crypt at St Wystan's, Repton, originally another double monastery which became a royal burial place for Mercia. (This crypt, like the contemporary crypts of Hexham, and Ripon where Wilfrid was buried, is still extant). The marriage ended so that both partners could retire to monasteries. Domne Eafe founded Thanet minster in Kent about 670. Her three daughters were St Mildrith, who succeeded her as abbess of Thanet, St Mildburg, abbess of the double monastery Wimnicas (Wenlock) in Shropshire and another saint, Mildgyth who was buried in Northumbria but is otherwise unknown.

We hear nothing of Wimnicas from Bede but it must have been wealthy (its property totalled 144 hides as against Hild's ten hides at Streone-shalch). We have no means of knowing how influential it was spiritually or ecclesiastically, but Boniface mentions in a letter a monk-priest there who had a vision of the after life, having 'died' and come to life again. Boniface heard of this from Hildelith, abbess of the double monastery of Barking, who must have been in touch with Mildburg. The monk was presumably trained at Wimnicas and the letter gives Mildburg another connection, for Hildelith was the abbess to whom Aldhelm, the famous abbot of Malmesbury, addressed the Latin prose and verse versions of his work on virginity.

More can be inferred, about the learning of nuns from Aldhelm. Though abbot of a male monastery founded by his Irish predecessor, Maelduib, he encouraged and supported the nuns of the double monastery of Barking. He had a prodigious literary output and wrote poems in the vernacular as well as in Latin but these have not survived. He wrote both a Latin prose and verse treatise on virginity for the benefit of the nuns and in the prose version he compares the nuns' community life of celibacy and hard work under an abbess to bees in a hive under their queen. He mentions their studies, which were not only biblical but included ancient law. history, rules of allegory (for interpreting the scriptures), grammar, spelling, punctuation and metre (for composing verses in Latin). The list is reminiscent of Bede's educational works, listed at the end of the Ecclesiastical History and suggests that the nuns of Barking were expected to follow a curriculum similar to that of the monks at Wearmouth and Jarrow, a side of nuns' lives that Bede does not emphasize.

There is further evidence in the fascinating correspondence of Boniface with his relative, friend and missionary colleague Lioba (Leofgyth), j nun from the double monastery of Wim-borne in Wessex, several of v/hose nuns wrote to him for advice and received replies. Lioba sent him for criticism a few Latin hexameters she had composed, having learned the skill from her abbess Eadburga who, wrote Leoba, 'never ceases to put the Divine Law into verse'.

The relationship between Lioba and Boniface is a further corrective to Bede's non-intellectualist accounts of female saints. It was to Lioba that Boniface entrusted his German missionary work in the case of his death and asked for her to be buried in his own tomb. An early life of her by Rudolph, a monk of Boniface's monastery Fulda in Hesse, where he and Lioba were both eventually buried, touchingly tells how he was martyred, as he expected and perhaps hoped, by pagan Frisians and how she was later buried next to him, though not allowed to be placed in the same tomb as he had wished.

The independence of these abbesses should not, however, be exaggerated. Another letter in the Boniface correspondence shows that they could suffer if they were not royal and lacked a powerful male kinsman. Eangyth, probably abbess of a double monastery in Wessex, writes sadly to him complaining of the burdens of her office, telling him that enemies have accused her and her daughter to the king and queen (probably of Wessex) and emphasizes that they have no male relative to protect them. Their proposed solution was to go on pilgrimage to Rome. The dangers of such a journey for women are pointed out by Boniface in another letter. However, Eangyth may have been less well connected than most abbesses and the balance of advantages for upper-class women in both education and status is definitely in favour of the double monasteries and their abbesses.

In spite of Bede's reticence about their talents, there is little evidence that the abbesses were not approved of by English bishops and the abbots of the contemporary male monasteries. They were not, however, normal in Roman monasticism. Theodore of Tarsus, on his arrival as archbishop of Canterbury in 672, expressed disapproval of the system but decided to allow it to continue since it was the custom of the country. Bede condemns Aebba's monastery at Colding-ham for immorality. His poem on Aethelthryth's virginity is indicative of his attitude, which, as Hollis shows, was to become general. By the end of the ninth century the double institutions had mostly disappeared. Danish invasions and destruction of the monasteries may have played a part, but the disapproval of Rome must have been the major factor, since they were not refounded.

Often, however, the cults of their saintly founders survived the Norman conquest and are seen in churches named, for example, after St Frideswide in Oxford, St Werburg, daughter of Wulfhere, King of Mercia, surprisingly at Hoo in Kent as well as Weedon in Northamptonshire, and the cult of St Cyneburg, Wulfhere's sister, at Peterborough. Evidently the church under Norman government wished to show continuity with its Saxon antecedents: often the saints' relics were quarrelled over and sometimes moved to bring their cult-power to a different monastery or locality.

The hostility of Rome was inevitable. The church, with its patristic heritage of disapproval of the sexuality of women from Eve onwards, was destined to clash with an institution which allowed such a high degree of equality to the women within it. Later, the Norman Conquest brought contact with Rome closer and diminished the control of property by women through the changes introduced in Anglo-Norman law. A comparable change had taken place in Francia with the replacement of Merovingian by Carolingian law-codes.

So it is unfortunately true that, to adapt a Marxist theory, the double monasteries contained within themselves the seeds of their own destruction in the contradiction implicit in a community of men and women under the rule of a woman. They were perhaps more easily tolerated in Anglo-Saxon England because of the high social position of their abbesses compared with that of many monks and the more numerous because of the frequency of wars between the several kingdoms. Frequent casualties among rulers and their kin created royal widows and a need to provide suitably for them and their female dependents. But it is evident that they were contrary to the mainstream of monastic development and inevitably they declined.

But while it lasted, this unique system educated many women and enabled their abbesses to hold positions of responsibility and power unattained by women before this century. Even now, women heads of mixed educational establishments are few - and those combining such positions with public achievements even fewer.

Barbara Mitchell is an Emeritus Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford.

Further reading: 
  • Bede, A History of the English Church and People (Penguin, 1984)
  • B. Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynor, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford, 1969)
  • James Campbell (ed.), Anglo-Saxon England (Phaidon, 1982)
  • Pauline Stafford, The East Midlands in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester University Press, 1985)
  • S.J. Ridyard, The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England: A study of West Saxon and East Anglian Cults (Cambridge University Press, 1988)
  • D.W. Rollason, Saints and Relics in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford University Press, 1989)
  • Stephanie Hollis, Anglo-Saxon Women and the Church: Sharing a Common Fate (The Boydell Press, 1992)
Historical dictionary: Anglo-Saxons


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