Often lost behind stories of kings, queens, bishops and saints, what was life like for an Anglo-Saxon woman below the upper ranks of society?
Compared with the spectacle of the great and glamorous manuscripts that came out of Anglo-Saxon England, a small, stained sheet of parchment is easily passed over. But one is of unique importance. It is the earliest surviving woman’s will in British history; a document that, for the first time, opens us a window on the life of an Anglo-Saxon woman below the ranks of royalty.
In the 940s, a Dorset woman called Wynflæd perhaps sat down with her local priest and drew up her will. In it, she divided her possessions between her children and grandchildren, friends and servants.
Wynflæd had grown up in the bleak winters of the 910s, when big freezes and bad harvests were made more miserable by Viking raids. She had perhaps married in the dramatic period when the kingdom of England was created in the 920s and it is possible that her husband had died fighting in the campaigns in the north in the 930s or 940s. During the Viking Age many men died, leaving behind unmarried women and widows. More than a dozen grants survive from this time, when kings gifted land to religious women, providing them with property and income to help them follow a religious life not in nunneries (of which there were only a handful) but in their own households, perhaps after a vow of chastity. Before the great monastic reform of the later tenth century, such women were an important and still little-known feature of the revival of religious life in England. It is in such a setting that it is possible to imagine Wynflæd.