Beyond the Warrior Queen
Medieval women wielded spiritual and political power in subtly effective ways.
This year’s 1,100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, has brought some welcome attention to the story of a powerful Anglo-Saxon woman. As a political and military leader, Æthelflæd is the kind of woman modern audiences are often surprised to find recorded in early medieval history. It would be encouraging if one effect of this anniversary were an increased awareness of the many different ways in which medieval women could be influential – in roles as culturally important, though perhaps less immediately appealing to modern sensibilities, as warrior queen.
One family of women who should be better known are celebrated in a group of texts collectively called the Kentish Royal Legend, an important source for the history of the early Anglo-Saxon church. This text deals with the history of Kent in the period when it was the richest and most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, focusing on the genealogical line of Æthelberht, the first Anglo-Saxon king to accept Christianity, and his wife Bertha.
It begins with Æthelberht’s baptism by St Augustine at the end of the sixth century, then follows the history of Æthelberht and Bertha’s descendants over several generations. In each generation it gives particular prominence to their female descendants, the women of the Kentish royal house, highlighting their role in the spread of Augustine’s mission during the first century of the English church.
The Kentish Royal Legend survives in a number of different versions, in Latin and Old English, and, although it has a complicated history, its ultimate origins may lie at the abbey of Minster-in-Thanet, the community whose foundation story is recorded in the text. It may be that the first version (which does not survive) was written by or for the nuns of Minster, perhaps in the middle of the eighth century, and the text’s focus on the women of the Kentish royal family makes this an appealing possibility.
It describes the life of Æthelberht’s daughter, Æthelburh, presenting her marriage to Edwin of Northumbria as instrumental in the conversion of Edwin’s kingdom and telling how Æthelburh founded a religious community at Lyminge in Kent. It also mentions Eanswythe, Æthelburh’s niece, who was believed to have been part of a similar community at Folkestone, as well as several other prominent women commemorated as religious leaders by the Anglo-Saxon church.
Most of all, it celebrates a woman named Domne Eafe, the founder of Minster Abbey. The text tells how Domne Eafe, the great-granddaughter of Æthelberht and Bertha, managed to obtain land for the foundation of her monastery from Ecgberht, king of Kent. Her two young brothers had been murdered by one of the king’s followers, so Ecgberht offered Domne Eafe restitution for their murder in the form of land. The Kentish Royal Legend describes how she managed to manoeuvre the king into giving her as much land as she wanted (and perhaps more than he intended) by persuading him to grant her all the lands which her pet deer could run around on the island of Thanet. She set the deer running and it followed the course of her will, marking out the ground for her abbey, which the king had to grant.
This story is, of course, not to be taken too literally, yet it is striking how the text presents Domne Eafe: it emphasises her mastery of the situation and her subtle but powerful control of both the king and the deer. In her skilful manipulation of the king, bringing good out of the evil of her brothers’ murder, she demonstrates the ability to wield what the Anglo-Saxons called ræd, the practical wisdom and good judgement which was deemed an essential quality of an effective ruler. This was apparently how the nuns of Minster Abbey chose to remember their founding mother.
Today we are still finding out new information about the women celebrated in the Kentish Royal Legend: recent archaeological investigations at Lyminge have radically changed our understanding of the importance of that settlement, while in Folkestone an ongoing project called Finding Eanswythe is aiming to uncover more about this little-known woman. But understanding the importance of early medieval women like these is often not just about literally uncovering new information, but also learning to recognise models of leadership – such as Domne Eafe’s inspired manoeuvring – unfamiliar to modern eyes. For the early readers of the Kentish Royal Legend, this clever abbess was one of a family of women whose spiritual and political influence, in successive generations, played a formative role in the establishment of the Anglo-Saxon church.
Eleanor Parker is Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford and writes a blog at aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk.