Women in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

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Women in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and related texts, to 1080

A dissertation submitted to The University of Manchester for the degree of Master of Arts in the Faculty of Humanities


Sandra Jayne Bracegirdle

School of Arts, Histories and Culture



Abstract 2

Declaration 3

Acknowledgements 4
Introduction 5

1. The ‘common-stock’ of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 8

2. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from 892 to 1080 22

3. Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Æthelweard’s Chronicon 32

4. Conclusion 46
Appendices: References to individual women in the texts

A. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, to 1080 50

B. Asser’s Life of King Alfred 51

C. Æthelweard’s Chronicon 52

Bibliography 53

1. Circumstances in which women are mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon 13

Chronicle, to 1080

2. Number of women in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by version 23

3. Proportion of women in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by version, as a 23

percentage of the total population named

4. Proportion of women in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by date, as a 30

percentage of the total population named

Word count: 14,825


This thesis provides an analysis of gender in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and related documents to 1080. Women have a low profile in the historical narratives of the period and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is no exception. Only 8% of individuals in the ‘common-stock’ are women, a figure which is comparable to similar texts and also follows in the Biblical tradition. The women who are recorded are virtually all royal and the majority of references are for their marriages and kinship links. Other roles thought worthy of recording are, in decreasing order; actions by women; death, burial or translation; actions done to women; abbesses and other religious women; rulers; birth and baptism. It is also established that high-status women of the time were likely to have been aware of the contents of the Chronicle.

After 892 the Chronicle continues in seven different versions with varying monastic, political and geographic influences which are reflected in the references to women. The number and proportion of women varies over the centuries, with the ninth-century containing the lowest number, reflecting the nature of the sources available to the authors of the ‘common-stock’. As the Chronicle becomes a record of events in more recent memory the number of references rises significantly, suggesting that women had a higher prominence in oral history.
Sections of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were also incorporated into two Latin texts, Asser’s Life of King Alfred written in 893 and Æthelweard’s late tenth-century Chronicon. These two texts show that non-annalistic sources have an increased number of references to women. They also give insights into contemporary debates, such as the role of queens, and show the importance of family connections across many generations to both women and men.

I declare that no portion of the work referred to in this dissertation has been submitted in support of an application for another degree or qualification of this or any other university or other institute of learning.


I would like to thank Professor Nick Higham for his advice and comments throughout the writing of this dissertation. I would also like to thank my husband Mike and my family, as well as colleagues at John Rylands University Library, for their help and support.

The increasing interest in early medieval women evident since the late nineteenth century has been closely related to modern women’s involvement in political and academic life, a link between the influences of contemporary society and the focus of historical research which Reuter sees as inevitable.1 Thus the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw studies in women’s rights, particularly comparisons between Anglo-Saxon and Norman women in law codes, reflecting the suffrage movement of the period.2 The 1960s saw a significant growth in studies of the history of women and the family, influenced by feminist, literary and anthropological studies leading to an increasing emphasis on the lives of ‘ordinary’ medieval women. More recent historians of early medieval women have focused primarily on the roles of royal and aristocratic women, and particularly of queens and religious women, reflecting the nature of the sources.3 Increasingly, historians have moved from specifically women’s history towards a history of gender, defined as “the social and cultural construction of sex differences”.4 It is in this context that the present study will provide an analysis of gender across the whole of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and two closely related texts, Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Æthelweard’s Chronicon.
References to women in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and its related texts have been used by historians of women in a number of ways, but primarily in debates on the role of women as queens and king’s wives and their influence on power struggles and succession crises.5 However there has not been an analysis of gender in the whole of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, despite its position as the core historical source for the Anglo-Saxon period. Thus erroneous conclusions have been drawn, for example in a recent article Stafford states that Eadburh of Mercia is the only woman mentioned in the Chronicle between 737 and 853, whereas in fact four other women are recorded.6 An investigation of all the women in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle will allow us to explore not only the history of women during this time but also the cultural and social context of the Chronicle. As Foot points out, “if collections of annal entries are read not as discrete statements located only in time, but as unitary and coherent wholes, they can be shown to constitute more sophisticated analyses of the past conveying a larger meaning than has previously been recognised”.7
In the whole of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle there are a total of 93 references to 77 individual women, from Ricule in 604 to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152. This study will cover the period to 1080, in which 63 women are mentioned. After 1080 only one version of the Chronicle, Version E, continues and it operates in a very different political climate from the rest of the Chronicle. This study will also look at Asser’s ninth-century Life of King Alfred and Æthelweard’s tenth-century Chronicon, both of which relied heavily on the Chronicle. They are particularly significant in this study as they give supplementary information on women who appear in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as providing new information on other women of the time. Two eleventh-century historical narratives have also proved fruitful for historians of queenship, the Encomium Emmae Regina and the Vita Eadwardi, which give a great deal of information on the power of eleventh-century queens and their involvement in politics.8 However they are both unrelated to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and are therefore outside the scope of this study.
Fentress and Wickham have pointed out that “only by regarding the ‘objective’ and the ‘subjective’ as indissoluble can we understand the relationship between the world as it empirically was, and the world as it was represented by writers”.9 Asser, Æthelweard and the writers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle had their own agendas and simply by making decisions on what to include and what not to include, and on how to describe an event, they made important political judgements. It is therefore important when analysing the Chronicle and related texts to look at why some information was included, and why some excluded, and whether a gendered perspective can shed light on these decisions and either support, or contest, current analyses. This thesis will therefore investigate whether a gendered perspective on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and related historical narratives, can give insights into the lives and roles of the women and men who lived in Anglo-Saxon England, and of the texts in which they are recorded.

1. The ‘common-stock’ of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is both a retrospective and occasionally contemporaneous description of events which has been described as a “complex web of interrelated manuscripts spanning two and a half centuries of composition and production”.10 The original part of the Chronicle, known as the ‘common-stock’, was instigated in the 890s during the reign of Alfred who placed great store by education and the pursuit of sapientia (wisdom).11 Alfred oversaw a large number of literary writings and translations, including translations of two historical narratives into Old English, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and Orosius’s Histories against the Pagans. The Chronicle was written in the vernacular, in all likelihood by one or more of the team of prolific translators and authors associated with Alfred’s court.12
Swanton describes the Chronicle as “the first continuous national history of any western people in their own language”;13 however there has been considerable debate on how broad this concept of a ‘people’ stretched. Some writers, such as Sawyer, perceive it as primarily a West Saxon document, thereby giving a West Saxon perspective on the history of the period.14 Davis believes this to be inevitable given how closely the production of the Chronicle was connected to Alfred, and goes as far as to call it “propaganda”.15 On the other hand Whitelock sees no evidence for this and she is followed by Keynes and Lapidge who see the West Saxon perspective as no more than would be expected given the origin of the Chronicle and point out that the chroniclers went to great effort to include a wide range of sources from outside Wessex.16 The sources used in the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle include the Bible, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, saints’ lives,17 regnal lists and genealogies.18 It is possible that the year by year structure Bede uses in book V, chapter 24 of his Ecclesiastical History set the prototype for the format of the Chronicle, particularly as this chapter was omitted from the Old English translation and much of the information incorporated into the Chronicle instead.19
There are a total of 354 individuals mentioned in the ‘common-stock’ yet only a small proportion of these are women, 28 in all, thus making a mere 8% of the total. Women were obviously not only 8% of the early medieval population, so this raises such questions as why were women generally thought to be so little worthy of comment to the original writers of the Chronicle and what was so significant about the women who were mentioned? An analysis of some of the sources and comparable historical documents shows that they are equally sparing in their references to women. In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History 10.6% of the individuals mentioned are women, in his annalistic book V, chapter 24 the proportion falls to 5.5%. The ninth-century Frankish Annals of St. Bertin has a mere 8.3% whereas the tenth-century Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae) contain only 2%. In the Bible 12.5% of the people named are women, although the Old Testament figure of 7.5% is closer to the 8% in the ‘common-stock’.20 The figures from these other documents are close enough to suggest that the writers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were, perhaps unconsciously, following an already established pattern of references to women in written sources. This was, therefore, a broader characteristic of monastic literary culture in the mid to late Anglo-Saxon period.
The annalists’ sources played a significant role in the selection of women who were recorded in the Chronicle and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History was a particularly important source for women’s history. There are only five women not recorded by Bede who appear in the Chronicle prior to 731, the date at which the Ecclesiastical History ends. These women were either members of the West Saxon royal house (Seaxburh, Æthelburh and Cwenburh), understandable in the context of the West Saxon origin of the Chronicle, or in the case of the Mercian princesses Cyneburh and Cyneswith particularly associated with the history of Peterborough Abbey and only appear in the Peterborough Version. After 731 there is a noticeable reduction in the references to women until the 850s (a time which would have been within relatively recent memory when the ‘common-stock’ was composed). There are only five women mentioned during this period and they are primarily West Saxon, reflecting the sources and interests of the authors.21 This emphasises both the importance of Bede and the reliance of the chroniclers on West Saxon sources and on memories of religious women presumably held within monastic circles. Women were also much more likely to be mentioned by role rather than name, as 11% of the women mentioned in the ‘common-stock’ are anonymous but only 2% of men. This supports Lees and Overing’s view that there was “no formal symbolic mechanism by which women are recalled, no consistent means by which they may be invoked”.22
The most striking theme which unites almost all the twenty-seven women who appear in the ‘common-stock’ is their royal blood, which is also reflective of other contemporary historical narratives such as the Annals of St. Bertin. The only undoubtedly non-royal women mentioned are St. Silvia (606) and the woman at Merton in whose company Cynewulf was found (755). The antecedents of Abbess Coelburh who died in 807 are not known, although it is thought that she was of high status.23 The reference to Gregory the Great’s mother Silvia reflects the particular interest in Gregory at the late ninth-century court, demonstrated by Alfred’s translation of his Pastoral Care. The woman at Merton, on the other hand, has no function in the historical narrative and acts mainly as a minor character to sustain a plot device in the saga-like story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard.
The focus of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is on the twin themes of family and war.24 One of the primary reasons for the low percentage of women in the Chronicle is the emphasis on war as it reduces women to a walk-on part in the story of battles and heroics. This is a common theme across all historical genres from Roman histories to modern Westerns where women primarily appear in the stories to provide romantic interest, as a catalyst for action, or to act as peacemakers. Very little romance can be found in the Chronicle, except perhaps in the episode at Merton, but women do appear as catalysts for action, for example the abandonment of Penda’s sister by Cenwalh (658) was seen as a provocative act. The role of women as peacemakers was much more common in the literature of the time; in Beowulf it is stated that “a queen should weave peace”,25 and in the Old English version of Genesis, Eve’s role is that of a peacemaker trying to persuade her husband to do God’s will.26
Thus women are excluded from the Chronicle partly because of the lack of sources in which they are recorded and also because of the emphasis on battles in much of the Chronicle. However when the focus moves to family, women are presented as having a prominent role to play in the disputes, alliances and relationships which were integral to the politics of the whole Anglo-Saxon period. The primary reason for women to appear in the Chronicle across all periods of writing is in relation to their marriages and kinship, amounting to 51 of the 93 references to women in the whole Chronicle, and 14 out of 34 within the ‘common-stock’ (See Figure 1). It can therefore be seen that women come to prominence in the Chronicle in providing the family connections which underpinned the Anglo-Saxon concept of kingship.
Figure 1: Circumstances in which women are mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, to 1080
Of the eight marriages mentioned in the ‘common-stock’, four of them seem to symbolise alliances between different kingdoms, such as the marriage of Ælfflæd of Mercia to King Æthelred of Northumbria in 794 which appears to reflect a symbolic legitimisation of a new regime. Æthelred had been competing for the throne of Northumbria with Osred whose death immediately precedes the reference to Ælfflæd and Æthelred’s marriage where, unusually in the Chronicle, the exact dates are recorded – Osred died on 14 September and the marriage took place on 29 September - suggesting cause and effect. The three other marriage alliances recorded in the Chronicle are more likely to have contemporary resonance to the compilers of the ‘common-stock’ and their audience. These were two alliances of the West Saxons with Mercia in the case of the marriages of Eadburh of Mercia with Beorhtric, king of Wessex (789) and Æthelswith of Wessex with Burhred, king of Mercia (853). The West Saxons also formed an alliance with the Franks, cemented by the marriage of King Æthelwulf to Judith, daughter of Charles the Bald (855). The marriages of Æthelswith and Judith took place within two years of each other and seem to indicate a deliberate policy by King Æthelwulf to build up external alliances, especially significant in a climate of Viking attacks.27 In the Chronicle it is made clear that Æthelswith’s marriage is a political alliance as she is described as being given ‘of Wesseaxum on Merce’28 (from Wessex to Mercia).29
For Anglo-Saxon royal women marriage could bring either power or insecurity because of the personal and political dimensions to their unions. 30 In all of the marriages in the Chronicle women were acting as ‘gifts’, and thus “like all gifts, she represented the giver to the receiver, acting as a constant reminder of friendship – or enmity”.31 Thus women were not only important in creating and sustaining alliances but they could also act as a catalyst for the breaking of an alliance, as happened to Penda’s unnamed sister in 658 when ‘hæfde hine Penda adrefedne 7 rices benumene forþan þet he his swustor forlet32 (Penda had driven him [Cenwalh] out and deprived him of his kingdom because he deserted his sister). It is possible that Cenwalh was trying to assert his own authority against the more powerful Penda and broke with his Mercian wife as a result and the fact that he took refuge in East Anglia, whose kings fought Penda on several occasions, would seem to sustain this interpretation. A second factor which could have influenced the break with Mercia was Cenwalh’s conversion to Christianity which occurred the following year, and it is possible that this move was in his mind and he wished to break with his pagan wife. However, whatever the cause, this break proved to be a political mistake for Cenwalh who spent the following three years in exile.
Another unfortunate relationship mentioned in the ‘common-stock’ is the story of Eadbald who scandalously married his step-mother in 616. This was a story which would have resonance with a ninth-century audience familiar with the more recent marital history of Judith of the Franks, although, perhaps significantly, none of the versions of the Chronicle mention Judith’s second marriage to her step-son, King Æthelbald. In Eadbald’s case the principle of marriage to a step-mother is specifically associated with unchristian behaviour in the text; ‘se forlet his fulluht 7 leouode on hæðenum þeawe, swa þæt he hæfde his fæder laue to wiue’33 (he abandoned his baptismal faith and lived by heathen customs, so that he had his father’s widow as his wife) and Judith’s remarriage was certainly disapproved of by some sections of the Church, as can be seen by Asser’s condemnation of the marriage.34 The reference to Eadbald’s marriage could therefore have been an implied criticism of more recent events and in particular Alfred’s brother Æthelbald.
Women are also important to the Chronicle authors in providing the evidence of genealogical links and thereby validating current relationships.35 This can be seen from the emphasis Æthelweard gives to family relationships in the introduction to his version of the Chronicle when he says ‘ergo prosapia de moderna et de iteratione propinquitatis nostrae in praesenti epistola sine nexilitate exorno, qui et quomodo et unde propinqui, in quantum memoria nostra argumentatur, et sicut docuere parentes’36 (therefore in the present epistle I dwell in plain style upon our family in modern times and upon the re-affirmation of our relationship, so far as our memory provides proof, and as our parents taught us). Women are mentioned six times in the ‘common-stock’ providing genealogical links in addition to the seven marriages referred to above. A typical example is from 604 when king Særberht is described as ‘Ricolan sunu Æðelberhtes swyster37 (the son of Ricule, Ethelbert’s sister).
There is a unique reference in the Chronicle to the birth and baptism of a girl, Eanflæd of Northumbria, which occurred in 626. This is the only female birth mentioned in the Chronicle at a time when birth dates were generally unremarked; for example there is no record of the exact date of Alfred’s birth. Eanflæd’s birth was significant in that it was part of the history of the conversion of King Edwin by Paulinus as ‘þa gehet se cining Pauline þet he wolde his dhoter gesyllan Gode gif he wolde abiddan æt Gode þet he moste his feond afyllan, þe þone scaðan þider ær sende38 (then the king promised Paulinus that he would give his daughter to God, if he would by his prayers obtain from God that he might destroy his enemy who had sent the assassin thither). Edwin was successful and Eanflæd was therefore baptised at Pentecost. It is perhaps also significant that Edwin waited twelve months before being baptised himself when, in a period of high mortality, Eanflæd’s continued existence, under the protection of God, could also act as a test case for the new religion.
Death dates were regarded as much more significant than birth dates in the historical narratives as this is when a person went on to the afterlife to meet God. The deaths of both men and women are frequently used as an annalistic entry, partly acting as a device to aid memory.39 The deaths of five women are mentioned prior to 892, the royal Æthelswith and Osthryth, the royal and religious Æthelthryth and Hild, and the high-status Abbess Coelburh. The very fact of recording their deaths shows the importance given to these women and it is implied that the route to fame for women was either through the royal and political sphere or through the religious world, and also that these two aspects were by no means mutually exclusive. Religious women are prominent throughout the Chronicle and in the ‘common-stock’ there are two references to female founders of monasteries, Æthelthryth at Ely and Cuthburh at Wimborne. Cuthburh had been married to Aldfrith, king of Northumbrians and in 718 ‘hi be him lifgendum gedældon’40 (they separated during their lifetime). Abandoning marriage for the cloister was something which Bishop Aldhelm, author of De virginitate, wrote approvingly of, and it is possible that Cuthburh was one of the women he had in mind. 41 This is in parallel with Æthelthryth’s life who, as Bede relates, remained a virgin through two marriages and it is therefore perhaps significant that they are both mentioned in the context of abbey foundations.
There was a close relationship between the nunneries and royal families, indeed as Stafford says “nunneries must have been full of the daughters of the best people”.42

In their roles as abbesses women could keep the land given to the Church under the control of the dynasty and continue to look to the family’s interests in the religious sphere.43 In the same way as marriage could unite two warring factions, so too could women have a peacemaking role through intercession with God. The dynasty also gained prestige from this arrangement and the women themselves had a role with status and power. Abbesses were considered to have equal status with both their male counterparts and also with queens. 44 Eorcengota of Kent and her mother Seaxburh are both royal abbesses who appear in the ‘common-stock’ and it is notable that although their holiness is recorded it is their significance as daughters of a king which is emphasised in the Chronicle.

The Anglo-Saxon political system “was a structure relying on persuasion, negotiation, and compromise as much as on institutions”45 and this gave women the chance to influence political events without necessarily having a formal role, in fact the ninth century author Sedulius Scottus actively encouraged royal men to take heed of women’s counsel.46 The evidence from the ‘common-stock’ shows women taking positive actions, having an impact on events and achieving success on their own account in the public sphere. Although these actions are not nearly as numerous as the actions by men, many are of the same type, for example Osthryth made grants (675), Peada was betrayed by his wife Ealhflæd of Northumbria (654), women travelled to Rome, as Frithugyth did in 737 and Æthelswith in 888. Æthelswith was even given a role as ambassador in her mission, taking alms on behalf of the West Saxons and her brother King Alfred. Cyneswith and Cyneburh reportedly acted as advisors to their brother Æthelred (656) and granted land in conjunction with Æthelred (675). The ‘common-stock’ also contains a reference to a woman who was a ruler of a kingdom; Seaxburh, the widow of Cenwalh, who ruled for one year 672-3. She was Cenwalh’s second wife, the first being the repudiated sister of Penda mentioned above. Another woman whose power to command is recorded is that of Æthelburh who ‘towearp Tantun’47 (demolished Taunton) in 722. Perhaps the examples of these two women in the Chronicle provided a role model for Æthelflæd, Alfred’s daughter, as a political ruler and commander of Mercian armies. These references, therefore, give some evidence for the participation of women in the political events of their day and for the influence they could have, as well as providing exemplars for women in the future.
The majority of women mentioned in the ‘common-stock’ were therefore royal and also politically important to either their families, to the Church or to both. The references to actions of women, to their deaths and their active role in religion all imply that their position as members of the royal family was of primary importance. Yorke points out that “women were not generally expected to take on the same roles as men and, in particular, to have a public role”48 but the evidence shows that the royal status of the women mentioned in the Chronicle over-rode other restrictions; as Nelson puts it “class sometimes transcended gender”.49
Having established for what reasons women appear in the ‘common-stock’ it is worth looking at whether the Chronicle had any relevance for them – did they in fact know what was written? Were they part of the audience? Scragg points out “everything that we know about the origin, use and transmission of the majority of surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts leads us to suppose that they were monastic”.50 However the fact that these manuscripts were transcribed and preserved by monasteries does not mean that they were necessarily written with a monastic audience solely in mind. The Chronicle was written in the West Saxon dialect and so would have been understood by women if read aloud in Court circles. Furthermore there is some evidence to suggest that at least some high-status women were literate and so could have read the Chronicle themselves. Nelson points out that literacy was a criteria which defined the Carolingian elite and that, although they couldn’t hold public office, women “claimed through literacy membership of the governing classes”.51 Contemporary Irish sources also show that education was available to at least some girls and women.52 Alfred regarded education as vital for all those in positions of power and this also seems to have included women. Asser in his Life of Alfred provides two examples of educated women; he describes how Alfred’s mother encouraged him to read and gave him a book of her own as a reward and how Alfred in turn provided for the education of his daughter Ælfflæd.53 Wormald goes as far as to say that “throughout much of the period women were often better educated than men. Laywomen are surprisingly prominent as the owners, dedicatees, even authors, of books, and as the decisive influence upon the education of their families”.54 He goes on to point out that although book ownership is sometimes mentioned by secular women in their wills this is never the case for secular men. Thus the evidence suggests that high-status women would have been able to access the Chronicle in similar ways to their male counterparts.

Sheppard regards the purpose of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as to provide “a coherent discourse of collective identity for the Angelcynn and for the annalists’ monastic institutions”.55 The recording of this dynastic history and tribal identity would have been as important to women in providing and proving status as to men. Thus the Chronicle established exemplars of good and bad behaviour from the past, a sense of unity and importance as a dynasty and a context for future behaviour applicable to both women and men. The evidence of the ‘common-stock’ shows that royal women were included in this sense of history and in the political culture, but to a significantly lesser extent than men, and for very particular reasons which were primarily in relation to family and religion.

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