Wednesday 26 July 2017

Women in the man's world of early Anglo-Saxon England Part 2: Abbess Hild

Following on from part one in which I discussed the role of an early 7th century, unnamed Queen of East Anglia, here's a look at another royal woman from the same era, but this time from further north in the kingdom of Northumbria. At least, on this occasion, we know her name: Hild.

Hild was born around the year 614 into the Deiran royal family (Northumbria, at that time, was made up 2 provinces, Bernicia and Deira with the latter being the southern half centred on the old Roman city of York). She was the second daughter of Hereric who was the nephew of Edwin and the grandson of King Aelle who had ruled Deira in the late 6th century.

Little is known of her immediate childhood, but at the time of her birth, much of the royal family was in exile as a result of incursions and eventual take over by the northern neighbours from Bernicia. Edwin, who would eventually become the king who would unify the two parts in 616 was in exile at this point in either Mercia or East Anglia (the latter being where he came into contact with the aforementioned unnamed queen who effectively saved his life, convincing her husband, Raedwald, not to turn Edwin over to his Bernician enemies).

Hild's father - Hereric - meanwhile, was in exile in the British kingdom of Elmet (based around the Leeds area) and it may have been here where she was born and spent her early years. While she was still a toddler, and before Edwin became king in 616, Hereric was poisoned at the royal court, probably at the behest of King Aethelfrith of Bernicia who - as well as pursuing Edwin - was apparently on a mission to wipe out the entire Deiran royal family to prevent any future threat to his rule.

With Aethelfrith's death at the battle of the River Idle in 616, however, Edwin was able to become king of Northumbria. Though it's not mentioned explicitly, he must have called for the return of Hereric's family from exile in Elmet. We are told that one of Edwin's first actions as king was to annex Elmet and banish its king in recompense for the murder of his nephew. It is most likely as a result of this event that Hild and her mother (Breguswith) and sister (Hereswith) returned to Edwin's court.

The only other event we know from Hild's childhood came in c.627 when her great uncle, Edwin, converted to Christianity. We are told in Bede's Ecclesiastical History that Edwin was baptised in York on Easter Day along with his whole court in a small wooden church which had been hastily built for the occasion. Included amongst those baptised on the day were Breguswith and her two daughters; Hild would have been around 13 or 14 at the time.

Sometime soon after this, Hild's sister, Hereswith, was sent to East Anglia to marry Aethelric, brother of King Anna. During this period the common fate of the sisters, daughters, nieces, etc. of kings was to be used as pawns in sealing alliances with other kingdoms and that was very much the case here. How Hild avoided a similar fate is not known, but the next time we meet her is when she also travelled to East Anglia with the intention of joining her sister in becoming a nun (which seems to be the other main pastime for royal womenfolk). The assumption is that Hereswith's husband had died and, rather than be remarried, she had decided to enter a convent. The only problem, however, was that there were no nunneries in East Anglia (being very early in that kingdom's christian development). Hereswith therefore made her way to Chelles Abbey in France, again presumably making use of familial connections (Edwin's wife, Aethelburh, had been a Frankish princess).

Instead of completing the journey to France, however, Hild was called back to Northumbria by Bishop Aidan who gave her a small grant of land on the north bank of the River Wear to 'live as a nun'. She stayed here for a year, learning the ropes of Celtic monasticism, before being appointed Abbess of Hartlepool only a year later. Being a part of the royal family clearly had its benefits, either that or she had been involved in the church for some years already, without it being recorded. Perhaps both are true.

Her reputation as a woman of wisdom, energy and leadership grew during this time to such an extent that she was rewarded, in 657, with the offer to found her own abbey at Whitby (then known as Streonashalch) and she would remain there until her death in 680. It was a double-foundation in that it housed both men and women in separate houses, who then came together to worship in a single church.

Bede tells us that such was her wisdom she was often consulted by various kings and princes hoping to gain her advice on various weighty matters. She was known by all as 'mother' due to her outstanding grace and devotion. It was no doubt due to this stellar reputation that King Oswiu of Northumbria chose her Abbey as the location of his hugely important Synod of Whitby in 664. Churchmen and officials from as far away as Wessex came to debate the big issue of the day which was the correct calculation of the date of Easter. Sounds fascinating, right? The tickets to that one must have sold out in minutes.

Whatever we might think now, however, this was a big deal at the time. Due to the different traditions of the Roman and Ionan (i.e. from the Isle of Iona in Scotland) churches, Easter had been known to be celebrated on two separate weekends. This was because Oswiu had grown up in exile in Iona and had thus adopted the christian teachings of the monks there, whereas his queen, Eanfled, was from Edwin's side of the kingdom who had been converted by the Roman missionaries sent to England by Pope Gregory in 597. It was an intolerable situation to have the King and Queen observing Easter on different days. Behind the scenes, no doubt, a big political move was playing out here as the two sides manoeuvred for control over the church in what was the most powerful kingdom in England at the time, with its over-lordship of most of the rest of the kingdoms.

To boil the long and tedious arguments down to something that is palatable for this blog, the Ionans argued that they were right because they followed the teachings of the most holy Columba who had himself followed those of St John the apostle. The Romans, in the shape of Wilfrid (who is a very interesting character in his own right - I must cover him in a future blog), argued that everyone else in the Christian world followed the Roman practice favoured by the apostles Peter and Paul, and that Peter - as the original Bishop of Rome and keeper of the keys to the kingdom of heaven - trumped everyone else.

At this point, Oswiu showed his penchant for pragmatism in bringing matters to a close. It was late and he was no doubt gagging for a pint to clear his head. It had been a long day full of detailed and complex arguments, much of which he might have struggled to understand, but he had heard of St Peter and this gave him his opportunity to make a ruling. On hearing confirmation from both sides that St Peter did indeed hold the keys to heaven, he must have pushed his chair back and standing, declared "That's the very fellow for me - if he's the man that decides whether I can get into heaven, I for one will not be pissing him off." (Ok - I paraphrase what he may have actually said but I'm sure it was along these lines). And so the decision was made to adopt the Roman tradition.

The decision put some of the Ionan adherents' noses out of joint and they left Northumbria for Iona in a bit of a huff. Hild, however, despite having followed Ionan tradition up until then demonstrated yet again her leadership quality by going with the flow, falling in line with the king's decision. She was therefore to remain Abbess of Whitby for a further 16 years until her death. Whereas a number of men took their ball home, unable to compromise, Hild recognised that there were bigger battles to fight in the continuing development of the nascent christian religion in the English kingdoms of the 7th century. Deciding on the date of Easter and how monks were to cut their hair (yes - that was another issue on the agenda) were not that big a deal for her.

Sunday 2 July 2017

Women - breaking into the man's world of Anglo-Saxon England - Part 1

Much of the post-Roman, pre-Conquest history of England is written, rather unsurprisingly, from the perspective of men. It is written by men, for men and mostly about men - and usually the most prominent of men: the kings and bishops of the day. Women are largely incidental, coming into the story mainly when they form part of the above narrative rather than as characters of interest in their own right.

One such character is the wife of King Raedwald, the king of the East Angles who ruled from c.599 to c.624 and who, for many, may well be the king who was buried under Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, where one of the most significant archaeological finds in this country occurred back in 1939.

We know about Raedwald's wife from the monk, Bede, who wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in the first half of the eighth century. So incidental was she, that he didn't even see fit to name her; though perhaps, through no fault of his own, he didn't even know her name. But the details he did provide about her, as part of the wider story of his hero, Edwin, first Christian King of his own land of Northumbria, offer a fascinating insight into the role of the royal spouse and give an indication of the power she may have wielded - albeit in the shadow of her husband.

The first time she appears in the historical record relates to the early days of the Christian conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms by the monks sent from Rome by Pope Gregory at the beginning of the seventh century. During the early days of the mission, it was touch and go whether they would succeed. They were wholly dependent on the king for hospitality and freedom to worship/preach, but if they could convert the king then there was a fair chance the rest of the kingdom would follow suit as the ruler was pivotal in deciding the direction for their kingdom in all things. Equally, however, if the king could not be persuaded to abandon the Gods of their forefathers, so too might the monks have to abandon their work.

The first monks came to Kent in 597. Why Kent? Perhaps they thought that they would be well received as the King's (Aethelberht) wife was a Frankish princess called Bertha who was already a Christian. Straight away we see the monks hoping to use the wife's influence over her husband to help their cause. Her influence may well have been enough to persuade Aethelberht to allow the monks to stay and even to allocate them some land in Canterbury on which to found their first church. Even so it was not all plain sailing; when the king first met the monks on the Isle of Thanet, he insisted on meeting them outdoors, for fear he might succumb to the monks' magic indoors.

Kent was also a good choice because Aethelberht was, at that time, the most powerful ruler in the Anglo-Saxon domains; Bretwalda (or Britain-ruler) as the title was styled. Without the king's support and influence, the fledgling religion could well have floundered and died. But with him on board, so the new church had the necessary support to grown and succeed. Indeed, not long after his own conversion, Aethelberht stood as sponsor (and Godfather) in the conversion of his neighbouring king, Raedwald of East Anglia. Whether Raedwald was a willing convert is the stuff of conjecture; most likely it was a matter of political expediency as it didn't pay to snub the wishes of your overlord.

However, once back in his native East Anglia, we are told that all did not go smoothly when it came to trying to sell the new religion to his nobles, key advisers and, indeed, to his wife. Bede tells us that, ' on his return, he was led astray by his wife and by certain wrong-headed teachers who undermined his faith, so that his last state was worse than his first'.

To me this feels a little unfair; who's to say that Raedwald needed much persuading? For him to abandon his faith and that of his people cannot have been an easy decision. Away from Aethelberht's court, perhaps he did waver and, being reminded of his duty as king to his people, perhaps he did succumb to the entreaties of his wife and his council of nobles. The position of the king and his wife in pagan lands was all important; their fertility in producing children to take the dynasty forward was linked to the fertility of the land in providing succour to the people who depended on it for survival as well as their livelihood. Doubtless the queen was unable to reconcile herself with the thought of breaking with tradition and putting at risk the fertility of the land.

However, rather than completely turn his back on this new God, Raedwald chose a compromise. In the pagan temple near to the royal hall at Rendlesham, he established an altar to the Christian God next to the existing altar to the old Gods. To Bede, the monk, this was a reprehensible act, but to the king it probably represented the best of both worlds. He could be true to his promise to Aethelberht and at the same time keep faith with his people. What, after all, was one more God to worship amongst the many he already had?

The next time Raedwald's queen comes to our attention is with the story of how Edwin came to the throne of Northumbria. As a young man, Edwin had to flee from his homeland to avoid being killed - as his father had been - by Aethelfrith, the warlike king from the northern half of the land, Bernicia. His exile had taken him from North Wales to Mercia and finally to East Anglia, pursued by war and diplomacy all the time.

When Aethelfrith discovered that Edwin had taken refuge at Raedwald's court, he sent emissaries with offers of riches to bribe the king to give up or to kill his guest. Raedwald refused at first, which resulted in further, improved bribes accompanied by threats of war if he refused. Although Raedwald had succeeded Aethelberht as Bretwalda, on the latter's death in 616, he was still wary of the reputation of the northern warlord, fearsome as it was. So it was that the king finally yielded to pressure and promised to kill Edwin or to hand him over to Aethelfrith.

Before this could happen, however, in steps the queen once more to play a key role. The predicament for Bede, however, is that this time the part she plays is - to his mind - honourable and effectively saves the life of his Christian hero-king, Edwin. And yet the reason that she takes this path is deeply ingrained in her pagan upbringing, a fact which Bede chooses to brush over, somewhat conveniently.

When Raedwald confided in his wife what he planned to do to Edwin she must have really laid into him. How could he, as so great a king, exploit the misfortune of his friend and sell him for gold? How could he so readily lose his honour for the love of money? The promise of hospitality was of huge importance and so to willingly hand Edwin over to his enemies would have destroyed the king's reputation for ever. Better to die in battle defending his guest, she must have said, rather than be callow and surrender him for a purse of gold coins.

Raedwald did what many of us would have done; he saw that his wife was right and changed his mind. He assembled his army and advanced against Aethelfrith, killing him at the battle on the River Idle (in c.616), taking him by surprise before he was able to assemble his whole host. Edwin was duly crowned king of Northumbria and eventually succeeded Raedwald as Bretwalda on his death in c.626.

As an interesting footnote, there is a theory put forward by Norman Scarfe, that the 37 gold coins found in the purse in the Sutton Hoo ship burial might just be part of the bribe that Raedwald received from Aethelfrith. In one final act to keep her husband's honour, it is not inconceivable that the queen buried the money with him to show the gods that the bribe had not been spent. His reputation was intact.

Alongside the gold, the various christian artefacts (the silver bowls and the twin Saul/Paul inscribed spoons for example) may well, by the same token, be the baptismal gifts from Aethelberht. As Raedwald died, so the kingdom reverted to paganism for a number of years and so, perhaps his queen sought to bury all signs of the new faith with her husband too.

Though we can only see a whisper of her, what evidence there is marks her out as a formidable woman, almost, if not actually, the equal of her husband and able to exert significant influence over his actions and his beliefs.