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.

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