Finding Women in Anglo-Saxon England

Written by Expert Contributor Annie Whitehead

With the study of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the writings of Bede, the Welsh and Irish annals, and the later Anglo-Norman chroniclers (many of whom had direct access to earlier documents), it is relatively easy to piece together the history of the kings of Anglo-Saxon England. 

But what of the women? Can we find anything? If we look at the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle we will find that from the entries in 672 until the arrival of Emma of Normandy in 1002, there are only a dozen or so women mentioned by name. Often we have an entry such as this one for 926: “Athelstan gave [Sihtric] his sister in marriage.”

Hmm. She was his sister, Athelstan was a king, so she was royal. Doesn’t she warrant a name-check? Who was she?

Athelstan’s father, Edward the Elder, had three wives by whom he had at least fourteen children. To discover the identity of the sister married to Sihtric, it’s probably easier to start at the end and work backwards. 

Edward the Elder

Edward had married his third wife, Eadgifu, by at least 920, because we know that their firstborn, a son, was born in 921. Eadgifu had another son by Edward, and two daughters, called Eadburh and Eadgifu. Eadburh became a nun at Winchester and the Anglo-Norman chronicler, William of Malmesbury, tells us that when she was just 3 years old her father, wishing to ascertain whether she would choose the religious life, laid out a chalice and the Gospels, and some bangles and necklaces. When little Eadburh was brought in by her nurse, she was told that she could choose what she wanted, whereupon she immediately crawled towards the Gospels and chalice. She joined the community of Nunnaminster at Winchester founded by her grandmother Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great. Of Eadgifu, Eadburh’s sister, less is known. But given that Edward died in 924, she must have been born no later than nine months after that, and no earlier than 920, which makes her rather too young to be the bride of Sihtric in 926.

We don’t know if Edward was a widower in 920 when he married Eadgifu, but we do know that his previous wife, Ælfflæd, bore him six daughters. Two – Eadflæd and Æthelhild – took the religious life, while the other four made prestigious marriages. Eadgifu (yes, it seems he had two daughters of the same name!) married Charles the Simple, king of the Franks, while Eadhild married a Frankish duke, Hugh the Great. The remaining two, Eadgyth and Ælfgifu, were, apparently, both sent to Germany so that the future emperor, Otto, could choose one of them as his bride. He married Eadgyth – it was, apparently, ‘love at first sight’ – and Ælfgifu married another prince, whose identity is the subject of some debate but nowhere is it suggested that he was Sihtric. 

Eadgifu

So it seems unlikely that the entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to any of Athelstan’s half-sisters and, indeed, William of Malmesbury claimed that the bride was a full sister of Athelstan’s.

Athelstan’s mother, Edward’s first wife, Ecgwynn, barely emerges from the shadows and is not mentioned by any of the contemporary sources. Some said she was a concubine, while others said she was a wife. Sometimes she was described as high-born and sometimes as being of lowly birth. But, either way, her status was important.

When Edward died, Athelstan ruled Mercia while his eldest half-brother, Ælfweard, succeeded in Wessex, dying a mere 16 days later. The statue of Edward’s sister, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, outside Tamworth Castle famously shows her with her arm round a small boy, her nephew Athelstan, who was, apparently, brought up by her in the Mercian court. There is no contemporary evidence for this; the assertion comes to us from William of Malmesbury. But why would Athelstan have been brought up in Mercia? 

Athelstan

Athelstan’s subsequent rule over Wessex was not universally approved. After Edward’s death, the opposition there claimed that Athelstan was an illegitimate son of a woman of low birth. There are hints that Athelstan’s half-brother, Edwin, was also part of this opposition and was exiled by Athelstan, put to sea in a boat from which he then plunged to a watery death. Added to the fact that Ælfweard had been designated king in Wessex initially, while Athelstan was given Mercia, it is hard to conclude anything other than that Athelstan’s mother, Ecgwynn was, regardless of her class, no more than a concubine and not a wife. 

However, William of Malmesbury also tells us that Athelstan had been adored by his grandfather, Alfred the Great, and that when he was a young boy he had been given by Alfred a ‘scarlet cloak, a belt studded with diamonds, and a Saxon sword with a golden scabbard’. William also said that Alfred ‘made him a knight’ which is anachronistic, since technically no such rank existed in pre-Conquest times, but if it signifies some sort of investiture, it would suggest that his royal status was somehow acknowledged by Alfred.

Is it possible that, for whatever reason, Ecgwynn was put aside when Edward married his second wife, and that she and her children returned to Mercia, possibly the land of her birth?

I say ‘children’ because we are told that aside from Athelstan, Ecgwynn also bore Edward a daughter, although her identity is far from clear. 

There is a saint, Edith of Polesworth, who was said by some to be the daughter of Edward the Elder, although not all sources agree. Indeed we cannot be sure that, even if Edith of Polesworth was a daughter of Edward’s, she was also the daughter of Ecgwynn and, in any case, how could this religious lady have been married to Sihtric?

Polesworth

Yet, the Anglo-Norman chronicler, Roger of Wendover, named her as Edith, the sister whom Athelstan married to Sihtric, the Norse king of the Northumbrians. He went on to relate that after Sihtric’s death (only a year after the wedding), and having preserved her virginity, Edith retired to the monastery at Polesworth, which was in Mercia. She was venerated as a saint and if she was, indeed, Athelstan’s full sister then her return to Mercia, rather than Wessex, might make sense on two counts: that she, like her brother, was brought up at the Mercian court and that their mother, Ecgwynn, might have been Mercian herself.

Not all historians agree about Edith of Polesworth’s identity (some even suggesting that she was, in fact, Eadgyth, daughter of Edward by his second wife, Ælfflæd, who married Otto), but these stories do on the whole draw us back to Mercia time and again. Polesworth, incidentally, is in modern-day Warwickshire, in the heart of what was Mercia. 

Having accounted for all the other known daughters of Edward it does seem, on balance, that the sister whom Athelstan married to Sihtric could well have been Edith of Polesworth, daughter of Ecgwynn. And the story serves to show how much information we can glean, if we take the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a starting point and do a bit of detective work.

Annie Whitehead

Expert Contributor

Annie Whitehead studied History under the eminent Medievalist Ann Williams. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an editor for EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors.) She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, including To Be A Queen, the story of  Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great. She writes nonfiction too and Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom was published by Amberley Books in 2018. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines, including winning the New Writer Magazine Prose Competition. She was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017. She has recently been a judge for that same competition, and for the HNS (Historical Novel Society) Short Story Competition. Her latest book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, is published by Pen & Sword Books.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: