Two Abbesses, Two Synods: The Story of Hild and Ælfflæd.

Here at HISTORY LAIR we are super excited to host our very first Book Tour! Today we introduce to you an amazing new book by our very own Expert Contributor, Annie Whitehead, and it’s called Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. Here is a wonderful article by Annie to give you a brief glimpse into the world of her book. Annie’s book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, was published by Pen & Sword Books in June 2020. It can be purchased from P&S ( and online ( Annie is an author and historian and an elected member of the Royal Historical Society and has won awards and prizes for her fiction and nonfiction. Let’s turn it over to Annie to tell us more! —

Written by Annie Whitehead The oft-quoted ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ seems to suggest that in such an establishment there will be piety, chastity, and quiet contemplation. All these are true, but perhaps our idea of a nunnery is of a slightly austere building or buildings, where holy sisters spend their days in prayer and hard work. This is also true, but in the seventh century there was much more going on at the nunneries than one might imagine.

In fact, at first glance, it seems to have been very different indeed. An Irish abbot of Iona visited Coldingham Abbey where, according to Bede, he found the members of the community, men and women alike, sunk in slothful slumbers or else ‘they remained awake for the purposes of sin. The cells which were built for praying and for reading were haunts of feasting, drinking, gossip, and other delights; even the virgins who were dedicated to God put aside all respect for their profession and, whenever they had leisure, spent their time weaving elaborate garments with which to adorn themselves as if they were brides.’ Gosh!

Hilda of Whitby

Perhaps it should first be explained that there was nothing unusual about there being men and women at Coldingham as it was one of a number of ‘Double Houses’. Contact between the two sexes in the double monasteries probably varied widely. We know, for example, that the two houses at Wimborne in Dorset were separated by high walls, while at Coldingham, it seems, conditions were relaxed to the point where it created scandal. Evidence suggests that at Whitby, there was a ‘bigger minster’ with other buildings and outlying areas which might equate to the later granges. It is probable that in fact the earlier princess-abbesses all ruled double houses, rather than all-female communities.

And princess-abbesses is almost exclusively what they were. Abbesses were royal, they were powerful, and they were influential. Two in particular attended major synods and influenced policy. They were related, too, and were members of the ruling house of Northumbria.

One of the most famous, and indeed one of the earliest, of those abbesses was Hild. Whitby was her monastery, and it was into her care that the infant Ælfflæd, daughter of King Oswiu and his wife, Eanflæd, was given when she was promised to the Church after a major battle in which her father was victorious.

Hild’s mother was said to have had a dream in which she was searching for her missing husband, but could find no trace of him. In the middle of her search, however, she found a necklace under her garment and, as she looked at it, the necklace spread a blaze of light and the dream, Bede concluded, ‘was truly fulfilled in her daughter Hild; for her life was an example of the works of light, blessed not only to herself but to many who desired to live uprightly.’


Hild’s path to the religious life was originally to have taken her abroad, where her sister had gone to be a nun, but she was persuaded by Bishop Aidan to found the monastery at Hartlepool. In this she broke the tradition of English noblewomen going abroad to fulfil their religious vocations. It was at Hartlepool that she took custody of the infant Ælfflæd, but two years later Hild founded the monastery of Streaneshealh on land which King Oswiu had gifted to the Church. It has usually been identified as Whitby.

We learn much about Hild from Bede, including the fact that she was so beloved by all that they called her ‘mother’, but not whether she was ever married before taking the veil. He says that she was thirty-three when she became a nun. He does not call her a virgin, but then neither does he tell us of any husband. What we are told, however, is that she was highly educated and influential. No fewer than five future bishops are said to have been educated by her and the likelihood is that she assembled a vast library at Whitby. Styli and book-clasps found during excavations show that a great deal of writing was undertaken there. Excavation at Whitby also revealed that far from being a small site, consisting of a few cells, it was in fact a major settlement and it was the venue for the synod in 664 which decided once and for all which of the Christian traditions would take precedence and settled the calculation method for the date of Easter.

Whitby Abbey #1 by David Satterthwaite

The synod was convened and presided over by King Oswiu. Also in the Roman camp were Wilfrid, the bishop who had been sponsored by Queen Eanflæd and educated by Hild, and Queen Eanflæd, who sent her chaplain, Romanus, as her representative. Oddly, Hild was in the other camp, along with Colman, the bishop of Lindisfarne, despite her having been brought up in the Roman tradition, and she was particularly hostile towards Bishop Wilfrid, apparently attacking him with ‘venomous hatred’. There might, of course, have been some personal animosity which went unrecorded. Wilfrid certainly had the ability to rub people up the wrong way.

Hild survived for many years after the synod but was struck down ten years later by the illness which eventually killed her. Bede tells us that she died at the age of sixty-six – having been in pain for several years – so she spent exactly half her life as a nun.

She was also known for her encouragement of Cædmon the poet. Despite having received no formal training he was able to compose religious songs and poems. One night while he was tending the cattle he dreamed that someone was standing by him, telling him to sing, which he did, in praise of God. The next day he told his master the reeve of the gift he had received, and together they went to Abbess Hild who received him into the holy community. In the earliest days of the conversion process it is perhaps astonishing that it was Hild, a woman, who was responsible for the education of bishops. Her sympathetic encouragement of Cædmon and her reputation as ‘mother’ to all who knew her reveal a learned yet gentle woman. Her attendance at the synod of Whitby, however, shows a woman also of determination.

Ælfflæd, like her predecessor and relative Hild – they were second cousins – was also a powerful abbess and politically influential too.

Ælfflæd had been entrusted to Hild’s care when she was still a tiny infant, moving with her from Hartlepool to Whitby. By the time she succeeded as abbess, her brother Ecgfrith was king of Northumbria.

We know that she was an educated woman. A letter survives in which she wrote to the abbess of the monastery at Pfalzel near Trier in Germany commending a nun who was on pilgrimage with the words, ‘We commend to your highest holiness and customary piety, strenuously with all diligence, N, the devoted handmaid of God and religious abbess’, evidence that she was competent in Latin and that she had contacts on the Continent.

Ælfflæd also had close associations with St Cuthbert. Bede relates how she was seriously ill and at the point of death. ‘How I wish I had something belonging to my dear Cuthbert’ she said, believing that she would then be healed. Not long afterwards, someone arrived with a linen cincture (girdle) sent by Cuthbert. She wore it and, two days later, she was completely well.

In 684 she summoned Cuthbert to discuss the possibility of his becoming a bishop. At the meeting she asked him how long her childless brother, Ecgfrith, would remain on the throne, and who should rule after him. Cuthbert replied that she knew the identity of his successor who lived over the sea on an island. She realised that he was referring to Aldfrith, her illegitimate half-brother. The following year, in 685, Ecgfrith died and was indeed succeeded by Aldfrith.

At first glance it seems hard to argue that Ælfflæd was in any way flexing her political muscles here, because it was she who asked Cuthbert about the succession, and it was Cuthbert who hinted at Aldfrith’s name. However, it has been argued that in asking the question, the abbess was testing Cuthbert’s loyalty to her family. She certainly had political ‘clout’: after the battle at Nechtanesmere in which Ecgfrith was defeated by the Picts, the former bishop of the Picts, Trumwine, was expelled and lived under Ælfflæd’s command at Whitby. Cuthbert remained a friend and, sensing that his end was near, he made a tour of his diocese and visited ‘that most noble and holy virgin Ælfflæd’.

Like Hild before her, she had been hostile to Bishop Wilfrid and her influence was such that when Aldfrith also fell out with Wilfrid, the archbishop of Canterbury, a champion of Wilfrid’s, urged peace to be made between the two men, and wrote not only to the king, but to the abbess, too.

Her influence was felt at the end of Aldfrith’s reign, too. Aldfrith’s son and eventual successor, Osred, was only about eight years old when his father died. Aldfrith was initially succeeded by a man named Eadwulf who, according to one chronicler, ‘plotted to obtain the kingship.’

In 705 at the synod of the River Nidd, Ælfflæd’s testimony was of paramount importance. At the synod Ælfflæd, having clearly had a change of heart about Wilfrid, testified in his favour, saying that on his deathbed, Aldfrith had urged that his successor should come to terms with Wilfrid. An agreement was reached, with the archbishop giving his advice while ‘Abbess Ælfflæd gave them hers.’

Whilst the main focus of the synod was the settling of the affairs of Wilfrid, the author of the Life of Wilfrid said that Osred was able to rule because of the support of, inter alia, Abbess Ælfflæd. It is clear that she was in a position of huge influence and her presence at Aldfrith’s deathbed indicates a strong relationship between the two members of the royal family. She is mentioned in both the Lives of Cuthbert and Wilfrid, but obviously had secular as well as religious power.

Generally, the abbesses began to lose something of their power and status with the decline of the double houses. The last specific reference to such an establishment was in a letter of 796 and monasteries gradually began to be ruled by priests. Possibly it was the priests attached to the monasteries who had greater direct roles in pastoral care. Later abbesses came into direct conflict with the Church which sought to lessen their wealth and influence. But it should not be forgotten that in the early days, it was women who were entrusted with managing these huge estates and who were responsible for the spiritual welfare of their human flocks. — Annie Whitehead Author Bio: Annie’s book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, was published by Pen & Sword Books in June 2020. It can be purchased from P&S ( and online ( Annie is an author and historian and an elected member of the Royal Historical Society and has won awards and prizes for her fiction and nonfiction. Published works include Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (Amberley Books) and novels and stories set in Anglo-Saxon England, including To Be A Queen, the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, longlisted for HNS Book of the Year 2016. She was the inaugural winner of the Dorothy Dunnett/HWA Short Story Competition in 2017. You can connect with Annie through her Website ( on Facebook (, Twitter ( and on her Blog ( and Amazon Author Page (

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