Saint Edith of Wilton, (961-984) was the illegitimate daughter of Anglo-Saxon King Edgar the Peaceable. She was born, educated and died at Wilton Abbey. Image from 13th C. British Library manuscript in public domain
By Susan Abernethy
On the topic of ordinary Anglo-Saxon women in England there are some limited sources of historical information. These are mostly in the form of wills and charters, literature and poetry and law codes of the Anglo-Saxon kings. More information exists regarding aristocratic and religious women. From the evidence we have we can glean some small details on what life was like for Anglo-Saxon women. Surprisingly these women enjoyed some economic and marital rights.
Bede, in his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, says Angles, Saxons and Jutes crossed the sea from the continent in a mass migration to England and settled and colonized there in the fifth century. In general, these people were Germanic, pagan, uneducated and illiterate. We do know a little about the political events of this era and how they fought with the native Britons for power. It can only be inferred that women came with them. There are Anglo-Saxon cemeteries where women were buried with Anglo-Saxon grave goods. Very early sources are littered with female Anglo-Saxon names and place names. No doubt there was intermarriage between these people and the native Britons but there is not much evidence this took place in the upper echelons of society. There is little evidence the Anglo-Saxons settled in Romano settlements or adopted their culture.
Ordinary Anglo-Saxon Women
Interesting evidence has been discovered in Anglo-Saxon graves. These have included single beads, perforated boars tusks worn as pendants, crystal balls and cowrie shells. These objects are sometimes called amulets. They were seen as having healing or protective power. They have been found in the graves of men and children but appear more frequently in women’s graves. This could symbolize that women were the protectors of their family’s health. It could also signify they were healers, prophets or wise women.
The commonplace word for woman in Old English is “wif” meaning wife or woman. The origin of the word is obscure but it regularly occurs in the phrase “weras and wifas” meaning men and women. This word could be etymologically associated with the words for weaving. Evidence does suggest that women were most often associated with cloth-making and producing clothing. Perhaps early in the culture, men were associated with fighting and hunting and women were linked to weaving, spinning and embroidery.
Grave goods have been unearthed which are linked to cloth production. Thread boxes have been found containing thread, needles and small bits of cloth. Spindle-whorls and weaving batons have also appeared. Regular households and those of free born families may have made cloth and clothing for themselves with an emphasis on warmth and durability. In large, wealthy households, women may have woven cloth with their own hand and there may have been slaves trained in weaving. In these households, there would have been time and money available to clothe the household and to produce church vestments to give as gifts to churches and churchmen.
A text survives that explains the duties of the administrative officer called the reeve. It has lists of necessary equipment for a household. One list gives equipment needed for producing cloth and another list has the type of chests needed to store the clothing and other soft furnishings such as bed-clothes, table-linen, seat-covers and wall coverings. These items and chests have been listed in wills as being bequeathed to heirs along with clothing.
Based on some writing from this period, there appears to be the notion that it was not a hard task to cook food. Meat and vegetables were boiled and roasted and this did not require a lot of skill. It seems to have been left up to whoever was free and had the time to do the cooking so it wasn’t relegated to being solely women’s work. Baking appears to have been done by men and women. There is a mention of a woman who was the maker of cheese.
There is no evidence surviving that states who brewed the vast quantities of ale needed as drink. But we do have a glimpse of women serving the ale. There are many references in poetry and other writings of women, from the aristocrat to the slave, as cup-bearers, serving drink at feasts. Legal and testamentary texts demonstrate that female slaves had jobs as corn-grinders, serving maids, wet nurses, weavers and seamstresses.
Evidence in skeletal remains show that osteoarthritis began at an earlier age in Anglo-Saxon people than it does now. This indicates a life of hard physical labor and a harsh environment. Statistics regarding remains from Anglo-Saxon cemeteries show that women had a high mortality rate. This could be the effects of pregnancy and childbirth and there also may have been anemia due to lack of iron in their diet.
There is evidence of law codes governing the rights of women and marriage from early in the Anglo-Saxon era. What survives is random in time period and different areas of the country but we can still gather a few points from these records. The financial aspects of marriage are quite clear. The prospective husband was obliged to pay the “morgengifu”, literally translated as morning-gift. This gift could be a substantial amount of money and/or land that was given to the woman herself, not her kin. The wife had complete personal control over this and she could give it away, sell it or bequeath it to whomever she wished.
In the seventh century law codes of King Aethelbert, it states a woman could leave a marriage if it didn’t please her. If she took the children, she was entitled to some of the property of the marriage. The records suggest a woman’s wishes in choosing a husband were taken into consideration in some cases and a bridegroom had to promise to take care of the wife. Some of the law codes suggest a woman could not be held guilty if her husband committed crimes. The laws also give protection to widows. They are not forced to give up financial independence or to rely on a male kinsman for protection. They have protection from being forced into another marriage and from being forced to become nuns.
These laws seem to recognize there is an element of responsibility in the wife’s status and financial independence. We can with some certainty assume, based on the evidence, that the average Anglo-Saxon wife was valued, appreciated and esteemed and enjoyed economic and marital rights. Her independence was defended and protected and her interests were secured.
Aristocratic Women: The Family of King Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great
There are many examples of aristocratic Anglo-Saxon women with some details which can give us an idea of how they lived. Heroic poetry tells us little about the lives of ordinary people. Some kings were the patron of many of these poets. Most of this writing narrates the lives of warriors but we do get glimpses of aristocratic women. These are the daughters, wives and sisters of kings or chieftains. They wear gold, are ring-givers, givers of gifts, welcome guests and they pour drinks at the feast.
The family of Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great, gives us an idea of the many different roles for aristocratic Anglo-Saxon women. These women were wives, concubines, daughters, princesses, queens, nuns, abbesses and in the case of Edward’s sister Aethelflaed, a warrior in her own right. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is strangely silent on the achievements of Aethelflaed, known throughout history as the Lady of the Mercians. This could be due to an effort to promote West Saxon propaganda or the desire for the history of Wessex not to be surpassed by Mercia.
From an early age Aethelflaed was educated and learned military tactics from her father. She also learned about his program to fortify “burhs” or towns against Viking attack. These burhs were developed into economic centers and endowed with churches. Some of them held mints for making coinage and participated in trade. Aethelflaed would promote and carry out this program when she married.
Aethelflaed, along with her husband, ruled the kingdom of Mercia. Although Anglo-Saxon kings for the most part didn’t call their wives “queen”. But when Aethelflaed’s husband died in 911, she ruled in her own right, effectively as queen. She also fought the Vikings, leading her own troops and won several times convincingly before she died suddenly at Tamworth in 918. There is some speculation she expected her daughter Aelfwynn to rule as her successor. But Aethelflaed’s brother Edward had other ideas and expelled Aelfwynn from Mercia so he could take over as king. Aelfwynn most likely spent the rest of her life in a nunnery.
King Edward the Elder, son and successor of King Alfred, had many children. There were three women in his life that may or may not have been his wives. With these women, Edward had eight or nine daughters.
The first woman associated with Edward was Ecgwynn. There is no record of a marriage between them but that doesn’t mean they weren’t married. They may have been married in secret. They had one daughter who was married to King Sihtric of York during the reign of her brother Aethelstan.
By the year 901, Edward had taken a wife named Aelflaed who was the daughter of Aethelhelm, ealdorman of Wiltshire. Aelflaed had six daughters. Edward began a concerted effort to marry these daughters to royal men from the continent and this program was continued under his son Aethelstan. Before Edward died he married his daughter Eadgifu to Charles the Simple III, King of the Franks. In 926, Aethelstan arranged a marriage between his half-sister Eadhild and Hugh, count of Paris and Duke of the Franks. In 930, another marriage was arranged between Eadgyth (Edith), to Otto, son of King Henry the Fowler of Germany. A fourth sister, whose name we do not know, married a prince of Burgundy. These continental marriages were unprecedented in Anglo-Saxon English history.
Around 920, King Edward set aside his wife Aelflaed and she became a nun at Wilton. Two of her daughters joined her there. Eadflaed joined Wilton as a nun and Aethelhild joined as a lay sister. Edward then married Eadgifu, daughter of Sigehelm, ealdorman of Kent. She had one daughter who possibly married a prince of Aquitaine. Another daughter, named Eadburg, very early showed signs of being exceedingly pious. Her father probably dedicated her to the Nunnaminster at Winchester. She would be canonized in 972.
Religious Anglo-Saxon Women
In the seventh and eighth centuries, double monasteries were founded. These were usually ruled by abbesses and offered women substantial opportunities for education and to gain positions of authority within the church. The sources mention Hild of Whitby, Cuthburg of Wimborne and St. Aethelthryth of Ely. The Anglo-Saxon saint Boniface, who was a missionary in Germany, carried on a correspondence with the Anglo-Saxon religious women Eadburg, Bugga and Leobgyth. The first two women may have been in charge of or worked with composing and copying manuscripts in scriptoriums. There are surviving charters granting women land in order to found religious communities. Abbesses of these foundations had complete control of the financial assets and in some cases appear as principals in litigation relating to these institutions.
The Norman Conquest
The power of women abbesses did not survive the Viking attacks and later monastic reform. However, women contributed to the church in other ways like endowments and practicing personal piety. The Norman Conquest had a deep effect on women in the area of civil law which would become military based. This was followed by Gregorian reform which also affected women’s rights. Theological views were solidified into canon law. And the canon law came to control legislation concerning women. Many of the civil rights enjoyed by Anglo-Saxon women were lost.
Sources: “Women in Anglo-Saxon England” by Christine Fell, Basil Blackwell Ltd., Oxford, United Kingdom, 1984, “Unification and Conquest: A Political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” by Pauline Stafford, Edward Arnold, London, United Kingdom, 1989, “The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England, edited by Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes and Donald Scragg, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA, 1999, “Gesta Regum Anglorum” (Deeds of the English Kings) by William of Malmesbury, ed. and trans. R.A.B. Myers, completed by R.M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, 2 Vols. Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 1998-9, “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” by Venerable Bede, Oxford University Press, New York, New York, 1994