Women in Anglo-Saxon England

Learn about the changing roles of women in Anglo-Saxon England, including status, slavery and powerful female leaders.

From the first Germanic settlement of England in the 5th century until the Norman Conquest in the 11th century, Anglo-Saxon society underwent dramatic social, economic and political change. Women as a whole were affected by these developments, but it is also clear that queens, abbesses and other intellectuals could be the instruments of change.

Anglo-Saxon women were the owners of jewellery and bejewelled gospel-books, and they were the patrons of the earliest known poetry written in English and some of the most complex poems composed in Latin. At various times, women were the subjects of epic literature (in the case of Judith, part of the Beowulf-manuscript), of narrative accounts (in the case of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) and, in one instance, a political biography. Even women from the lowest ranks of society, such as slaves, came into contact from time to time with written culture.

Beowulf

Beowulf

Beowulf is an Old English epic poem which survives in a single precious manuscript.

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At the same time, the surviving evidence throws little light on the lives of most Anglo-Saxon women, such as how old they were when they died, or which diseases they experienced. Women of lower status are often particularly hard to find in the fragmentary sources.

From paganism to Christianity

The first known English speakers, who lived in southern Britain from the 5th century onwards, came from a pagan Germanic culture. Most of our evidence for this period comes from archaeological discoveries, among which are the graves of a number of wealthy women.

The runes on the Loveden Hill cremation urn – one of the earliest extant examples of writing in English – may include the female name ‘Sīþæbæd’. Other female graves sometimes contained ornate necklaces, sets of keys, combs and brooches. Analysis of early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries shows that different groups of women had very different levels of wealth and life expectancies, and that these varied between regions and over time.

Loveden Hill urn

British Museum BEP 1963,1001.14

The runes on this urn provide one of the very earliest pieces of evidence for the English language (British Museum, BEP 1963,1001.14)

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The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms converted to Christianity in the late 6th and 7th centuries, beginning with the mission of Augustine  (d. 604) to Kent in 597. The wife of King Æthelberht of Kent (d. 616) was Bertha (d. in or after 601), a Christian princess from Paris. Bertha may have been instrumental in helping the Christian missionaries from Rome to establish themselves at Æthelberht’s court. Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) wrote to her, as recorded in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, urging her to make her husband sympathetic to Christianity. Many other women throughout the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms helped promote Christianity and influence social and cultural change.

Tiberius Bede

The Venerable Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People)f.5v

Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People was created in 731. It tells the story of the conversion of the English people to Christianity (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v)

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The conversion to Christianity of elite members of Anglo-Saxon society brought about massive social change. Christianity was associated with the spread of new writing technologies and the knowledge of Latin. At the forefront of this movement was a group of women of high status, who presided over ‘double monasteries’. These ‘double monasteries’ were staffed by both men and women, based on the Frankish model, and they were major economic and intellectual centres.

For example, the monastery at Whitby was governed in its early years by Hild (Hilda) (d. 680), a member of the Northumbrian royal family. Hild acted as an advisor to several princes and she helped to train no less than five bishops. She also promoted the work of Cædmon, the first-named English poet, a cowherd at Whitby and author of Cædmon’s Hymn.

The story of Cædmon's Hymn

Caedmon's Hymn

The earliest named English poet was a cowherd named Cædmon who lived at the Abbey of Whitby, as Bede describes (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 1r)

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The status of Anglo-Saxon women

The earliest extant law-code in English, issued by King Æthelberht of Kent, throws light on the role of women and on attitudes towards them. At least eight ranks of women are listed in this law-code, from ‘grinding slaves’ to free women of ‘the foremost noble rank’.

Law-code of King Æthelberht of Kent

Rochester, Cathedral Library, MS A. 3. 5

The opening of King Æthelberht’s law code (Rochester, Cathedral Library, MS A.3.5, f. 1r)

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This is similar to the ranks recorded for men, with the exception that women alone were divided by marital status: unmarried women or maidens, widows and married women. A woman was not entitled to receive compensation for any injuries done to her: any such compensation would instead be paid to her husband, father, guardian or slave owner.

Women are also under-represented in Domesday Book, which focuses on landowners (who were mostly men) and male workers. Great Domesday (the largest volume of the Domesday survey) mentions only 479 named women, as opposed to 16,667 individual men.

Great Domesday Book

National Archives: E 31/2/2

Page from Great Domesday Book showing the lands of Count Hugh and Robert, count of Mortain (The National Archives, E 31/2/2, f. 304v)

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Anglo-Saxon queens

The Anglo-Saxon women we know most about are, unsurprisingly, those at the highest levels of society. Queens did not always wield significant power at this period. In his biography of King Alfred, Asser (d. 909) claimed that:

West Saxons do not allow a queen to sit beside the king, nor to be called a queen, but only the king’s wife [because of] a certain obstinate and malevolent queen [from Mercia], who did everything she could against her lord and whole people.

Asser's Life of King Alfred

Asser's Life of King Alfred

The earliest known source about an Anglo-Saxon king, a king often known today as ‘Alfred the Great’ (r. 871–899 CE) (British Library, Cotton MS Otho A XII, f. 1r)

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It is unclear to whom Asser was referring, but there is at least one example of a powerful queen from the kingdom of Mercia. The only surviving coinage issued in the name of an Anglo-Saxon queen is that of Cynethryth, the wife of King Offa of Mercia (757–796). At the same time, it is possible that Cynethryth’s coins were minted in order to promote the status of her son, Ecgfrith, who succeeded Offa briefly as king. After Offa’s death, Cynethryth became abbess of the monastery at Cookham.

The only woman known to have ruled in her own right was Æthelflæd (d. 918), lady of the Mercians, daughter of King Alfred the Great. Æthelflæd’s exploits are recorded in one manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. After her husband died, she led armies against Welsh and Viking forces, and fortified major centres throughout the Midlands, including Tamworth, Warwick and Stafford, eventually extending her authority as far as York.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscript B

Cotton MS Tiberius A VI

An account of Æthelflaed’s victories from a 10th-century manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, f. 30v)

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Æthelflæd’s conquests paved the way for the creation of the kingdom of England by King Æthelstan (924–939). She was succeeded by her daughter, Ælfwynn, but within a few months Ælfwynn had been deposed by her uncle, King Edward the Elder of Wessex (899–924).

Queen Emma, wife of two kings

One of the most prominent figures in 11th-century English politics was Emma of Normandy (d. 1052). Emma was the wife of King Æthelred the Unready (978–1016), and then of King Cnut (1016–1035). After the Danish conquest of England, she provided crucial advice to Cnut as he tried to establish his authority over his new territory. Emma and Cnut are shown together in a miniature at the beginning of the Liber Vitae (‘Book of Life’) of the New Minster, Winchester, standing before the altar in the church at that monastery.

New Minster Liber vitae

Liber vitae 13

A record of the names of members and friends of monasteries or convents – the belief being that these names would also appear in the heavenly book opened on the Day of Judgement (British Library, Stowe MS 944, f. 13r)

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Emma was also the mother of two kings: Harthacnut (1040–1042), her son by Cnut, and Edward the Confessor (1042–1066), her son by Æthelred. In 1041–42, she commissioned the biography known as ‘In Praise of Queen Emma’, which sought to justify her decisions and her political career.

Encomium Emmae reginae

Add MS 33241, f. 1v

Emma and her sons Harthacnut and Edward depicted in the Encomium Emmae Reginae (British Library, Add MS 33241, f. 1v)

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Other Anglo-Saxon queens and princesses played an important dynastic function. No fewer than five of King Æthelstan’s sisters were married to powerful nobles in mainland Europe. Two of them had been offered in marriage to Otto, the future king of Germany (936–973) and emperor.

Otto chose Edith (Eadgyth) (d. 946) as his bride, and to mark that occasion he probably presented a Frankish gospel-book to Æthelstan, now known as the Coronation Gospels. Royal women were important in establishing diplomatic links through marriage and family networks.

Female slaves

All of the powerful women described above were extraordinary – but they were also out of the ordinary. Due to the fragmentary nature of the surviving sources, we know little about the lives of the majority of the female population.

Technological advances are enabling us to recover more information about women from the lower levels of Anglo-Saxon society, particularly slaves. Slaves were occasionally granted their freedom, and sometimes this was recorded in writing.

The freeing of slaves was often recorded in the margins of gospel-books, such as the Bodmin Gospels, made in Cornwall. These records – known as manumissions – were often erased by later owners of the manuscripts, but in the case of the Bodmin Gospels, multispectral imaging has been able to reveal parts of the erased text. 

These include a record of a woman called Guenenguith, a slave who belonged to Bishop Comoere of Cornwall (d. after 981). Guenenguith and her son, Morcefres, were freed on the altar of St Petroc at some point during the 10th century. This newly-revealed text is our only evidence for their existence.

Bodmin manumissions

Add MS 9381

Multispectral image of some erased manumissions from the Bodmin Gospels, including the record of Guenenguith and Morcefres being freed (British Library, Additional MS 9381, f. 49v)

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Even for powerful women in Anglo-Saxon society, we do not know much about many aspects of their lives. For instance, we know relatively little about childbirth in early medieval England. Medical remedies in manuscripts such as Bald’s Leechbook and the Old English Herbal included charms that promised to help a woman give birth to a healthy child, while some medical recipes may have provided forms of contraception.

Bald’s Leechbook

Royal MS 12 D XVII

A large collection of medical remedies in Old English (British Library, Royal MS 12 D XVIII, f. 12v)

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Old English Illustrated Herbal

Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 27r

Colourful illustrations of flora and fauna are embedded throughout the text of the Old English Herbal (British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 27r)

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Books owned by women

There is evidence that Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were on occasion made for or owned by women, including nuns and noblewomen. For example, five of the six surviving prayer books from Anglo-Saxon England had female owners. One of these, known as the Book of Nunnaminster, probably belonged to Ealhswith (d. 902), wife of King Alfred the Great of Wessex (871–899), because its final page contains a description of her property in Winchester.

Perhaps the most spectacular examples of books owned by an Anglo-Saxon woman are the four gospel-books made for Judith of Flanders (d. 1095), the sister-in-law of Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. The jewelled covers of Judith’s books are possibly of Continental workmanship, but it is likely that their finely illuminated pages were made in England. These books give us a glimpse of how luxurious the libraries of Anglo-Saxon noblewomen could be.

Judith of Flanders Gospels

Morgan Library, MS M. 708, upper cover.

Judith of Flanders is known to have owned a series of spectacular gospel-books with gilded illumination and jewelled covers (New York, Morgan Library, MS 708, upper cover)

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Female readers and writers

Women in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms occasionally had texts written specifically for them, or were the writers themselves. For example, Bishop Aldhelm of Sherborne (d. 709/10) composed one of the most complex Latin poems ever written in Anglo-Saxon England, On Virginity, which he dedicated to the abbess and nuns of Barking. Meanwhile, abbesses such as Hild of Whitby addressed letters to contacts throughout Europe, which also serves to show the networks of communication between England and lands overseas.

Wills and other documents

Wills and other documents provide evidence for female literacy in Anglo-Saxon England. One-third of all the surviving wills from this period were made on behalf of women. Wynflæd, a wealthy noblewoman who lived in the 10th century, left a variety of possessions in her will, including two highly skilled slaves, ‘a woman-weaver and a seamstress’. To Eadgifu, her granddaughter, Wynflæd gave two chests, her best bed-curtain, her best tunic and cloak, her old filigree brooch, a long tapestry and a cook.

Wynflæd’s will

Cotton Ch VIII 38

Wynflæd made her will as a widow, detailing arrangements for the disposal of her lands and livestock, her clothing, chests, bed-linen and even her ‘best holy veil’ (British Library, Cotton Ch VIII 38, f. 1r)

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At the same time, women do not appear equally in all surviving forms of Anglo-Saxon writing. For instance, the witness lists of charters are usually dominated by the names of men, even when the property in question was being given to a woman.

Material culture

Inscriptions on jewellery and similar items are another important source for female written culture in Anglo-Saxon England. The gold and garnet brooch found at Harford Farm in Norfolk was made for a woman who lived in the early 7th century, at a time when the English were beginning to convert to Christianity. 

This brooch was inscribed with writing in runes; its gold and garnet decoration resembles items found in Kent, Francia and the Low Countries, and it shows connections between members of the upper levels of society who lived in the regions surrounding the North Sea.

Harford Farm brooch

Norwich Castle Museum, 1994.5.78

This brooch was found in a grave at Harford Farm cemetery, near Norwich, Norfolk, where it had been buried with its wealthy female owner towards the end of the 7th century (Norwich Castle Museum, 1994.5.78)

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The Ædwen Brooch was made for a woman of that name in the 11th century. In contrast with the Harford Farm Brooch, Ædwen’s brooch has writing in the Latin alphabet and the text includes references to the Christian God.

Ædwen brooch

Aedwen brooch

The inscription reads ‘Ædwen owns me, may the Lord own her. May the Lord curse him who takes me from her, unless she gives me of her own free will’ (British Museum, BEP 1951,1011.1)

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Its decoration also bears witness to changes that had taken place in East Anglia in the intervening centuries. The animals incised on the front of the brooch resemble motifs found in Scandinavian art, since that region had been invaded by Viking forces and had experienced Scandinavian settlement in the 9th century.

Also on this brooch is foliage which resembles manuscripts made in Wessex, reflecting the fact that by the 10th century, East Anglia had come under the dominion of the West Saxon kings, now rulers of all England.

  • Alison Hudson
  • Alison Hudson is Project Curator of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts at the British Library, working on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Her doctoral research at the University of Oxford focused on the English Benedictine reform movement in the 10th century.