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Tag Archives: Anglo-Saxon History

  • Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead

    Escomb Church (Mercia, Amberley Publishing)

    In Search of the Mercians

    Writing an account of the history of Mercia from c. 605 to 1071 was not without its challenges. The primary sources are scant, often contradictory, and many were lost during the upheaval of the Viking raids. But it is possible to piece together the story of the ancient kingdom through careful examination of the sources. Anglo-Saxon England is a long way from us, however, not just in terms of time, but because a distinct line was drawn with the Norman conquest of 1066.

    This marker is most obvious when one looks at the landscape of England, for with the Normans came the castles, the rebuilt churches; the wooden halls and smaller Saxon churches disappeared in the main. Visiting locations with a palpable connection to Anglo-Saxon England is perhaps the biggest obstacle to the historian.

    But it is still possible.

    Repton, St Wystan's (Wigstan) Church - the crypt which housed the remains of Æthelbald, Wiglaf and Wigstan. (Mercia, Amberley Publishing)

    For a stunning example of a Saxon Church, one need look no further than Escomb in County Durham. Built of stone, it probably dates to the late seventh century. Why did it survive? It is thought that the Prince Bishops of Durham were not interested in building a bigger/better church in such a tiny village. In other words, it has probably – ironically – survived because of a lack of interest. The bishops of Durham, whose official residence is still at Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland, became virtually autonomous and wielded extraordinary power. Little Escomb Church was in all likelihood a beneficiary, in a strange way, of their almost regal status.

    Escomb is a delight, but it doesn’t have the connections to the people about whom I’ve written. Luckily there are such places, and one of these is St Mary’s at Deerhurst in Gloucestershire. It is not a ruin, nor a shell, but a working church where services have been held since Anglo-Saxon times. It retains many of the original Saxon features. Another such place is the Anglo-Saxon crypt in St Wystan’s Church at Repton in Derbyshire.

    Repton had strong associations with the royal family of Mercia.

    Saint Guthlac, who was said to be related to the royal family, began his monastic life there and King Æthelbald, who had been a friend of Guthlac’s, was buried at Repton. A later king, Wiglaf, was buried there, too, but the church is named after his grandson, Wigstan, or Wystan. He was allegedly murdered during a dynastic dispute and he was said to have been buried in the tomb of his grandfather. The original crypt is still intact and can be visited. It was built in the first half of the eighth century, during the reign of Æthelbald. Standing here, one feels very much closer to history, knowing that there is no ‘possibly, maybe’. These kings, or at the very least their bones, were interred here.

    The remains of St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester, the burial place of Æthelred and Æthelflæd, Lord and Lady of the Mercians. (Mercia, Amberley Publishing)

    At Repton, too, there is a Viking burial ground. It is still being investigated and new findings were published whilst I was writing the book. The archaeologists are now reasonably certain that the burial pit dates to the time of the Viking occupation in the 870s, when Burgred, king of Mercia, was driven out of the country.

    But perhaps the place where I felt closest of all to my subjects was in Gloucester. A short walk from the cathedral are the remains of St Oswald’s Priory. Originally this priory was dedicated to St Peter, but the name was changed when the relics of St Oswald were translated there from Bardney in Lincolnshire. They were moved on the instruction of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians and she was buried at the priory, as was her husband, Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians.

    Æthelflæd is something of an anomaly; one of the very few women to lead an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, she was the daughter of Alfred the Great, and yet she was never a queen. The only time she is given this title is in the Irish and Welsh annals; some of the English annals hardly mention her at all. Yet she was instrumental in the fight against the Viking invaders, building fortified towns in strategic areas which enabled the English to arrest the incursions and ultimately to force the invaders into submission. Shortly before her death, she was approached by the men of York who sought her protection and assistance against the Norse raiders too.

    Æthelbald, Wiglaf, Wigstan, Æthelflæd and Æthelred: all feature prominently in the new book, and whilst many Mercians I’ve written about have statues to commemorate them – Cenwulf, Godiva, Wulfrun, and Æthelflæd too – I’m pleased that I was also able to visit locations which brought me closer to the real people.

    Annie Whitehead's new book Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom is available for purchase now.

  • Women in Medieval England by Lynda Telford

    Prostitutes were often depicted as mermaids, as in this illustration from the Luttrell Psalter. (Courtesy of the British Library, Women in Medieval England, Amberley Publishing)

    Prostitution

    This has always been one of the most misunderstood areas of the lives of women in any era, and women at the centre of the sex industry have endured similar conditions throughout the centuries.

    They have been considered sinful, unclean, the destroyers of happy homes and the carriers of disease – but few of those who used or vilified those women, stopped to consider why they were driven into that way of life, where abuse and contempt bred loss of self-respect, brought danger, and often early death.

    In the medieval period, a woman was defined by her respectability. Whether a pure virgin, or a mature matron, she had certain status, based on that of her family and her prospects as a wife and mother. These were easy to lose. The loss of a husband, the resulting loss of earnings and /or personal dignity, through hardship, could easily lead to desperation, which could entice any woman into the ‘oldest profession’, as a way of keeping body and soul together.

    Once on the slippery slope of becoming a “common woman” she also lost the support and approval of the church, and instead found herself opposed to all that was legal and decent in the society around her.

    Fornication at an amateur level was always present. Any working man might need to ensure that the woman he married could conceive, so he would try her out first. While to him, this was a sensible precaution, as divorce was not possible, it left her open to the charge of promiscuity, or being a “lecherwyte”. If she became pregnant, and she bore the child outside of marriage, she was also a “childwyte” and both these situations incurred fines.

    Casual fornication was not necessarily a problem BEFORE marriage, but adultery after marriage was, and a woman could be severely punished, whereas a man might be able to shrug off its consequences. An active sex life, if not transmuted at some point into respectability within a marriage, could lead to the degradation of being an out–and–out “fallen woman”.

    Springtime Seduction - 'If we were found, we would be dishonoured.' 'But inside you must come, for our love!' Redrawn from Giacomo Jaquerio's fresco at Castella della Manta in Saluzzo. (1418-1430) (Author, Women in Medieval England, Amberley Publishing)

    For those already at that level, the brothel gave the only possible, if variable, protection. As a member of a ‘bawdy house’ a woman at least had a roof over her head, and food to keep her working. That roof might be owned by the local landowner, or even the local abbot, as in the case of the Southwark properties of the Bishop of Winchester. This led to the women working in them being known as “Winchester Geese”. The goose-bumps, sometimes contracted from these women, have come down into present day language, though any woman too obviously diseased would find herself thrown out onto the street to fend for herself, without even the doubtful protection given by the organised brothel.

    Organised they certainly were, with the bawdy-house keeper always on the lookout for new women, fresh from the country, hoping for a better life in the towns. Bath-houses became an innovation, where men could wallow in warm water with the woman of their choice, often with food and drink served to them in situ. These at least had the benefit of ensuring that the clients had been washed, before intercourse was attempted.

     

    Some prostitutes could occasionally find themselves on the RIGHT side of the law, if they proved useful as “testers” in impotence cases. This was the only way a married woman could hope for an annulment, by proving that her husband was incapable of doing his duty, providing her with a sex life and with children. The York Cause Books give many examples of men being examined by a panel of respectable matrons, to decide whether they could achieve an erection. Sometimes a “tester” wasn’t quite so respectable, and in York a local whore named Margery Grey (professionally known as Cherrylips) was used instead. It was possibly believed she would be comfortable exposing herself to strange men, as well as probably being younger and more attractive, and more likely to gain some sexual response.

    The men who failed the test would have their marriages dissolved, and would find it difficult to make another, due to their inability to perform their husbandly duty.

    Some women were tricked, or otherwise forced, into prostitution. The archetypal innocent country girl was a common victim, being offered a living-in place as a servant, only to find that sleeping with strange men formed part of her duty. The landlord could then claim that she owed him money, and she could be imprisoned until she paid it, either in cash (usually impossible) or by selling sex.

    Naughty Nuns - Redrawn from a medieval original in the MS Douce 264, showing disobedient nuns being taken home to their convent in a wheelbarrow, pushed by a naked man. (Author, Women in Medieval England, Amberley Publishing)

    A slightly more unusual “female” whore was John Rykener, a transvestite prostitute caught with a client in the hayloft of an Inn. He was wearing women’s clothing, calling himself Eleanor, and claimed to be an embroideress. All very amusing – but the penalty for sodomy was being burned! John was arrested and turned up in court still dressed as a woman, apparently oblivious to the danger he was in. The judge did not appear to want to exact the full penalty, so charged John with “defrauding his clients of their expectations”. The pretence that any of his clients imagined he was really a female saved his life, and he was merely fined.

    The clergy were not exempt from the prevailing hypocrisy regarding sex. There were even some brothels known to cater exclusively for priests, while nuns, often in convents against their will, could also find opportunities to have a good time. One nunnery near Wakefield in Yorkshire became notorious, and the Bishop had to step in. He was finally convinced of the goodness of the nuns, by the lover of one of them!

    So, despite the official line that all prostitution was a menace to society, many people at all levels not only indulged in it, but made money from it. The only losers, as always, were the women at the bottom of the pile, the prostitutes themselves. Few of them could hope to save enough to start their own business, so the used and abused, cast off when no longer serviceable, remained the dregs of society, often through no fault of their own.

    While Magdalen houses were quite common in Europe, for the rehabilitation of such women, they were less usual in England, and the sex workers were left to live and die in the shadows.

    Lynda Telford's new book Women in Medieval England is available for purchase now.

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