Today is International Women’s Day, and this year is the centenary of the first women voting in a UK general election. So I’d like to look today at a few objects that show us the power of Anglo-Saxon women, and where this power came from.
We get hints of this power from written history, but these stunning archaeological finds are the best proof that women, for a short moment in the Anglo-Saxon world, were almost as powerful and important as men.
In the early days of Anglo-Saxon Christianity – the 7th century AD – women were right in the forefront. Many Anglo-Saxon abbeys had a woman in charge. There was Aethelthryth at Ely, Hilda at Whitby, Mildrith at Thanet, Aethelburh at Barking, and Cyneburh at Castor near Peterborough. These women are really major figures in Anglo-Saxon history, but tend nowadays to be forgotten.
This is the Trumpington Cross, found by archaeologists in 2011 while excavating in advance of housing development on the outskirts of Cambridge. It was found on the chest of a young woman in her mid to late teens, who had been buried on a narrow bed. The grave also contained gold-and-garnet linked pins, a ‘chatelaine’ (a chain hanging from the waist with tools and trinkets) and an iron knife. It has a PAS record (CAM-A04EF7) because it was a Treasure case, and it has now been acquired by the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge.
You’ll immediately notice that the Trumpington Cross has lugs rather than a pin or a loop, so it’s not a brooch or a pendant. It seems likely that it was sewn on to a garment, and at just 35mm across it’s quite small.
The Trumpington Cross joins a select group of cross pendants mostly associated with women. Until the start of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, just four were known, all from discoveries in the 19th century: the Wilton and Ixworth crosses, the cross from the Desborough necklace, and St Cuthbert’s cross.
The first to be found was the cross of St Cuthbert, and this is the only one associated with a man. It was found in 1827 when St Cuthbert’s coffin in Durham Cathedral was opened, hidden deep in the robes clothing the body. It is made from gold with inlaid garnets, and although of exceptional workmanship was broken and crudely repaired before burial. I’ll come back to this one in a moment.
The Wilton Cross was the second to be found. There is little known of its circumstances of discovery, but it is now in the British Museum (1859,0512.1). A report in Volume 3 of Norfolk Archaeology for 1852 (p. 375-6) says that it was found at Wilton near Methwold in Norfolk, by some boys digging for gravel, and that it was bought by Mr W. Eagle of Lakenheath; this purchase was probably the source of the erroneous findspot of Lakenheath in the British Museum accession register. It has generally been felt that the correct findspot is Hockwold-cum-Wilton, about five miles from Methwold.
The Ixworth Cross was the next to be found, in Suffolk in1856, and it is now in the Ashmolean Museum (AN1909.453). It was found during gravel-digging, probably in Stanton, but it was bought by a dealer in nearby Ixworth soon afterwards, and so became known as the Ixworth Cross. It came from a grave apparently very like that at Trumpington, containing the ironwork of a similar bed, and also the gold plate of a disc brooch. Brooches at this time were worn only by women, so this confirms that the pendant was also almost certainly the possession of a high-ranking woman.
The next cross to be found was rather different in nature, as it was apparently part of a prestigious short necklace. It was found in 1876 at Desborough in Northamptonshire, in a grave in a large cemetery. It was apparently the only find in the grave, and no record was kept of how the beads and pendants were arranged on the necklace. It is obvious that there is a second major pendant on the necklace, the large oval gem, and it may be that (as at Winfarthing, see below) the woman in the grave was in fact wearing two separate necklaces. The Desborough necklace is now in the British Museum (1876,0504.1).
There then followed a century or so with no more finds, until the advent of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. One of the earliest PAS records was the Holderness Cross (YORYM214), found in the 1960s in East Yorkshire. This was an accidental find, and how it got into the ground is unknown. It has now been joined by the Newball Cross (LIN-75FD54) which, although it has the corrugated loop characteristic of 7th-century pendants, lacks the garnets of the other examples.
So we have a group of crosses, made from gold and garnets, found in high-status graves, all but one associated with women, and all dating from the mid to late seventh century. To put this in context, at this point in history showy male jewellery is virtually absent from graves – and has been since the ‘princely’ burials of Prittlewell, Taplow and Sutton Hoo, all buried between about 590 and 625 AD. Weapons might still be encrusted with gold and garnets (as in the Staffordshire Hoard) but men themselves seem to have been rather more abstemious. So who might these women have been, and why were they ostentatiously wearing symbols of the new religion, Christianity?
Christianity had come to Anglo-Saxon England with the missionary St Augustine, who left Rome in 596 and so probably arrived in 597. The story of its adoption throughout the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms is told by Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, finished in 731 AD. There were ups and downs – the Kentish kings were the first to convert and among the first to revert to paganism – but in the end Christian missionaries were finally sent to the last pagan kingdom, the Isle of Wight, after its conquest by the West Saxons in 686 AD.
By the time Bede finished his book, the newly Christian kings had endowed abbeys up and down the land. A quick count reveals references to at least three dozen monasteries, the most famous being Whitby, Ripon, Jarrow, Monkwearmouth, Lindisfarne, Tynemouth, Hartlepool, Beverley, Lichfield, Ely, Peterborough, Malmesbury, Barking and Canterbury.
These abbeys were like mini-kingdoms, but powerhouses of religious rather than secular might. They were endowed with huge estates to provide an income, and gave an alternative to ruling or fighting for the aristocrats or minor royalty who ran them. Although copied from successful examples in Europe, they were entirely new, experimental institutions in England.
When flicking through the index to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History to compile this list of abbeys, I was struck by the number of named abbesses as well. In addition to the quick list I gave you above, Bede includes Ebba of Coldingham, Hildilith of Barking, Seaxburh of Ely, Frigyth of Hackness, Heiu of Hartlepool, Heriburg of Watton (in East Yorkshire) and more. So there are a substantial number of women running these major institutions, controlling a large chunk of the economy of Anglo-Saxon England.
Looking around more widely, other women begin to appear. Conversion narratives often include queens as persuaders of kings; stories of miracles often include queens and princesses who seem to have been visiting or living at abbeys. And archaeological finds very occasionally bring a specific woman into focus. Queen Balthild, who ruled France from 657 to 663, has been better known in her native England since the finding of her seal matrix in Norfolk in 1998 (PAS-8709C3).
So why – and how – did women wield this power, and why was it then lost? From the archaeological evidence, it seems entirely new, and connected to experimenting with Christianity.
It always takes a while for new ideas and organisations to shake down and get fixed in national and cultural life, and until this happens a variety of approaches can be tried out. Although Christianity was well established in the rest of the former Roman empire, it was a new idea in England and other currently ‘barbarian’ lands, and it wasn’t obvious how it would be handled.
It seems to have become obvious to someone (or several people in different kingdoms) that the new monasteries might be a useful place to put spare princesses while their brothers were fighting each other in the endless wars between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. If they were headed and run by women, this wouldn’t be a problem, as it would be perfectly in order to have women in charge of other women, and would remove any temptation from men.
But of course there are always unintended consequences, and it wouldn’t have been long before the Christian idea of doing good works to ensure a place in heaven resulted in huge endowments being settled on the new abbeys as a visible sign of piety. So the newly Christian Anglo-Saxons found themselves with women in charge of vast resources – and therefore power. The gold-and-garnet crosses are perhaps the clearest archaeological evidence for this power.
Another extraordinary recent find has been the jewellery from a grave at Winfarthing, in south Norfolk. There are two circular pendants in this grave, one large and one small, both clearly based on cross shapes. They were not on the same necklace; the larger pendant was found lower down on the chest, but the smaller pendant was on another shorter necklace with two gold beads and two pendants made from coins of Sigebert III, a Frankish king who ruled from 634 to 656 AD. The PAS record for the group is NMS-E95041.
It is always hard to know if the women in graves like those at Trumpington, Winfarthing and Ixworth (or Stanton) wielded secular or religious power. A rich grave (CAM-B4681D) recently found in a cemetery at Westfield Farm, Ely has been suggested as part of the religious community there, but there is no convenient abbey near every grave. Maybe our graves contained one of the women listed above, maybe one of their friends or relatives – but whoever they were, their grave-goods were a reflection of their power and status. It’s possible that the beds, and the crosses, had a very specific meaning.
There are other examples of a new force in cultural or political life that is at the start open to men and women, but when women get a foothold and the new area looks promising, women are removed. Football is a famous example. In the early days there were as many women’s teams as men’s, and the women’s game steadily became more popular than the men’s. In 1920 there was a crowd of 53,000 to watch a Preston factory team take on St Helens Ladies. The following year the FA barred women from playing.
As in football, the status of women in Anglo-Saxon England didn’t last. By the time Simeon of Durham was writing, just after the Norman Conquest, women weren’t allowed to enter the shrine of St Cuthbert. They were very definitely second-class citizens, even if of royal rank.
I did promise that I’d come back to St Cuthbert. The presence of a stunningly beautiful and well-made gold and garnet cross in his grave has always sat uneasily with both his gender and with his fame as an ascetic. This was a man who refused to wear lovely clothes, and who got closer to God by standing neck-deep in seawater. Yet the cross has clearly been worn, and is repaired. It has been suggested that it is an offering tucked into the coffin when it was re-packed in 698, and wasn’t Cuthbert’s at all.
But it is also possible that early Anglo-Saxon clerics, like priests in many other cultures, weren’t seen as quite fully male. We have hints that this may have been the case in pagan Anglo-Saxon England from Bede’s story of Coifi, the Northumbrian chief priest who wasn’t allowed to do the normal male things like carrying weapons or riding stallions.
Against this, it has to be said that no other possible priest or cleric has been found in a grave with what appears to be women’s jewellery. It is still a puzzle, and the only way to sort it out might be to carry out more excavations at Anglo-Saxon monasteries.
Until then, let’s enjoy International Women’s Day by remembering some of these remarkable women. They are still known today, as St Audrey, St Hilda, St Mildred, St Ethelburga, St Abb (of St Abb’s Head), St Kyneburga, St Hildelith and St Sexburga – but like many other great women of the past, they should be celebrated more.
PS. If you would like to know more about Anglo-Saxon women, Sutton Hoo’s Historia Festival is running talks throughout the year on this topic.