Scotland’s Brave Princess

Merida is not a typical Disney princess. All this Scottish lass wants is to determine her own fate, to find love on her own time to who she wishes. None of the three goofball sons of the three other clans in Scotland appeal to her. There is no Prince Charming in this lot of awkward teens. Pixar also breaks the usual mold by the mother-daughter relationship being the real focus of the movie. Have you never noticed that  Disney princesses never have living mothers? Not Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, the Little Mermaid, Jasmine of Aladdin, or Cinderella, and if the others had mothers like Mulan, they were not part of the plot. The goal of all these motherless princesses was to get their guy. Merida just wants to pick her guy on her own time, not when her parents want (and not now).

There are many nods to Pictish culture in Brave, although it is probably not noticeable to people who don’t know about the Picts. The first stone shown in close up in the movie intro featured a Pictish beast and then next the broken arrow-double disk.  (I wonder if they are interpreting the Pictish beast as a bear? Bears are central animals in the plot.) Yet, the Picts are never named and these stones are not featured in the plot. On the other hand, the centrality of the queen and princess must have been inspired by Pictish matriliny traditions. The king is indeed the leader of the very rowdy clans but it is the queen who commands their respect and dignity. Queen Elinor is trying to teach her rebellious daughter that her power comes through her dignity and royal behavior. With lines like “Ladies do not put their weapons on the (dinner) table”, mothers will feel for the queen. Unlike the typical evil step-mother of Disney princess movies, Queen Elinor really is working for her daughter’s best interest and trying to train her to be a proper princess (Queen?). Interesting that the family tapestry shows the king, queen and princess but not her little brothers. All nods toward the centrality of the female line in Pictish culture? The great quest at the heart of this movie is that Merida must save her mother by repairing their relationship. I’m not going to spoil it anymore by telling you why or how.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie. I would say that it is probably aimed primarily at girls about age 4-6. (As the first Pixar film aimed at girls, it’s about time.)  It was enjoyable enough for us older folks and had enough fast paced, rowdy action to keep boys entertained. There was a boy about a 4 years old sitting next to me with his father; it kept his attention and got a few giggles out of him. I did see the 3D version, but I’m not a big fan of 3D so I don’t think it really effected my enjoyment too much. 3D a little too in my face for my taste. The kids did chap at the end, so I think they enjoyed it as well.

St Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary Through the Ages

I’m experimenting with methods of putting up presentations. This one is put up through slideshare. Its conversion function doesn’t seem to have liked all of my text as you can see from the title page. This is the presentation I gave at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in May 2010. If you open up the presentation on full screen mode in the corner it will open in a new window so you can have it side by side with the text. Let me know what you think of this format for the presentation and comments are welcome on the presentation itself too!

St Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary Through the Ages

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(slide 1) St Æthelthryth is both one of the earliest and most prominent Anglo-Saxon saints. For those of you unfamiliar with her, she was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, born to first generation Christians. She was married at a very young age to a minor local ruler, Tondbert of the South Gywre, probably in exchange for the fenland people’s military support against Penda of Merica. Tondbert gave her the Isle of Ely as part of her wedding present and dies shortly afterwards with the marriage unconsummated. She retreats to her island hermitage at Ely but doesn’t remain there long. Within a few years her father has died and her uncle King Æthelhere forces her to marry Ecgfrith, the son of King Oswiu of Bernicia who is several years her junior. After 12 years of marriage and Ecgfrith’s eventual succession to the throne of Northumbria, Æthelthryth with the help of Bishop Wilfrid of York persuades Ecgfrith to allow her to leave their unconsummated marriage and enter his aunt’s convent at Coldingham. After a year of training, she leaves Coldingham to establish her own convent at Ely where she is abbess for seven years before dying of the plague. At her translation 16 years later she was found to be incorrupt and this was taken as proof of her perpetual virginity, a claim that Bede quizzed Bishop Wilfrid on to his satisfaction.

Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary have been linked together since virtually  the beginning of recorded memory of Æthelthryth. For the first century or so, the linkage wasn’t part of her narrative history but that would eventually change. In the beginning, the links between Æthelthryth and Mary were confined to Bede’s hymn on Æthelthryth included within his Ecclesiastical History. Bede makes no suggestion that Æthelthryth herself had a special devotion to Mary and his narrative does not make the link. Neither do the other two early prose references to Æthelthryth, Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid and the 9th century Old English Martyrology, a narrative martyrology probably compiled in Mercia.  Bede, Stephan of Ripon, and author of the Martyrology all stress Æthelthryth’s purity and virginity, but none of them directly or indirectly compare her to the Virgin Mary in their narrative.

(slide 2) Bede adds his hymn on virginity in honor of Æthelthryth, he says in imitation of sacred history. Given that the most important canticle in sacred history is the Magnificant sung by Mary, it is perhaps no coincidence that Bede’s song focuses on Mary nearly as much as Æthelthryth. It is easy for us to overlook how Marian this hymn is in part because all modern translators omit Mary’s name, even though Bede certainly names her in the F couplet.  Where Colgrave and Mynors oddly translate “God’s wicket gate”, Bede specifically said, porta Maria Dei, Mary God’s gate. Mary is the leader of heaven’s Choir of Virgins and Bede places Æthelthryth her among an illustrious list of virgin martyrs. As Virginia Blanton notes in her book Signs of Devotion, Æthelthryth’s inclusion among the illustrious martyrs of the past shows such sanctity is available in their own times but Bede isn’t satisfied with mere inclusion in the choir. In the R stanza Bede moves beyond including Æthelthryth in the Choir of Virgins by suggesting that Æthelthryth may be a mother of Christ as well.

“Royal Mother of Heaven’s King your leader now; You too, maybe a mother of Heaven’s King.”

Unlike the Virgin martyrs Æthelthryth is a mother of part of the body of Christ. In his narrative of her life, Bede specifically calls her “the virgin mother of many virgins”.

A further allusion that can only be explained by Bede’s equation of Æthelthryth with the Virgin Mary occurs in the Z couplet.

“Zeal frenzied tears the foe that conquered Eve; Truimphs the saint, zeal frenzied tears of the foe”

Colgrave and Mynors substitute the word “Saint” for the less specific “virgo” used by Bede, which makes that assumption that Bede is referring to Æthelthryth rather than Mary. Bede knew that Mary was routinely considered to be the redeemer of Eve. Yet here again he is being intentionally vague as this couplet is in the context of a discussion of Æthelthryth. Bede ends this hymn by portraying Æthelthryth as a bride of Christ represented as the lamb.

Through all of these comparisons Bede has shown Æthelthryth to be another Mary – she is a perpetual virgin, a leader of other virgins and a mother of the body of Christ, the redeemer of Eve, a queen in heaven as she had been on earth and last but not least the bride of the lamb.

This hymn adds no new information on Æthelthryth’s life; its purpose is to show that Æthelthryth not only belongs in the heavenly virginal choir, but also that she compares well with the Virgin Mother herself.  She is another Mary for Bede’s age.

There is reason to believe that this hymn circulated separate from History as part of Bede’s book of hymns. It survives in Cologne MS. 106, a manuscript indirectly associated with Alcuin that includes Bede’s breviate psalter and 12 of Bede’s hymns including the hymn to Aethelthryth. How widely Bede’s Book of Hymns circulated is unknown as it does not survive intact. When found in isolation it is impossible to tell whether the hymn came from the Book of Hymns or the History. Nevertheless, Bede’s History was the primary source for Æthelthryth’s story until the completion of the Liber Eliensis in the 12th century.

The linkage between Æthelthryth and Mary appears only once between Bede’s History and the 12th century Liber Eliensis, that is in the Benedictional of Æthelwold. (slide 3) Bishop Æthelwold was responsible for refounding Ely as an all male Benedictine monastery where he put his reform agenda that stressed monastic virginity into action. Æthelthryth is one of only two native saints featured in full portraits in his Benedictional, here coupled with a portait of Christ and is inserted at the benediction for her feast day. It is the most elaborate portrait in the book. Blanton notes that this arrangement is symbolic of Æthelthryth’s marriage to Christ.  She also notes that the Æthelthryth’s lily is symbolic of her virginity and, with the mirrored frame, is arranged in such as way to reflect Christ’s benediction in the opposing page.

(slide 4) Æthelthryth is also portrayed as a leader among the choir of virgins. An inscription written on the books the figures hold indentifies Æthelthryth as the haloed figure on the left in red, with her dress matching her full portrait completely. The central haloed figure has been a subject of controversy. The inscription identifies her as a Mary but the second word in unreadable. Authorities have been split on whether this figure represents the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene, with most siding for Mary Magdalene. I believe that if we consider the decoration of the rest of the benedictional, rather than trying to reconstruct the badly damaged inscription, then this figure must be the Virgin Mary.

(slide 5) When we look at the other depictions of the Virgin Mary most of them are decorated as in this illutstration of the annunciation. The rose dress with a flower pattern matches the leader of the choir of virgins exactly. In all illustrations of the Virgin Mary, she is given a gold halo or nimbus, gold veil, cuffs and sometimes an undertunic. This illustration of the assumption is the only illustration of the Virgin Mary who is not dressed in a rose tunic, but even here she is adorned with a gold halo, veil and trim.

(slide 6) In contrast, in the only illustration of Mary Magdalene in the Benedictional she is not distinguished from the other two women at the tomb. None of the women have a halo or wear any gold on their apparel. Only their instruments are gold. Further, the book lacks a benediction for the feast day of Mary Magdalene. If the leader of the choir of virgins is Mary Magdalene then we have to explain why she is not mentioned in the text and illustrated so differently at the empty tomb.

(slide 7) Returning to the choir of virgins, I believe this illustration must represent the choir of Virgins led by the Virgin Mary and Æthelthryth, as suggested in Bede’s poem. This also matches the overall theme of Bishop Aethelwold’s reforms that highly valued virginity and lifted up the Virgin Mary and Aethelthryth as role models. By this time, Mary Magdalene was well established, following Gregory the Great, as the sinful woman and therefore ill suited for Bishop Aethelwold’s agenda.

(slide 8) We have to jump two centuries from the 10th century Benedictional of Aethelwold to the 12th century Liber Eliensis before we get another glimpse of the evolution of Æthelthryth’s veneration.  In the Liber Eliensis Æthelthryth’s story and the related comparisons to the Virgin Mary reach their textual peak. The author of the Liber Eliensis, completed around 1170, uses Bede’s History and Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid to develop a much more complete story for Æthelthryth that embellishes the roles of Bishop Wilfrid, Abbess Æbbe, and St. Owine in addition to Abbess Æthelthryth.  Bede’s hymn is replicated exactly. Comparisons between Mary and Æthelthryth become more direct. The Liber Eliensis uses Mary and Joseph’s chaste marriage as president for Æthelthryth’s unconsummated marriages.

The Liber Eliensis also tells two new tales that will feature in iconography within the Cathedral of Ely. Cathedral construction began in the late 11th century with the Lady Chapel being constructed between 1321 and 1352. In the first new story, Æthelthryth miraculously escapes from Ecgfrith’s attempts to remove her from Coldingham and flies to Ely. While en route at a stopping place she plants her staff into the ground while her party rests, it takes root and grows into a strong ash tree. Ann Stanton describes how these miracles are depicted in iconographic panels within the Cathedral of Ely, at the crossing in her paper “The Virigin, the Queen and the Cathedral”. These panels date to the 14th century when the Lady Chapel was being constructed. Within the Lady Chapel itself iconographic panels stress Mary’s journey to Bethleham. The second story is of a Dane who tries to violate Æthelthryth’s tomb only to be struck blind, literally to have his eyes ripped out. This story explained a hole in the saracophagus from the era of the Danish destruction of the monastery and at the same time discouraged anyone from trying to use the hole to see her corpse within. According to Stanton this story is not depicted in the surviving relief panels of the Cathedral but the corresponding Marian story of a Jew attempting to overturn Mary’s tomb only be caught with his hand stuck in the tomb is depicted in the Lady Chapel. Other relief panels in the Lady Chapel reflect the commonalities in the lives of Mary and Æthelthryth.

(slide 9) The Liber Eliensis makes one additional Marian claim for the first time. It claims that

““there had not yet been any church on the island [of Ely] other than the one founded by blessed Augustine, the apostle of the English, but that was demolished right down to ground level by army of the unbelieving King Penda. This church Æthelthryth, lover of God, labored with all her might to renew and rebuild after its prolonged desolation. And as soon as it was rebuilt, dedicated as of old, in honour of Mary, the holy Mother of God, it became a shining light, through innumerable signs and miracles, as God carried out His work every day.” (LE i.15, p. 43)”

This is the first claim that the church of Ely was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Yet, it is extremely unlikely that Augustine ventured up into the fenlands to found a church dedicated to Mary. I believe that this is a fictional claim that expresses loyalty to the Archbishops of Canterbury while trying to make a claim of antiquity. If this claim were true then it would likely be the oldest English church dedicated to Mary. However there is no reason to believe that the dedication to Mary is any older than the refoundation of the house under Bishop Æthelwold.

Balancing the special relationship between Mary and Æthelthryth, the structure of Ely Cathedral is unique in England. Typically, the Eastern trancept is the where the Lady Chapel is found in English cathedrals. Yet, here this is the site of Æthelthryth’s shrine and chapel (L and N) on the diagram. Æthelthryth’s shrine was located where N is on the diagram, and it is marked on the floor today. This leaves the main body of the cathedral without a Lady Chapel. To compensate for Our Lady not having a special place in the cathedral, they built the largest and most elaborate Lady Chapel in England just outside the main plan (J). How do we account for such an elaborate Lady Chapel?

(slide 10) After the time of Bishop Aethelwold, Ely’s position on the trail from London to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham must have amplified interest in Mary. Although not mentioned in the Liber Eliensis, the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was founded in the 11th century, significantly before the writing of the Liber Eliensis. The omission of Walsingham from the Liber Eliensis or the 12th century French Life of Audree by Marie de France,  may be due to some sense of competition. Yet, the Life of Audree in particular gives the feeling that Ely was a pilgrimage destination. Its unclear how often Ely was a final destination or whether it was a feature on the Walsingham trail.  By the Reformation, Walsingham was the primary Marian shrine in all of England and Ely benefited by being on the trail from London to Walsingham. It is also clear that East Anglia was a major region of Marian devotion with several other shrines in the area including Our Lady of Ipswich. This leaves me to wonder if perhaps the popularity of Æthelthryth and her Marian connections may have fostered the growth of Marian shrines in East Anglia.

At the Reformation the Lady chapels and shrines at Walsingham and Ely were especially targeted for destruction by the reformers. The shrine of Æthelthryth was completely destroyed and the Cathedral of Ely was defaced.

(slide 11) Throughout the 20th century, Æthelthryth slowly began to retake her former position at Ely. The processional banner shown here was made in 1910 and has been used for processions ever since. Among the Millennial restorations made to the cathedral in 2000 was a new covered processional way linking Æthelthryth’s chapel with the Lady Chapel (I on the diagram). Since the third great renovation of the cathedral began in 1986 Æthelthryth’s presence has been steadily growing at the Cathedral. Within the last decade, St Etheldreda’s fair has been re-established as a major community event. A new Order of St Etheldreda was founded in 1992 under the patronage of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, to provide for the cathedral and in 2004 they published a new complete liturgy including processions and new hymns for her feast and the feast of her translation. This new liturgy is available on the Cathedral website.

(slide 12) Two more communities have been founded more recently, including a Benedictine inspired Ely-based Community of St Etheldreda established in 2005 that continues to use the Lady chapel for monthly services (shown here). As the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham has been restored and is regaining its popularity over the last decade, a new St Etheldreda Cell of the Society of Our Lady of Walsingham has also formed at Ely.

To celebrate the completion of the third great restoration of the cathedral in 2000, three sculptures were commissioned for the cathedral including a new sculpture for the Lady chapel. (slide 13) This controversial new sculpture represents the moment of the annunciation. What strikes me the most about this statue is not its modernity, but its startling golden hair and dress that resembles a Saxon princess so much more than an Middle-Eastern teenager.

Lady Æthelflaed’s Defense of Chester, c.907

I was reading through the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland and I found a very interesting story. It details Lady Æthelflaed’s defense of Mercia from the Vikings in c. 907. I’m just going to quote it in full and let it speak for itself.

Now the Norwegians left Ireland, as we said, and their leader was Ingimund, and they went then to the island of Britain. The son of Cadell son of Rhodri was king of the Britons at that time. The Britons assembled against them, and gave them hard and strong battle, and they were driven by force out of British territory.

After that Ingimund with his troops came to Aethelflaed, Queen of the Saxons; for her husband, Aethelred, was sick at that time. (Let no one reproach me, though I have related the death of Aethelred above, because this was prior to Aethelred’s death and it was of this very sickness that Aethelred died, but I did not wish to leave unwritten what the Norwegians did after leaving Ireland.) Now Ingimund was asking the Queen for lands in which he would settle, and on which he would build barns and dwellings, for he was tired of war at that time. Aethelflaed gave him lands near Chester, and he stayed there for a time.

What resulted was that when he saw the wealthy city, and the choice lands around it, he yearned to possess them. Ingimund came then to the chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes; he was complaining bitterly before them, and said that they were not well off unless they had good lands, and that they all ought to go and seize Chester and possess it with its wealth and lands. From that there resulted many great battles and wars. What he said was, ‘Let us entreat and implore them ourselves first, and if we do not get them good lands willingly like that, let us fight for them by force.’ All the chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes consented to that.

Ingimund returned home after that, having arranged for a hosting to follow him. Although they held that council secretly, the Queen learned of it. The Queen then gathered a large army about her from the adjoining regions, and filled the city of Chester with her troops.

?918 Almost at the same time the men of Foirtriu and the Norwegians fought a battle. The men of Alba fought this battle steadfastly, moreover, because Colum Cille was assisting them, for they had prayed fervently to him, since


he was their apostle, and it was through him that they received faith. For on another occasion, when Imar Conung was a young lad and he came to plunder Alba with three large troops, the men of Alba, lay and clergy alike, fasted and prayed to God and Colum Cille until morning, and beseeched the Lord, and gave profuse alms of food and clothing to the churches and to the poor, and received the Body of the Lord from the hands of their priests, and promised to do every good thing as their clergy would best urge them, and that their battle-standard in the van of every battle would be the Crozier of Colum Cille—and it is on that account that it is called the Cathbuaid‘Battle-Triumph’from then onwards; and the name is fitting, for they have often won victory in battle with it, as they did at that time, relying on Colum Cille. They acted the same way on this occasion. Then this battle was fought hard and fiercely; the men of Alba won victory and triumph, and many of the Norwegians were killed after their defeat, and their king was killed there, namely Oittir son of Iarngna. For a long time after that neither the Danes nor the Norwegians attacked them, and they enjoyed peace and tranquillity. But let us turn to the story that we began.

The armies of the Danes and the Norwegians mustered to attack Chester, and since they did not get their terms accepted through request or entreaty, they proclaimed battle on a certain day. They came to attack the city on that day, and there was a great army with many freemen in the city to meet them. When the troops who were in the city saw, from the city wall, the many hosts of the Danes and Norwegians coming to attack them, they sent messengers to the King of the Saxons, who was sick and on the verge of death at that time, to ask his advice and the advice of the Queen. What he advised was that they do battle outside, near the city, with the gate of the city open, and that they choose a troop of horsemen to be concealed on the inside; and those of the people of the city who would be strongest in battle should flee back into the city as if defeated, and when most of the army of the Norwegians had come in through the gate of the city, the troop that was in hiding beyond should close the gate after that horde, and without pretending any more they should attack the throng that had come into the city and kill them all.

Everything was done accordingly, and the Danes and Norwegians were frightfully slaughtered in that way. Great as that massacre was, however, the Norwegians did not abandon the city, for they were hard and savage; but they all said that they would make many hurdles, and place props under them, and that they would make a hole in the wall underneath them. This was not delayed; the hurdles were made, and the hosts were under them making a hole in the wall, because they wanted to take the city, and avenge their people.

It was then that the King (who was on the verge of death) and the Queen


sent messengers to the Irish who were among the pagans (for the pagans had many Irish fosterlings), to say to the Irishmen, ‘Life and health to you from the King of the Saxons, who is ill, and from the Queen, who holds all authority over the Saxons, and they are certain that you are true and trustworthy friends to them. Therefore you should take their side: for they have given no greater honour to any Saxon warrior or cleric than they have given to each warrior or cleric who has come to them from Ireland, for this inimical race of pagans is equally hostile to you also. You must, then, since you are faithful friends, help them on this occasion.’ This was the same as saying to them, ‘Since we have come from faithful friends of yours to converse with you, you should ask the Danes what gifts in lands and property they would give to the people who would betray the city to them. If they will make terms for that, bring them to swear an oath in a place where it would be convenient to kill them, and when they are taking the oath on their swords and their shields, as is their custom, they will put aside all their good shooting weapons.’

All was done accordingly, and they set aside their arms. And the reason why those Irish acted against the Danes was because they were less friends to them than the Norwegians. Then many of them were killed in that way, for huge rocks and beams were hurled onto their heads. Another great number were killed by spears and by arrows, and by every means of killing men.

However, the other army, the Norwegians, was under the hurdles, making a hole in the wall. What the Saxons and the Irish who were among them did was to hurl down huge boulders, so that they crushed the hurdles on their heads. What they did to prevent that was to put great columns under the hurdles. What the Saxons did was to put the ale and water they found in the town into the towns cauldrons, and to boil it and throw it over the people who were under the hurdles, so that their skin peeled off them. The Norwegians response to that was to spread hides on top of the hurdles. The Saxons then scattered all the beehives there were in the town on top of the besiegers, which prevented them from moving their feet and hands because of the number of bees stinging them. After that they gave up the city, and left it. Not long afterwards there was fighting again …

CELT edition, Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, FA 429  (p. 169-173 in Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. Joan Newlon Radner (ed), first edition [xxxvii + 241 pages] Dublin Institute for Advanced StudiesDublin (1978)

I nearly called this post the beer and bee defense of Chester. It makes me wonder how many bee hives they had within the city walls. I guess there is clear association between the number of bee hives and the number of barrels of mead/ale. 🙂 They were clearly pulling out all stops to hold off the Vikings. Interesting though that they were able to send messengers back and forth to the Lady Æthelflaed and also to the Irish.

Why would an annalist insert a story of a battle in Fortriu in the middle of the Chester account? Reading through the Fragmentary Annals I can’t help noticing all the references and stories to either Adomnan or Columba.

Royal Weddings, Now and Then

Wedding of William and Kate Windsor, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Strathearn, and Carrickfergus.

The royal wedding this week has me thinking about royal weddings in general. For the modern monarchy, the royal family must be tied to its people in a way that it hasn’t been since perhaps early medieval times. The lack of support and respect given lately to monarchies in the Middle East is related in part  to the people feeling that these families have been imposed upon them and are not of them; they have shallow roots.

With William Windsor’s wedding this weekend the English royal family has solidified its relationship within the United Kingdom (at least as much as  a wedding can).  Kate Middleton is much more of a commoner than William’s mother Diana ever was. Their marriage brings the ‘common’ English people back into the royal family continuing a trend that Charles’ marriage to Diana began. Their children will be over three-quarters English stock, if you will.

The Queen played her part in building William’s future as well. The son of the Prince of Wales was given peerages in all three other kingdoms of the United Kingdom, Cambridge in England, Starthearn in Scotland and Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland.

An organic connection to the people was assumed in early medieval times. The royal houses grew out of the people. The younger sons of the royal houses produced enough children for the royal family to be deeply embedded in the kingdom without the leading members of the house seeking local wives.  Children belonged only to their father’s house where all of their rights were based. Aid from their mother’s family was based purely on personal relationships through their mother, not on rights. A sister’s son was an honored guest or fosterling in his uncle’s kingdom but had no rights. Because their base within their realm was firmly established, they could use royal marriages for other purposes.

Eadgyth and Otto

Royal Anglo-Saxon women held the role of peace weavers between kingdoms. Her job was to foster friendship and reduce violence between the royal houses. Peace weaving marriages often failed spectacularly, as in the case of Queen Alchflæd profiled by Tim of Senchus this week. Yet there is also plenty of evidence that such marriages produced tangible benefits. Marriages between seventh century Bernician-Deiran kings and Kent, Wessex and East Anglia fostered friendship and key links visible within the church, and in the spread of Christian missions. When Alfred’s grand-daughter Princess Eadgyth of Wessex (pictured) was sent to marry Otto I, son of King Henry of Germany, she was able to say that she was of the royal kindred of St Oswald, King of Northumbria through the marriage of her kinswoman to Oswald.  Eadgyth’s own marriage represents another type of royal marriage. In this case her half-brother King Æthelstan was probably seeking recognition from a continental king, in this case King Henry of Germany, of his royal authority more than military or economic gains. Likewise Eadgyth’s saintly heritage from St Oswald increased the specialness of Otto lineage.

As I think about it, the modern marriages of Charles and William both could also be seen as peace weaving marriages. In these cases, out reach to the people of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth weaves peace between the people and the royal family. Princess Diana and perhaps Duchess Kate will bring the concerns of their people, or at least their point of view,  to the attention of the royal family.

Iurminburgh’s Warning

Still working on Bede’s Life of Cuthbert —  I’ve been thinking about  Cuthbert’s prediction on Ecgfrith’s last campaign, and I find myself wondering about his warning to Queen Iurminburgh.

“But he immediately said to the queen, and secretly addressing her, it being Saturday, said: “See that you mount your chariot early on Monday — for it is not lawful to travel by chariot on the Lord’s Day — and go and enter the royal city quickly, lest perchance the king has been slain. But since I have been asked to go to-morrow to a neighboring monastery to dedicate a church there, I will follow you at once, as soon as the dedication is complete.” (Colgrave, p. 245)

First, according to the medieval calendar calculator May 20, 685, was indeed on a Saturday. This law about not traveling by chariot on a Sunday seems odd. Apparently Cuthbert could travel on foot or by horseback to the neighboring monastery, but they couldn’t use a “chariot”? Interesting. Also, where is she going by chariot? Which royal city? Its hard for me to imagine that Bamburgh was very approachable by chariot from Carlisle. I think Bamburgh was most approachable by sea, or by horseback. I suppose there were some trackways for carts or chariots but not like the old Roman roads south of the wall. Could Ecgfrith’s “royal city” be York? On the other hand, Cuthbert was bishop of Lindisfarne, not York. If he is following her then it would be to Bamburgh rather than York. This in turn re-enforces the continuing importance of the Bishop of Lindisfarne in royal politics. Given Ecgfrith’s role in elevating Cuthbert to the epsicopacy, it is also possible that he was personally invested in the welfare of Ecgfrith’s family. He may have had a specific role in protecting the queen and mediating the transfer of power (which may have implications for his retirement to Farne within of year of the transfer).

Perhaps more importantly, Bede isn’t claiming that Cuthbert knew that the king was dead. He is sending the queen, Iurminburgh, to the royal city in case the king has been slain. Is he sending her to safety or into danger? She will later take the veil at Carlisle, so presumably entering her sister’s monastery. Presumably she would have been as safe, if not safer, in the monastery as in the royal city. If they did have minor children or wards of the king, then she may be fleeing back to protect the children. On the other hand, a contemporary queen of Wessex, Saexburgh wife of Cenwealh, ruled from c. 673-674 after Cenwealh’s death until she was succeeded by Æscwine. Interestingly only a few years later in 678,  Æscwine of Wessex’s queen was the sister of Iurminburgh, whose name is unfortunately unknown, who with Iurminburgh made it difficult for Bishop Wilfrid to find refuge during his exile. So we know that Iurminburgh like her mother-in-law Eanflaed and her sister in Wessex was politically active. It is possible that Iurminburgh, perhaps with the counsel of Bishop Cuthbert, ruled during the transition between Ecgfrith and his half-brother Aldfrith who was on Iona when Ecgfrith was slain. That possibility is an interesting glimpse into the authority of a seventh century queen.

Reference: Bertram Colgrave, trans. (1940, rep. 2007) Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert. Oxford University Press.

Confirming Queen Eadgyth

Six months ago I wrote about the discovery of the remains of Queen Eadgyth of Germany, half-sister of King Æthelstan of England and grand-daughter of Alfred the Great in Magdeburg Cathedral. Eadgyth was the first wife of Otto I of Saxony, later after her death he became the first German Holy Roman Emperor. Through her children, Eadgyth was an ancestor of many European royal families. Historian and broadcaster Michael Wood has written an upbeat biography of her life, claiming that she was the Princess Diana of her time.

Eadgyth and Otto

It had been thought that Eadgyth’s remains had been lost in the renovations of Magdeburg Cathedral, that the late medieval sarcophagus was empty, but much to their surprise, when it was opened earlier this year a bone box was found inside. It had an inscription saying that it held the rescued remains of Queen Eadgyth found in the second restoration of her tomb in 1510.

When I wrote earlier tests on the bones were still pending. Last week the test results were announced. The tests turned out to be more of challenge than I think they expected. The video below has parts of the archaeologists discussion of their findings.

They failed to get usable DNA and the radiocarbon dating of the bones predicts an age 200 years too old. This seems ominous but they assure us that the early date is because she ate so much fish! James Barrett explains here why a high marine diet alters radiocarbon dating; basically, the ratio of C14 to C12 is different in marine and terrestrial environments. Alone this would be quite a problem but there are other isotope tests that can predict the ratio of marine to terrestrial sources in the diet. We’ll have to wait, perhaps years, for a proper archaeological report to see the data. The failure to get viable DNA is puzzling considering that they should have been protected in a coffin in the cathedral since her death even if they had been reburied up to five times.  They believe that they have identified textiles dating to each reburial.

With these standard tests failing, they next turned to strontium isotope analysis from her teeth.  Mike Pitts discusses how isotopes are used to reveal personal histories here. Strontium and oxygen isotopes show that the remains came from a woman who grew up in southern England. In her early years she moved frequently but after about age 10 she says in one area around Winchester. This fits the predicted movements of Eadgyth. In her very early childhood she would have moved with Edward the Elder’s royal court, specifically her mother, around southern England. After her mother’s divorce, her mother and probably Eadgyth are sent to a convent.

Several news pieces refer to Eadgyth being “banished” from the royal courts as a youth. I think they are looking at this the wrong way around. It seems likely to me that girls remained with their mothers until marriage. It would be better to say that her mother got to keep her daughter(s) with her in the convent than to say that the girls were banished. It seems likely that many young noble women would have been sent to monasteries as teenagers to keep them ‘safe’ until their marriages were arranged. They would have probably got most of their education then also. Its fairly likely that they were not the only noble girls in their convent. It is even possible that Eadgyth and her sister would have been sent to a convent even if Edward hadn’t divorced their mother.

The skeleton supports the identification of a 30 to 40 year old woman. Eadgyth was age 36 when she died in 946. The only other insight the bones revealed is wear on the femur that suggests a lot of horseback riding. This is generally viewed as being supportive of an aristocratic lifestyle. For all of their advantages, life was short in the 10th century. Eadgyth was only 36 when she died, but she lived longer than both her recorded children. Her son Liudolf died of fever at 27 and his sister died four years before him (and probably 5 years or more younger). Both her children, Liudolf (930– 957) and Liutgarde (d. 953), were buried at Saint Alban’s Abbey in Mainz.


” Tests confirm that bone are from medieval queen” Medieval News. 17 June 2010

Bones confirmed as those of Saxon Princess Eadgyth, My Science, 16 June 2010.

Ellie, Long-lost bones belong to Saxon Queen Eadgyth Heritage Key, June 17, 2010

Michael Wood (BBC) The life of an Anglo-Saxon princess. The Guardian, 17 June 2010.

Mike Pitts (editor of British Archaeology) How the study of our teeth is revealing our history, The Guardian, 17 June 2010.

James Barrett, The Fish Eaters of Orkney. Orkney Archaeological Trust. Papers and Pictures in Honour of Daphne Home Lorimer MBE, Feb. 2004.

Hello Eadgyth! (previous Heavenfield post)

Hello Eadgyth!

Eadgyth and Otto I. . Statue from Magdeburg Cathedral. Photo from Medieval News.

Earlier this week an Anglo-Saxon princess, Eadgyth, made a splash in the news. Her grave and body had been found in a German Cathedral. As the granddaughter of Alfred the Great, and half-sister of Æthelstan, first recognized king of the English, she has got the interest of historians and archaeologists in England. Being of interest only for her links to them – rather than for herself – is a feeling Eadgyth would have been all too familiar. Its pretty well known that Æthelstan sent 19 year old  Eadgyth and another sister Algiva/Adiva to 17 year old Otto (912-973), son of King Henry of Germany, and told him to take his pick, the other being married off to some Alpine prince whose name has never been recorded. King Henry probably got to arrange that marriage as another perk. Nice guys all around, huh?

Eadgyth married Otto in 929 when she was about 19. He (or perhaps really his father King Henry) gave her the city of Magdeburg as a wedding gift. I’ve read elsewhere that it was dowry, but husbands don’t give dowry. She gave birth to their son Liudolf in 930 and then a daughter Liutgarde. Otto became King of Germany and Duke of Saxony upon the death of his father in 936. She was Queen of Germany for ten years before her death at age 36 on 26 January 946. She was buried in convent in Madeburg, where she was probably a patron. She was recently discovered in a stone sarcophagus in Magdeburg Cathedral. After her death, Otto continued his conquests until he became Holy Roman Emperor in 962. Otto lived nearly another 30 years and remarried, but he still returned to Magdeburg where he was also buried.  Eadgyth was moved and reburied in stone sarcophagus in Magdeburg Cathedral in 151o.

Tests are being done to confirm that these remains are Eadgyth’s because they were found in a lead coffin inside the stone sarcophagus with the inscription “The rescued remains of Queen Eadgyth are in this sarcophagus, after the second renovation of this monument in 1510.” The bones wrapped in white silk appear to be of a woman in her thirties. Isotope analysis will be able to identify where the woman spent her childhood. Presumably they will also do radiocarbon dating and it would be nice if they did a facial reconstruction. Assuming the skull is intact and they have access to it, they should be able to make an accurate model of it and do a facial reconstruction with that without damaging the remains.

Eadgyth gains special attention from English historians (and Anglophiles) because she is believed to have promoted the veneration of St Oswald, King of Northumbria in Saxony and Germany. Why did she have a special attraction to St Oswald? The women of the house of Wessex had a special attraction to King Oswald because his wife was the daughter of King Cynegisl of Wessex, later recorded as Cyneburg. Eadgyth’s half-brother Æthelstan may have been a fosterling in the court of their aunt Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, when she rescued St Oswald’s relics from Viking-occupied Bardney in the year before Eadgyth’s birth. Æthelflaed moved the relics to their new minister at Gloucester, later renamed St Oswald’s Priory. This priory was to be the primary church for the Mercian royal family and their burial place. Lady Æthelflaed also established veneration of St Oswald at Chester alongside St Wereburg (Thacker,1995), a daughter of King Wulfhere of Mercia and great niece of St Æthelthryth of Ely. It is interesting that Lady Æthelflaed translated Wereburg’s relics to Chester but not the relics of St Æthelthryth of Ely, especially given that Wereburg was Abbess of Ely. Yet, Wereburg was a daughter of Mercia where the other abbesses of Ely did not have a connection to Mercia or Wessex.  Chester and Gloucester were the two primary cities of Mercia under Lady Æthelflaed with eastern Mercia either ruled by Vikings or in the frontier zone.

Through this marriage, Oswald becomes kinsman and uncle of the Wessex royal family. When Æthelstan sent his sisters to Germany to marry Otto, Eadgyth was described as being of of the “blessed line of King Oswald” (nata de stirpe beata Oswaldi regis) (Thacker, 1995). A bit of an exaggeration that she was a descendant at least by our understanding of kinship and descent. How a culture views kinship is dynamic, not a static thing. In the Gesta Ottonis, written under the orders of Otto’s niece Abbess Gerberga by Hrotsvitha of Gandrersheim in c. 965, Eadgyth’s lineage is held to be greater than her half-brother Æthelstan in part because of her kinship with St Oswald. Otto’s marriage to this Anglo-Saxon princess helped solidify his rule over Saxony (O’Riain-Radel, 1995). It is possible that Eadgyth came to Otto bearing relics, possibly of St Maurice, the leader of the Theban legion, to whom the Cathedral of Madeburg is dedicated. As we know that Æthelstan had received relics of St Maurice, O’Riain-Radel hypothesizes that she brought some of these relics with her to Saxony and were established in the Cathedral where they were both eventually buried. St Maurice, like Oswald, was another soldier saint and perhaps attractive to warrior kings like Æthelstan and Otto. We also know that manuscripts were gifted in both directions between Æthelstan and Otto, including gospel books but perhaps also hagiography. It seems likely that written legends would have accompanied Eadgyth on any saints Wessex wanted to promote in Germany. These would have been valuable to Otto and his father King Henry as information on a holy (Anglo-)Saxon king could have been used to help them get established in Saxony. Yet, the fact that Oswald was a foreign king meant he would not have had local kinsmen to challenge their rights in Saxony.

As the romance of Oswald developed around the marriage of Oswald to Cyneburgh, he would have become all the more attractive to other Wessex girls.  From the German point of view, a Wessex princess like Eadgyth could have easily been portrayed as being like Cyneburgh, the Wessex princess that became St Oswald’s wife. There is little evidence of Oswald’s romance within England (and few English medievalists today are aware of it) but it flourished in Germany where these Wessex girls sponsored his veneration. The only trace of the romance in England is the raven and ring iconography found in some Oswald artwork, but most of this artwork is quite late and often lacks the ring (so it could represent the raven in Reginald’s Life of Oswald that had nothing to do with romance). Editions of the German romances are listed in the reference section below; Kalinke being the most complete analysis.


Alan Thacker, (1995) “Membra Disjecta: the division of the body and the diffusion of the cult”. Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint. Paul Watkins.

Dagmar O’Riain-Radel (1995) “Edith, Judith, and Matilda: the Role of Royal Ladies in the Propagation of the Continental Cult” Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint. Paul Watkins.

Medieval News. (20 Jan 2010) Remains of Eadgyth, Anglo-Saxon Queen, discovered in German Cathedral. (actually Anglo-Saxon Queen of Germany)

Additional references for St Oswald on the continent:

Marianne  Kalinke    (2005)  St. Oswald of Northumbria: Continental Metamorphoses, with an Edition and Translation of the ‘Osvalds saga’ and ‘Van sunte Oswaldo deme konninghe’. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Annemiek Jansen. (1995) The Development of the St Oswald Legends on the Continent. Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint. Paul Watkins.

JW Thomas. (1989) The ‘Strassburg Alexander’ and the ‘Munich Oswald’: Pre-courtly Adventure of the German Middle Ages.

Peter Clemoes. (1983) The Cult of St Oswald on the Continent. Jarrow Lecture 1983.

EP Baker. (1949) St Oswald and his church at Zug. Archaeologia 93: 103-123.

EP Baker (1951) The Cult of St Oswald in Northern Italy. Archaeologia 94: 167-194.