Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Ælfflæd: An Abbess Who Was Always a Princess

By Kim Rendfeld

Ælfflæd’s life was decided in her father’s battle against the Mercians in 655. Northumbrian King Oswiu made a promise: if God granted him victory, he would give land and his 1-year-old daughter to the Church. Ælfflæd would never be a queen, but she wielded royal power.

When she was an infant, Ælfflæd was commended to the care of her mother’s kinswoman Hild, abbess of Hartlepool. Two years later, Hild founded the double monastery of Whitby with the donated land, and she and the toddler took up residence there.

Because of her father’s decision, Ælfflæd was no longer eligible for a political marriage. Probably not a bad thing in this family. Elder half-sister Alhflæd might have had something to do with the death of her husband, the son of the ruler Oswiu killed in battle. Her full sister, Osthryth, later married to a Mercian king, was murdered by Mercian nobles.

Ælfflæd grew up in Whitby, a center for learning and a cradle of bishops. While Ælfflæd was still a child, the abbey hosted the Synod of Whitby in 664 to decide whether the Church should practice Christianity like the Romans or the Celts. The two sides disagreed on many things such as the date for Easter and how tonsures should be shaped. Ælfflæd’s own parents were on different sides—her father favored the Celts while her mother supported the Romans. The Roman way prevailed.

At the abbey, Ælfflæd would become a teacher and was probably being groomed to succeed Hild. It was common for an abbey to pass from aunt to niece or another female relative. As an aristocrat, Ælfflæd was expected to lead.

After Oswiu died in 670, Ælfflæd’s widowed mother, Eanflæd, joined her daughter at Whitby. Eanflæd and Hild apparently were close in childhood, baptized together in 627. When Hild died in 680, Ælfflæd and Eanflæd jointly ruled the double monastery. Eanflæd died after 685, and Ælfflæd assumed sole rule until her death in 714.

And rule she did.

Ælfflæd might have played a role in one of Hild’s pupils becoming a bishop. She commissioned the Life of Gregory, a hagiography written by one of her monks or nuns, and oversaw the translation of her grandfather King Edwin’s relics to Whitby. She was influential enough to write to a continental abbess of behalf of religious women pilgrims. And she was a close friend of the holy man Cuthbert. One story has a linen girdle Cuthbert sent miraculously healing her of an illness that left her paralyzed. About 684, she consulted with him on a matter close to her heart.

She might have been concerned that her brother Ecgfrith, her father’s successor as king of Northumbria, had no sons. Ecgfrith’s first marriage with Etheldreda ended with her following her dream to be a nun, at the urging of Bishop Wilfrid (whom Hild also disliked), and her brother’s second marriage had yet to produce heirs. If we are to believe Cuthbert’s hagiography—and that’s a big if—Cuthbert reminded her that she had a half-brother born out of wedlock before her father’s first marriage. I have a feeling Ælfflæd knew all along and was testing Cuthbert’s loyalty.

Cuthbert was appointed a bishop of Lindisfarne soon after the meeting. Supposedly, he didn’t want the office. It would not surprise me if Ælfflæd played a role the decision.

Ecgfrith died in a disastrous battle in 685, and half-brother Aldfrith, a man in his 50s, ascended to the throne. Although she did not wear a crown, Ælfflæd was someone to reckon with when it came to making peace between Aldfrith and Wilfrid. The archbishop seeking the reconciliation wrote to both the king and his sister. Apparently brother and sister were close, and she had a streak of pragmatism.

When Aldfrith died at the end of his 20-year reign, he had an 8-year-old son, Osred. A rival named Eadwulf seized the throne but was expelled two months later, thanks to teamwork from Ælfflæd, Wilfrid, and a nobleman. Ælfflæd testified that Aldfrith wished for his successor to reconcile the royal family with Wilfrid, and Osred became Wilfrid’s adopted son and king. The next year, Wilfrid didn’t get the See of York as he wanted but he was allow to retain two churches and named a bishop.

With her combination of piety, education, and savvy, it is little wonder her contemporaries called her “a wise woman and learned in the Holy Scripture” and “ever the comforter and best counsellor of the whole kingdom.”

Public domain images via Wikimedia Commons.


“Ælfflæd (654–714)” by Alan Thacker, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

“Osred I (696x8–716)” by David Rollason, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Bede’s Life of Cuthbert

Beda: A Journey to the Seven Kingdoms at the Time of Bede by Henrietta Leyser

The Earliest English Kings by D. P. Kirby

Double Agents: Women and Clerical Culture in Anglo-Saxon England, by Clare Lees, Gillian Overing

Motherhood and Mothering in Anglo-Saxon England by M. Dockray-Miller

Prayer and Thought in Monastic Tradition: Essays in Honour of Benedicta Ward SLG edited by Santha Bhattacharji, Dominic Mattos, Rowan Williams

A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Studies, edited by Jacqueline Stodnick, Renée Trilling


Kim Rendfeld has written two novels set in 8th century Europe. In The Cross and the Dragon, a Frankish noblewoman must contend with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband (available on Amazon). In The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, a Saxon peasant will fight for her children after losing everything else (available on Amazon). Her short story “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” about Guinevere’s decision to marry Arthur, is set in early medieval Britain and available on Amazon.

Connect with Kim at on her website, her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at, on Facebook at, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld.

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