Friday, September 7, 2018

Winchcombe and its Royal Connections

by Annie Whitehead

Winchcombe is a pretty Cotswold town, not far from Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire. Walking or driving along its main street, one can immediately see that it has history.

Pretty cottages nestle side by side, the yellow stone seeming to soak up and yet reflect the sunlight. But the history of Winchcombe goes much further than these old buildings would suggest. In fact, at one time, there was a separate 'county' of Winchcombeshire.

The town lies in what was once the ancient tribeland of the Hwicce, an area which was absorbed into the greater area of Mercia, but which originally had its own kings. These kings gradually had their status reduced, eventually issuing and witnessing royal charters as sub-kings of Mercia.

Osric, Sub-king of the Hwicce, founder of Gloucester Cathedral

Winchcombe first made the 'headlines' in the eighth century, when Cenwulf became king of Mercia. Cenwulf succeeded after the death of Ecgfrith, son of Offa. Ecgfrith's reign was short, a matter of some five months, and Cenwulf had no direct links with the previous kings. It is possible that he was descended from a sister of Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, but equally he may have been connected to the Hwicce, for he made claims to 'hereditary lands' in the heart of the Hwiccan territory.

Cenwulf was no less a warlord than previous kings, and in 801 he was attacked by the king of Northumbria. He also, notoriously, captured the king of Kent, who went by the name of Eadberht Præn. Cenwulf put his own brother on the Kentish throne, thus bringing the kingdom of Kent under direct Mercian control.

But Cenwulf's hold on Kent was weakened by his long-running dispute with the archbishop of Canterbury, and it is perhaps this for which he is most remembered. His argument centred around Kentish minsters and the question of whether there should be lay control of ecclesiastical lands. Cenwulf went so far as to threaten to exile the archbishop unless the matter was resolved, and the dispute involved not only Cenwulf, but his daughter, too.

Carving of Cenwulf at Winchombe
Cwoenthryth was not only the daughter of the king, but she was an abbess too. She was the first abbess of Winchcombe Abbey, and her father had also appointed her abbess of the royal minsters of Reculver and Minster-in-Thanet in Kent. The arguments about whether Church or State should control these lucrative sites rumbled on. Some believed that the archbishop even forged documents to support his case.

When Cenwulf died (he was buried at Winchcombe), Cwoenthryth was named as his heir. This doesn't mean that she succeeded to the throne, but that she inherited his property, which included the minsters. The Councils of Clofesho debated her right not to be an abbess, but to own the abbeys themselves. The councils found in favour of the archbishop, but Cwoenthryth was allowed to remain as abbess and retained possession of Winchcombe, although she had to surrender the lands in Kent.

There is a legend surrounding her, which may or may not have something to do with her long-running dispute with the Church. According to this legend, she arranged to have her young brother Kenelm murdered because she wanted to be queen. A dove dropped a message on the altar of St Peters in Rome, alerting people to the whereabouts of the body, which was then re-interred with all ceremony at Winchcombe. The story goes that when she saw the funeral procession, she recited a psalm backwards in order to cast a spell, and her eyeballs promptly fell out, splattering the psalter in front of her with blood.

Winchcombe Abbey fell into decline in the latter part of the ninth century, and in the tenth it was reformed as part of the Benedictine Monastic Reformation in Edgar's reign, when the clerks were replaced with Benedictine monks.

In the eleventh century, Winchcombe was once again in the 'news'. One of the most reviled earls of Mercia went by the name of Eadric Streona - whose epithet has been translated as 'the Grasper' - and it is possible that part of his notoriety stemmed from his treatment of Winchcombeshire. By this time, Mercia was no longer a kingdom, but its earls were still powerful men, ruling vast areas of land.

Eadric made his career in politics and warfare, and famously vacillated at crucial moments. He was accused more than once of murder, and he was a notorious turncoat. Supposedly on the side of Æthelred the Unready - he was married to the king's daughter - he went over to Cnut's side, changed his mind to fight with Edmund Ironside - son of Æthelred - before once again changing sides and leading his men from the battlefield at a pivotal moment in 1016, ensuring that Cnut had the victory over Edmund. After this it was agreed that the country be divided between the two, but Edmund died shortly afterwards, and Eadric's family were, according to some sources, involved in that death, too.
A page from Hemming's Cartulary

But it seems that Eadric's nickname, which might more accurately be translated as 'Acquisitive' came from his administrative dealings. Hemming, a monk of Worcester, compiled what has come to be known as Hemming's Cartulary, and in it, Hemming reports that ‘He [Eadric] joined townships to townships and shires to shires at will; it was he who amalgamated the hitherto independent county of Winchcombe with the county of Gloucester.’

There has been huge and long-standing debate about when and how the shires of Mercia came into being. The old territories such as that of the Hwicce disappeared, with new boundary lines cut through traditional areas. Whether or not Eadric can be blamed for this, it is clear that Hemming thought him to be a grasping man, acquiring lands at the Church's expense to line his own pockets, and local men would have no cause to remember Eadric fondly.

So Mercia's status had been reduced from that of kingdom to that of ealdordom and then earldom, and the independent county of Winchcombeshire was no more. There is no trace left of the original abbey building, although it is said that stones from the abbey have been incorporated into other buildings in the town, and some of the stones are housed in a collection at nearby Sudeley Castle.

If you are immune to nettle stings and don't mind climbing steep hills, you can visit St Kenelm's Well, a site where the funeral procession rested before the little murdered king, Kenelm, was buried at Winchcombe. But your intrepid researcher has done all that for you:-

So, instead, take a walk through the pretty town of Winchcombe and wonder where the stones of the once famous abbey now hide within the walls of the newer buildings.

[all photographs by and copyright of the author. Illustration of Hemming's Cartulary is a Public Domain image via Wikipedia]


Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon Mercia. Her history of Mercia, from Penda the pagan king to the last brave stand of the earl of Mercia against the Conqueror, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, will be published by Amberley on 15 September 2018.

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