Friday, June 19, 2020

Anglo-Saxon Women who left their Husbands

By Annie Whitehead

When were women legally allowed to petition for divorce? Perhaps one might guess at the late nineteenth or even early twentieth century?

In fact, the laws of King Æthelberht of Kent (c. 589-616) state that ‘if [a maiden married with proper payment of bride-gift] wishes to go away with the children, she is to have half the goods.’ I must admit, though, this is a little vague and hard to interpret.

However, even up to the eleventh century, women couldn’t be forced to marry a man whom they disliked, and widows could not be forced into remarriage. Women were not necessarily trapped in wedlock.

There are certainly a number of high-profile cases where women decided that married life was not for them. True, their (eventual) destinations were abbeys. But ‘Get thee to a nunnery’? No, it was more a case of ‘I’m off’. They weren’t banished, they chose to go. And in rather spectacular style, too...
Let’s meet some of them.


Wimborne Minster (Image credit)

Cuthburh was a West Saxon princess, a sister of King Ine of Wessex. She was instrumental in founding the first West Saxon monasteries. The Anglo-Norman chronicler William of Malmesbury recorded that she ‘was given in marriage to Aldfrith, king of the Northumbrians, but the contract being soon after dissolved, she led a life dedicated to God.’ William’s notes echo the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which tells us that Cuthburh founded a monastery at Wimborne, and that she had been married to Aldfrith but that they separated ‘during their lifetime’. Clearly then, it was acceptable for a marriage to end and although the result was the religious life for Cuthburh, we don’t know if that’s the reason why the marriage was dissolved. It was, remember, ‘soon after’ dissolved, so maybe the couple took an instant dislike to each other?

In the next case, the yearning for the religious life probably was the driving force behind the divorce, but the route to that life was rather more dramatic.

Domneva (Sometimes Domne Eafe, or Eormenburg)

The Saxon remains of Minster (in Thanet) Abbey
by kind permission of the Sisters

Domneva, daughter of a king of Kent, married Merewalh, who might have been the son, or son-in-law, of Penda of Mercia. The marriage lasted for a little over a decade before Domneva left Mercia and returned to Kent. The circumstances under which she left are recorded in a text known as the Mildrith Legend and the story concerns the murder of Domneva’s brothers by their cousin, Ecgberht, or rather by a servant of his, Thunor. Whether he ordered the killings, or was merely guilty of failing to stop his servant from committing murder, King Ecgberht was deemed liable. A wergild (man price) was owed in compensation, and Ecgberht paid this wergild to Domneva in the form of land on Thanet for her to found a monastery.

According to the Mildrith Legend, Domneva requested that she have as much land on Thanet as her tame hind could run around. As the hind ran, it was followed by the king and the court, but Thunor attempted to stop the animal and was swallowed by the earth. When the hind had finished running, Domneva was able to claim forty-eight hides of land, compensation had been duly paid, and Thunor got his comeuppance. As we’ve seen, seventh-century traditions allowed for royal couples to separate in pursuit of the religious life and Domneva would have been free to leave Merewalh even without her brothers being murdered. Were their deaths really the catalyst, and is the story true? If it is, it shows a shrewd woman who was wily enough to ensure the maximum grant of land for her religious foundation.

Perhaps the most fascinating story, though, is that of our next lady.

St Æthelthryth

Æthelthryth (Image info)

Æthelthryth was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia and in fact she was married twice, the first time to a man named Tondberht who was a high-ranking member of an elusive tribe known as the South Gyrwe. That first marriage lasted only a few years and she was apparently still a virgin when Tondberht died. Given what we know of her later life and the fact that, according to one source, she resisted for some time before agreeing to her first marriage, it is perhaps surprising that she agreed to the second, but it’s interesting to note that this indicates a certain amount of choice in the matter of marriage. She had retired to Ely Abbey and been a widow for five years before her marriage to Ecgfrith of Northumbria.

Ecgfrith was young, perhaps around 15, when he married Æthelthryth in 660. Æthelthryth was older than Ecgfrith by some margin, perhaps as much as a decade. Bede records that Æthelthryth refused to consummate her marriage and was encouraged in this by St. Wilfrid. In around 672, Æthelthryth became a nun, and apparently received her holy veil from Wilfrid.

Bede relates a simple tale, that ‘at length and with difficulty’ Æthelthryth gained her husband’s permission to enter a monastery, staying first with the abbess at Coldingham and then becoming abbess of Ely.

But what of her initial escape from the clutches of her husband? There is another version of her story. The Liber Eliensis, (the history of Ely Abbey) relates how Ecgfrith, having initially agreed to the divorce, then tried to remove her forcibly from the convent. The abbess of Coldingham advised Æthelthryth that her only option was to escape. The king set off in pursuit, but Æthelthryth and her two lady companions climbed to the top of a steep hill where divine intervention caused the water levels to rise. The king could not get near, and eventually returned to York.

In reality, it’s likely that Ecgfrith would have been glad to be rid of an older wife who refused to give him children. Nevertheless, whichever version one chooses to believe, note that even in the more dramatic version, Ecgfrith had initially agreed to the divorce. Æthelthryth clearly had a lot of say over her marital status.

(Incidentally, it is from her that we get the word ‘tawdry’ from her modernised name, Audrey. A fair held in Ely on her feast day became popular and items which had apparently touched her shrine were of low quality, hence ‘tawdry’.)

It must be remembered that life as an abbess was no punishment. Many of the abbeys were double houses, where monks and nuns lived, and it was not an isolated life. Abbesses ruled rich estates and were highly influential politically. They just didn’t always retire quietly!


Annie Whitehead studied History under the eminent Medievalist Ann Williams. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an editor for EHFA.  She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, one of which was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society (HNS) Indie Book of the year 2016, and a full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines, including winning the New Writer Magazine Prose Competition. She was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017. She has recently been a judge for that same competition, and for the HNS Short Story Competition. Annie’s new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, is published by Pen & Sword Books.

For more information, visit Annie's Website or her Author Page. Also connect with Annie through her Blog and Twitter (@AnnieWHistory)

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