A Glimpse into the Lives and Roles of Anglo-Saxon Women

From queens to slaves, many Anglo-Saxon women left their mark on history. Historians are now closer than ever to uncovering their voices.

Dec 13, 2022By Molly Dowdeswell, MA Early Modern History, BA History

role of women in anglo saxon england


Women held positions at every level of the social ladder in Anglo-Saxon England, from the very top with positions of queenship to the very bottom as slaves. Each woman, nevertheless, has their own story. These are stories that, for a long time, have been buried beneath history and the more-recorded stories of their male counterparts. Now, with the benefit of developing technology, historians are uncovering more and more evidence that can paint a picture of how many of these women actually lived. From books to brooches, the simplest personal items can uncover an array of historical information that sheds light on these women’s experiences.


Anglo-Saxon Queens

anglo saxon women aelfthryth
Edward the Martyr is offered a cup of mead by Ælfthryth, wife of Edgar, unaware that her attendant is about to murder him. From Doyle, James William Edmund (1864) “Edward the Martyr” in A Chronicle of England: B.C. 55 – A.D. 1485, London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, pp. p. 72


The group of Ango-Saxon women we know the most about today are the queens. This is because they would have been the country’s most educated and well-known women. During this period, there were hardly any queens who ruled in their own right; an Anglo-Saxon queen would have sat next to her husband on the throne with little to no input.


However, this is not to say that there were no exceptions to this norm. One of these great exceptions was Æthelflæd (d.918), Lady of the Mercians and daughter of King Alfred the Great (871-899). Her life and reign are recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. After the death of her husband, the King of Mercia, she led armies against the Welsh and the Vikings.


Æthelflæd also fortified major areas throughout the Midlands, including Tamworth, Warwick, and Stafford. She even extended her influence as far north as York. Her conquests were so influential that they paved the way for the creation of the Kingdom of England by King Aethelstan (924-939).

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Another particularly influential queen was Queen Emma (d.1052), who played a prominent role in 11th-century English politics. She was not married to one king but two: she was the wife of King Æthelred the Unready (978-1016) and then later King Cnut (1016-1035).


women anglo saxon england emma normandy
Mortuary chest from Winchester Cathedral, Winchester, England. 2010.


Emma exerted some influence over her second husband, Cnut, when, during the Danish conquest of England. The couples’ miniature can be found at the beginning of the Liber Vitae (Book of Life), where they are depicted standing before the alter in a church.


Not only was Emma married to two kings, but she also raised two. Her son by Cnut was Harthacnut (1040-1042), and her son by Æthelred was Edward the Confessor (1042-1066). Between 1041 and 1042, she commissioned her biography titled In Praise of Queen Emma, which endeavored to justify her choices and political career.


Æthelflæd and Emma were not the only women who played an important role in England’s early political history. Many women were married into positions of power. For example, five of King Æthelstan’s sisters were married off to powerful nobles in mainland Europe.


The Power of Marriage

women anglo saxon england end song
The End of the Song by Edmond Leighton, 1902


While these women can and should be recognized for their power and influence as early Queens who, in some cases, ruled in their own right, it is important to acknowledge the deeper, more embedded use of marriage in this period. Marriage was often a practice controlled by their male relatives and for the benefit of men.


Often, through marriage, women were used as a “peace-weaver.” In linking two disputing families through marriage, quarrels that sometimes lasted decades, if not centuries, could be mended and forgotten.


An example of this can be seen in The Wife’s Lament (a book composed between 960 and 990), in which the narrator writes, “I must suffer the feud of my much beloved.” This, therefore, implies that the female narrator has experienced the warring of rival tribes. It is also perhaps demonstrative of the role women were often expected to play in providing a safe haven for their husbands after conflict. They were expected to create a comfortable home where they could return from war.


However, women could not always bring about peace or fulfill the diplomatic roles expected of them. This can be seen in the Old English poem Beowulf with the marriage of Hildeburh and Finn. The former was a Danish princess who married the Frisian King in order to end a feud between the two nations. Unfortunately, the peace between these two nations did not hold, and war broke out. In the end, Hildeburh had to mourn not only her husband but her brother and son.


Anglo-Saxon Women & Slavery

women anglo saxon england serfs
Reeve and serfs in feudal England, c. 1310, via Queen Mary’s Psalter (Ms. Royal 2. B. VII) fol. 78v [1]


Despite the troubles of the Anglo-Saxon queens, women on the lowest rung of the social ladder suffered considerably. Unfortunately for historians today, due to the lack of surviving sources, we still know very little about the lives of the majority of women in England at this time.


However, technological advances are slowly allowing us to uncover more. Recent developments have meant we are now able to uncover information about these women, particularly those who were enslaved.


Occasionally, slaves were freed, and the act was recorded in writing. Remnants of this can be found in gospel books like the Bodmin Gospels, which was made in Cornwall. These records are known as manumissions and were often erased by later owners of the manuscripts. However, with new multispectral imaging technology, we can now see some of the erased text.


In the Bodmin Gospels, a record of a woman named Guenenguith has been found. She is said to have been a slave belonging to Bishop Comoere of Cornwall (d. after 981). She had a son Morcefres with whom she was freed on the altar of St. Petroc at some point during the 10th century. However, this is the only record historians could find of the pair, so for now, their story ends there.


Women in the Anglo-Saxon Home

medieval child birth
A midwife presents St Anne, naked except for a white cap, with the baby Mary, from Ranworth Antiphoner, fol 257


While relatively little is known about women in Anglo-Saxon England, the books they owned can give historians an interesting peek into their lives. For example, little is known about childbirth; however, from medical texts, we can discern the medical remedies used and the charms provided to help a woman birth a healthy baby. Examples include Bald’s Leechbook and the Old English Herbal.


Women also owned other types of books. For example, there are five or six surviving prayer books from this period that had female owners. One of these is the Book of Nunnaminster which probably belonged to Ealhswith (d. 902), the wife of King Alfred the Great. Historians know this because the last page contains a description of her property in Winchester.


Another example of women owning books comes in the form of four gospel books made for Judith of Flanders (d. 1095), who was the sister-in-law of Harold (the last Anglo-Saxon king of England). It is thought that continental craftsmen made the jeweled cover of the book, whereas the intricately decorated pages were made in England. This book is not only evidence of women owning books but also of the luxurious libraries Anglo-Saxon women may have owned or had access to.


women anglo saxon england bishop aldhelm
Stained glass window showing Aldhelm, installed in Malmesbury Abbey in 1928 in memory of Rev. Canon C. D. H. McMillan, who was Vicar of Malmesbury, 1907 to 1919; photograph taken by Adrian Pingstone in February 2005 and released to the public domain


Some women even had works written for them. Bishop Aldhelm of Sherborne (d. 709/10), for example, wrote one of the most complex Latin poems ever, titled On Virginity and dedicated to the abbess and nuns of Barking.


There is also evidence that women could write. For example, the abbess Hild of Whitby wrote letters to contacts all over Europe. Other women wrote their own wills. One-third of all surviving wills from the Anglo-Saxon period were made on behalf of women.


In a woman named Wynflæd’s will, she left two highly-skilled slaves, “a woman-weaver and a seamstress,” among other possessions. To her granddaughter Eadgifu, she left her best bed curtain, a tapestry, two chests, her best tunic and cloak, a brooch, and a cook!


Of course, these sources only reflect a very small section of Anglo-Saxon female society; however, they are interesting nevertheless. For example, other official documents like charters simply do not provide a look into women’s lives in such a detailed way.


Anglo-Saxon Women’s Clothing

anglo saxon brooch
Silver-gilt plated disc brooch; nielloed border and gold appliqué with cloisonné garnet and glass cross; five shell bosses; filigree, 6th-7th Centuries, via The British Museum, London


The Anglo-Saxon period spans many years, and so the fashion from the beginning to the end evolved drastically. However, from the little evidence that remains, historians have been able to piece together some pictures of what women would have worn.


On a farm in Norfolk, a gold and garnet brooch was found and thought to be from the early 7th century (a time when the English were being converted to Christianity) and was once the property of a woman. The brooch has inscriptions of runes and a decoration resembling other items found in Kent, Francia, and the Low Countries.


Another brooch that has been found and named the Ædwen Brooch (pictured below) is also thought to have been the property of a woman. In contrast to the brooch above, it is believed that it was made in the 11th century and has Latin words inscribed on it with references to the Christian God. Not only do these objects tell us about the life and wealth of women, but they also document the religious shift taking place in England at the time.


women anglo saxon england aedwen brooch
The Ædwen or Sutton brooch, 11th century, via The British Museum, London


There are also animals on the brooch, which is reflective of motifs found in Scandinavian art. This makes sense as the region (East Anglia) had been invaded by Vikings since the 9th century. There is also foliage depicted on the brooch, similar to that found on manuscripts made in Wessex. This is then illustrative of the fact that by the 10th century, East Anglia was under the dominion of West Saxon kings.


women anglo saxon england medieval nun
A nun. Photo: DEA / G. NIMATALLAH/De Agostini/Getty Images


In conclusion, it is evident that women had many responsibilities in Anglo-Saxon England, which differed depending on their social standing. Life was not always easy for these women, regardless of their social status. Often seen as property owned by their male relatives if they were noble, by their local lord if they were peasants, or by their literal owner if they were enslaved, there was little freedom offered to the Anglo-Saxon women. Nevertheless, every now and then, we can glimpse some examples of women who reached for more than was afforded to them.

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By Molly DowdeswellMA Early Modern History, BA HistoryMolly graduated from the University of Birmingham with a master's degree in early modern history and from Swansea University with a bachelor’s degree in history. She has a long-standing interest in the subject and enjoys researching and writing on a broad range of historical topics and is most interested in the history of medicine and disease. Molly is currently working as a writer based in Birmingham, England and is planning on returning to university to complete a PhD in history.