Royal Women - Devon Lands

Royal Women - Devon Land
 (Taken from a longer unpublished piece)

Site of old Lydford Castle -is this where Queen Aelfthryth was born and lived? 

'Aelfthryth sends humble greetings to Archbishop Aelfrid and Earl Aethelward. I bear witness that Archbishop Dunstan assigned Taunton to Bishop Aethelwold, in conformity with the Bishop's charters ... And the king said that he had no land to grant out, when he durst not, for fear of God, retain the headship himself; and moroever he then put Ruishton under the Bishop's control. And then [Wulfgyth] rode to me at Combe and sought me.'
(See Elizabeth Norton, Elfrida The First Crowned Queen of England
(Amberley Publishing, 2009, for  background).

       ... The words of the charter shown above, a snapshot taken from a legal narrative (which refers to Somerset rather than Devon lands), provide us with the Saxon equivalent of a C21 podcast; they present immediate evidence of an authentic and lively voice taking on the advocate role in a land dispute.

  ...     You must begin to search somewhere and there are smatterings, often larger chunks of information, taken from a variety of sources, some of which help to fill in missing gaps; an authentic woman's voice rings out from an obscure document; a word; a name; a phrase; an idea; a feature of landscape from another age invites you in. Momentarily, you can hear and see back into that crack of her-story. Some documents, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, mention names of royal women, which, read aloud, ring out from the static parchment of manuscript: Godgifu is one of them. Then there are Seaxburg;Eadgifu/Aelfgifu; Aethelburgh; Judith; Emma; and Edith.
           There are more names, but many have sunk without trace into the historical mire, which confirms that at least from the C8 until the mid C10, West Saxon kings' consorts were of low status. It is only from C950 onwards that identifiable consorts such as Eadgifu begin to leave a footfall in the archives.

            And, then there's Aelfthryth 

            You hear and read her words in the passage above, which, according to one source, is

A rare example of a text attributed solely to an Anglo-Saxon queen' it is a 'writ, composed sometime between 999 and 1001, stands out as the only extant document in Ælfthryth's own voice ... Ælfthryth not only acts primarily on behalf of female litigants, but the surviving record explicitly highlights gender as the principal reason behind her intervention [but] as an authority specially qualified to represent female concerns to male authority.[i]

        Who was this Devon Saxon woman who vociferously championed the Saxon media air-waves on behalf of her female kin?

         Aelfthryth, Aelfrith, or Elfrida (c.945-1000), was a Dartmoor girl born and bred, who became Queen of England. Elfrida's own words quoted above come from her only known letter, composed near the end of her life, between 992 and 1002, which happens to be the earliest surviving letter by an English queen. By the time of the letter's composition Aelfthryth's life journey had taken her far from the remote, moorland environment of her girlhood, for, in a life-journey which bares all the hall-marks of fairy-tale, she was transported far away from her Westcountry origins. One recent blogger relates the tale, Saxon love-triangle, stuff of local legend:

Legend says Edgar heard that Aelfthryth was exceedingly beautiful and Edgar needed allies in the part of the country where her father was ealdorman. He sent one of his courtiers, Aethelwald, ealdorman of East Anglia to visit Aelfthryth to determine if she was beautiful and suitable to be his queen. Aethelwald found her so astoundingly beautiful he married her himself, telling the King she was unsuitable. Edgar found out the deception and decided to judge for himself if Aelfthryth was beautiful. Alarmed, Aethelwald asked Aelfthryth to make herself unattractive for the King’s visit. She did just the opposite. Edgar was so enticed by her gorgeous looks he wanted her for himself and managed to have Aethelwald killed in a hunting accident, so he could marry her …[ii]

            In the words of another commentator, Elfrida’s love-life 'sewed the seeds of the tragedy that was to befall England at the turn of the millennium'.[iii] The first female consort to be consecrated, or enthroned with the anointment of holy-oil, a ritual which made her object of extreme public veneration, our Devon Saxon queen may have been the first royal consort to possess royal star-status. Even in connection with the South West of the country, a variety of local literary sources, including Devon’s Exeter Book, confirm the consecrated Saxon queens' charismatic ability to dispense gifts of wise counsel.  For centuries following Elfrida, a queen consort was special, inviolate; her ritual endowment entitled her with a special knowledge and ability to influence art and literature.

            So, who was this exceedingly privileged and early stellar Saxon Devon queen? 
            Daughter of Ordgar, Earl of Devon, a nobleman whose son Ordulf (Elfrida's brother) founded Tavistock Abbey, Elfrida's mother's identity is uncertain, but she seems to have been of royal descent; she may have been a descendant of King Ethelred I (Aethelred), elder brother of King Alfred, from whom 'most of the tenth-century nobility was descended', whose wife may have been named Wulfthryth.[iv]

            Ordgar's family held immense wealth: They had land

 in every settlement from Exeter in Devon to Frome in Somerset, a distance of over 70 miles ... also had an association with Tavistock, which is 30 miles west of Exeter.[v]

Local tradition says that the family's main home was at Tavistock, but various other places have also been suggested; probably the family moved around and stayed at sites on their extensive estates, which included Lydford, one of the most important Anglo-Saxon burghs:

By the 10th century the town [Lydford] had its own mint, and its prosperity – probably founded on profits from the tin trade – is evident from the fact that it paid as much in taxes to the king as Totnes or Barnstaple. It occupied a position of great natural strength, a triangular promontory protected on two sides by deep river valleys.[vi]

 Another possible site for the family’s estate was Bradstone, just north west of Tavistock, a parish 'close to the ancient trackway into Cornwall, which forded the Tamar where Greystone Bridge now stands'[vii]

      Aelfthyrth/Elfrida keeps turning up in a well-repeated Devonshire folk tale (for example see this account in Southern Literary Messenger), where, probably mistakenly, or distortedly, she has been cast as an early Devon villainess. She is said to have instigated the murder of her first husband, the king’s friend, Earl Athelwood, as well as, later in her life, the assassination of her stepson, Edward the Martyr. The first murder supposedly left the young Devon noblewoman free to become Queen Aelfthryth through marriage to the king, Edgar the Peaceful. The second one left the throne free for her own son, Ethelred the Unready. The folk version of this latter tale, with its stereotypical casting of Elfrida, has been reiterated and passed down to modern times by later local writers such as AnnaEliza Bray, whose fictional twist on the famed Saxon girl from her own home-town re-jigged the version of Elfrida as evil incarnate.[viii]

            Unfortunately, the perpetuation of the longstanding stereotype, which had stuck with her image throughout the intervening centuries, belies and disguises the complexity of the real story; for in truth, Elfrida's first husband probably died before she married Edgar. One biographer comments:

Had Elfrida's reputation not been overshadowed by the murder of Edward the Martyr, she would almost certainly be remembered as a great religious queen in the same vein as her grandmother in law.[ix]
           Putting aside the grim indictments swirling round her name, other available data presents Aelfthryth, along with her second husband Edgar, in a more favourable, albeit complex, light. Not only was this Anglo-Saxon Devon queen a beauty. (Again, and again we are told that in her own home county Aelfthryth, said to have the nickname ‘Elfrida the Fair’, was famed for her physical perfections; her two husbands fell in love with her at first sight). But, as well as being renowned for her physical perfections, Elfrida was clever. Many men spoke of her wit; she was 'both fair and wise'. From earliest girlhood, she was 'great favourite' of her father and used to 'getting her own way'.[x] According to the many legends in which she features, Elfrida was evidently an ‘ambitious woman of great ability’,[xi] who seems to have held more political sway than any of the other royal Saxon wives.

            There are tantalising hints which hint at Elfrida's later involvement in literary production; for instance, with her husband Edgar, she commissioned a translation of the Rule of St Benedict into English; the couple, who 'favoured monasteries at the expense of the entrenched tribal loyalties of the nobles',[xii] encouraged monastic learning and introduced one of England's greatest religious reforms. Aelfthryth was a literary woman who must have been immersed within a highly cultured coterie from early childhood onwards. During the tenth century Tavistock Abbey became a famed centre of learning, possessing one of the first printing presses in the country; some historians believe the place also had a nunnery (which, in those days was a special Saxon school of learning for the study of Latin). It is tempting and plausible to imagine  that as sister of the abbey's founder, Aelfthryth must have had influence on that establishment, perhaps as patron. After all, high-status girls in Anglo Saxon England were frequently highly educated and a recent biographer notes that it can be reasonably assumed that Elfrida could at least read and write in her own language and would have been familiar with various genres of contemporary literature.[xiii] One indication of Elfrida's interest in literature is the care she took to ensure her step-daughter Ethelflaed (thought by Elfrida's biographer to be her natural daughter - see xiv), received a sophisticated education 'under the care of a female teacher.’[xiv]

            My inclination is to imagine a connection between Elfrida with a circle of 'professed religious women associated with Exeter cathedral community'.[xv] A document called The Leofric Missal

'records a list of sureties, dated 968-993, between an Abbess Eadgifu and an Abbot Leofric for land at Stoke Canon in Devon; Eadgifu was almost certainly the abbess of a community supervised by Exeter Cathedral'.[xvi]
            Seemingly there are interesting synchronicities, not least of them the coincidence of dates. During these years a nunnery was probably established in Exeter, which, originally was partnered with a Benedictine monastery, then divided into a separate community of nuns:

Halpin (1994) and Barbara Yorke (1989) have both discussed the late Anglo-Saxon practice of high-status religious women holding estates that were geographically near to, and spiritually linked with, male monastic communities; such a structure may have been in effect in eleventh-century Exeter.[xvii]
         The community of Exeter Saxon nuns may have read from one of the most significant textual anthologies of the Benedictine revival, The Exeter Book, whose origins, as already noted, are placed mid to late C10; (though the suggested date for gift of the text to Exeter Cathedral's scriptorium, by BishopLeofric, Edward the Confessor (Elfrida's grandson's) chaplain, was much later, in 1050, therefore some years after Elfrida's passing).[xviii]

            But, even so, in my imagination I picture a reading circle of aristocratic Saxon nuns in the centre of the then Exeter fraternity. It is entirely plausible, to imagine our Devon queen Elfrida (who may have been kinswoman of the mysteriously unidentified Abbess Eadgifu), as one of the prime movers in this female community of Devon readers.

            Way beyond her own life, through that of her son Edmund, Elfrida was mother of thousands of descendants, including those who make up royal lineages and others of us alive today.


[iv] For further discussion concerning Elfrida's family see Elizabeth Norton, Elfrida The First Crowned Queen of England. (Amberley Publishing, 2013).
[v] Ibid., chapter 1.
[vii] 'We know that about 970 Ordgar, the Ealdorman in Devon under Edward the Confessor, set free 10 slaves at Bradstone where he was lying sick, so there must then have been some kind of manor house and probably also a church or oratory'.
[viii] See Anna Eliza Bray, Trelawney of Trewlawne; or The Prophecy; A Legend of Cornwall (1837).
[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid, chapter 1.
[xi] Ibid.
[xii]See Dartmoor Resource
[xiii] Towards the end of her life, after becoming a nun, Aelfthryth founded the Benedictine Abbey near Amesbury as well as a Monastery at Wherwell, Hampshire.
[xiv] Elizabeth Norton, Elfrida The First Crowned Queen of England, chapter 2.
[xv] The Maternal Performance of the Virgin Mary in the Old English "Advent", Mary Dockray-Miller. NWSA Journal Vol.
14, No. 2 (Summer, 2002), 38-55

[xvi] See
[xvii] The Maternal Performance of the Virgin Mary in the Old English "Advent", 49.
[xviii] It is agreed however that the text was probably read by monks in the C10 monastery, and recently, challenging the traditional theory that it was read only by men, scholars have suggested that certain of the collection's contents, such as the Advent Poem, which opens the whole anthology, and another text, Juliana, would have been circulating before the collections of manuscripts was settled in the Exeter scriptorium and that just as the poem made its way into a collection for private reading in the monastery at Exeter, it may have earlier been included in private devo- tionals made by, made for, used by, or read to women. This suggests the possibility of a female as well as a male audience for the Exeter Book, 'bringing the manuscript out of its seclu-sion in the masculine space of the cathedral library and into the daily devotional lives of the women and men of late tenth-century Exeter'.  Ibid., 50.


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