The Women of Anglo Saxon Huntingdonshire – Part 1: Setting the Scene

“The Evidence which has survived from Anglo-Saxon England indicates that women were then more nearly the equal companions of their husbands and brothers than at any time before the modern age” from Doris Stenton’s “The English Woman in History”

An introduction
I will be honest about two things. Firstly, I was invited to write a blog – or series of blogs – to coincide with International Women’s day (8th March), but did not manage to complete it in time. Thankfully, women’s history should be celebrated every month, so consider sharing this two months later than intended to be an affirmation of that! Secondly, I am no expert and am therefore indebted to two books which gave me insight into Anglo Saxon life in England, which, along with other local sources, have helped shape my idea of how local women would have lived through this period; ‘The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium’ by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, and ‘Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450 – 1500’ by Henrietta Leyser.

“Enga-lond” was a concept that few would have heard of and fewer still would be able to grasp. The country was divided into petty kingdoms and domains held by (at times hostile!) groups.

So, what do we know about life in Anglo Saxon Huntingdonshire?
Evidence has shown that Anglo Saxons had already arrived in the Nene and Ouse valleys before the withdrawal of the Roman forces in around 410AD. These settlers came from the harsher climes of northern Europe, to “A green and pleasant England with ample space to breathe, the sound of birdsong… the sharp smell of drifting woodsmoke on an autumn evening

Over the following five centuries, the population of ‘Enga-lond’ grew to around a million people. They did not have surnames – there was not yet any need for them. All lived in a green and unpolluted countryside on a simple, wholesome diet and wore coarse hand-woven woollen clothing, even down to their underwear. Clothing would have been coloured with natural vegetable dyes and fastened with ties, as buttons had not been invented. Houses were made of sturdy wooden beams held together with wooden pegs. Though this life sounds idyllic, it was far from easy;

“The simplest things were so difficult to accomplish… every basic artefact represented hours of skill and effort and ingenuity, in return for a very meagre material reward”.

The hearth would have been at the heart of every home – essential for everyday heating and cooking, the smoke would have been used to preserve meat, fish and cheese and the ash for vegetable gardens!

Daily life would have been exhausting, with long hours labouring in all weathers. Medical care would have been very basic and people would have relied upon home rituals and remedies in the hope of curing ailments. Based on burials we know that the average life expectancy was no greater than around forty years of age.

External factors controlled much of Anglo Saxons’ lives, and the concern of famine and disease was constant. It is no surprise then, that this was an age of fervent faith, and time was punctuated by high days and holy days. There is no doubt that religion was all encompassing, but whilst organised Christianity continued to grow in strength, it was possible for families to hold onto some pagan beliefs about good and evil alongside their strong Christian convictions.

The official way of subdividing up the population was into ‘hundreds’, each the size of several modern parishes. According to different sources, this term referred either to one hundred houses, hides of land, or men of the militia. Saxon Huntingdonshire had four ‘hundreds’; Hurstingstone, Leightonstone, Norman Cross, and Toseland. These hundreds would have would have made it easier for local lords to administrate, including gathering tax, organising militia service, and maintaining the laws of their kingdom.

Law codes varied from kingdom to kingdom across Enga-lond but were similar in that they all operated using a tariff of compensations for committing certain crimes. Well known examples include Aethelbert of Kent’s at the beginning of the seventh century (one of the very first known documents to be written in the Anglo Saxon language) and King Alfred of Wessex’s laws at the end of the ninth century (known to us as ‘Alfred the Great’).

Map of the hundreds of Huntingdonshire as laid down in 1830. The boundaries shifted only slightly in the intervening centuries.

In Anglo Saxon life, every man and woman had their price, which was known as ‘wergeld’. There were specific fines for everything including violent crime, theft and even sexual harassment. The amount payable depended upon the social class of the victim – the murder of a noble would cost you more than the murder of a slave. The money was payable directly to the victim – for example, if a man attempted to ‘fondle the breasts of a free woman’ uninvited, he would be expected to pay her a fine directly!

Documents indicate that Huntingdonshire was inhabited by two or more small Anglo-Saxon tribes by the eighth century – and named tribes include ‘Gwyras’, ‘Hyrstingas’, ‘Sweordora’ and ‘Spalda’ (the latter being suggested at by the village name of Spaldwick). Evidence of Anglo Saxon occupation has been found across the county – there were substantial Anglo Saxon settlements at Huntingdon, St Neots, St Ives, Ramsey, Woodston, Castor, Orton Longueville and Maxey and other smaller farmsteads.

And what of the Women of Anglo Saxon Huntingdonshire?
Little is definite about the lives or status of women in early Anglo Saxon England. Women were, by necessity, a major part of the workforce and it is clear from the legal documents that remain, that they had rights of their own regarding marriage, sexual harassment and property ownership. Of the thirty surviving wills from the late Anglo-Saxon period, ten of these were the wills of women who owned significant property.

One late Saxon charter describes land near Worcester which was being inherited, stating “Elfweard was the first man… Now it is in the hands of his daughter, and she is the second man”. Taking a look at Old English (the language of the period), the word for a human being of either sex was ‘mann’, which may strike us to lack gendered nuance but could be considered to reveal a certain level of male-female equality.

Ploughing with Oxen was hard labour that (depending on the amount of land to be tilled) could take many days for the ploughman or ploughwoman.

Into this society in the year 641AD two women are born into very different circumstances. The first definitely existed and her story can be drawn from the historic evidence and surviving records – she is known to us St. Kyneburgha. We will meet her in Part 2 of this blog series. The second woman, who we will meet in Part 3, is fictional, based on what is known about the life of a poorer woman at the time from archaeology and documents – we will call her Godgifu.

— You can find “Women in Anglo-Saxon Huntingdonshire Part Two: Kyneburgha: King’s daughter, abbess, saint” on our blog next Wednesday —

Modern day interpretation of a Saxon village at West Stow in Suffolk.

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