The Women of Anglo Saxon Huntingdonshire – Part 2: Kyneburgha: King’s daughter, abbess, saint

The Kingdoms of Saxon Enga-lond – note the substanial swamps across Huntingdonshire, Norfolk, and Lincolnshire!

Kyneburgha, or Cyneburh in Old English, was born in Tamworth as the oldest daughter of Penda, a seventh-century king of Mercia, and his wife Kynewise. As the child of a king, she would have been called an ‘aetheling’, a term for any royal offspring of either gender. Anglo-Saxon succession was not on the basis of primogeniture – the royal family would select the aetheling who seemed most competent. Whilst this would be a male child, determined royal mothers could gain personal power and authority by operating through their husbands and sons (for those of you have seen or read the popular fantasy series, ‘Game of Thrones’, think Queen Cersei).

Early life would have been slightly more comfortable for our aetheling than for a commoner; the power afforded by such a status meant she was unlikely to starve, however much would have been similar; wooden accommodation, poor medical care and a reasonable chance of not living into adulthood.

Kyneburgha would have enjoyed lavish noble feasts in which meat would have been the principle ingredient. All Anglo Saxon animals were free range – plough land was for humans – so farm animals were leaner and less fatty than those which we consume today. She might have tasted luxury foods such as spit-roast joints of beef and poultry. She would have looked to her mother to learn much about how to compose herself as a woman. For example, it was the ceremonial duty of high-born women to serve drinks at feasts, as is described in Beowulf;

“Wealtheow came forward,
Mindful of ceremonial – she was Hrothgar’s Queen.
Adorned with gold, that proud woman
Greeted the men in the hall, then offered the cup
To the Danish king first of all”.

Contemporary statue of Kyneburgha at her church in Castor

This was a time of increased formal conversion to Christianity through baptism. Mercia was not itself a Christian kingdom and whilst Kyneburgha’s father tolerated the preaching of the gospel, he himself did not become a Christian. Kyneburgha converted to Christianity and married Aldfrith, the son of Oswiu King of Northumberland in around 653. Her brother, Peada, also converted in order to marry Oswiu’s daughter, Ahlflaed. These royal unions were political marriages to promote peace between Northumbria and Mercia, and began the foundation of the Christian church across the centre of England.

Such an advantageous marriage enabled Kyneburgha, like many female aethelings, to maintain her high status. For the competent and devoutly religious, the other way to preserve their social standing (and with it gain a degree of autonomy) was to found a monastery; a ‘double house’, occupied by both monks and nuns. When her husband Aldfrith died in c.660, this is exactly what Kyneburgha did – in Castor, near Peterborough here stands the only church in the UK dedicated to her.

We know that there were around fifty such religious communities founded in the seventh century across England, and the records indicate that all of these double houses were under the direction of a female aetheling, with everyone answering to the Abbess, not the Abbot. Adhelm of Malmesbury (in Wessex) wrote of a double house in Barking, explaining how many of the nuns there were not virgins but widows, choosing to uphold the state of chastity. He compares them to the “highly ingenious bee… roaming widely through the flowering fields of scripture.

Decorated page from “The life of St. Cuthbert” in Bede’s history

Though key Saxon texts such as Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ published in the eighth century are structured around men, it is clear that women played a key role in accelerating the rate of conversion to Christianity throughout England. The Anglo Saxon chronicle records Queen Saexburh of Wessex and her daughter becoming Abbesses in around the same period, indicating an already established tradition of female command and recognised spiritual expertise.

As Abbess, Kyneburgha’s duties would not only have been prayer and worship but also managing an administrative centre for the surrounding countryside, her duties would have been familiar to many noblewomen:

presiding over the women’s quarters of a secular hall, receiving guests, accepting the responsibility of foster children…[in addition] the abbess of a double monastery was entrusted with the care of a vast number of dependants, with the welfare of her servants and with the education… of postulants and children, as well as with the duties of hospitality and the administration of estates

In 664, Kyneburgha’s father-in-law and brother, Oswiu and Peada, founded a monastery at Medehamstead, and Kyneburgha was one of the signatories to it’s founding charter – this monastery later became Peterborough Cathedral. Like the famous Abbess Hilda of Whitby in 657, Kyneburgha would have worked with learned religious men from Peterborough who would have instructed her spiritually and practically, whilst respecting her as an authority in her own right.

St. Hilda of Whitby

Unfortunately for Kyneburgha, times were changing. In 669, the newly arrived Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury made public his disapproval of double monasteries and their functions began to be gradually usurped. The alteration in perceptions of women can be seen over a century. When, at the turn of the seventh century, Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, had written to the Pope to ask whether a menstruating woman could take communion, the Pope had replied that it was a matter of choice. However, one hundred years later, the Penitential of Theodore was advising that “Women shall not in the time of impurity enter a church or communicate”. Following these decrees from church authorities, religious houses became increasingly segregated, and by the tenth century there were no remaining double houses and five times as many monasteries as nunneries.

Abbess Kyneburgha died on 15th September 680 at around 40 years of age (a reasonable age for a Saxon), and was buried in Castor. She had become one of the leading lights of seventh century ecclesiastic life in East Anglia. Following her death, she became revered as a saint – her feast day is the 6th March.

Archaeological digs conducted by Cambridge University at Castor have found an abundance of female Saxon objects from the middle Saxon period (700-849), suggesting a strong female presence in the area for some years after Kyneburgha’s death. The double house was dissolved by the end of the ninth century and the monastery became a minster (a locally important church). In the tenth century, her relics were transferred to the Cathedral in Peterborough and later to Thorney Abbey.

St Kyneburgha’s Church in Castor

Today, one of the side chapels in the south transept of Peterborough Cathedral is dedicated to St. Kyneburgha. The parish church in Castor is named after her (the only one in the UK). Whilst most of her monastery is now lost, the church retains a small Saxon sculpture in the chancel and the base of a Saxon cross, salvaged from the later Anglo Saxon minster.

— You can find “Women in Anglo-Saxon Huntingdonshire Part Three: Godgifu: Miller’s daughter, Ploughman’s wife, Mother” on our blog next Wednesday —

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