Queen Aethelburh

This post might seem somewhat out of place here at Senchus, having no obvious connection with Scotland. Its subject is an Anglo-Saxon queen who lived in southwest England in the early 8th century. Why, you may ask, is it being posted on a blog about Scottish history? I’ll answer this question in three parts:

1. I’m opening a new category on Senchus for non-Scottish topics. Although it won’t be a big part of the blog it will receive occasional posts, including this one.
2. This post is about Queen Aethelburh, who commanded a warband in a military campaign. She is relevant to previous Senchus posts on Pictish warrior women and Aethelflaed of Mercia.
3. I have a special interest in Aethelburh, having written about her before.

With the intro out of the way, let’s get down to the medieval nitty-gritty. Our starting point is an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 722:

‘Queen Aethelburh destroyed Taunton, which Ine had built, and Ealdberht the exile went into Surrey and Sussex’

This is the only reference to Aethelburh in any reliable source. We don’t know when, or where, she was born, nor the date of her death. She is usually identified as the wife of Ine, king of the West Saxons, who reigned from 688 to 726. Why she destroyed Taunton is something of a mystery. The place lay on the frontier of the West Saxon kingdom and was the site of a fortress constructed by Ine. Whatever happened there in 722, the Chronicle implies that the fortress was attacked by a military force led by Aethelburh. This at once makes her special and unusual, like an 8th century Boudica. Warrior queens were rare in this period, which is why Aethelburh and her later countrywoman Aethelflaed (died 918) stand out in the sources. Aethelflaed’s military campaigns, and the reasons why she undertook them, are fairly well documented, but the same cannot be said of Aethelburh.

Some years ago, I wrote a brief biography of Aethelburh. This was published in 2003 in a book called Amazons to fighter pilots: a biographical dictionary of military women. The book’s alphabetical arrangement meant that my contribution was immediately followed by a note on Aethelflaed by Stephanie Hollis. As an indication of just how little data on Aethelburh survives, Professor Hollis was able to write twice as much about the Lady of the Mercians.

In my 2003 bio of Aethelburh I considered the various theories that have been proposed to explain why she sacked the fortress at Taunton. These can be summarised as follows:

1. The Chronicle appears to connect Aethelburh’s action to Ealdberht’s exile. If Ealdberht was a rebel against Ine, he may have seized Taunton as a base for his own warband. Did Aethelburh then lead the attack because her husband was already fighting other enemies elsewhere?
2. Had Taunton fallen into the hands of external foes, such as the Britons of Wales or Dumnonia?
3. Was Aethelburh herself a rebel? Did she rise up against Ine? There is, in any case, no proof that she was married to him. Could she have been the leader of a rival West Saxon faction, proclaiming herself queen in direct challenge to Ine?

Of these, the third option looks the least likely, mainly because medieval Wessex tradition (as represented by the writings of William of Malmesbury in the 12th century) depicts Aethelburh as Ine’s wife and gives no hint of marital discord. I tend to lean towards Option 1, which links the attack on Taunton to Ealdberht’s exile. In 725, according to the Chronicle, Ine defeated the South Saxons in battle, presumably in Sussex, ‘and there slew Ealdberht, the prince whom he had banished.’ Running this entire sequence of events together, we can construct a plausible narrative in which Ealdberht, after being banished by Ine, claimed Taunton as his stronghold but was forced to abandon it when Aethelburh attacked. Three years later, while Ealdberht was living in exile as a guest of the South Saxons, Ine turned up in Sussex to finish the job.

Southern Britain in the early 8th century

So there it is: a blogpost about a warrior queen who wasn’t a tattooed Pict or chariot-riding Briton. She wasn’t ‘Scottish’ (unless she originated as a Bernician princess) nor did she ever visit Scotland (as far as we know). If she was Wessex born-and-bred she probably never ventured north of the River Avon, unless she accompanied Ine on excursions to Wales or Mercia. But she gets a mention on this blog for the reasons stated above, and also because – like so many shadowy female figures of this period – her story rarely gets told.


Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 722: Her Eþelburg cuen towearp Tantun 7 Ine ær timbrede; 7 Aldbryht wræccea gewat on Suþrige 7 on Suþseaxe

William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the kings of England, edited by J.A. Giles (London, 1847), p.36

Charles Oman, Castles (London, 1926), p.57

Tim Clarkson, ‘Aethelburh’, pp.4-5 in Reina Pennington (ed.), Amazons to fighter pilots: a biographical dictionary of military women. Volume 1 (Westport, 2003)

4 comments on “Queen Aethelburh

  1. Michelle says:

    Maybe she destroyed it as she left so that it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands?

    Odd that Ealdberht had to cross all of Wessex to get from Tauton to Sussex.

    • Tim says:

      One possibility is that Ealdberht was defeated at Taunton, then summoned to appear before Ine who promptly banished him. Maybe the Britons of Dumnonia refused to offer sanctuary, forcing him to flee eastwards?

      Taunton’s location does, however, point to some kind of Dumnonian involvement. If Ealdberht really was the target, then perhaps he had seized the fort with British help?

      The act of destruction also raises a few questions. Why destroy a fairly new and probably strategic fortress? Was it rebuilt soon afterwards, or left in ruins until the Normans built their castle?

  2. Swanton, ASC, in a note on the 722 entry has; ‘Henry of Huntingdon (p.112) explains that the young dissident Ealdberht had sought refuge at Taunton, whereupon the queen destroyed the fort and obliged him to flee eastwards.’ I don’t have the original to hand so can’t comment on the accuracy of the note.

  3. Tim says:

    I wonder where Huntingdon, Malmesbury, etc got their information. Did they merely draw inferences from ASC 722 and flesh out the details – or did they have access to reliable ‘traditions’? I’ve given Malmesbury the benefit of the doubt on this point, but I don’t know enough about his sources to run further with it. As you know, Kevin, I’m still playing catch-up with these 12th century chroniclers.

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