Pictish warrior women (again)

Pictish female warrior

Axelle Carolyn as ‘Aeron’ in the movie Centurion (2010)

The most popular post at this blog – by a very long way – is one of the first I ever wrote. It appeared in July 2008, just a few weeks after the launch of Senchus. In writing it I hoped to spark a discussion on the question of whether or not Pictish military forces included female soldiers. I voiced my own views on the topic and waited for a response from readers. What I got was a mixture of useful feedback and vitriol, the latter reminiscent of what we used to call ‘flames’ in the Ansaxnet and Arthurnet forums twenty years ago. I wasn’t surprised to receive fairly strong reactions from some readers. This is a topic that inevitably touches on wider issues, like gender stereotyping and inequality, which are bigger and more emotive than a single question about the Picts. What did surprise me were comments from people who had misinterpreted my words as a personal sermon against the right of women to fight in battle alongside men. This wasn’t what I was saying at all. My point was that the written record – sparse though it is – does not suggest that female Picts participated in warfare as combatants.

The comments from people who had plainly not bothered to read or understand the post didn’t get past my blog dashboard. I deleted them as if they were spam. This doesn’t mean I’m thin-skinned in the face of opinions that don’t agree with mine. I always welcome criticism of my views – if it adds meaningful data to the debate. I am less welcoming of comments from folk who assume I’m a misogynist or anti-feminist, simply because I’ve questioned the historical reality behind fictional female characters such as the one depicted above. But I might still respond to such comments in a rational manner – if I think they add something useful to the mix.

Regular visitors to this blog will know of my longstanding interest in the roles played by high-status women in the political history of early medieval Britain. Over the past five years I’ve put the spotlight on a number of queens and princesses who appear in the sources as mere names – or as anonymous characters – with little or no indication of who they were or what they achieved. I think I’ve mentioned somewhere that this is part of my wider interest in the untold stories of ‘mute groups’ – those sections of society who didn’t get a voice in the contemporary written record – such as women, children and the ‘unfree’ or semi-free peasantry.

Well, it’s five years since the original blogpost, and I don’t have anything new to add. My views on the lack of evidence for Pictish warrior women have not changed. In fact, my scepticism has been reinforced by two online articles published in July of this year. Although these refer primarily to the valkyries and shieldmaidens of North European tradition, many of the points made by their respective authors – Dr Martin Rundkvist and Professor Judith Jesch – are relevant to the question of female participation in Pictish military campaigns.

Take a look…

Martin Rundkvist – Shield Maidens! True Or False?

Judith Jesch – Valkyries Revisited

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Two additional links: the original blogpost on Pictish female warriors and all my posts on early medieval women

P.S. – I enjoyed the Centurion movie.

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The graves of the queens

Govan cross-slab

Early medieval cross-slab at Govan, re-used in 1723. From Stirling-Maxwell’s Sculptured Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan (1899).

Yesterday on Heart Of The Kingdom I published a post which asked, and attempted to answer, a question about royal tombs: How many queens of Strathclyde are buried at Govan?

This isn’t a question that can be answered by browsing a book or searching online. No information – neither historical nor archaeological – can currently give a definitive answer. The best we can hope for is to make a rough guess, and this is what I’ve done in my blogpost.

Take a look and see if you agree with my reasoning. Comments are always welcome, either here or at the blogpost itself.

Heart Of The Kingdom: Female royal burials at Govan

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Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey

As this blogpost is about a place in England I’m putting it in my ‘non-Scottish’ category, but that’s not the whole story, because Whitby has an important connection with early medieval Scotland.

Today, Whitby is a busy town and seaside resort on the coast of North Yorkshire. Its most striking landmark is the ruined abbey on a high headland overlooking the harbour. The abbey stands near the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery which was the venue for a hugely significant event in AD 664: an ecclesiastical synod where matters of grave concern were discussed. The synod was hosted by Abbess Hild, a princess of the English kingdom of Northumbria, who also chaired the debate. Among the attendees was the Northumbrian king Oswiu (husband of Hild’s kinswoman Eanflaed) at whose request the gathering was summoned.

At stake in the debate was the future direction of Christianity in Oswiu’s kingdom. Would the Northumbrian churches continue to follow the ‘Celtic’ religious customs of Iona, the Hebridean island monastery founded by Saint Columba? Or would they instead adopt the so-called ‘Roman’ customs practised throughout much of Western Europe? The Celtic case was put by Colmán, bishop of Lindisfarne, while the chief spokesman for the Roman side was Wilfrid, abbot of Ripon. After hearing the arguments and counter-arguments, King Oswiu decreed that the Northumbrian churches should adhere to Roman customs alone. At a stroke, Iona’s authority among the Northern English clergy was ended. Even those who felt strong loyalty to the old Celtic ways, such as Hild herself, were obliged to obey the royal command.

Nothing now remains of the seventh-century monastery at Whitby. Although archaeologists have found traces of timber buildings on the seaward edge of the headland, as well as a large cemetery of Anglo-Saxon graves beneath a car park near the Abbey, the precise layout of the monastic site is unknown. Modern visitors are instead left to imagine how the headland might have looked in Hild’s time. When they reach the top of the 199 steps leading up from the town, they encounter an impressive rendition of an Anglo-Saxon cross.

Caedmon's Cross

Caedmon’s Cross, Whitby.

This monument, known as Caedmon’s Cross, was erected in 1898 to commemorate Caedmon, a herdsman at the Whitby monastery, whose talent for poetry caught the attention of Hild. Both he and the abbess are carved on the front, together with Jesus Christ and the Israelite king David.
Saint Hild of Whitby

Caedmon’s Cross: St Hild, abbess of Whitby.


Caedmon’s Cross: Caedmon the poet

Caedmon's Cross

Caedmon’s Cross: commemorative text

The cross stands in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, an interesting old building which is well worth a visit. The church has a number of stained glass windows depicting key figures connected with the Synod of Whitby (Hild, Wilfrid and Colmán) as well as Caedmon and two seventh-century Northumbrian kings (Oswiu’s brother Oswald and Hild’s kinsman Edwin).
Hild and Wilfrid

St Mary’s Church: Hild and Wilfrid

Caedmon and Colman

St Mary’s Church: Caedmon and Colmán

Finally, a Scottish connection from a rather later period: a stone memorial, high on a wall inside St Mary’s Church, honouring the English general Peregrine Lascelles (1685-1772) who fought in the battle of Prestonpans near Edinburgh in 1745. This famous Jacobite victory, in which an English army was flung into disarray by a wild Highland charge, evidently niggled the old general to the end of his days. His memorial refers to a fruitless exertion of his Spirit & ability at the disgracefull rout of Preston pans.

St Mary's Church, Whitby: memorial to General Lascelles

General Lascelles (left) and his memorial at St Mary’s Church, Whitby (right).

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All photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

I’ve written in more detail about the Synod of Whitby in my book on Saint Columba.

Hild has been brought vividly to life by award-winning author Nicola Griffith in a historical novel scheduled for publication later this year.

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The lively maiden of Dumbarton

Clyde Rock & Dumbarton Castle

Clyde Rock, Dumbarton (from ‘Souvenir of Scotland’, 1892)

A number of medieval Welsh manuscripts contain information relating to the Cumbri or North Britons, the native Celtic people of Northern England and Southern Scotland. One of these is ‘Peniarth 47′, written in the 15th century and preserved at the National Library of Wales. It contains a collection of ‘triads’ – brief texts in which three items from the medieval storytelling tradition are grouped under a common theme. Triads were used by the bards of Wales as a kind of subject index to a huge repertoire of poems and stories originally retained in their own memories.

Some triads listed famous events, such as ‘Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain’. Others listed military forces such as ‘Three Faithful Warbands’ or renowned individuals such as ‘Three Chieftains of Arthur’s Court’. One triad refers to a trio of notable young women:

‘Three Lively Maidens of the Island of Britain’
Angharad Ton Velen, daughter of Rhydderch Hael,
and Afan, daughter of Meic Thick-Hair,
and Perwyr, daughter of Rhun of Great Wealth.

Afan’s father Meic (sometimes spelled ‘Maig’) was reputedly a 6th-century ruler of Powys, a part of Wales bordering the territory of the Anglo-Saxons or English. Not much is known about him, although the district of Meigen in Powys might preserve his name.

Perwyr’s father Rhun is identified in Welsh tradition as a prince of the North Britons and as a son of the famous warrior-king Urien Rheged (active c.580). Contrary to popular belief, the precise location of Rheged is unknown. It is no more than a modern guess that the name refers to a kingdom rather than to a smaller territorial unit such as a river-valley or group of estates.

One of Urien’s contemporaries among the North Britons was Rhydderch, king of Alt Clut, whose epithet Hael means ‘Generous’. Alt Clut (‘Rock of Clyde’) is an old Welsh and North British name for the imposing, twin-peaked volcanic ‘plug’ where Dumbarton Castle stands today. Rhydderch reigned in the late 6th and early 7th centuries and is one of the most recognizable figures in medieval Welsh literature, a key player in the so-called North British Heroic Age. Peering behind his literary fame among later Welsh bards we are probably seeing a powerful king of the early medieval period, a competent warlord who launched plundering raids against his neighbours. His adversaries apparently included Anglo-Saxons, Scots and fellow-Britons. Among his network of high-level contacts were Saint Columba of Iona and, less certainly, Saint Kentigern of Glasgow. In later Welsh folklore Rhydderch emerges as an oppressor of Merlin during the latter’s time as a ‘Wild Man’ in the forest.

According to the triad of the Three Lively Maidens, Rhydderch had a daughter Angharad. Although we know very little about her, we cannot assume she was nothing more than a literary invention. It is entirely possible that she was a real princess of Dumbarton, a genuine historical figure like her father. Her epithet Ton Velen (‘Yellow Skin’ or ‘Yellow Wave’) denotes a defining physical characteristic and must have originated in a poem or story in which she featured. This tale, although now lost, was presumably well-known among the bards of medieval Wales and may have been circulating for a long time before it got ‘catalogued’ in the triad.

Some of the earliest and most famous examples of Welsh poetry and saga originated in what the bards called Yr Hen Ogledd, ‘The Old North’, the land of Urien Rheged and Rhydderch Hael. It is possible that the poem or tale featuring Angharad Ton Velen originated in this region rather than in Wales, either to praise her while she lived or as an elegy following her death. Such a tribute may have been composed by a bard at the royal court of Alt Clut, perhaps in the years around 600.

In the absence of additional information about Angharad we can do no more than sketch a hazy picture of her life.

Her name means ‘much loved’ and is pronounced ‘Ann-Harrad’ (stressed on the second syllable). Traditions of uncertain reliability, preserved at Glasgow Cathedral in the twelfth century, identify Rhydderch Hael’s wife as Languoreth, Queen of Alt Clut. This lady, who may have been a native of the Hamilton area, was presumably Angharad’s mother. The same traditions mention a son of Rhydderch called Constantine, who gave up the secular life to become a priest. He and Angharad are the only offspring credited to Rhydderch and, although neither is historically secure, they are not necessarily fictional. Constantine is the namesake of the mysterious saint commemorated in the dedication of the old parish church at Govan, 12 miles east of Dumbarton, and the two are perhaps one and the same.

Let us assume, for the moment, that Angharad existed. A tentative chronological guess would place her birth in the period 570-590. As a princess of Alt Clut she would have been a Christian like her father (and, no doubt, her mother too). During her early years, until she was old enough to marry, her time would have been divided between the old fortress on the summit of Clyde Rock and other royal residences visited by her father’s entourage. Displays of wealth and status were an important part of early medieval kingship and a royal daughter was expected to play her part. We can imagine Angharad wearing jewellery of gold and silver, and clothes woven from the finest fabrics. In her father’s feasting hall she would have eaten roast meat served in expensive bowls manufactured in France. The wine in her drinking-cup would have been imported from the Mediterranean lands. Servants and slaves would have been ever-present throughout her entire life.

Later Welsh bards regarded Angharad as a ‘lively maiden’ (whatever that means). A particular characteristic of her physical appearance was Ton Velen, for which we may envisage either a striking mane of curly blonde hair (‘Yellow Wave’) or an unusually sallow complexion (‘Yellow Skin’). The late Rachel Bromwich, to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude for her magisterial study of the Welsh triads, interpreted Ton Velen as ‘Yellow (or tawny) Wave’, noting that ‘the reference may be to the girl’s hair’. This is reminiscent of the Gaelic word buide, which also means ‘yellow’, borne as an epithet by the Dál Riatan king Eochaid Buide (died 629) a son of Áedán mac Gabráin. Eochaid evidently received the epithet very early in life, for we find it being used by Columba when he greeted Áedán’s sons at a time when Eochaid was a small child. A number of sources suggest that Áedán fought at least one major battle against Angharad’s father Rhydderch.

Like Angharad, Eochaid is usually assumed to have had ‘yellow’ (i.e. blond) hair, but alternative interpretations of buide are possible. Eochaid and Angharad seem to have belonged to the same generation, and either or both may have had strikingly fair hair or, if ‘yellow’ is a reference to complexion, unusually sallow skin.

If Angharad survived the many perils of childhood to become a teenager she would probably have had little say in her future when the time came to choose a husband. As the daughter of a powerful king she was not only a lady of high status and considerable wealth but also a useful political commodity. Marriage to a prince of a foreign kingdom seems a likely scenario, the wedding perhaps putting a formal seal on a newly forged political alliance. Such a marriage would have taken the ‘lively maiden’ away from her lofty home on the Rock of Clyde, perhaps to a strange new land whose speech and customs she found totally unfamiliar.

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Notes & References

In modern Britain, the most well-known bearer of the name Angharad was the Welsh actress Angharad Rees (1944-2012), who starred in the popular 1970s TV series Poldark.

More pronunciations of Welsh (and North British) personal names:
Rhydderch – ‘Hrutherkh’
Rhun – ‘Rhinn’
Urien – ‘Irri-yen’

Five years ago, Andrew Breeze suggested that ‘Languoreth’ might be an error for ‘Iunguoret’ (or ‘Unwared’ in Modern Welsh).
[See his article ‘Telleyr, Anguen, Gulath, and the Life of St Kentigern’ Scottish Language 27 (2008), 71-80.]

Rachel Bromwich (ed. & transl.), Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. 2nd edition* (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978).
The triad of the Three Lively Maidens appears on page 199 as ‘Triad 79′.
Professor Bromwich briefly discussed Angharad Ton Velen in the extensive ‘Notes to personal names’ (at page 270).
* I haven’t consulted the 3rd edition for this blogpost.

This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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Lady Macbeth

Dame Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1889 (from a painting by J.S. Sargent)

Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda (‘Malcolm, son of Kenneth’) succeeded his cousin Cinaed, son of Dub, as king of Alba in 1005. The succession was apparently contested by the rulers of Moray in the person of Findlaech, son of Ruaidri, who lodged a rival claim for the kingship. Findlaech, the mormaer (‘great steward’) of Moray, was described in the Irish annals as ‘king of Alba’ when they reported his death in 1020. His nephew Mael Coluim, son of Mael Brigte, died nine years later and was likewise accorded the same royal title by the annalists. Both men must have claimed the throne of Alba when its legitimate incumbent was Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda, who reigned from 1005 to 1034. On two occasions, then, the authority of Cinaed’s son was challenged by the lords of Moray.
The kingdom of Alba

The kingdom of Alba

The Moravians themselves appear to have been riven by internal strife. Rivalry between Findlaech and his brother Mael Brigte led to the former’s death at the hands of the latter’s sons. The most likely context was a military struggle for the mormaership. After Findlaech’s slaying in 1020 his murderous nephews – Mael Coluim and Gilla Comgain – ruled Moray for a further twelve years. Mael Coluim was the above-mentioned claimant on the kingship of Alba, the man whose death in 1029 was reported in the Irish annals. After staking his royal claim, as a rival of his namesake Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda, he seems to have appointed his brother Gilla Comgain as mormaer of Moray. But Gilla Comgain was in turn challenged by Findlaech’s son Macbethad, an ambitious individual who was soon to emerge as a key player on the wider political stage. In later centuries Macbethad found greater fame on a different kind of stage, being borrowed by William Shakespeare as the inspiration for his devious character Macbeth. In the meantime, the historical Macbeth made his first appearance around the year 1030, as a challenger to Gilla Comgain’s authority in Moray. This may have prompted Gilla Comgain to strengthen his own position with a political marriage, for his bride was a lady of high royal blood. Her name was Gruoch, daughter of Boite, and she was a close kinswoman of King Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda, perhaps his niece or the daughter of one of his cousins.

Gilla Comgain continued to rule as mormaer of Moray until his death in 1031 or 1032. His grisly demise was noted in the Irish annals:

Gilla Comgain, son of Mael Brigte, mormaer of Moray, was burned together with fifty people.

This was probably the final act in a bitter kin-strife that had started in the previous generation. Although the annalists do not say who was responsible for the burning it was surely the work of Macbethad, who thus became the new mormaer of Moray. In a politically astute move he quickly married Gruoch, Gilla Comgain’s widow, thereby linking himself to the royal dynasty of Alba. The marriage also made him stepfather and protector of Gruoch’s son Lulach, Gilla Comgain’s heir, who was probably a small child at the time. Whether Gruoch entered this union willingly or grudgingly is unknown, for the sources give no further information. If, as seems likely, Macbethad was the instigator of her first husband’s death, she might have been his reluctant bride. Alternatively, she might have regarded Macbethad as a useful match for her own ambitions. Did she perhaps play some part in Gilla Comgain’s downfall? Such speculation, although interesting, could tempt us to cross the line between fact and fiction, for Gruoch is the historical figure behind the ruthless Lady Macbeth of Shakespeare’s play.

Mormaers of Moray in the 11th Century

Macbethad’s career was as dramatic as any playwright’s narrative. Within months of his seizure of power in Moray he joined Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda, the king of Alba, in a pledge of fealty to King Cnut of England. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which placed this event under the year 1031, Macbethad is described as a king. The label need not be taken at face value, for it is unlikely that he had launched a bid for the throne of Alba at so early a date. Indeed, he may have continued to rule Moray not as a potential rival to Mael Coluim but as a loyal subordinate or vassal guarding an important territory on the king’s northern frontier.

Gruoch’s kinship with the royal dynasty would have proved useful to Macbethad. It brought him closer to the centres of power and would have enabled him to forge useful alliances at the king’s court. His wife’s connections with the ruling elite undoubtedly helped him gather support for the coup d’etat which would one day elevate him to the throne. But he nurtured his ambitions slowly and carefully, biding his time until the right moment. Thus, after Mael Coluim’s death in 1034 brought his grandson Donnchad (‘Duncan’) to power, Macbethad gave his allegiance to the new king and played the role of loyal henchman. He eventually made his move in the summer of 1040, not long after Donnchad suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the English. The Irish chronicler Marianus Scotus, writing forty years later, gave a near-contemporary account of Donnchad’s fall:

Donnchad, king of Scots, was killed in the autumn, on 14 August, by his dux Macbethad son of Findlaech, who succeeded to the kingdom for seventeen years.

In this context, the Latin term dux (‘duke’) might be an attempt by Marianus to translate Gaelic mormaer. In a more general sense it indicates that Donnchad was slain during the revolt of a subordinate lord. It was this deed of treachery that prompted later Scottish writers, and eventually Shakespeare himself, to cast Macbethad in the role of villain. In an 11th-century context, however, the toppling of a king by an ambitious rival was a normal method of regime-change.

Her husband’s victory made Gruoch the most powerful woman in Alba. She was now the Queen of Scots, a position she may have coveted from afar during her years of marriage to two successive lords of Moray. As queen, she would have played an important part in the smooth running of royal business. She would have had her own entourage of courtiers and retainers, as well as her own network of clients and friends. At times she would have accompanied the king on his periodic tours of the realm, and we have documentary evidence of this in a charter to which she bore witness alongside her husband. The document in question recorded a gift of land to the monastery of Loch Leven in Fife. Its scribe began by naming the royal benefactors: Machbet filius Finlach …. et Gruoch filia Bodhe, Rex et Regina Scottorum (‘Macbethad, son of Findlaech …. and Gruoch, daughter of Boite, King and Queen of Scots’).

In late 1049 or early 1050, Macbethad embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome. This was not an unusual task for a king from the British Isles to undertake. Others had made the same journey before him, seeking forgiveness for past sins by visiting the Eternal City. Most royal pilgrims were in their later years, or had already offloaded the reins of power to designated heirs. Macbethad was certainly a man of middle age when he began his pilgrimage. From a rough chronology of his career we can deduce that he was around fifty years old. It is likely that Gruoch did not accompany him, and that she stayed at home to maintain a royal presence at court. How much authority might then have been delegated to her in Macbethad’s absence is hard to say but he must have trusted her to support his kingship while he was away. This is actually a key point, because potential royal claimants were surely lurking in the wings. The probability that Macbethad left his wife behind suggests that he had no doubts about her political loyalty. It might also suggest that he perceived little or no threat from Lulach, Gruoch’s son by Gilla Comgain, whose own claim on the throne she might otherwise have promoted.

Macbethad thus returned from Rome to find his kingship still intact. He resumed his reign and faced no serious challenge to his position for a number of years. His subjects clearly respected him, as did folk living beyond the borders of Alba. Ambitious warriors from other lands were attracted to his court, perhaps because he gave rich rewards for military service. One group of Norman adventurers, having been made unwelcome in England, travelled north to place their swords at his disposal. These men died in battle in 1054, fighting to defend Macbethad from an English invasion which succeeded in casting him from the throne. The architect of his defeat was Earl Siward of Northumbria, a powerful henchman of the English king Edward the Confessor. What happened to Macbethad in the aftermath is not recorded but he may have sought refuge among his kinsmen in Moray, unless he found a safer haven elsewhere. Wherever he went, we can be fairly sure that Gruoch and her son accompanied him. Siward, meanwhile, appointed a man called Mael Coluim as the new king of Alba. Despite his Gaelic name, this Mael Coluim was a prince of the Strathclyde Britons. His eligibility for kingship of the Scots must nevertheless have derived from ancestry, and his name seems to hint at mixed Gaelic-British parentage. His father was the king of Strathclyde; perhaps his mother was a royal princess of Alba?

Mael Coluim’s reign did not last long. His position would have weakened considerably after Siward’s death in 1055. With the menace of the Northumbrian earl removed, Macbethad was able to expel Mael Coluim and take back the throne. He ruled for a few more years until his own death at the battle of Lumphanan in 1058. His nemesis was Mael Coluim mac Donnchadha, a figure otherwise known as ‘Malcolm Canmore’ (Gaelic ceann mor, ‘big head’). Mael Coluim’s victory thus avenged the slaying of his father, King Donnchad, whom Macbethad had destroyed eighteen years earlier.

We do not know what happened to Gruoch in the wake of her husband’s death. Her son Lulach seems to have held the kingship of Alba for a few months until he, too, was defeated and slain by Mael Coluim. Widowed and alone, Gruoch may have found herself at the mercy of the new king. Her fate would then have depended on her usefulness as a dowager queen, a royal lady of wealth and influence – if indeed she could be persuaded to pledge allegiance to Mael Coluim. The fact that she was his kinswoman, a female elder of the royal dynasty, would not have guaranteed her survival. Against whatever political value she still retained was the threat she undoubtedly posed to the stability of the realm. She might, for instance, become a figurehead for disgruntled supporters of Macbethad, especially in Moray where Mael Coluim’s authority was unlikely to have been strong. So what were her options, if indeed she was not murdered, or chased out of the kingdom, or imprisoned in some dark dungeon? If she somehow managed to survive the upheavals of 1058 she may have been allowed to enter monastic retirement, becoming the abbess of a religious house to which she had been a benefactor in former times. Alternatively, she may have simply retired to one of her estates, in semi-exile from the royal court, quietly living out her remaining years as a relic of past troubles.

Probable ancestry of Gruoch, daughter of Boite.

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Archibald Duncan, The Kingship of the Scots, 842-1292 (Edinburgh, 2002), p.32.

Benjamin Hudson, Kings of Celtic Scotland (Westport, 1994), pp.136-8.

William Kapelle, The Norman Conquest of the North (London,1979), pp.41-2.

Archibald Lawrie (ed.), Early Scottish Charters prior to 1153 (Glasgow, 1905), pp.5-6.

Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh, 2007), pp.247 & 255-65.

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St Aebbe and Coldingham

Coldingham Priory

Coldingham Priory. Photo © B Keeling

St Aebbe, daughter of King Aethelfrith of Bernicia, founded a monastery on the Berwickshire coast sometime around the middle of the 7th century. The site she selected was a fortified settlement on top of a hill overlooking the sea. Its name, in Latin, was Urbs Coludi, ‘Colud’s Fort’. Although we don’t know anything about Colud his name appears to be Celtic so he was probably a native Briton or a local god. Aebbe established a community of monks and nuns on the summit of the hill, no doubt utilising the ramparts of Colud’s Fort as a boundary. Nothing can be seen of her monastery today but the site is still known as Kirk Hill and is part of a dramatic coastal feature called St Abbs Head. Among the impressive cliffs and deep-cloven bays a large number of seabirds make their nests, hence the designation of the entire headland as a nature reserve.

St Abbs Kirk Hill

St Abbs Head: Kirk Hill (in the distance). Photo © B Keeling

In the early 680s the monastery was accidentally destroyed by fire. By then, Aebbe was already dead and her community had acquired a reputation for sleaze and scandal. After the fire the monks and nuns abandoned Urbs Coludi to join other religious houses where, we may assume, their behaviour improved. At some point in the next two hundred years a new monastery was established slightly inland, at nearby Coldingham, eventually becoming the centre of a cult devoted to St Aebbe. Little is known of its history and it possibly didn’t survive the perils of the Viking period. Whatever its fate, the religious settlement at Coldingham was re-founded in 1098 as a priory of the Benedictine Order to whom the Scottish king Edgar granted the site and surrounding district. In the 14th century a small church, an offshoot from Coldingham, was built on Kirk Hill, on the seaward side of the summit, but it almost certainly fell into disuse when the priory itself was dissolved in the 1600s.

Coldingham Priory

Coldingham Priory: foundation of tower, c.1100. Photo © B Keeling

The parish church of Coldingham now occupies part of the Priory site and is still used as a place of worship. Next to it a medieval arch has been reconstructed in the style of the 13th century, partly from old stonework and probably on its original base. On one side of the arch lie the visible foundations of a tower built c.1100, with the inscribed grave-slabs of two priors from the early 1200s placed in the centre. On the other side stands the ‘Lapidarium’, a wall erected in Victorian times using sculptured blocks and other objects unearthed at the site. Among the various interesting items in the Lapidarium are several piscinae or stone basins for washing vessels and vestments used in the Mass. One of these is thought to be a genuine 7th-century relic from St Aebbe’s original monastery on Kirk Hill.

Coldingham Priory

The presumed 7th-century piscina. Photo © B Keeling


* More about St Aebbe can be found in this post by Michelle of Heavenfield

* I haven’t yet looked for detailed information on the ancient piscina so if anyone knows something about it please feel free to add a comment below

* Two useful links: one for the Coldingham village website, the other for the Priory

* Bede wrote about St Aebbe, her monastery at Urbs Coludi and the lax morals of its inhabitants in Book 4, Chapter 25 of his Ecclesiastical History

Coldingham Priory St Aebbe

Coldingham Priory: modern memorial to St Aebbe. Photo © B Keeling


Queen Alchflaed

Bamburgh Castle: site of the Bernician royal fortress

Bamburgh Castle. Photograph © B Keeling.

This is my third post on an Anglo-Saxon ‘First Lady’. Last year I wrote about Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians, who fought the Vikings in the early 10th century. She had a Scottish connection because, according to one old source, she forged a military alliance with the kings of Alba and Strathclyde. I also wrote about Queen Aethelburh, wife of the 8th-century West Saxon king Ine. Aethelburh had no connection with Scotland (as far as we know) but she got a bit of webspace here at Senchus because, like Aethelflaed, she commanded armies. I have a longstanding interest in female participation in early medieval warfare, so I made a slot for Aethelburh by putting her in the subject category ‘non-Scottish’.

In this post I want to look at another Anglo-Saxon queen. Her name was Alchflaed and she lived in the 7th century. Her husband was Peada, king of the Middle Angles, a son of King Penda of Mercia. The Middle Angles inhabited a large part of the eastern midlands of England, with a core territory corresponding to the modern county of Leicestershire. They fell under Penda’s control sometime before 650 and received Peada as their king. At that time, Penda stood at the height of his power, having spent the previous twenty years building up an impressive military reputation. Among those who tasted the edge of his sword was Oswald, king of Bernicia and overlord of Northumbria, who fell in battle with Mercian forces in 642. Oswald was succeeded in Bernicia by his younger brother Oswiu but the southern region of Northumbria – the kingdom of Deira – reverted to the rule of its own dynasty. Oswiu was harried by Penda throughout the 640s and endured several major raids on his territory, including at least one destructive assault on his chief citadel at Bamburgh.

Southern Britain, c.650

Southern Britain, c.650

Oswiu was probably born in 612. He was only four or five years old when his father Aethelfrith was slain in battle with the East Angles. Aethelfrith’s death enabled Edwin, the exiled king of Deira, to reclaim not only his own kingdom but Bernicia as well. Aethelfrith’s family fled in fear, seeking sanctuary in the northern Celtic realms. The eldest son and heir, Eanfrith, found refuge with the Picts but the other children – including Oswald and Oswiu – went to Dál Riata, the land of the Gaelic-speaking Scots. Oswiu did not return to Bernicia for many years. His brother Eanfrith returned in 633 to claim the kingship after Edwin’s death but he was killed almost immediately. Both he and Edwin were slain by Cadwallon, a Briton, whom most historians identify as king of Gwynedd in North Wales. It is usually assumed that Oswiu came back to Bernicia in 634, when his brother Oswald became king after defeating Cadwallon, but we cannot be certain of this. There is no record of Oswiu’s presence in Bernicia during Oswald’s reign, so it is at least possible that the two were no longer on friendly terms. Oswiu eventually succeeded to the kingship after Oswald was slain by Penda’s Mercians at the battle of Maserfelth in 642. Again, the modern assumption sees Oswiu as his brother’s designated heir, but equally he might have stayed away from Bernicia during the whole of Oswald’s reign.

Oswiu sired children by at least three different women. A liaison with Fin, an Irish princess of the northern Uí Néill, produced an illegitimate son called Aldfrith who would one day become king of Northumbria. Aldfrith’s birth is often placed in the years of Oswiu’s exile among the Gaels, prior to his first marriage, but he could have been born much later. Since Aldfrith sired a son in 696 or 697 we might wonder if he was really in his sixties at that time, although of course he might have been even older! Aside from the ‘fling’ with Fin, Oswiu had two legitimate marriages. The first of these was to Rhieinmelth, a North Briton, whose name means ‘Queen of Lightning’. She was a royal princess of Rheged and a great-granddaughter of the renowned warrior-king Urien.

Urien turns up on this blog from time to time. He seems to have been a key player in the wars between the North Britons and their Anglo-Saxon neighbours in Bernicia and Deira. His kingdom, Rheged, is hard to place with confidence on any map. It is usually seen as a very large realm stretching across the Solway Firth to encompass parts of southwestern Scotland and parts of the English county of Cumbria. In previous blogposts and comments (here and elsewhere) I’ve voiced my scepticism about this imagined geography, often repeating myself over and over to make the point that the location of Rheged is unknown. In this post I want to avoid the geographical debate by keeping the spotlight on Urien’s last-known female descendant: Alchflaed, the daughter of Oswiu and Rhieinmelth.

Alchflaed's royal ancestry

Alchflaed's royal ancestry

Alchflaed’s story begins with her parents’ marriage, which probably occurred in the early 630s. Oswiu, as already noted, was born around 612. Rhieinmelth may have been roughly the same age. Their betrothal was undoubtedly arranged for political reasons but we can only guess what these were. It may have been linked to Eanfrith’s or Oswald’s claims on the Bernician kingship. If so, the marriage could have occurred in 633 or 634, perhaps to seal an alliance with Rhieinmelth’s father, King Royth of Rheged, against Cadwallon. It is sometimes suggested that Royth passively gave his entire kingdom to Bernicia as a wedding dowry but this is fairly unbelievable in a 7th century context.

The marriage produced two children who survived into adulthood. One was Alchfrith, Oswiu’s eldest legitimate male heir, who was probably not yet ten years old when his uncle, King Oswald, perished at the battle of Maserfelth in 642. During Alchfrith’s teenage years, his father ruled Bernicia as a troublesome vassal of Penda, who also dominated the Deirans. It is likely that Alchfrith played an active role in the defence of Bernician territory against Mercian raiding-parties, not least as part of his training for the kingship. Away from the battleground he was a devout Christian who developed a keen interest in religious matters. The Mercians, by contrast, were pagans.

Alchfrith’s sister Alchflaed was probably born c.635. Nothing is known of her childhood but she would have spent most of it in Bernicia, residing with her parents at royal residences in different parts of the kingdom. This is where her Scottish connection comes in. As a Bernician princess she would have ventured north of the Tweed from time to time, travelling in her father’s entourage when he visited fortresses such as Dunbar or major monasteries such as Melrose. An additional Scottish connection was the land of her maternal kin, if we assume that some part of Rheged lay north of the present Border. It is likely that Alchflaed spent time there with her mother’s family, visiting the court of her grandfather King Royth. Is it too fanciful to imagine her in the feasting-halls of Rheged, hearing stories about the deeds of her great-great-grandfather Urien?

Before going too far down this sentimental road it is worth pausing to acknowledge who Alchflaed really was. She was first and foremost an Anglo-Saxon princess, not a princess of Rheged. Regardless of her mixed parentage we should regard her not as a Briton but as an Englishwoman. The few recorded facts of her life suggest that her main cultural affiliations and key social contacts were Anglo-Saxon rather than ‘Celtic’. Although we may assume a measure of biligualism arising from her (presumed) visits to Rheged, her preferred language in day-to-day conversation was surely English, not British. These observations are consistent with what we know of her brother, Alchfrith, whose documented activities were conducted within an English-speaking milieu. He was a close friend of Peada, king of the Middle Angles, whom he persuaded away from paganism. Peada’s sister, Cyneburh, was Alchfrith’s wife. In 653, when Peada approached Oswiu to ask for Alchflaed’s hand in marriage, there can be little doubt that Alchfrith acted as matchmaker. Two years later, after Oswiu defeated and killed Penda in the great battle of Winwaed, Alchfrith was given the kingship of Deira. This appointment made him a neighbour of his Mercian friends and bound him even closer to a political world that was overwhelmingly English. There is no hint that he involved himself in the political affairs of Rheged, or of any other group of Britons, or that he had more than a passing interest in the fate of his mother’s people. At Bewcastle in Cumbria, some miles north of Hadrian’s Wall, an Anglo-Saxon cross bears an inscription that some scholars have interpreted as a memorial to Alchfrith. Other experts propose alternative readings, while many now date the cross to the 8th century rather than to the 7th. Even if it does indeed commemorate Alchfrith, it wasn’t erected by him and offers no evidence that he had a particular interest in the region. It certainly cannot be seen as a monument to his British ancestry, even if Bewcastle had formerly been part of Rheged. His energies seem rather to have been concentrated in the south of his father’s kingdom, in Deira and along the Mercian border. Everything we know about his sister Alchflaed suggests that she, too, nurtured southern contacts and interests.

Bewcastle Cross

The Bewcastle Cross. Photograph © B Keeling.

Their parents, meanwhile, were no longer together. By 644, Rhieinmelth’s place as Oswiu’s queen had been taken by the Deiran princess Eanflaed, daughter of Edwin. Perhaps Rhieinmelth was pushed aside to make way for a younger wife? Or maybe Oswiu saw a union with Eanflaed as a politically-advantageous move to gain support among the Deiran elite? It is possible, of course, that Rhieinmelth was dead. This is perhaps the simplest explanation. On the other hand, her early death doesn’t sit well with the evidence of the Durham Liber Vitae, a list of royal and ecclesiastical figures to whom prayers were offered by the Bernician clergy. Here, at the head of a list of queens and abbesses, we find the name Raegnmaeld, an Anglo-Saxon form of Rhieinmelth. She evidently lived in Bernicia long enough to make a positive impact and may have been alive while Eanflaed was queen. Whether Rhieinmelth was quietly pushed aside by Oswiu or left him of her own accord, her presence in the Liber Vitae suggests that she was not forgotten by the Bernicians, nor was her memory damned. In other words, one or more senior clerics considered her worthy of being remembered. Could this be a hint that she voluntarily ‘opted out’ of life at the royal court, leaving the secular world to carve out a new career as a nun and abbess? She would not have been the only Bernician queen to follow this path, but she may have been the first.

Both of her children became embroiled in violent political upheavals, the first involving her daughter Alchflaed. The sequence of events begins with Oswiu’s destruction of Penda at the battle of Winwaed in November 655. Oswiu took over Mercia and placed the northern part under his direct control. He gave the southern part to Peada, king of the Middle Angles, as a gift of friendship. Although he was Penda’s son, Peada seems to have sided with his father-in-law at Winwaed and was richly rewarded for this allegiance. The great enlargement of his kingdom meant that his Bernician wife Alchflaed was now queen of a large chunk of eastern England. She and Peada could look forward to substantial increases in wealth and status. However, in spite of this major upturn in their fortunes, something went badly wrong in their marriage. In the spring of 656, during the Easter weekend, Peada was assassinated. The finger of blame was pointed at Alchflaed. If she was indeed the culprit, why did she turn against her husband? Did her father and brother sanction the murder? Alchfrith had been Peada’s friend and religious confidante only three years earlier, while Oswiu had recently given Peada a huge tract of territory. Did they begin to feel that he had outlived his usefulness? Or did Alchflaed act alone, pursuing her own ambitions with the help of Mercian or Middle Anglian supporters?

Her fate after Peada’s death is unknown. It is unlikely that she retained her queenship of the Middle Angles, even if a faction among their nobility had helped her to get rid of Peada. It is possible that she was in cahoots with (or having an affair with) a high-ranking nobleman who wanted the Middle Anglian kingship for himself. We can assume, nonetheless, that her dead husband’s friends posed a real threat to her safety while she remained in the midlands. My guess is that she tried to flee northward to the land of her birth. Nothing more is heard of her, nor is she listed in the Durham Liber Vitae where we might have expected her name to appear if she later became an abbess in Northumbria. Perhaps she perished at the hands of Peada’s henchmen? If this was her fate, she was barely in her early twenties when she died.

Things started to turn sour for her brother Alchfrith in the following decade. In 664, he was still ruling Deira as sub-king under Oswiu, but relations between father and son broke down and Alchfrith rose in revolt. This happened sometime between 664 and 670, the year of Oswiu’s death. The reason for Alchfrith’s rebellion is unknown but it might have been due to feelings of insecurity about the royal succession. He may have resented his father’s children by Eanflaed, especially the eldest son Ecgfrith who was nineteen years old in 664. We know from subsequent events that Ecgfrith was ambitious and impetuous. It is not hard to imagine him and Alchfrith becoming bitter rivals for their father’s kingship and competing for his favour. Sometime after 664, Alchfrith launched a bid for the Northumbrian throne by leading an army against Oswiu. The rebellion failed, and history says nothing more of Rhieinmelth’s son. Like his sister, he chose conspiracy over loyalty in the pursuit of his own aims. If both he and Alchflaed paid the ultimate price for their treachery, their deaths mark a dishonourable end to the story of Urien’s kin.


Everything we know about Alchflaed comes from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (completed in 731). The relevant passages are from Book Three:
Chapter 21: Alchflaed’s marriage to Peada in 653.
Chapter 24: Peada’s murder in 656 ‘by the treachery, or so it is said, of his wife during the very time of the Easter festival’.
Alchfrith’s rebellion against Oswiu is mentioned in Book Three, Chapter 14.

Rhieinmelth appears as Raegnmaeld in the Durham Liber Vitae and as ‘Rhieinmelth, daughter of Royth son of Rhun’ in Chapter 57 of the Historia Brittonum. Her grandfather is usually equated with ‘Rhun, son of Urien’ who appears in Chapter 63 of HB. Both sources are 9th century but incorporate earlier material.

A very good article on Oswiu’s marriages is the one by Martin Grimmer in The Heroic Age.

In the 1994 edition of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History by Judith McClure and Roger Collins (using Bertram Colgrave’s English translation) the notes to Chapter 21 say that Alchflaed ‘became abbess of the monastery on Coquet Island, and a significant figure in Northumbrian dynastic politics’. Not true. The abbess in question was actually Aelfflaed, Oswiu’s daughter by Eanflaed. I didn’t grasp this error until Michelle Ziegler (who knows about royal abbesses) pointed it out to me.