Expressions Of Power ~ Secular And Spiritual?

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These Saxon carvings in Wirksworth’s St. Mary’s Church in the Derbyshire Peak District are around 1,300 years old. They appear to have been randomly placed in the walls during the rebuilding of the church during the thirteenth century. Nothing more is known about them, or of their precise age and origins.

At the time they were carved, Wirksworth, located in the English East Midlands, was part of the great Saxon kingdom of Mercia, whose kings and sub-kings held dominion over most of England between AD 600 – 900. i.e. until the Vikings arrived and spoiled it all with the imposition of Danelaw.

Mercia also included my West Midlands home county of Shropshire and, though seventy odd miles apart, it turns out that Saxon, and indeed later, Wirksworth has much in common with Much Wenlock; so much so, I think the towns should be twinned.

One of the Mercian kings’ cunning strategies to cement their power over their extensive territory was the spreading of Christianity, and the setting up of religious foundations and church minsters on their royal estates. These were ruled by abbesses, kings’ daughters and noble women who had been thoroughly educated for the job.

In Much Wenlock we have Milburga, daughter of King Merewald  who ruled over the Wenlock dual monastic house (monks and nuns) from around 680 AD. Her sisters and mother also had charge of religious houses across Mercia, and this function further included the management of the considerable estates and the resources that went with them.

The spread of Christianity across Mercia had its beginnings some thirty years earlier when Elchfrida (also Alchfliad), daughter of King Oswui of Northumbria married Peada, son of Penda, the last great pagan king of Mercia. According to Bede, Oswui had murdered Penda, and the later marriage of his daughter to Penda’s son was part of a peace treaty between Northumberland and Mercia, conditional on Mercia adopting the new faith. Elchfrida thus travelled south into Mercia with an entourage that included missionary priests, and it is supposed that one of them, Betti, founded the church at Wirksworth in 653 AD.

Which brings me back to the Saxon carvings. We clearly have a king. And so perhaps also his queen? It would be nice to give them names – say, Elchfrida and Peada? On the other hand the looks they are giving us are a little disturbing; Sphinx-like, enigmatic; as if they know something they cannot now reveal. Even the wild boar that has been popped in beside them by the thirteenth century mason re-cyclers looks to have something worrying on his mind.

But there is a post-script to this story. It would seem that not long after the marriage, Elchfrida betrayed her king, which led to his murder. For a brief time, then, her father King Oswui held sway over Mercia, until the uprising of 658 AD when another of Penda’s sons, Wulfhere, restored Mercian authority. It makes one wonder if Elchfrida, Christian or not, wasn’t a double agent all along. I wonder what became of her.

Wulfhere apparently went on to implement the ‘dynastic power and faith’ model with the founding of Repton Abbey near Derby. Here he installed his daughter Werburgh (later sanctified like Much Wenlock’s St. Milburga) as the first abbess. So here we have yet another example of ‘Princess Power’ Saxon-style – of royal women extending and consolidating the temporal power of their fathers through the exercise of spiritual authority.

Back in Wirksworth a document from 835 AD indicates that at this time the Wirksworth township was under the jurisdiction of Abbess Cynewaru. But there was serious trouble afoot. It seems she was being forced to cede some of her land holdings to Duke Humbert of Tamworth. She was especially afraid that this would compromise the sending of a gift of lead, valued at 300 shillings, which she made every year to Christ Church, Canterbury. (Wirksworth had been an important lead-mining area since Roman times).  Just to make sure that Duke Humbert knows where his duty lies, and who has the upper hand spiritually speaking, she proclaims in the charter that ‘if anyone should take away this my gift from Christ Church, Canterbury, may he be smitten with perpetual anathema, and may the devil possess him as one of his own.’

Fascinating stuff all this power-wielding.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell


Black & White Sunday: Expression

46 thoughts on “Expressions Of Power ~ Secular And Spiritual?

  1. I love this! Love the mix of pagan and Christian – those 13th c masons clearly had no prejudice against pagan imagery, did they. Reminds me of the instances of sheela na gig carvings on early churches – that cross over period where people were still clinging to their earlier ways of life as well as taking a new one on board.
    Love the stories of Saxon abbesses and princesses – there’s always been female power to be had if you know how. Great post Tish

    1. Thanks, Lynn. Like you I’m fascinated with the blending of imagery from one belief system to the next. How they borrow ‘power’ from each other too, and evolve. It’s running through my head that the reason for all these Saxon princess-abbesses was that they were drawing on the powerful notion of the Virgin Mary, which was certainly a cult in the Middle Ages, but also on the earlier Celtic and generally ‘pagan’ ideas of the Earth Mother to which many would presumably still be wedded during Saxon times.

      1. I don’t know a lot about Anglo Saxon faith, but I do know the early Christian church embedded misogynistic ideas in its doctrine which have coloured society’s view of women ever since. Perhaps if we’d stayed pagan and Christianity had remained an obscure Eastern religion women might not still face some of the prejudices we do today. Ah, but then there’s extreme anti-female views in many major religions … Nope, we can’t win whatever happens 🙂

    1. Yes, this idea of princesses not necessarily being married off, but being trained to manage estates/hold dynastic territory through spiritual duties is v. interesting.

      1. And interesting that Danelaw seems to have put an end to this state of affairs; today we look to Scandinavians for progressive attitudes. How the world turns. 🙂

    1. Oh you are a clever clogs, dear Meg. Thank you so much for your good wishes. It is my birthday today, and the weather has been heavenly ALL DAY. A big hug to you for remembering.

  2. I’ve always been interested with the role of women in the Middle Ages, Tish. Very often they were a force to be reckoned with, unlike the delicate creatures standing atop pedestals. Eleanor of Aquitaine comes to mind. It’s also fascinating to see how many times religion has been used as the basis for controlling the populace right up to and including sending them off to war. I did enjoy your post today.
    And a happy birthday, Tish! Hope you’re having a wonderful day. (See? It really does pay to read all of the preceding comments.)

    1. Thank you, lovely John, for your birthday wishes. And yes, Eleanor of Aquitaine – there’s a name to conjure with. You are also right about the way religious persuasion is often used to justify the unjustifiable.

  3. Quite incredible the amount of history you manage to dredge up in your neck of the woods, Tish. I found some standing stones on the last visit to the Algarve. Probably be a Monday walk one day. 🙂

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