A self-declared feminist looks at St. Eanswyth of Folkestone, and other female saints of Kent.
In the early Anglo-Saxon era, kings tended to found nunneries for their daughters, or royal widows. A peculiarity of these, not seen in the later Middle Ages, were that they were “double houses”, that is for both males and females dedicated to life in a religious order.
Dormitory arrangements were, of course, separate, but both worshipped together in the church, where either male or females could read aloud from the scriptures, a sign of literacy at least amongst these royal women. Almost invariably, these double houses were governed by an abbess, usually of royal kin.
Kent had an extraordinary number of these foundations:
- Lyminge, founded by King Eadbald for his sister Aethelburga, widow of king of Northumbria)
- Folkestone, founded by King Eadbald for his daughter, Eanswyth, , grand-daughter of King Aethelbert, the first Christian King of Kent
- Sheppey, founded for Queen Seaxburga
- Minster in Thanet, founded in penitence for murder of princes Athelred and Aethelbert
- Hoo – founded by King Caedwalla
None of these are mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, nor by Bede (who was writing in the north of England anyway). Their story is to be found in the Mildreth Legend, which details at least 7 female saints, all of them of royal kin. Historical corroboration comes from extant charters of some of the foundations, and also from the correspondence of some of the learned abbesses with Bonniface, the English priest who became a key missionary in Germany.
None of these “double houses” survived into the late Anglo-Saxon period. It has been speculated that they were destroyed by Viking raids on the Kent coast, but the history of Frankish raids shows that such religious houses could recover a few years after such a raid. More likely, they succumbed to the land-grabs of Wessex royalty when they became kings of England and thus took over royal lands in Kent. In any case, double houses went out of fashion with the Carolingian reforms, and especially when the powerful Bishop Aethenolde, who in 973 translated the rule of Benedict into English, reformed the clergy and regularised their communal living.
However, it is interesting to take a feminist look at what can be discovered about the position of women in these early Anglo-Saxon foundations. This was a society in which even high-born women were subservient to their male relatives
“it is fitting for a woman to be busy with her embroidery”.
There were two types of chaste woman to be found in such houses: first those who had been dedicated as virgins, sometimes even as infants, and second those who “chose” the vow of celibacy after the death of their husbands, or separation from them. This last was probably the willing choice of high-born women who could be coerced into unwelcome dynastic marriages, but it could also have been a convenient way of cloistering away an unwanted mistress or retiring a queen when a replacement was desired (see second wife of King Edgar of Wessex). A queen who retired to become an abbess would retain a position of power, especially if she was well-supported by her male relatives, some of whom would have been clergy in the linked house.
The dynastic hold on these foundations is evident in the history of the land-holdings. The lady of property took her estate with her when she took the vows to a religious life, but it was hers for life, and reverted back to her kin on her death (hence the ease with which the kings of Wessex took over the estates of these double houses in Kent).
Actually, there were two sorts of religious life for such retired high-born Anglo-Saxon women: there were those who went fully into a religious house (usually becoming abbess) and those who were called “vowess”, who took vows of celibacy (as a sign they did not wish to be married off again by their male kin) but who were allowed to continue to live on their estates. It was only later, after Bishop Aethelwolde’s reforms and into the Norman period, that the estates of such women could be gifted permanently to the religious foundation as an institution, thus resulting in the growing wealth of the Church throughout the Middle Ages until the land-grabs organised by Thomas Cromwell for King Henry VIII.
A cynical look at the (scant) history of these Anglo-Saxon sainted ladies would conclude that their choices to escape male domination were constrained. To be born into a royal family was to be in peril of assassination, almost anywhere in the world in earlier eras. The worldwide list of famous poisonings is long, including Persian, Roman, Chinese, and African. chiefly families such as Shaka, all kin killing each other to gain the throne.
Women of such families were in danger because the children they might bear can create a rival dynasty. Yet, royal princesses were also an asset as they could be used to create alliances, a system of linked royal families that prevailed in Europe right up to and including Queen Victoria.
In Anglo-Saxon times, such princesses were seen as “peace-weavers” in a time of very rough warfare between rival families. Some of the foundations, such as Minster-in-Thanet, also had the purpose of praying for the soul of the royal founder, alleviating guilt from atrocities (murder of princes) committed in the quest for supremacy. Thus, the sisters praying in such houses were also “peace-weaving” between earthly power and the ultimate judgement of God.