Lady Cynethryth at home

OK, that was three heavy posts, time for something lighter. This time without naming the student, since the bits I’m actually quoting are all mine, I had a tutorial some months back in which we were looking at the Mercian Supremacy, when the kings of Mercia were top dogs in England as no doubt you know, and we spoke of King Offa’s queen Cynethryth, who has the unusual distinction of being the only queen consort in English history, to the best of my knowledge, and certainly the only Anglo-Saxon one, to have coinage struck in her name. She also turns up in Offa’s charters, and was generally recognised as a presence in a way few other queens of the period were. Whether that tells us anything about her, however, as opposed to how much she was important to Offa’s claim to the throne, is more of a debate, and getting at her actual rôle in the kingdom is very hard indeed.1 So, one of the pupils tried pitching her as a kind of Lady MacBeth character, the driving force behind the throne. There’s some material to do this with, if one wanted, with Alcuin (him again) telling a half-story in one letter of a throne acquired and held by spilling copious blood, but I’d never before envisaged Cynethryth standing behind Offa goading him on in the way that Shakespeare’s MacBeth, who is really Holinshed’s MacBeth and not really a historical MacBeth, was driven by Gruach.2 And before I could do anything my mind had gone somewhere entirely otherwise with the idea, snippets of home life in the Mercian court which owe more to Barrie Took than the Bard:

Offa                 : Mek room there lass, I want some breakfast before I sit in judgement.
Cynethryth: Well you haven’t seen this letter from Archbishop Jænberht! I ask you! Who does he think he is, dreadful little man! You’ll have to do something about him.
Offa                  moans: Not Jænberht again. What do you want me to do, ‘e’s the Archbishop, I can’t just mek me own now can I?
Cynethyrth Nonsense, of course you can. In any case it won’t do. We shall holiday in Kent this year, Offa.
Offa                 : Can’t we ‘ave just one spring without a war?
Cynethryth: It won’t do.
Offa                  sighs and gets up.
Cynethryth: And where are you off to, exactly?
Offa                 : Blow this for a game of soldiers, I’m going to get me hair done…

Obverse of silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, London mint by Eadhun, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.YG.418-R, Young Collection

Obverse of silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, London mint by Eadhun, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.YG.418-R, Young Collection

Yes, OK, not very likely, but seriously that hair demands some explanation. The real question, I suppose, is whether this counts as Oxbridge-quality teaching or not, a question to which I don’t intend to solicit answers. Back to seminar reports next, featuring indeed he of n. 2 below, the one who’s still alive that is, and no coins at all for once!


1. This is kind of a general problem with studying powerful women in the early Middle Ages; they are all unusual. The best place to start is probably with Pauline Stafford’s Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: the king’s wife in the early Middle Ages (London 1983), repr. in Women, Power and Politics (Leicester 1998), but if you wanted Cynethryth specifically a different piece by Pauline Stafford would be more useful, her “Political Women in Mercia, eighth to early tenth centuries” in Michelle P. Brown and Carol Farr (edd.), Mercia: an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Europe, Studies in the Early History of Europe (Leicester 2001), repr. in Continuum studies in medieval history (London 2005), pp. 35-49.

2. Alcuin’s letter, to the Mercian Ealdorman Osbert, is printed in Ernst Dümmler (ed.), Epistolae Ævi Karolini Vol. II, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Epistolae) IV (Berlin 1895), Alcuini sive Albini epistolae no. 122, and translated in S. Allott (trans.), Alcuin of York, c. A. D. 732 to 804 (York 1974), no. 46 and Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents, I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), no. 202. Meanwhile, if you didn’t know either of the facts that the real King Macbethad of Alba had a relatively long and mostly secure time on the throne (1040-1057) and that he might even have been the first King of ‘Scots’ to have ruled from the north coast to the border with England, you should probably get hold of Alex Woolf’s From Pictland to Alba 789-1070, New Edinburgh History of Scotland 2 (Edinburgh 2007, repr. 2008, 2009), where pp. 225-271 will set it all out for you. If you knew the first bit, but the second has you piqued and you want all the detail, then Alex has written it up in “The ‘Moray Question’ and the Kingship of Alba in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 79 (Edinburgh 2000), pp. 145-164, though it is also briefly covered in the book, and I’m not sure he’d necessarily choose to present the conclusions in quite the way I just did.

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4 responses to “Lady Cynethryth at home

  1. David Hillman

    And do the CyneThrith and Offa in Beowulf stand in for these figures in the story?

    • I think the phrase I want here is, “Ah, now that would be an ecumenical matter…” However, if you want someone else’s opinion, and some account of the scholarship on the question up to now, then you can find it here, courtesy of well-known electronic journal The Heroic Age

  2. I can only remember that there was some consideration of that hairstyle in Anglo-Saxon history lectures – I can’t remember what was said about it. I was probably giving him an impressive dye job, given my habit with coloured pens and history handouts…

  3. highlyeccentric

    That is one hell of a hairstyle there, Offa…

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