Families – did they matter in Anglo-Saxon times?

In the Anglo-Saxon period ‘the church at Worcester’ tended to mean not the Cathedral building but the bishop and the community of monks and priests who lived there. The charters of the period record land transactions, land that was both given to, and leased by, the church. Few charters survive as individual manuscripts but Worcester is fortunate in that many of its charters were copied into collections of charters in the late Anglo-Saxon period. One such large collection is now in the British Library catalogued as Ms. Cotton Tiberius A.xiii, and Worcester Cathedral holds a copy of this which was printed in the early eighteenth century. It is therefore possible to study the contents of the charters through the printed edition in Worcester. When I first began to do so, one of the things that immediately stood out was the number of women and family members that are mentioned. Since the Worcester community was male and celibate and the senior ranks of the secular hierarchy were also predominantly male, I had not expected to find so many females included and so much family feeling to be, if indirectly, revealed.


A picture in a stained glass window in the cloisters of Worcester Cathedral. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


Royal charters were often issued during court gatherings at Easter and Christmas and the witnesses to these sometimes include queens who otherwise have left little in the way of documentary evidence in the historical record. Coenwulf of Mercia, who ruled from 796-821, issued several charters witnessed by his queen Ælfðryð; Berhtwulf who ruled Mercia from 840-852 also has some of his charters witnessed by his wife Sæðryð. Æðelswyð, wife of Burgred, who ruled from 852 until he was driven out of his kingdom by the Vikings in 874, did more than witness. In a charter dated 864 she is named jointly with the king Burghred as the donor of land in Oxfordshire to Bishop Alhun of Worcester [210].[1] This was not a purely charitable act since the land is in return for unspecified ‘precious objects’ valued at 400 shillings (a considerable sum at that time). In fact the charter is effectively the record of a business transaction, documenting a change of land ownership and the royal couple have clearly acted in partnership.

Other family members also appear. Ecgfrið the son of Offa witnessed a late eighth century charter in which his father promised land to the church at Worcester. The land was only to go to Worcester however after the deaths of both Offa and Ecgfrið [146]. In the early 780s Offa granted special privileges to Worcester over land which the Worcester community had leased to abbess Eanburh who was Offa’s kinswoman [120]. There is no mention of family ties but presumably there was a personal link of some kind in the charter in which Offa specifies that land at Evenlode, Gloucestershire is to go to the church at Bredon but only after Ridda, his wife Bucga and daughter Heaburg have enjoyed the use of it for the duration of their lives [109].


A picture in a stained glass window in the cloisters of Worcester Cathedral. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).


Land and consequently wealth did not always have to be the gift of royalty. An eleventh century charter announces that land owned by the widow Wilburh in Feckenham is to pass to the church community in Worcester after her death [1227]. The same century saw Leofric and his wife Godgifu give not only two estates but also a property within Worcester itself to the church community [1232]. In the eighth century Wiferd and his wife Alta jointly gave land to Worcester [1185]. In 804 Æþelric son of Æþelmund declares his intention of leaving his lands at Westbury-on-Trym in Gloucestershire to his mother Ceolburh for her lifetime after which it is to belong to the church at Worcester [1187].


A picture in a stained glass window in the cloisters of Worcester Cathedral. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).


Even those charters issued by the bishop and his community at Worcester show plenty of family feeling and despite the predominant masculinity of the context there are indications that some women were possessed of power and influence. These charters are leases rather than outright gifts of land, and the period of the lease is specified by the lives of the recipients. That is, there are no dates or number of years mentioned but instead the land is given to someone for a particular number of lives – most often this is three – so the recipient, his son and his grandson. After the death of the third life, the land reverts to the ownership of Worcester. In some cases the formula is not merely ‘X for three lives’ but is varied to name those lives that are eligible. Bishop Wilfrid gave land at Bibury, Gloucestershire for two lives, named as Leppa and his daughter Beaga [1254]. A charter of Oswald, which grants a three life lease to Ælfric, names Ælfric’s son Æþelsige as the second life and specifies that one of his male descendants is to be the third [1303]. Another charter of Oswald grants a three life lease of land near Bredon to two brothers, Beornheah and Byrstan [1363] and in a charter dated 984 he grants a life lease of land at Inkberrow to the matron Wulfflæd [1349]. The charter issued by Oswald to his kinsman Osulf is for three lives but with the added proviso that Osulf’s wife Eadleofu may inherit it if his children do not survive [1326], and he also issued one to another kinsman Eadwig and his wife Leofgifu which includes the proviso that, failing heirs of their own, it is to pass to two heirs of their choice [1348]. In a charter of 980 he grants land to Ælfweard, not for the usual ‘lives’ but more precisely to him, then to Eadwine and then to one of his brothers before it reverts to Worcester [1341].


A picture in a stained glass window in the cloisters of Worcester Cathedral. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).


Charters are official records but the wording and the variations on the traditional formulaic expressions provide us with a great deal of information about the people concerned. Who could own land, who acted alone or jointly with another official or family member, how strong family feelings and loyalties were. A concerned Æþelric ensures that his mother will be all right if she survives him, Offa provides for his son, Oswald varies the usual formula so that his kinsman’s wife can inherit, Leofric and Godgifu, like Wiferd and Alta, act in partnership. The people and their family feelings shine through the official formulas of the Anglo-Saxon charters.


Mary Ward


[1] The numbers in square brackets are those allocated by P. H. Sawyer in Anglo-Saxon Charters, London: Royal Historical Society, 1968. The information in that book can also be found at www.esawyer.org.uk






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