Æthelflæd: an Anglo-Saxon ‘Queen’ and Viking Nemesis

Detail of Æthelflæd glass from the West Window of Chester Cathedral, by WT Carter Shapland, 1961.

12 June 2018 marks the eleven-hundredth anniversary of the death of the remarkable Æthelflæd: daughter of King Alfred the Great, Lady of the Mercians and – to her Viking foes – ‘most famous Saxon queen’. Her impressive reputation and unique position in Anglo-Saxon England are recorded in two medieval sources housed in the Library, one English, one Irish. Both stand as testament to her enduring legend at home and abroad.

Diagram of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms identified as making up England (Essex, Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, and East Anglia). The kingdoms appear as petals with Mercia appearing bottom left. TCD MS 496, ff. 127v-128

The eldest child of Alfred the Great (d.899) and Eahlswith (d.902), Æthelflæd was born into a fragmented England: Alfred’s Wessex was one of a number of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in turbulent co-existence with the constantly encroaching Viking Danelaw. Alfred, it seems, intended each of his children to play important roles in furthering his aim of uniting the English kingdoms against the Danes, and this was to be achieved through a variety of means: through political power, through property, through strategic marriages, and through religious influence. However, Alfred’s contemporary biographer, Asser, describes a society that did not promote female leadership: ‘The West Saxons do not allow a queen to sit beside the king, nor to be called a queen, but only the king’s wife’. This makes Æthelflæd’s achievements all the more startling.

It is not known where Æthelflæd grew up, although she was possibly raised with maternal relatives in Mercia rather than Wessex. Her marriage to the Mercian ruler, Æthelred (d.911), was a strategic power-play for both her father and husband. Despite being a princess of Wessex, she did not officially graduate to becoming Queen of Mercia, rather she was merely designated the wife of the Lord of Mercia in recognition of Alfred’s overlordship of that kingdom.

Statue of Æthelflæd with her foster son and future King of England Æthelstan, Tamworth Castle grounds, Edward George Bramwell, 1913.

From 910 the Mercian Register of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles records her rise to prominence, possibly due to the fact that her husband became gravely ill at this time. On his death in 911 she assumed the leadership of Mercia apparently uncontested and was identified as ‘Myrcna hlœfdige’ – Lady of Mercia. The language is important, as this was the precise equivalent of Æthelred’s habitual title of ‘Myrcna hlaford’. This indicates that the Mercian rulers’ assembly did not draw any distinction between her authority to rule and that of her husband’s. She led the Mercians so successfully that on her death in 918, her daughter, Ælfwynn, was also accepted as her successor (albeit for only six months). The uncontested transference of power from one female ruler to another was unprecedented, and it would not be repeated for another six-hundred years, when the English throne passed from Mary I to Elizabeth I in 1558.

Annals of Ulster containing the entry for the year 918. TCD MS 1282 f.46v

Æthelflæd was both a warrior and a builder, planning and leading military campaigns against the Danes, whilst also extending her father’s policy of establishing a series of fortified towns or burhs. She either rebuilt or founded the county towns of Gloucester, Hereford, Worcester, Chester, Shrewsbury, Warwick, and Stafford. Militarily, she was a smart tactician, and just before her death the Danes of York indicated that they were ready to surrender to her. By this point the extent of the lands under her influence was rivalled only by the realms of her brother Edward the Elder Burhs and the King of the Scots, Constantín Mac Áeda (d.952).

Æthelflæd in the Library

Genealogy of Alfred, roundels containing the names of Alfred, Edward and Elfleda (Æthelflæd) TCD MS 496 ff.129v-130r

Ætheflæd appears in two sources in the Manuscripts & Archives section of the Library. She is profiled in an early-fourteenth-century diagrammatic genealogy of the kings of England, ‘Summary chronicle of English history from Beorhtric’s accession (AD 786) to Edward I’s (AD 1272)’ (TCD MS 496). This contains the family tree of Alfred in which she appears in one roundel, with genealogical lines linking him to his children Edward and Elfleda (Æthelflæd). The accompanying inscription reads:

Elfleda sapientissima filia eius cum aliis quattuor
Æthelflæd the wisest daughter of [Alfred] with four others.
And, beneath the circle:

Ista Elfleda omni mulierum sapientissima dicebatur, que multum[?] fratrem suum regem ab regnum suum gubernandum per sapientam suam instruxit. Haec nupsit comiti Edredo.
This Æthelflæd was called the wisest of all women, and through her wisdom greatly instructed her brother the king on the governance of his kingdom. She married count Edred [Æthelred].*

The annals of Ulster’s (TCD MS 1282 f 46v) record of Æthelflæd’s death in 918 also reflects her status:

Eithilfleith, famosissima regina Saxonum, moritur
Æthelflæd, most famous Queen of the Saxons, died.

‘Eithilfleith, famosissima regina Saxonum, moritur’ from the Annals of Ulster record for 918 TCD MS 1282 f.46v

 

 

 

 

 

The inclusion of the death of an Anglo-Saxon royal in the Irish annals may have been due to Ӕthelflӕd’s position as an opponent of the Norse-Gael leader Ragnall Ua Ímair (d.920/921), one of the Vikings expelled from Dublin in 902. The fragmentary Annals of Ireland, (Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale 5301-5320) also suggest that she allied herself with Constantín Mac Áeda, King of Scotland, against Ragnall at the Battle of Corbridge in Northumberland in the year of her death.

Neither her father Alfred’s nor her brother Edward the Elder’s deaths are recorded in the annals, but Æthelflæd is referenced in Irish and Welsh sources as a most famous Saxon Queen. Although this title was not technically correct, the scribe’s singling out of Æthelflæd in such a way is in clear recognition of her unique position and the importance of her achievements from an opponent’s perspective.

The Library’s online exhibition, ‘Transmitting the Anglo-Saxon past’ provides further examples of Anglo-Saxon history manuscripts from the Library’s collection.

The Anglo-Saxon world will become the focus of a major exhibition ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms‘ at the British Library from October 2018.

‘Our Aethel’ statue, Tamworth, Luke Perry, 2018.

The cities of Tamworth (where she died) and Gloucester (where she was buried) are both hosting ‘Aethel’-festivals in June and July 2018, www.aethelflaed2018.co.uk and www.visittamworth.co.uk/aethelflaed

Estelle Gittins
*With thanks to Dr Laura Cleaver, School of Art History

Neglected Old English in Trinity College Dublin

Among European countries, Ireland and England hold the accolade of having explored the possibilities of writing in their vernacular languages earliest and most extensively. Over three million words of Old English, the major language of England from around 500 to around 1100, survive, largely in manuscripts now in English libraries. But Trinity has one medieval manuscript containing Old English, TCD MS 174, a codex in Latin but which appears to pronounce its origins in the vernacular.

TCD MS 174, folio ir: ‘of searbyrig ic eom’: “from Salisbury I am”.

It also has a number of copies made by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century antiquarians of Old English texts, most famously William Lambard’s 1563 transcript of a now-all-but-conflagrated copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

TCD MS 631, folio 11r: King Alfred’s accession in annal 871 is marked with a three-line-high capital, presumably copied by Lambard from the manuscript he was transcribing.

While three million words may sound like a lot, it is still insufficient to answer some major questions about the Old English language and its literature, and the discovery of new texts in the language, even if only a few words in length, is a cause of interest. It was therefore with some excitement that examining a twelfth-century Trinity manuscript in October last year with Immo Warntjes, Ussher Assistant Professor in Early Medieval Irish History, I spotted some annotations in the margins of several leaves that appeared to be in English.

TCD MS 492, fol. 4r: the beginning of the first book of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, with English annotations in the outer margin.

TCD MS 492, folio 4r: the beginning of the first book of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, with English annotations in the outer margin.

TCD MS 492, folio 4r (detail of annotation from outer margin, enlarged and rotated): ‘hronas’, “whales”.

TCD MS 492, folio 4r (detail of annotation from outer margin, enlarged and rotated): ‘hronas’, “whales”.

Further research revealed that if not entirely unknown, these annotations – seven in all – were seriously neglected. This prompted a full investigation, the results of which have just been published in the German journal, Anglia: Zeitschrift fur Englische Philologie.

The first challenge was to decipher the annotations. Transcribing Old English is not difficult, whatever master’s palaeography students may tell you. However, these annotations presented several idiosyncratic challenges: first, the vast majority of them were written in the outer margin of the leaves, perpendicular to the text block, a position where readers’ fingers are liable to have rubbed any writing; second, the script was extremely small, almost wilfully inconspicuous. Thus one of the annotations in the margin of fol. 4r had formerly been transcribed as ‘seolas scaelie’, just about recognisable as Old English, but not intelligible as such because no word ‘scaelie’ exists; in good light and with patience, I was able to recognise the word intended as ‘weolocscælle’.

TCD MS 492, folio 4r (detail of annotation from outer margin, enlarged and rotated): ‘<w>eolocscælle’, “whelks”.

The next challenge was to explain what the annotator was up to. Fortunately, I was well positioned for this task, having written my PhD on the ways in which medieval readers used manuscripts. One thing that immediately struck me was that the spelling of the annotations was at odds with their twelfth-century date. This suggested it would be worth checking if they had been taken from an earlier work. Investigation revealed this was indeed the case, with all having come from an earlier translation of the Latin work being annotated, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The annotation of a Latin work with equivalent phrases from an English translation might suggest a student cribbing his way to the understanding of the original Latin (my copy of Virgil’s Æneid still has my annotations from when I first encountered it as a sixteen-year old schoolboy). But closer consideration of two of the annotations suggested the actual situation was more complex.

TCD MS 492, folio 8v (detail, enlarged and rotated): ‘munuc’, “monk”.

TCD MS 492, folio 8v (detail, enlarged and rotated): ‘munuc’, “monk”.

Both of these annotations concern Bede’s account of St Alban, the man he celebrated as the first English martyr and the man who gave his name to the monastery and later town of St Albans in Hertfordshire. Both annotations give details found in the English translation not present in the Latin: that a visitor Alban received was a monk and that the place of Alban’s martyrdom was half a mile from the town wall. They suggest that the annotator was not a student struggling to understand Bede’s Latin, but a scholar making a detailed comparison of the Latin text and its Old English translation and, perhaps surprisingly, according them equal weight.

TCD MS 492, folio 9v (detail, enlarged and rotated): ‘half mile <em>a muro</em>’, “half a mile <em>from the wall</em>”.

TCD MS 492, folio 9v (detail, enlarged and rotated): ‘half mile a muro’, “half a mile from the wall”.

The annotations in TCD MS 492 are therefore a witness to the authority that the vernacular held in England before 1200, an authority paralleled in the Europe of this time only in Ireland. The publication of these neglected seventeen words of Old English adds just a little to the more than three million words of Old English already known to have survived, and it doubles the number of codices known to contain Old English in Trinity, but more importantly it tells us that Old English works continued to be read and studied well into the twelfth century, just as we still enjoy the novels of Dickens and Trollope today.

Mark Faulkner
Ussher Assistant Professor in Medieval Literature

The Wycliffite Bibles in the Library of Trinity College Dublin

In the later half of the fourteenth century a group of Oxford scholars, associated with the theologian John Wycliffe (c.1330-84), set out to translate the Bible from Latin into English. This Bible, known as the Wycliffite Bible, was banned by the hierarchy in the early 1400s and for the next 125 years anyone caught owning such a Bible could, in theory, be condemned for heresy. Despite these restrictions, the Wycliffite Bible was one of the most extensive productions of the Middle Ages, of which there are over 250 extant manuscripts. The Library of Trinity College Dublin (TCD) holds nine of these manuscripts.

The nine manuscripts in TCD offer some insight into the various stages of production. The first attempt at the Wycliffite Bible, for example, was a direct translation from the Latin and it reads rather awkwardly, more like a word-for-word translation because the Oxford scholars were keen to demonstrate that the English version was as trustworthy as the Latin text from which it came. It is usually referred to as the Early Version (EV). Towards the end of the fourteenth century, a later group of scholars decided it was time to improve upon this Early Version so that the English would read more fluently. Both the EV and LV version of the Wycliffite Bible can be found in the Trinity collection.

To talk about 250 manuscripts is a bit misleading because it indicates only the number of manuscripts that contain the Bible in whole or in part; it does not indicate the survival of so many complete Bibles. For example, MS 66 begins with Genesis, but concludes with the introduction to the Psalms. Mary Dove holds that its sister manuscript or the second volume of the same Bible, which begins with Proverbs and ends with Revelations, is London, British Library MS Additional 15580. It would be interesting to know how the manuscripts came to be separated and what became of the missing Book of Psalms.

Some manuscripts contain extra bits of information that illustrate the use that was made of the Bibles. For example, MS 75 is one of a hundred manuscripts to contain a set of tables setting out the sections of the Bible which are to be read at Mass each Sunday. [See images of ff. 9 & 100 below].

TCD MS 75, folio 9 r

Each table is laid out in a series of columns that lists the Sunday or feast day, the chapter of the relevant Bible passage, a letter of the alphabet to mark the passage in the main Bible, and the opening and closing words of the Gospel passage. If we compare the images of folios 9 [image above] and 100 [image below] from MS 75, we see that the ‘a’ in the margin of f. 100 occurs beside the words ‘be not ȝour hertes destorbled’ [marked with a red arrow].

TCD MS 75, folio 100r

This corresponds with the entry for ‘holy rode day’ on f. 9 of the table [green arrow], which indicates that the Gospel for that feast day is taken from John 14, where it will be highlighted in the main part of the Bible by the letter ‘a’ in the margin. We can also see that the opening words in the table correspond with those marked on f. 100, ‘be not ȝour hertes destorbled’ [blue arrow], which conclude with the closing lines of the Gospel passage ‘I schal do it’ [black arrow]. This kind of table opens up the debate on who were the actual readers and owners of the Wycliffite Bibles. Were these tables indicative of an enthusiastic lay readership, preparing the readings before or after the liturgical service as the translators intended? Do they suggest, on the other hand, that the Bible remained in the hands of the less Latinate clergy who were glad to access the Bible in English rather than Latin?

The Wycliffite Bible manuscripts in Trinity provide a valuable insight into the changing attitudes to religion among certain sectors of society in the lead up to the Reformation.

Further Reading:

Christopher de Hamel, The Book. A History of the Bible. Phaidon, 2001. Chapter 7 (pp. 166-90).

Mary Dove. The First English Bible: The Text and Context of the Wycliffite Versions. CUP, 2007.

Matti Peikola. ‘Tables of Lections in Manuscripts of the Wycliffite Bible’ in Form and Function in the Late Medieval Bible. Eds Eyal Poleg and Laura Light. Library of the Written Word 27; The Manuscript World 4. (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp. 351-78.

John Scattergood and Guido Latré, ‘Dublin, Trinity College Library MS 75: A Lollard Bible and Some Protestant Owners’, in Manuscripts and Ghosts: Essays on the Transmission of Medieval and Early Renaissance Literature. Four Courts Press, 2006. (pp. 163–80.)

Elizabeth Solopova. The Wycliffite Bible: Origin, History and Interpretation. Brill, 2016.

Dr. Niamh Pattwell, University College Dublin.

Dr. Pattwell is currently working on a volume of the Index of Middle English Prose for Trinity College Dublin with Prof. V.J. Scattergood.

Link to IMEP volumes: https://boydellandbrewer.com/index-of-middle-english-prose-index-to-volumes-i-to-xx-hb.html

 

 

Diversity and similitude in Middle English Ten Commandments texts

TCD MS 70, folio 144r

Religious miscellanies feature prominently among the Library’s holdings of Middle English manuscripts. Intended as manuals for religious instruction, they frequently contain texts of and commentaries on the Ten Commandments. A survey and analysis of the content and contexts of selected examples suggest that the creation of a flowing effect, whereby the various instructions almost ‘bleed’ into one another, was part of their aesthetic. Thus, the texts are arranged in order to suggest a way of reading whereby the reader becomes deeply familiar with essential religious knowledge. Contrasts in these texts shed light on a vibrant and heterogeneous creative culture of religious instruction, wherein a range of audiences and communities of readers engaged with catechetical material during the late medieval and early modern period.

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CERL Dublin Manuscripts Conference 25-27 May 2016

The 7th conference of CERL’s (Consortium of European Research Libraries https://www.cerl.org/) European Manuscript Librarians Expert Group, hosted by the cerl logoLibrary of Trinity College Dublin will take place 25-27 May 2016.

The primary aims of the Group are to act as a forum for curatorial concerns, and to enhance understanding and practical cooperation among curators across Europe. The conference will focus on these themes:

Commemorations and Anniversaries; Materiality; Post-digital issues and concerns.

Draft programme:

Wednesday 25 May, 1315 – 2000

  • Estelle Gittins, ‘Commemorating 1916 in the Library of Trinity College Dublin’
  • Bernard Meehan, ‘The Faddan More Psalter’
  • Susie Bioletti, ‘Early Results from the “Early Irish Manuscripts” Project’
  • Jennifer Edmond, ‘CENDARI: what next?’
  • Jane Ohlmeyer, ‘The 1641 Depositions: what now?’

Reception in Old Library with Book of Kells and exhibition of treasures

Thursday 26 May, 0930-1900

  • Ad Leerintveld, ‘Authenticating the coat of arms in a Gruuthuse manuscript’
  • Birgit Vinther Hansen, ‘Exhibition and fading of manuscripts: microfadometry and a lighting policy to increase exposure and reduce risk’
  • Nicholas Pickwoad, ‘Ligatus:  the importance of bindings and their description’
  • Claire Breay, ‘Commemorating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015’
  • Allen Packwood, ‘The Churchill Papers: a modern historical epic’
  • Gerhard Müller, “Understanding Archival Metadata and Shaping Perspectives on the Benefits of Standards beyond the Simple Search.”

Reception at Royal Irish Academy and viewing of early medieval Irish manuscripts. Conference dinner, 1930

Friday 27 May, 0915-1200, private visits to Marsh’s Library and the Chester Beatty Library

FURTHER PAPERS WILL BE ADDED. FULL INFORMATION AND BOOKING FORM WILL FOLLOW SHORTLY.

Caoimhe Ní Ghormáin