History: Alfred's Nuns

This page is for notes and information relating to the Alfredian Nun Project. This is currently the pet project of Shelagh, who is looking to create a scholarly nun character living in the late 9th century A.D., as a contrast to her main character (the Viking woman Ingibjorg, a settler in Essex at the same time). The time of Alfred the Great was particularly turbulent and interesting, with Viking and Anglo-Saxon cultures both active in England. I plan to post my notes here, and my hope is that other people will contribute information, ideas and reading recommendations. There is also a forum thread to discuss research and ideas:


Although I don't know a lot about it yet, I think the costume will be relatively simple. The key to the character will be in knowledge and attitude.

Key Questions

What basic information do I need before the character can make her first appearance?


Where is her convent? Who founded it? How is it funded?


What's her life story?


What does she wear? What accessories does she have?

a crucifix, perhaps silver if high status, or bronze or even bone for lower.
a book would be a great accessory - one could add a page at a time, and build up a very personal volume. It could include:

Lord's prayer in Latin http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lord%27s_Prayer
Grace and other prayers in Latin
Could include prayers, especially the Lord's prayer in Anglo-Saxon. At the time of Alfred this would have been quite a novelty but not unreasonable.
Lives of saints.

Basic Knowledge

What must a nun know? And in what language? I believe that at this time all church business was conducted in Latin: the Wessex Gospels and Alfred's interest in Anglo-Saxon translations are yet to come.

  • prayer times?
  • prayers
  • psalms
  • graces


There are several interesting Christian Anglo-Saxon poems with female protagonists.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_(poem) - the single copy of which comes from the Beowulf manuscript.
http://www.archive.org/stream/judithphnixando00hallgoog#page/n23/mode/1up - an annotated translation (with some other stuff)
Judith is a fantastic role-model, beautiful, wise, and she cuts the bad man's head off to save her people! The poem's date is uncertain but it's likely to be old enough for our purposes.

Women's Monasticism in Alfred's Day

What rule would have been followed? My impression is that convents and monasteries were independent houses, following the rule of St. Benedict, but not part of a formal umbrella organisation. The convent would have been Catholic Christian, because there wasn't really any other sort at the time.

What links would there have been with other houses, in England and abroad? How much contact with the ruling classes?

What academic pursuits could have been followed? Music, classics, medicine, hagiography?

Why does anybody meet her if she's living a cloistered life? As this character will be seen outside the convent (otherwise the re-enactment won't be very interesting), there needs to be some reason for her to leave it. If she is the widow of a merchant, and one of the early members of the new order at Shaftesbury, perhaps she is involved with politicking and trade?

Nunneries of Alfred's Day

Notes taken from "Veiled Women I" and not yet tidied up: please forgive (or fix!) the repetitions and confusing order.

The great age of Anglo-Saxon female religious life seems to have declined gradually, marked in particular by the Viking invasions of the late ninth century that brought to an end a tradition of communities in the south east of England. Some communities survived the invasions but lack of evidence for the presence of women in the later period suggests that they mainly became male-only communities, although the West Saxon royal house did patronise a number of foundations in the tenth century.

New tenth century foundations include Wherwell (Hampshire), Wilton (Wiltshire) and the Nunnaminster (Winchester, Hampshire). Wilton may have been active earlier, either in the eighth century, or founded by King Alfred, but the earliest suggestion of this is a fifteenth century vernacular poem. It was certainly prestigious and well endowed from the tenth century onwards. The Nunnaminster, St Mary's at Winchester was probably founded by Alfred's widow, Ealswith, who died in 902. Her son, Edward the Elder, probably continued the work and completed the establishment of the foundation. The nunnery was refounded / restored by Bishop Aethelwold in the 960s having almost ceased to exist. The Old Minster at Winchester may have been associated with vowesses but was otherwise male-only. Aethelwold appointed one Aethelthryth as abbess and the rule was to be strictly observed thereafter. Secular clerks were ejected from the Old Minster in 964: were the nuns at Winchester better behaved, or was inappropriate behaviour covered up?

A number of nunneries such have been mentioned by various antiquaries and historians, and they may have drawn on valid local histories or surviving tales ie. the nunneries may well have existed. But they are not supported by firm documentary evidence of activity in the Alfredian period, such as contemporary charters and letters, the Anglo-Saxon chronicle and lives of saints.
Some were founded as double houses but by or shortly after Alfred's time, cease to show evidence of women and appear to become male-only.

There are quite a few accounts of single vowesses, who may live in the community or may be associated with a male house.

Since my interest here is finding a home for a scholar nun, I have focused on the nunneries with the most compelling evidence for an active community in the late ninth century.

Barking, Essex

Pre-Viking-Age minster active beyond 871
Partonised by the West Saxon Royal Family
Attested in pre-Conquest Sources
Estates listed in Domesday book

A community at Barking was mentioned in the will of Ealdorman Aelfgar (946x951) and received a grant from King Eadred in 950, but its history between the time of Bede and the mid-tenth century is unknown. At the time of Domesday this was the third richest nunnery in England. The nuns at Barking were reportedly burnt in their nunnery in 870, but the nunnery was undoubtedly active both before and after this date.

Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History, said that the double house was founded by Eorcenwald, bishop of London ?675-693, for his sister Aethelburg, it's first abbess. He describes her abbacy and that of her successor Hildelith. Charter evidence suggests a founding date late in the 680s. Hildelith was mentioned in a letter from Boniface to Eadburg, abbess of Thanet, dated 716.
The contemporary record is then silent until the 940s, when there is considerable evidence of activity at Barking. The Essex ealdorman Aelfgar bequeathed an estate at Baythorn in Essex first to his female descendents, then to “St Mary's foundation (stow) at Barking for the souls of our ancestors”. His second daughter's will repeats the wish that Baythorn be for the use of the community at Barking. Various surviving documents mention grants to Barking, and it undoubtedly remained a nunnery.

The prolific eleventh century Flemish hagiographer Goscelin of St Bertin writes that the nunnery at Barking had been burnt together with the nuns and their abbess by the Danes in the same year in which King Edmund of East Anglia was martyred by the Danes, namely 870. This is in his Lecciones de Sancta Hildelitha, which was commissioned by Aelfgyth. She was abbess at the Conquest and caused a new church to be built and the relics of three of Barking's most celebrated virgin abbesses to be translated (whatever that means).

The congregation may have abandoned Barking for a safer location in the later ninth century, as Goscelin asserted they did during the rign of Athelred and again at the time of the Normal Conquest. The Great Army occupied London in 872/3. However the survival of original charters suggests that the abbey may have continued in some form – I wonder whether in exile? Archaeological evidence suggests there may have been a break in occupation.

In the tenth century the community was active again, with or without a break. Grants were made to St Mary's foundation (stow) at Barking. It is personally pleasing to note that eight hides at Tollesbury, where I stayed as a child, were held by Barking as a manor in 1086 (Domesday), having been granted by King Eadred to religiosae feminae (Aethelfigu and Eawynne, the latter getting lands at Hockley) – although these ladies were not necessarily directly associated with the nunnery, the sequence of events suggests they may have been vowesses who adopted a religious life while retaining their own estates.

(Foot seems to think that Barking may have remained active during the time of Alfred, but it is a little hard to imagine how they could have endured in raided and conquered Essex. If they did, it would be a very interesting story.)

It seems unlikely that the community was entirely destroyed in the first Viking age, because some charters relating to the minster's early history have apparently survived. I wonder if some members of the community fled to a safer location, taking with them documents etc., but others remained and were killed?

There is quite a lot of information about the tenth century. At the time of the conquest, Barking may have been the third richest nunnery in England, after Wilton and Shaftesbury. But despite the wealth it remains elusive. There is little evidence of royal patronage beyond Eadred's grant of 950, and little to suggest it was directly involved in the Benedictine renewal of Edgar's reign.
Goscelin tells a number of colourful tales which are largely unsupported by other sources. In his Vita sanctae Wulfhildae, he says King Edgar attempted to abduct Wulfhild, a nun at Wilton, and by way of compensation gave her the nunnery at Barking and five further households, each with a church, at Wilton, Shaftesbury, Wareham, Southampton and Horton. He also says that the 'nun' Wulfthryth was seduced and of her was born the more celebrated Wilton saint, Edith. Wulfhild was apparently later evicted from Barking because of the enmity of Edgar's queen, Aelfthryth, but eventually regained control, dying as abbess in 996. In another of his “lives”, Goscelin asserted that King Edgar had set Edith as head over three religious houses – the Nunnaminster, Barking and a third of which he did not know the name. The thread is tangled, but it supports the idea that the leading women were well known, powerful, and that there was plenty of politicking going on between and around nunneries. The histories of the various houses are intertwined.

Shaftesbury, Dorset

New 9th century foundation
Patronised by West Saxon Royal Family
Attested in pre-Conquest sources
Estates listed in Domesday Book

A nunnery was founded at Shaftesbury by King Alfred, whose daughter was the first abbess. The house received a number of grants from tenth-century West Saxon kings and strengthened its association with that family by serving as the burial place for Aelfgifu, the first wife of King Edmund, and later as the resting place of Edward the Martyr. At the Conquest Shaftesbury was one of the riches monastic houses in England.

House-tradition preserved from the abbey's 15th century cartulary, says that Aethelgifu took the veil on account of ill health. Her companions were apparently of noble birth. The document that claims to list Shaftesbury's founding grants may have been forged to add verisimilitude to the abbey's claim to its lands.

Asser wrote of the abbey's foundation in the extended digression in his narrative which follows his account of the years 887-8. That digression does not state that the abbey was founded at that time: it does seem that it must have been built between 888 and 893, when Asser was writing. Asser said the minster was built near the east gate of the town as a residence suitable for religious women.

The house received a number of grants from tenth-century West Saxon kings and strengthened its association with that family by surving as the burial place for Aelfgifu, the first wife of King Edmund, and later as the resting place of Edward the Martyr. At the conquest Shaftesbury was one of the richest monastic houses in England.

William of Malmesbury considered that Alfred had Shaftesbury (the town) built in 880 on the basis of a stone-inscription he had seen at Shaftesbury. He initially said the abbey was founded by Aelfgifu, wife of King Edmund (great grandson of Alfred), who was later buried there. However, he later changed his mind and listed the abbey as having been founded by Alfred.

By the time of the Norman conquest, Shaftesbury was better endowed (woof!) than many notable male houses. But the history since the founding is hard to reconstruct. The West Saxon royal family made grants to it during the tenth century.

There is some connection with the later history of Barking: the writer Goscelin said that when King Edgar realised that his attempts to seduce Wulfhild of Barking would not succeed, he made lavish grants to Wulfhild granding her the nunnery at Barking together with five domos familiarum each in a town and each with its own church: Horton, Wilton, Shaftesbury, Wareham and Hamtunia (Southampton) – possibly referring to a small congregation within the town rather than the abbey foundation.

The nunnery at Shaftesbury lay within a fortified burh situated on an inland cliff-top. In 1001 Aethelred gave some land at Bradford on Avon to provide a place of refuge for the nuns and the relics in their charge during viking attacks. An odd choice given how defensible was Shaftesbury, but there you go. The women were enjoyed to return to Shaftesbury but to ensure divine services continued at Bradford, either by leaving some of their number behind or by some other means.

An eleventh century copy of the will of Wynflaed (dateable to 950 ad) makes reference to nun's clothing (nunscrud). Among bequests of money, she left one Ceolthryth “whichever she prefers of her black tunics and her best holy veil and her best headband”.

Shaftesbury seems to have continued in good order for hundreds of years, on the basis of the wealth given to it by the West Saxon royal house and its effective exploitation of the cult of Edward the Martyr. His body was moved there on 20 June 1001 at the order of Edward's brother, King Aethelred, at the prompting of Shaftesbury's abbess.

Wareham, Dorset

?Pre-Viking-Age nunnery active beyond 871
?New ninth-century foundation
Dissolved or abandoned before 1066
Attested in pre-Conquest sources

There is no certain evidence of a nunnery at Wareham before the later ninth century, when Asser referred to its presence inside the fortified burgh. An abbess of Wareham was mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 982, and the late eleventh-century hagiographer Goscelin alluded to a house of female religious within the town early in the reign of King Edgar.

In his Life of King Alfred, Asser described Wareham as a castellum and a monasterium sanctimonialium, a fortified site where there was a congregation of female religious, situated in Dorset, between the rivers Frome and Tarrant.

The micel here (great army) used Wareham as a winter camp in 876 (when they won the Battle of Wareham, so one imagines it can't have been a good time to be a nun there: if there were nuns there already, they may have fled and then returned). It's not entirely clear whether there were already religious women in Wareham in the 870s or whether the convent was first established nearer to the time when Asser was writing.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the deaths in 982 of two Dorsetshire abbesses, Herelufu of Shaftesbury and Wulfwyn of Wareham. There are some suggestions of connections with the West Saxon royal family. But there is no mention of it in Domesday. There are no surviving charters in its favour. It may have run out of steam (and money) after the death of the notable Wulfwyn.

Wenlock, Shropshire

Pre-Viking-Age minster, active beyond 871
Dissolved or abandoned before 1066
Attested in pre-Conquest sources

A double community at Wenlock (with, unusually, a male superior) attested in 901 may have been a direct descendant of the seventh-century community, founded as a dependency of Icanho (a place, no longer known, where Botulph founded a monastery. It may be Iken in Suffolk). The presence of women at Wenlock was not reported beyond this date, although there was a male congregation of canons there at the Conquest.

There was seemingly a community of men and women under a male superior at Wenlock early in the tenth century. In 901 this minster made an exchange of land with Aethelred and Aethelflaed, record of which has survived as an apparent original; by this agreement the congregation of the church exchanged land at Easthope and Patton for land at Stanton Long. The fragmentary witness list to this transaction includes the names of five women – Wigburg, Aethelswith, Wylfgyth, Culfre and Cineburg – who have been taken to be the members of the Wenlock community. (A rare opportunity for re-enactors to take the names of historically attested 'ordinary' nuns).

The so-called “Testament of Mildburga” indicates that the first minster at Wenlock was created as a dependency of the East Anglian house of Icanho in the later seventh century and later acquired by Mildburga, who may still have been Wenlock's abbess into the 720s. St Mildburg's body was reputedly housed in one of the churches at Wenlock.

Recend excavation has revealed Roman buildings underlying the Anglo-Saxon structures, raising the possibility that Mildreth's double house was founded on a former Christian site.
A letter of St Boniface described a vision had by a monk from that congregation in the time of King Ceolred (died 716).

After 901 there is no evidence of women at Wenlock, although the male community persisted. The abbey was wealthy at the time of the Conquest, but all male.

Wimborne, Dorset

Pre-Viking-Age minster active beyond 871
Dissolved or abandoned before 1066
Attested in pre-Conquest sources

There may have been a minster for women at Wimborne in AD 900: a woman dedicated to religion, possibly from that community, was abducted in that year by the aetheling Aethelwold in his bid for the West Daxon throne. A double house at Wimborne had been founded in the early eighth century by a sister of King Ine. Although there was probably a religious congregation at Wimborne during the tenth and eleventh centuries, there is no evidence that it housed women beyond 900.

Wimborne was chosen as the burial place for King Aethelred, who died in 871. John of Worcester's account of Aethelwold seizing a woman from the convent in 900 is the latest report of female religious at Wimborne. This is the last mention of women at Wimborne, and is the only report of women there in the later ninth century.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that Wimborne was founded in 718 by Cuthburg, a sister of King Ine, after she separeted from her husband, Aldfrith of Northumbria – an illustrious career for a divorced woman. The subsequent abbess Coenburga may have been Cuthberg's sister Cwenburg. The nun Leoba went form Wimborne to join Boniface's mission in Germany.
The West Saxon king Aethelred was buried at Wimborne in 871, which suggests the presence of a community but not necessarily of women. Wimborne was closely associated with the WS royal house.

Winchcome, Gloucestershire

Dissolved or abandoned before 1066
Attested in pre-Conquest sources

The pre-Viking-Age double minster at Winchcome still apparently supported a congregation of women as well as men in 897, but there is no evidence for the presence of religious women at the place after that date.

Twelfth century accounts say that the women's house was founded in 787 by Offa, and the male by Coenwulf in 811. A document dated 897 reociding the settlement of a land dispute, named two abbesses of Winchcome, Cynethryth and Aelfflaed, and witnessed by three women, Aethelswyth, Wigswith and Lulla, who have been assumed to be members of the Winchcome community.

Winchcombe was part of the revival of monasticism in King Edgar's reign, but although the community persisted there is no further mention of women. In 970 it was reformed by Oswald under Abbot Germanus, and from then at the earliest was an exclusively male institution. It is possible that it was abandoned in the late 9th and early 10th centuries.

Lives of Saints

Please add or fill in!

St Cuthburg

Founder of Wimborne Abbey, sister of King Ine.

St Leoba

She orignated at Wimborne, became Abbess of Bischofsheim and died in 779. Her “Life” was written by about 836. She is described as being very learned and a great reader. A nun of Wessex would surely venerate her.

Ethelburh and Hildelith, abbesses of Barking

The first two abbesses of this house.


This is the list of books I've either read, or am planning to read. Please add any recommendations, and also comments on the books whether good or bad.

  1. Veiled Women I: the Disappearance of Nuns from Anglo-Saxon England, Sarah Foot, Aldershot, Ashgate Publishing 2000. ISBN 0-7546-0043-2
  2. Veiled Women II: Female Religious Communities in England, 871-1066, Sarah Foot, Aldershot, Ashgate Publishing 2000. ISBN 0-7546-0044-0. A short book listing all reputed convents in England in this time, with discussion of the evidence for each one and its history. Invaluable for finding a religious community in which to place your nun character, and also gives interesting background info.
  3. Medieval Women: Social History Of Women In England 450-1500, Henrietta Leyser.
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