Queen Cynethryth of Mercia: Victim of a Medieval Smear Campaign?
The Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia was unique because the queens of Mercia left enough of an impact on their world as to be worthy of remembrance. History has not been so kind, however, to some of Mercia’s most notorious queens. The most notable being Queen Cynethryth, wife of King Offa, who was the source from which female power in the kingdom of Mercia stemmed. Queen Cynethryth has been remembered as a scheming, conniving murderess with a thirst for power to rival her husband’s, and in one legend her machinations are even said to have led to her being cast adrift at sea for unspecified crimes. But was this the whole story?
As we know, history is most often written by the victors and in the case of Anglo-Saxon England, it was written by Mercia’s enemies. Is it possible there was another side to Queen Cynethryth that has been left off the historical record? Could she have been the victim of a 1,300-year-old smear campaign?
Queen Cynethryth, Regina Merciorum, Queen of Mercia
It is not clear when exactly Cynethryth was born, where she came from or when she came to power in Mercia through her marriage to Offa. The date of her marriage is not recorded, she is not even mentioned by name in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles , but we know her name thanks to charter records from Mercia which list her as a witness. The first record of Queen Cynethryth is on a Mercian charter from 770 AD, shortly after the birth of her first son, Ecgfrith.
Pictish symbol stone depicting the Battle of Dun Nechtain, in which Ecgfrith, Queen Cynethryth’s son, was killed. (Greenshed / Public domain )
There is much speculation about the origins of this great queen, with some historians suggesting she was from a Frankish family, possibly even distantly related to Charlemagne. The more likely theory, however, is that Cynethryth was descended from the royal line of the 7th century king, Penda. Her name bears striking similarity to the names of Penda’s daughters, Cyneburh and Cyneswith, and his wife Cynewise. And it is very likely that as Offa himself was only distantly related to Penda, he would see the strategic advantage in strengthening his claim to the Mercian throne by marrying one of Penda’s direct descendants.
While Queen Cynethryth’s significance in the historical record seems to have begun with her marriage to Offa, it was not her role as wife to the king but as mother of his heirs which was seen as of utmost importance. One of Offa’s primary concerns as king was to secure the succession of his own heirs, to deny any other potential claims from adjacent royal bloodlines who might seek the throne. During the early medieval period in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms , it was common practice for rulers to ensure their chosen heir would ascend the throne unchallenged by murdering family members and any blood relatives who could claim the right to rule through familial inheritance.
It certainly appears that Offa engaged in this practice as well, as there were no known close male kinsman of Offa’s still living at the time the throne passed to his son. When his son, Ecgfrith, died after only 141 days as ruler of Mercia, the Northumbrian scholar and advisor to Charlemagne, Alcuin, seemed to think it was poetic justice:
“I think, that most noble young man has not died for his own sins, but the vengeance for the blood shed by the father has reached the son. For you know very well how much blood his father shed to secure his kingdom.”
There was, however, another strategy Offa employed to secure his kingdom and one that had the effect, perhaps accidentally, of laying the foundations for female political power in Mercia. He made his wife into a public symbol of his dynasty and its authority, declaring her regina Merciorum . Was this the realization of Cynethryth’s political ambition, and the beginning of her reign of tyranny ?
Penny depicting Queen Cynethryth, wife of king Offa, which is first coin to depict an Anglo-Saxon queen. (Classical Numismatic Group / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Queen Cynethryth: The First Female Anglo-Saxon Politician?
Anglo-Saxon noblewomen were not excluded from the inner political workings of their kingdoms, as we might imagine. In fact, they played an important role in the machinations of powerful rulers. Many women were given in marriage to rulers of rival kingdoms or their sons in order to forge family bonds between the kingdoms and thus bring peace, which is why they were called frithuwebbe or “peace-weavers.” In their role as peace-weaving wives, these women would have had some political influence in their husband’s kingdom, but usually not in any official capacity.
In this way, Cynethryth stands out. She was the first Mercian queen, one of few Anglo-Saxon queens of her time, to have figured prominently in the official records and to have had a tangible public presence in her kingdom’s politics. Cynethryth is well-known for being the only Anglo-Saxon queen to have had coins struck in her name, and many people would point to this as evidence of her power and prominence. To have coins produced in her image was of course a huge honor, and one unparalleled across Europe at the time. The only exception was the Byzantine Empress Irene , who was possibly the inspiration for Cynethryth’s coinage.
It is more than likely however, that Cynethryth herself did not conceive of or order the production of her coinage and that it was Offa who produced them as a way to assert the importance of his dynasty and reflect the dignity of his kingship. A symbolic gesture, not designed to elevate his wife but rather himself and his heir through public recognition of the legitimacy of his marriage. However, Cynethryth was involved in Mercian politics in more concrete ways as well, which gave her more than just symbolic power within the kingdom.
Queen Cynethryth was the first wife of a Mercian king to appear on witness lists of royal charters, and she did so with some regularity between the year her son was born (770) and the end of his short reign in December 796. This was a highly unusual practice in early medieval Europe, as the role of witness on official charters was exclusively reserved for men. And nowhere else did the name of a woman appear as a witness with such regularity as the Mercian queen’s until King Cnut’s wife, Emma, in the 11th century.
For a queen to be part of this highly ceremonial, public aspect of royal politics was groundbreaking, no doubt, but unfortunately it doesn’t make Cynethryth the feminist icon we might like her to be. Cynethryth it seems, did not appear as witness under her own name as such, but only as the mother of Offa’s son and a symbol of his legitimacy as heir. Her entry into public records begins with the birth of her son Ecgfrith, as witness to a charter that he, as an infant, was also listed on as a witness. After her son was consecrated as king in 787, while Offa was still alive, Cynethryth’s public presence diminished almost completely until the end of her son’s brief reign. After her son’s death, her political career was definitively over, and she devoted herself to her role as abbess.
It is possible that the young Ecgberht fled to Wessex in 785 or so, and that Beorhtric, Cynewulf's successor, helped King Offa to exile Ecgberht who was also a king of Wessex. ( Public domain )
The Tale of the Wicked Queen
Looking at the evidence so far, the image we have of Queen Cynethryth is that of a publicly visible and influential queen, but not the cunning, power-hungry villain depicted in later histories. In fact, she appears more as a pawn in her husband’s machinations than the other way around, as legend would have us believe. So where did the picture of Cynethryth the evil murderess originate if not within her own kingdom?
It may be surprising, given that Mercia was one of the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the early medieval period, but there were no narrative or chronicle sources produced by Mercia until early 10th century. This means that, apart from the few documents like charters and regnal lists we have from Mercia, the history of the kingdom must be studied from the perspective of other kingdoms like Northumbria, East Anglia, and Wessex, who were often at war with Mercia and would ultimately conquer it.
As the saying goes, history is written by the victors and, in the case of Mercia and its queens, perhaps rewritten. The tale of the “wicked queen Eadburh” is an illuminating example of the kind of “smear campaign” that Cynethryth appears to have been subjected to, and how the villainy of Mercian queens may be simply a matter of perspective.
Eadburh was the daughter of Offa (and presumably Cynethryth, although the mother’s name is not mentioned) who was given in marriage to King Beorhtric of Wessex, successor of Offa’s rival, Cynewulf. Eadburh’s story was recorded by Asser in his great masterpiece, The Life of King Alfred , which he wrote almost a century after Eadburh’s death, when Mercia had been mostly annexed by Wessex. Asser tells her story briefly and brutally:
“As soon as she had won the king’s friendship, and power throughout almost the entire kingdom, she began to behave like a tyrant after the manner of her father - to loathe every man whom Beorhtric liked, to do all things hateful to God and men, to denounce all those she could before the king, and thus by trickery to deprive them of either life or power, and if she could not achieve that end with the king’s compliance, she killed them with poison.”
Eventually, the story goes, Eadburh accidentally killed her own husband when he drank from a poisoned cup intended for someone else and thereafter, as a result of Eadburh’s tyranny, no wife of the king in Wessex was called queen ever again. In Asser’s account of events, Eadburh was so wicked and dangerous it became necessary to limit the power and authority of subsequent queens by removing the title of “queen” from them, as well as restricting their social access to their husbands so as to limit their influence, to prevent a recurrence of her tyranny.
However, if we take a Mercian perspective on the story, then we see Eadburh in a different light. The kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex had a tense relationship and Offa found himself in frequent dispute with Cynewulf, particularly with regards to the monastery at Cookham and the surrounding lands. When his daughter, Eadburh, married Cynewulf’s successor she became a visible and ever-present symbol of Mercian power in her husband’s court, not only a constant reminder of the enmity between the two kingdoms but also representing a potential threat if Offa tried to exert his authority indirectly through her.
Eadburh probably also tried to assert her own authority in the court of Wessex, which would earn her the ire of her father’s enemies. Eadburh may have expected a position comparable to that of her mother, Cynethryth, a crowned queen who partook in her husband’s diplomatic practice in a very public manner.
The truth, however, was much different and although Eadburh’s political presence was still remarkable for a West Saxon queen, it was not at all comparable to her mother’s. Perhaps, contrary to Asser’s characterization of her, Eadburh was simply a foreign woman trying to survive among her family’s enemies, and the best way she saw to protect herself was to gain political influence .
Mercian Queen Aethelflaed as depicted in the The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, circa 1220 AD. ( Public domain )
Pawns and Power Players
Attitudes to female power in Wessex such as those Asser describes seem to have been different to that of the Mercians. Wives of West Saxon kings who fashioned themselves as “regina”, like Eadburh, were deemed to hold too much power and denounced as a danger to the legitimacy of their husband’s rule.
These same attitudes are present in most narrative accounts about queens of Mercia, from Cynethryth through to Aethelflaed, which were almost exclusively written by Mercia’s enemies. Only Queen Aethelflaed seems to have fared relatively well in the historical record, remembered more for her victories against the Vikings than for any political scandal.
Mercia had many powerful queens over the centuries, and it was to Cynethryth and the tradition of female power which began with her that each of them owed their successes. Unlike her later successors though, Cynethryth appears not to have sought any power for herself beyond what was given to her by her husband.
Although she was named as her husband’s heir at the Synod of Clofesho in 798, after her son’s death, Cynethryth herself never made any claim to be Offa’s heir. And this declaration was likely made by the church without her consent, to strengthen their own claim to the lands upon which the monastery stood (land which had long been in contention with Wessex).
Much public condemnation was attached to women who played active roles in family politics during the Anglo-Saxon era, particularly by those whose views of family inheritance did not align with the church or those from collateral royal lineages who did not enjoy the same privileges as their ruling relatives.
Cynethryth perhaps recognized that once her husband and son had both passed, it was safer for her to withdraw from public life and from the problematic legacy of her husband’s tyrannical rule, to live out her life in peace under the protection of the church.
By all accounts, Queen Cynethryth seems to have succeeded. She disappeared from the historical record after 798 and no mention of her death is ever made. Unfortunately for Cynethryth though, her legacy was distorted and blackened in later centuries in the histories written by Mercia’s enemies, and in legends of those who would condemn her seemingly for no other reason than that she was a woman who held too much power. From these shreds of evidence, it is clear that these legends do not tell the whole story of Queen Cynethryth, regina Merciorum .
Top image: Amy Bailey as Queen Cynethryth in the TV series Vikings. Source: The HISTORY Channel
By Meagan Dickerson
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