Fantastic Women Series l Cynethryth: Queen of Mercia

Craiyon generated image of a women who seems like a queen, wearing a crown sitting on a purple throne
Cynethryth by Craiyon
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Back in the good old days of medieval Britain, a century or so after the Romans left Britannia, the Anglo Saxons (Angles, Saxons and Jutes) came across the water from northern Germany and Denmark. They were asked to come to defend British lands, and they decided to stay. Eventually, the area which is now England was completely under Anglo Saxon rule and seven kingdoms emerged. One of these was known as Mercia (what is today the Midlands).

 

The penultimate set of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was fivefold. The map annotates the names of the peoples of Essex and Sussex taken into the Kingdom of Wessex, which later took in the Kingdom of Kent and became the senior dynasty, and the outlier kingdoms. From Bartholomew's A literary & historical atlas of Europe

The penultimate set of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was fivefold. The map annotates the names of the peoples of Essex and Sussex taken into the Kingdom of Wessex, which later took in the Kingdom of Kent and became the senior dynasty, and the outlier kingdoms. From Bartholomew’s A literary & historical atlas of Europe

 

While medieval women did not have extensive rights, there were definitely exceptions to the rule: one of them being Cynethryth, Queen of Mercia and wife of King Offa. She is said to have existed between the period 770-798, although her exact birth and death dates are unknown. In fact, Anglo-Saxon noble and royal women played important, albeit unofficial roles, in the political workings of their kingdoms. They forged family bonds, and ensured peace with rival kingdoms through marriage. This is why they were also called “peace-weavers”.

 

Image created by Craiyon of a Queen sitting on a horse

Craiyon (AI Created) Image of Queen Cynethryth

 

During Cynethryth’s lifetime, Mercia was an extremely powerful kingdom dominating the entire area south of the Humber estuary. Her husband, King Offa, was a powerful king, who ruled Mercia from 757-796.

Speculations abound about her origins and some historians suggest that she belonged to a Frankish family. However, while nothing is known of Cynethryth’s origins for certain, her name does resemble the wife and daughters of the earlier King Penda of Mercia —Cynewise, Cyneburh, and Cyneswith—which may indicate that she was a descendant of Penda.

While shrouded in obscurity, Offa and Cynethryth’s marriage was entirely conventional and was even approved by the church hierarchy. In a letter to Cynethryth and Offa’s son Ecgfrith, the scholar and clergyman Alcuin advises him to follow the example of his parents, including his mother’s piety. In another letter Alcuin refers to Cynethryth as “controller of the Royal household”.

Unfortunately, none of Alcuin’s letters to Cynethryth survive, but we do have evidence that he knew her well. In another letter to a nun named Hunthryth, he requests that she speak to Cynethryth on his behalf and indicate his loyalty to her. He adds that he would have written to her directly “if the king’s business had permitted her to read it”.

In another letter to a different nun, he asks her to “greet that dear lady in my name”. This letter continues that Alcuin “always desired her progress towards the salvation of her soul, for which she has always had to strive, but now most of all since she has survived the death of her most excellent lord the king. I wish her to live in happiness and to serve God faithfully”.

This evidence indicates that Queen Cynethryth had a unique and remarkable status, especially during the latter part of Offa’s reign. This includes the issuing of coins in her name, with forty-three surviving coins depicting Queen Cynethryth’s name and image. One side shows her face and the inscription ‘EOBA’, the name of the moneyer who minted the coin, while the other side reads ‘CYNETHRYTH REGINA M(erciorum)’, a Latin inscription meaning ‘Queen Cynethryth of Mercia’.

 

Penny of Cynethryth, wife of king Offa

Penny of Cynethryth, wife of king Offa. Wikipedia

 

Portrait penny of Cynethryth, minted by Eoba at Canterbury. Cynethryth is the only Anglo-Saxon queen known to have had coins issued in her name and these are unique in Western Europe of the period. Coin held by the British Museum.

Portrait penny of Cynethryth, minted by Eoba at Canterbury. Cynethryth is the only Anglo-Saxon queen known to have had coins issued in her name and these are unique in Western Europe of the period. Coin held by the British Museum. Wikipedia

 

The coin is the only one depicting a queen from the early medieval period in western Europe. Furthermore, it boasts the earliest portrait of any English queen.

It has been suggested that Cynethryth’s coinage emulated the Byzantine Empress Irene, who ruled around the same period. However, the imagery suggests similarities to the coins of late Roman empresses. The image used on Offa’s coins also show him as a late Roman emperor. The styles of Cynethryth’s coin seem to be similar to those of Faustina, wife of Emperor Antoninus Pius, as well as those of Helena, mother of Constantine, which were in circulation and being copied extensively at this time.

This coinage is unique in Anglo-Saxon England, and indeed in Western Europe in this period and it is thought that the coins were minted for donations by Cynethryth to the Church, but their similarity to the general issues suggests otherwise. It is also possible that these EOBA coins were a grant of income to be used by Cynethryth herself. They were minted in the Kingdom of Kent, highlighting the wide influence of the Mercian royal family. Cynethryth’s coins have been found in  Kent, Mercia, Essex, Sussex, East Anglia and Wessex.

After the birth of her son Ecgfrith, Cynethryth began to witness charters (the grant of authority or rights). She first witnessed a charter dated 770, along with her son Ecgfrith and her daughter Ælfflæd. By 780 she is Cyneðryð Dei gratia regina Merciorum (“Cynethryth, by the Grace of God, Queen of the Mercians”). She is the first queen to be termed as such, and this places her royal authority within the context of divine appointment. In fact, Offa, Cynethryth, and Ecgfrith may have been the first English royals to strategically adopt the growing concept of divinely ordained kingship prevalent on the continent.

After Offa’s death, Cynethryth became the Abbess of Cookham, which had been given into her personal ownership when Offa was alive. In fact, Offa ensured that her power and status were secured during his lifetime, and would continue after his death. This would ensure the succession of his own heirs and bloodline. Cynethryth probably managed an extensive network of monastaries and associated land, which included Glastonbury Abbey and Fladbury where her daughter Æthelburh was abbess. In 798 Cynethryth was named Offa’s heir during a property dispute at the Synod of Clovesho.

These are all indications that while Queen Cynethryth might have been forgotton, she was a powerful woman and formidable queen during her time. She enjoyed a high status, was an important landholder and possibly had her own income. After Offa’s death, she retired at the authoritative position of abbess.

How great it would be to know more about the life of this medieval queen, who exerted such unprecedented power when she was alive.

I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.

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