Thursday, 12 March 2015

England's First Ruling Queen

I'm just writing an article on England's ruling queens and it occurred to me that there is one queen who is almost always missed off the lists of female monarchs. In fact, few people have even heard of her.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 672 states, matter of factly, that 'here Cenwalh passed away, and Seaxburh, his queen, ruled one year after him'.

This is almost all we know about England's first ruling queen, Seaxburh of Wessex, who may have died in 674, since this is the year from which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dates the start of the next reign in Wessex. Her husband, Cenwalh, had first been married to a sister of the Pagan King Penda of Mercia. According to Bede, he then 'took another woman' who may, perhaps be identified with Seaxburh. This led to Penda driving his former brother-in-law from his kingdom, with Cenwalh taking refuge in East Anglia for three years, during which time he became a Christian. He then returned to his kingdom to rule for another twenty-five years.

In the seventh century, Wessex was just one of several kingdoms in England and far from the most important. From the ninth century onwards, however, the kings of Wessex began a programme of uniting England under their rulership and the current queen is a descendant of the kings of Wessex.

Seaxburh may have had a troubled reign, since Bede claimed that, on her husband's death, 'under-kings took over the government of the realm, which they divided amongst them and ruled for about ten years'. Perhaps her authority was disputed, or she was only able to retain control over part of the kingdom? No details survive and she had no known children.

Although Seaxburh's life is almost entirely obscure, the fact that there was a ruling queen in the early Anglo-Saxon period is fascinating. None of her successors as queens of Wessex would reach so high. You can, however, read more about another fascinating Anglo-Saxon queen - Elfrida - in my book, Elfrida: The First Crowned Queen of England. Although not a ruling queen, there is rather more known about the tenth century Elfrida's life!


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