Tag Archives: churches

Lady Wulfrun

Statue of Lady Wulfrun

On the steps below St Peter’s parish church in Wolverhampton stands a fine modern sculpture of a woman in medieval garb. She stands proudly on a stone plinth, gazing out over the present-day urban landscape. A plaque on the plinth tells us that she is ‘Lady Wulfrun’ and that the sculpture, by Sir Charles Wheeler, was presented to Wolverhampton in 1974 to mark the centenary of the local Express & Star newspaper.

The people of Wolverhampton regard Wulfrun as the eponymous founder of their city, the name of which is said to derive from Old English Wulfruneheantun (‘Wulfrun’s high settlement’). Little is known of her origins but we know that in the late tenth century she was a major Anglo-Saxon landowner with close links to the royal dynasty of the newly emerging kingdom of England. She is named as the beneficiary of a charter issued in 985 by King Æthelred the Unready in which she received a gift of royal estates in Staffordshire at Heantune (later Wolverhampton) and Trescott. The charter was witnessed by the leading figures in Æthelred’s kingdom, including the archbishops of Canterbury and York. Another charter, dated to 994, confirmed a grant of lands from Wulfrun to the church of Heantune to enable its re-founding as a college of priests. Unfortunately this document has been shown to be a fake, probably created in the eleventh century by the Wolverhampton clergy. It does, however, appear to incorporate older information on estate boundaries and may be based on authentic documents associated with Wulfrun’s ownership of local lands. She is shown holding this charter, represented as an unfurled scroll, in the sculpture beside St Peter’s Church.

St Peter's Church in Wolverhampton

Stone inside St Peter’s Church commemorating the charter of 994.


Lady Wulfrun of Wolverhampton

Stained glass window in St Peter’s, showing the charter of 994 being issued by Wulfrun to the clergy of ‘Heantune’.

Wulfrun’s son Wulfric (known in later times as Wulfric ‘Spot’) became one of the richest landowners of the Late Anglo-Saxon period, holding lands not only in his native Mercia but in Northumbria as well. He received some of his estates as grants or bequests from his mother while others were inherited from his father whose name is unknown. Wulfric died sometime in the first decade of the eleventh century, leaving his lands to his daughter and other relatives. His will is one of the most important documents to come down to us from pre-Conquest England.

The name of Wulfric’s father – Wulfrun’s husband – has long been a subject for speculation. Some historians think a likely candidate is Wulfsige the Black, an important Mercian nobleman, but others think Wulfsige may have been Wulfrun’s father. The little we know of Wulfsige suggests that he was a loyal henchman of Edgar, king of England from 942 to 975, from whom he received substantial estates in Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Some of Wulfsige’s lands were later held by Wulfrun before passing to her son Wulfric. If these people do indeed represent members of the same family, the estates may have simply passed down through three generations from father to daughter to grandson.

Another of Wulfrun’s sons was Ælfhelm who served King Æthelred as ealdorman of Northumbria (based at York) from 993 to 1006. Ælfhelm was eventually murdered on the king’s orders, presumably for an act of treachery, and his two sons were blinded. However, his daughter Ælfgifu survived and, in 1013, she married the Danish prince Cnut. Seventy years earlier, Ælfgifu’s grandmother Wulfrun had herself come into close contact with Danes when she was kidnapped from Tamworth by Viking raiders from Northumbria. Tamworth may have been an important place for Wulfrun’s family, for her son Wulfric Spot bequeathed an estate in the area to his daughter and this could have been an ancestral landholding.

Lady Wulfrun at Wolverhampton

Wulfrun depicted in a window at St Peter’s Church, Wolverhampton.

One of the most intriguing theories about Wulfrun proposes that she was a grand-daughter of Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, via Æthelflæd’s daughter Ælfwynn. This would make Wulfrun a great-grand-daughter of Alfred the Great. At first glance, the idea seems to gain slight support from a medieval description of Wulfric Spot being of ‘nearly royal’ blood. However, the little we know about Ælfwynn suggests that she remained unmarried and childless, possibly having been forcibly confined as a nun after her mother’s death in 918.

The chronology of Wulfrun’s life is uncertain. She might have been quite young, perhaps a teenager, when she was abducted from Tamworth by Danish Vikings. Four decades later, when she received lands from King Æthelred in 985, she was perhaps in her fifties. The Wolverhampton charter of 994, although spurious, might be correct in depicting her as still alive in the final decade of the tenth century. The date of her death is unrecorded but she might not have been long deceased when a charter of c.1005 refers to her as having taken ‘her last breath’. What, then, was her true ancestry? Rather than being an otherwise unknown descendant of Alfred the Great it seems more likely that she sprang from one of the senior noble families of central Mercia. Her kin may have obtained much of their wealth from estates bestowed as gifts by grateful kings in reward for loyalty and faithful service. At present, there is not enough data to connect her with Wulfsige the Black or with any other known figure of the tenth century.

Wolverhampton Anglo-Saxon cross

Wolverhampton’s Anglo-Saxon pillar: the shaft of a cross?

Finally, we return to St Peter’s in Wolverhampton and to another monument in the churchyard: a tall sandstone pillar, somewhat weathered but displaying an array of sculptured animals and intricate patterns. Mystery surrounds its provenance and purpose but it has been tentatively associated with Mercian stonecarving of the ninth century, placing it a hundred years before Wulfrun’s time. If it is the shaft of a cross, as some observers believe, its existence would suggest that the St Peter’s site has been a focus of Christian worship since the 800s. In any case, it must have been a familiar sight to Wulfrun after she took ownership of the surrounding lands in 985.

St Peter's Church in Wolverhampton

A display inside St Peter’s includes this scale model reconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon pillar.

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Notes and References

David Horovitz, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians; the Battle of Tettenhall, 910 AD; and other West Mercian studies (Stafford, 2017)

Anthony and Joyce Perry, Lady Wulfrun’s Hampton: early Wolverhampton and its church (Revised edition: Wolverhampton, 2011)
[I obtained this excellent little booklet at the shop inside St Peter’s Church for a couple of pounds]

Wulfrun’s abduction from Tamworth was reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 943:
Here Anlaf broke down Tamworth and great slaughter fell on either side, and the Danes had the victory and led away great war-booty with them. There Wulfrun was taken in that raid.
[Anlaf (Olaf) is either Anlaf Guthfrithsson or his kinsman Anlaf Sihtricsson, Viking warlords from Dublin who ruled successively as kings of Northumbria.]

In the online Sawyer index of Anglo-Saxon charters, the Heantune charter of 985 is numbered S.860. Wulfrun’s spurious charter of 994 is S.1380

Older generations of historians, particularly in Victorian times, liked to make the names of Anglo-Saxon women look more feminine by sticking an ‘a’ on the end. Hence we sometimes see Ethelfleda (for Æthelflæd) and Wulfruna (for Wulfrun).

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Games of thrones

While researching my book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, I was frequently reminded of analogies between the political dealings of tenth-century Britain and those depicted in the television series Game of Thrones. Being a fan of the series, it was perhaps inevitable that it would spring to mind whenever I came across historical references to dynastic marriages, temporary treaties and oaths of fealty. At times, the webs of alliance and allegiance in the 900s seem just as fluid as those involving the royal families of fictional Westeros – and with similar levels of intrigue.

A number of tenth-century treaties directly involved the kings of Strathclyde, who were as adept as any Lannister or Tyrell in the cut-and-thrust of political negotiation. Strathclyde’s geographical position gave it a shared border with several other realms and this meant that its kings were seen as useful allies. They could also be dangerous foes, and had few qualms about switching sides if it suited them to do so. Like their contemporaries in other lands, they might swiftly abandon a treaty when it no longer gave them an advantage, even at the risk of breaking a sworn oath.

I’ve highlighted three treaties in Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, weighing the significance of each and examining the sources that record them. All three were hosted by Anglo-Saxon (English) rulers of the West Saxon royal house, the family to which Alfred the Great belonged, but the other attendees came from far and wide. From the northern Celtic lands came the kings of Strathclyde and Alba, representing the North Britons and Scots respectively. From the old realm of Northumbria came the Viking rulers of York and the still-English lords of Bamburgh. From the West came various Welsh kings and, from across the Irish Sea, the kings of Viking Dublin. Other key figures also turned up from time to time.

The three treaties are discussed more fully in the book but here I’ll simply list them in chronological order, with venue and participants (where the latter are named in the sources or otherwise identifiable by deduction).

Bakewell Anglo-Saxon Cross

Shaft of an Anglo-Saxon cross at Bakewell Parish Church in the Peak District.

Year: 920
Venue: Bakewell
Hosted by: Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great
In attendance: Constantin, king of Alba; Ragnall, king of York; Ealdred and Uhtred, lords of Bamburgh; Owain, king of Strathclyde.
Purpose (probable): recognition of Edward as ruler of all Britain south of the Mersey and Humber estuaries.
Source: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript ‘A’)

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Mayburgh Henge Cumbria

Standing stone in the prehistoric henge of Mayburgh, a possible venue for the royal meeting near the River Eamont in 927.

Year: 927
Venue: River Eamont (near Penrith)
Hosted by: Athelstan, son of Edward the Elder
In attendance: Hywel, king of the West Welsh; Constantin, king of Alba; Owain, king of Strathclyde; Ealdred, lord of Bamburgh.
Purpose (probable): recognition of Athelstan as the most powerful king in Britain; mutual agreement to refuse offers of alliance from Vikings.
Sources: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript ‘D’); William of Malmesbury’s ‘History of the English Kings’

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Chester Anglo-Saxon Cross

St John the Baptist Church, Chester: head and part of the shaft of an Anglo-Saxon Cross.

Year: 973
Venue: Chester
Hosted by: Edgar, nephew of Athelstan
In attendance: Cináed, king of Alba; Máel Coluim, king of Strathclyde; Maccus Haraldsson, Viking warlord; Dyfnwal, former king of Strathclyde; Guthfrith Haraldsson, brother of Maccus; Iago, king of Gwynedd; Hywel, Iago’s nephew; Iudicael, count of Rennes in Brittany.
Purpose (probable): non-aggression pact to prevent future hostilities
Sources: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript ‘D’); John of Worcester’s Chronicle

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The Meeting at Chester

King Edgar 973

From the twelfth-century chronicle of John of Worcester, under the year 973:
Edgar the Peaceable, king of the English, was blessed and crowned with the utmost honour and glory, and anointed in the thirtieth year of his age by the saintly bishops Dunstan and Oswald, and by the other bishops of England, in the city of Bath, in the first indiction, at Pentecost on the 11th of May. Shortly afterwards, he sailed round the north coast of Wales with a large fleet and came to the city of Chester. He was met, as he had commanded, by eight tributary kings, namely Cináed, king of the Scots, Máel Coluim, king of the Cumbrians, Maccus, king of many islands, and five others: Dufnal, Siferth, Hywal, Iago and Iudicael, who swore fealty and bound themselves to military service by land and sea. Attended by them, king Edgar on a certain day went on board a boat, and while they plied the oars, he took the helm, and steered skilfully down the course of the river Dee, and followed by his whole retinue of earls and nobles he sailed from the palace to the monastery of St. John the Baptist. Having paid his devotions there, he returned to the palace with the same pomp. He is reported to have said to his nobles, as he entered the gates, that any successor of his might truly boast of being king of England when he should receive such honours, with so many kings doing him homage.

Máel Coluim, here described as ‘king of the Cumbrians’, was a king of Strathclyde. His death in 997 was noted in the Irish annals. The king named ‘Dufnal’ who also attended Edgar’s royal gathering is usually identified as Máel Coluim’s father Dyfnwal, former king of Strathclyde, who died in 975 while on pilgrimage to Rome.

Maccus ‘king of many islands’ is probably the Viking warlord Maccus Haraldsson, a significant player in the Irish Sea region at this time. Siferth is unknown but Hywel and Iago (and possibly Iudicael) came from Wales.

The idea that Edgar received oaths of allegiance at the meeting might be English propaganda. Many modern historians think that the event was more likely to have been a gathering of equals rather than a display of one king’s superiority. Issues of mutual concern were no doubt discussed, with disputes being settled by pledges of peace. I examine this topic more closely in Chapter Seven of Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age.

The illustration at the top of this blogpost was produced by James Doyle in 1864. A depiction of the same event can be seen in a stained glass window at the present-day church of St John the Baptist, which stands beside the River Dee on the site of the Anglo-Saxon monastery.

King Edgar 973

St John the Baptist Chester

St John the Baptist, Chester: columns of the Norman period.

Lowther hogbacks

On one of my research trips for the book I visited Lowther Church in Cumbria to see the Viking Age sculpture, which includes hogback gravestones similar to the ones at the Giant’s Grave in Penrith.

Lowther hogback

Lowther hogback (with shaft of Anglo-Saxon cross)

 

Lowther hogback

Lowther hogback (with fragment of another)

Parts of the present church were built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It sits on high ground above the River Lowther and probably occupies the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery.

Lowther Church

In Chapter Six of Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, I consider a possible tenth-century reference to this monastery as a frontier settlement between the ‘Cumbrians’ (Britons) and the Scandinavian rulers of Northumbria.