THE IMPORTANCE OF NUNS IN ANGLO-SAXON TIMES
NUNS occupied an important position in Anglo-Saxon society, and it is doubtful if women have again been so influential until very recent times. Let us take for an example the Synod of Whitby (664). This was an epoch-making occasion in English history. Although it was nominally about the date of Easter and the wearing of the monastic tonsure, it was in fact an agreement which tied the church in England to the Pope, rather than to the Irish church. In the seventh century this church was a separate institution, owing almost no allegiance to the bishop in Rome. This agreement thus orientated England to the continent of Europe, rather than to an offshore island in the Atlantic. There is still as basic argument about whether we a part of Europe or not!
In regard to the importance of women, the point is that this important conference was held under the aegis not of a man, but of Abbess Hilda of Streoneshalh (Whitby). To take another example of important nuns, the Abbey at Ely was, like that at Whitby, a double monastery for both monks and nuns. This was true of many convents in England; moreover, it was not the males who took the first place in these institutions; the monasteries were ruled over by Abbesses. The reason for this importance of nuns relates to the social arrangements of the Anglo-Saxon royal families. The boys were expected to take up arms, but the girls were placed in the church. Thus the religious houses had plenty of royal nuns among their number, while royal monks were far fewer. Because of social status, it was the nuns who took control of the religious life in the land, and religion was in those times a potent force.
The connection between royalty and nuns is seen in the special place accorded to women in the care of the tombs of Royal Saints and Martyrs. As I have said, men were expected to take up arms and as a consequence kings were frequently killed in those bloody times. According to the circumstances, these royal deaths could often result in the creation of a martyr. The tenth century king of England, Edward the Martyr, was little more than a boy when he was murdered at Corfe Castle. In life he had been something of a spoilt brat, but in death he was granted martyr status. The care of his body was entrusted to the nuns at Alfred the Great’s foundation at Shaftesbury Abbey.
Another Royal Martyr was St Edmund, king of East Anglia. Women also played a prominent part in his early cult. Not many decade after his death the first of the guardian of Edmund’s tomb who we know by name was a widow called Oswen. She it was who trimmed the saint’s nails and cut his hair, which by all accounts miraculously continued to grow after his death. Surprising the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds was not dedicated to St Edmund himself; it was prevented from being so dedicated by a disagreement with the king, Cnut. It was instead dedicated to Christ and St Mary, with Edmund only mentioned in third place almost as an afterthought. The only monastic building in England dedicated to St Edmund was that at Lyng in Norfolk, and that was a nunnery.
Women continued to play a significant role in St Edmund’s cult until the Norman Conquest, which brought with it a more masculine form of society. Even at the time of the Domesday survey it is recorded that there were still many nuns accompanying the monks at Bury St Edmunds Abbey. That was twenty years after king William had come to the throne, but there were fewer females in positions of influence after that. The reign of Empress Matilda shows that women could still attain the highest position in the land, but the time, known as the Anarchy, was a disaster. There were no other reigning queens in England for centuries. Now we are very happy to have Queen Elizabeth as our monarch.