In the early seventh century, the kingdom of the East Angles was ruled by a king named Raedwald. He is a likely candidate for the occupant of the magnificent ship burial at Sutton Hoo, and Bede lists him among the kings who held some sort of overlordship over all the English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) kingdoms south of the Humber (Bede, Book II Ch 5). Clearly, Raedwald was a powerful king. His queen was evidently also an influential woman, as two episodes in Bede make clear. What do we know about her?
Eadwine (Edwin) of Deira/Northumbria was in exile at Raedwald’s court in East Anglia for an unknown period before 617 AD, on the run from Aethelferth of Bernicia who had annexed Deira and wanted rid of Eadwine:
[Aethelferth] sent messengers to offer Raedwald a large sum of money to murder him [Eadwine]. Obtaining no satisfaction, he sent a second and third time, offering even heavier bribes and threatening war if his demand were refused. At length Raedwald, either intimidated by his threats or corrupted by his bribes, agreed to his demands and promised either to kill Eadwine or to surrender him to Aethelferth’s envoys...[...]
A friend warns Eadwine of the plot to murder him, but Eadwine refuses to flee, and the friend goes away to find out what else is happening. A short time later the friend comes back with more news, saying:
“...the king [Raedwald] has had a change of heart. He now intends you no harm, and means to keep the promise that he made you. For when he privately told the queen of his intention to deal with you as I warned, she dissuaded him, saying that it was unworthy in a great king to sell his friend in the hour of his need for gold, and worse still to sacrifice his royal honour, the most valuable of all possessions, for love of money.” In brief, the king did as she advised.--Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book II Ch. 12
Raedwald had [...] received Christian baptism in Kent, but to no good purpose; for on his return home his wife and certain perverse advisers persuaded him to apostasize from the true Faith.
He had in the same shrine an altar for the holy Sacrifice of Christ, side by side with a small altar on which victims were offered to devils.
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book II Ch. 15
William of Malmesbury
His [Raedwald’s] son, Eorpwald, embraced pure Christianity and poured out his pure spirit to God, being barbarously murdered by the heathen Richbert. To him [Eorpwald] succeeded Sigebert, his brother by the mother’s side--William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the Kings of England, chapter V, available online
This indicates that Eorpwald was the son of Raedwald, while Sigebert was the son of the same mother but not a son of Raedwald.
From Bede’s two mentions of her, we can reasonably deduce that Raedwald’s queen had considerable influence over King Raedwald’s religious policy (maintaining or returning to his non-Christian gods after he adopted the Christian religion) and foreign/military policy (defying Aethelferth of Bernicia). On one occasion the queen is mentioned along with ‘other advisors’, which may indicate that she was acting as part of a group, perhaps representing a strand of opinion or a political faction at Raedwald’s court. On the other occasion she appears to have been acting alone, since the friend says “.. when he [Raedwald] privately told the queen...”. One can argue as to quite how ‘private’ the occasion was, since the friend evidently knew the content of the conversation, but it seems clear that it was not a formal or public occasion such as a councillors’ meeting. Whether the queen’s influence was purely personal, or derived from her formal position as queen, or reflected a role as spokesperson of a group or faction, is open to discussion. Similarly, it is not possible to say whether the political and religious influence she wielded was normal practice or unusual. However, Raedwald’s queen is not the only influential royal woman in Bede’s history; for example, he says of Abbess Hild of Whitby that kings and princes used to ask her advice and take it. So the authority displayed by Raedwald’s queen may or may not have been normal, but it was not unique.
Since Raedwald’s queen is specifically listed among the advisers who talked him out of his conversion to Christianity, it is a reasonable inference that she honoured the non-Christian gods. It is worth noting that we do not know Raedwald’s reasons for accepting baptism in the first place, nor anything about the circumstances except that it occurred in Kent. Nor do we know the background to Raedwald’s dual-religion policy. Bede, as an orthodox Christian, clearly regarded the church with two altars as an abhorrence, but to people accustomed to a polytheistic religion it may have seemed quite natural. Raedwald may not have thought of himself as an apostate at all.
Bede attributes a strong sense of honour to Raedwald’s queen. It is the main argument she uses for persuading Raedwald to reject Aethelferth’s envoys. The circumstances and motives may well have been more complex at the time; a decision to go to war against a king as powerful and as militarily successful as Aethelferth is unlikely to have been taken lightly. It may have reflected an ongoing power struggle for overlordship or territory, as much as a matter of friendship or honouring a promise. However, it seems reasonable to accept that the motivation of upholding honour was the one accepted in Bede’s day, or at least in the source he was using. Bede’s account of the incident is unusually detailed, and he may well have drawn on a tale or saga or heroic poem that was in circulation and available to him at the time but has not come down to us. Honour is a lofty and high-minded motive, and it is specifically attributed to the queen. This in turn suggests that Raedwald’s queen was regarded as an admirable figure (at least in this instance), by Bede or the source he was using or both.
Since the queen was advising Raedwald on foreign policy in 617 AD, and on religious policy some time before that, she was evidently married to Raedwald before 617. We do not know which of Raedwald’s sons were also her sons. However, if Raegenhere and Eorpwald were both her sons, they were of fighting age in 617 AD and old enough to rule in 627 AD, respectively. Raegenhere cannot have been born much later than 600 AD, or he would have been too young to fight in 617 AD, and Eorpwald cannot have been born much after 610 AD or he would have been too young to be a credible king in 627. If both were the sons of Raedwald’s queen, this would be consistent with her being nearer middle age than youth in 617. This is also consistent with her influence; a lady of mature years might be expected to have more authority than a very young girl. If Sigebert was her son by a different father (see below), it also raises the interesting possibility that Raedwald may have been her second husband.
Unfortunately, the name of Raedwald’s influential queen is not recorded in any surviving source, and nor is there any record of her family connections. There may be some clue to her family background in William of Malmesbury’s account. William is quite clear that Eorpwald was Raedwald’s son and that Sigebert was Eorpwald’s brother on the mother’s side, i.e. that they shared the same mother but that, by implication, Sigebert was not Raedwald’s son. Caveat that William of Malmesbury was writing centuries after the events and information would have had plenty of opportunity to get confused in the interim; however, this seems an odd sort of detail to have been interpolated or made up. It is not certain that the mother of Eorpwald and Sigebert was also the same woman as Raedwald’s influential queen. Raedwald may have had more than one wife, sequentially or simultaneously, for all we know. However, since both Eorpwald and Sigebert became kings of the East Angles, it seems likely that their mother was an important figure, and Raedwald’s influential queen would be a logical candidate.
If Eorpwald and Sigebert were the sons of Raedwald’s unnamed queen, Sigebert may provide some clues to her background. First, his name. There are no other S- names in the surviving genealogy of the kings of the East Angles but there are a lot of S- names in the genealogy of the kings of the East Saxons, including at least one Sigebert in the 650s (Bede Book III Ch. 22). This may indicate that Raedwald’s queen had connections with the East Saxon dynasty (although other families may also have used S- names). If she did have East Saxon connections, she could have been an East Saxon princess who married into the neighbouring kingdom of East Anglia, or she may have been previously married to an East Saxon king or prince (or, indeed, both).
Second, Sigebert was clearly accepted as king of the East Angles, even though (if William of Malmesbury is right) he was not a son of Raedwald. Although it is possible that the East Anglian dynasty had simply run out of other suitable candidates, it may indicate that Sigebert had a claim to the kingship that did not derive from Raedwald. One possibility is that Sigebert’s claim came through his mother, if she was herself a member of the East Anglian royal dynasty. This would be consistent with her evident importance at Raedwald’s court. A second possibility is that Sigebert’s father was a member of the East Anglian royal dynasty, perhaps a previous king. It was not unknown for new kings to marry the widow of the previous king. Bede tells us that the new king of Kent, Eadbald, married his father’s widow (second wife, so presumably not his own mother!) on his accession, much to the horror of the Christian Church (Bede Book II Ch. 5). If Raedwald of the East Angles had done something similar, this would also be consistent with the influence clearly held by Raedwald’s queen and with Sigebert’s (eventual) succession to the kingship. I need hardly say that this is speculative.
Although we do not know the name of Raedwald’s influential queen (how very remiss of Bede), we can therefore draw some conclusions about her. First, it is clear that she held sufficient authority to influence her husband’s decisions on matters as important as religion and war. The source of this authority is open to speculation; it could have been derived from strength of personality, the emotional relationship between her and Raedwald, a role as representative or figurehead for a political faction, a position within the East Anglian royal dynasty in her own right or as the widow of a previous king, or any combination of these. Second, it is very likely that she followed the Old English pre-Christian religion, since she was part of the group who talked Raedwald out of his Christian conversion. Third, she was strong-minded and confident enough to argue with her husband. Fourth, if Sigebert was her son, his name may indicate East Saxon connections. Speculating further, if Sigebert was her son, and if his claim to the East Anglian kingship came through her (two notable ifs), she may have held an important position in the East Anglian royal court in her own right, independent of her marriage to Raedwald.
Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the Kings of England, chapter V, available online