Blanche Parry

Scandal in the nunnery

Absolute Herefordshire is no scandal sheet but this month our local historian, Ruth E. Richardson, turns her attention to events that outraged the county more than 900 years ago.

In 1046 there was uproar in Leominster nunnery. Abbess Eadgifu had been abducted by Swein Godwinson, older brother of Harold who in 1066 would be crowned king (only to be defeated by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings).

The story, in 'The Anglo–Saxon Chronicles', records kept by monks, says: 1046 A.D. 'Earl Swein went into Wales, and ... the northern king with him, and hostages were given them. When he was on his way homeward, he had fetched to him the Abbess of Leominster, and kept her while it pleased him, then let her go home.' For 'fetched to him' read dragged from her convent by soldiers. For 'kept her while it pleased him' read raped ... poor Eadgifu.

As abbess of an influential nunnery, Eadgifu was from a noble Mercian, or Anglo-Saxon, family. She was well–educated, religious and had grown up in luxury. She was either placed in the nunnery as a child by her father, or she chose this way of life for herself. If a lady wanted to be independent, what we would call a career–woman, the best way then was to become a nun. An abbess needed to be an efficient administrator of lands and tenants, and Leominster had huge estates. She also had to be skilled in managing the nuns and servants to ensure the smooth running of the nunnery. It was a responsible job. Some Anglo–Saxon monasteries had double houses, of monks and nuns. The famous monastery of Whitby (a double house of monks and nuns) was like this and there Abbess Hilda was in charge. Before the 1066 Norman Conquest women could be in very important positions. The Leominster nunnery flourished for nearly 400 years and yet we only know the name of one abbess – and that is the unfortunate Eadgifu.

Swein was earl of the enormous area of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Somerset. His sister was Queen Edith, married to King Edward the Confessor, a devout Christian. King Edward, evidently outraged at Earl Swein's treatment of an abbess, apparently refused them permission to marry, reasoning that Swein only wanted Leominster's estates. Swein was exiled. He returned to England in 1049, murdering his cousin on the way. Exiled again in 1051, he seems to have shown remorse for his sins because he went on a barefoot pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He was killed on his way back.

Eadgifu was with Swein for about a year. We know Swein had a son, Hakon. Eadgifu's plight provided a useful pretext to dissolve the nunnery. (Leominster Priory was refounded in 1139.) Swein's sister, Queen Edith, certainly benefited by being given lands ... but what happened to Eadgifu?

A tantalising note in 1086 Domesday Book says: 'The Abbess holds Fencote. She held it herself before 1066'. Fencote, in Docklow parish, had belonged to Leominster nunnery. Was Eadgifu given Fencote? Did she retire here and was she still living here in 1086 with her memories of Swein?

See: 'Herefordshire Past and Present, An Aerial View' (re-published by Logaston, £14.95) and Woolhope N.F.C. Transactions 1987.

©Ruth E. Richardson 2012

Print Version