Wealthy Wynflæd’s wonderful will

A couple of months ago, I was poking through the Electronic Sawyer, an online version of the classic catalogue of Anglo-Saxon charters and wills. I was throwing in some random search terms related to my research – prayer, cross, crucifix – hoping to find references to people leaving prayerbooks to their beneficiaries, but not coming across anything particularly useful. And then I chanced upon a lengthy will, by one Wynflæd, who bequeathed land across the south of England, dated to the tenth or eleventh century but surviving in a single eleventh-century manuscript (London, British Library, Cotton Charters viii. 38), and I found myself becoming seriously intrigued.

CotChVIII38 Wynflaed will full
London, British Library Cotton Charter VIII 38

You can read the text of the will here: expand ‘Show all data’ towards the bottom of the page to show both the text and a modern English translation. (For some reason, the Anglo-Saxon letter ‘þ’ appears as ‘ˇ’.) Throughout this blogpost, I have quoted Sawyer’s edition and translation as given on the website.

A few weeks afterwards, I was on a research trip to the British Library, looking at manuscripts for my future book, and decided to look at Wynflæd’s will in person. The manuscript came to me inside an enormous card frame, to which it had been delicately stuck with little tabs of tissue paper. It was a single piece of parchment, more than twice as wide as it was high (about 20.5 high x 50cm wide), just over twenty-six lines of Old English. It had obviously been folded at some point in its existence: there were three prominent lengthways creases down it, and one crossways down the middle, down which line it had at some point been ripped in two, having perhaps simply become torn under the stress of being folded for a long time. I could also make out four more, somewhat fainter, crossways creases, two either side of the central one: I tried to figure out which way the parchment had been folded: the holes in the right-hand side of the page look like a single hole that went through all the folds after being folded lengthways alone. I suppose it must have been stored in various different states over the years. As the manuscript was not then available, online, I did a little sketch of the charter, showing the fold lines (represented by dashes), and the holes and tear down the centre:

You may infer from this that I totally can’t draw.

There is no reason to suppose that this might be the original copy of the will, but I could see a few interesting things in the copyist’s work. About halfway down the online text, you can see the words, ‘oþþe hi mon æt him gehweorfe mid .XVI. mancussum reades reades goldes’ (‘or that he may receive sixteen mancuses of red gold’): the first ‘reades’ appears at the end of a line, and the scribe absent-mindedly copied it again at the start of the next one. As I say, it’s a wide piece of parchment – by the time he’d got back to the left-hand side again, he must have forgotten what he’d written last!

One of the most interesting aspects of the surviving manuscript is the addition of interlinear text. In the online edition, these are marked using single quotation marks, e.g. ‘ ‘hyre mentelpreon’ ‘ on the fourth line of the online edition. There are quite a lot of these. Many of them are corrections, where the scribe had missed out a letter – it’s not a very high-status manuscript. But others are substantial additions to the text, which change the meaning of the will. Sometimes they add extra heirlooms to the list, sometimes important information about the people involved (more on that later); sometimes they add important clarification. Like when ‘Ælfferes dohtor þa geonran’ is mentioned – the scribe needed to add the last two words to clarify that it was Ælffere’s younger daughter who is referred to (another daughter has just been named).

CotChVIII38 Wynflaed will younger daughter

But who was Wynflæd? What do we actually know about her?

First of all, she appears to have been married: she mentions a morgengyfu (marriage-gift, literally ‘morning gift’), which she passes on to one Eadmær (her son-in-law?), giving other lands to her daughter Æthelflæd, who apparently has a young son called Eadwold. I won’t attempt to work out who all the beneficiaries of the will are, though. There appear to be at least two Æthelflæds, for example (one of them owns a nunscrud, a nun’s habit, so she’s probably not the one with the child).

Secondly, it looks like Wynflæd was pretty minted. Did I mention that her dowry comprised not of one, but of several estates of land? And that’s only a part of her property portfolio. As for personal possessions, the will makes frequent reference to fancy furnishings and shiny stuff: silver cups, gilded cups, bedclothes, bed-curtains (bedwahrift), various other hangings (wahriftu) – oh, and the horses, too! And of course it’s her best (betst) bed-curtains and her best tunic and her best veil and band that are to go – what else would it be? This is where some of those little interlinear additions come in: the scribe has had to go back and add that it is ‘hyre beteran mentel’ (her better cloak), and, in Wynflæd’s bequests to her daughter, adds to ‘hyre agrafenan beah’ the extra words 7 hyre mentelpreon (‘her engraved bracelet and her brooch’). Since, as I say, such charters don’t tend to be the originals, I wonder what led to the addition of these extra words and phrases.

And at one point Sawyer’s translation gets a little odd. Wynflæd’s many clothes-chests apparently included a ‘twilibrocenan cyrtel’: I’d never come across the first word before, but Sawyer tentatively interprets the phrase to mean a ‘double badger-skin (?) gown’.


What the best-dressed Anglo-Saxons are wearing this season? Photo: Mickey Bohnacker, via Wikimedia Commons.

I suppose this translation is based on the idea that the word derives from broc, ‘badger’. However, my first guess was something to do with the past participle brocen, ‘broken’. I looked up twilibrocen in the Bosworth-Toller Old English dictionary, which suggests ‘woven of double thread and parti-coloured (?) or embroidered (?)’, citing Celtic parallels. So maybe the badgers were safe from Wynflæd after all.

On a more serious note, Wynflæd also had quite a lot of slaves. Ælffere’s daughter, mentioned above, was a bequest, not a beneficiary of one. Slavery existed during the Anglo-Saxon period: although it’s not something I’ve researched into myself, I have encountered references to the use of slavery as a punishment. We can see evidence for this in Wynflæd’s will:

7 gif þær hwylc witeþeow man sy butan þyson þe hio geþeowede hio gelyf∂ to hyre bearnon þæt hi hine willon lyhtan for hyre saulle.

And if there be any penally enslaved man besides these whom she has enslaved, she trusts to her children that they will release him for her soul’s sake.

This term witeþeowas specifically refers to those enslaved as a punishment. The will grants freedom to numerous people: Wulfwaru, Wulfflæd, Gerburg … What I found striking, particularly upon seeing the original manuscript, was just how many of the interlinear insertions are concerned with adding to the list of those slaves who are to be freed. I’ve written before about having to read between the lines to find women, and that’s what’s happening here. I’ve marked these insertions in bold text:

7 freoge man Gerburge 7 Miscin 7 Hi…lf 7 Burhulfes dohtur æt C[in]nuc 7 Ælfsige 7 his wif 7 his yldran dohtor 7 Ceolstanes wif 7 æt Ceorlatune freoge man Pifus 7 Edwyn … 7 …ng wif 7 æt Faccancumbe frioge man Edelm 7 Man 7 Iohannan 7 Sprow 7 his wif 7 En.f…h 7 Gersande 7 Snel

And Gerburg is to be freed, and Miscin and Hi…… and the daughter of Burhulf at Chinnock, and Ælfsige and his wife and elder daughter, and Ceolstan’s wife. And at Charlton Pifus and Eadwyn and …Æs wife are to be freed. And at Faccombe Eadhelm and Man and Johanna and Sprow and his wife and En…… and Gersand and Snel are to be freed.

CotChVIII38 Wynflaed will freed slaves

That’s four extra people who wouldn’t have been mentioned if the scribe hadn’t gone back and added their names. I bet they were glad not to be forgotten. As I said earlier, there’s no reason to believe that this was the original copy of the will, but one made perhaps some time later; so what is the significance of these insertions? They must have some implications for what actually ended up happening to Gerburg, Snel, Sprow and his wife. Why did the copyist only add them in as an apparent afterthought?

Now, towards the end of the will, Wynflæd must dispense of her few remaining possessions:

þenne an hio Æþelflæde on ælcum þingum þe þær unbecweden bi∂ on bocum 7 an swilcum lytlum 7 hio gelyf∂ [þ]æt hio wille hyre saulle geþencan 7 þær synt eac wahriftu sum þe hyre wyr∂e bi∂ 7 þa læstan hio mæg syllan hyre wimmannon

Then she makes a gift to Æthelflæd of everything which is unbequeathed, books and such small things, and she trusts that she will be mindful of her soul. And there are also tapestries, one which is suitable for her, and the smallest she can give to her women.

This Æthelflæd gets all the leftovers, the little things, just books and suchlike … books? Considering how much effort books (or perhaps other written materials: the word boc is used earlier in the will to refer to a legal document) took to create, it astonishes me that they could be numbered amongst the lytlum. What kind of books did Wynflæd own? Given that she then expresses her assurance that Æthelflæd will consider the good of her soul, I wonder if this was some kind of psalter or prayerbook for laypeople. I’d like to believe that one of these books contained prayers like the English version of the ‘Prayers ad horasthat I discussed in an earlier blogpost; maybe others contained poetry, or medical remedies?

Nothing important, just a handmade, handwritten compendium of the latest international medical knowledge. London, British Library Royal MS 12 D. xvii, fols. 20v-21.

I stumbled across this will by accident, but I learned a lot from it. It gave me an insight into the lifestyle and possessions of a wealthy woman in the tenth century, and into her relationships with the people around her. It gives us a little glimpse into the life of a woman (who was doing pretty well for herself – I can’t imagine that her slaves left many records) who was neither a queen or a saint, nor anyone else whose life might be written about elsewhere. It tells us a little about relationships between people, and the kinds of things which people treasured, and the participation of laywomen in religious life.

But nothing, I think, about badgers.

Badger (apparently). London, British Library Harley MS 4986, fol. 44v.

See also:

E. A. Bond, Facsimiles of Ancient Charters in the British Museum, III (1873), pp. 145-6.

[Post updated 01/06/2018 to add newly-digitised image of Cotton Ch VIII 38.]

5 Comments Add yours

  1. PDG says:

    “But who was Wynflæd?”

    She is supposed to have been the mother of (Saint) Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, and thus mother-in-law of Edmund the Elder.

    She’s also supposed to have been my 36th great-grandmother.

    Mileage may vary as to how accurate either of those suppositions are (can only definitively prove that line back to my 9th great grandfather – John Prescott, founder of Lancaster, Massachusetts).

    Nice blogging. Hope to get back to read more some day.


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