Lost Anglo-Saxon Monastery of Controversial Queen Found
Archaeologists from the University of Reading have been performing excavations on the grounds of the Holy Trinity Church in Cookham, a small village on the River Thames in England. They have been searching for the ruins of a long-lost early medieval monastery, which was built more than 1,300 years ago in the 8th century AD. They have now pinpointed the monastery, famous because it had once been run by one of medieval England’s most respected ( if controversial ) women, Mercia’s Queen Cynethryth.
Search for the Missing Anglo-Saxon Monastery
In a press release issued by their university department, the archaeological team announced that they had found what they had been seeking. The village of Cookham is located in the county of Berkshire, 29 miles (47 kilometers) west of London, and at that time was a part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia.
The remains of the Queen’s monastery, which included wooden buildings and a wide variety of artifacts, were unearthed right next to the spot where the church was later constructed, only a stone’s throw away from the banks of the Thames.
"The lost monastery of Cookham has puzzled historians, with a number of theories put forward for its location,” explained University of Reading archaeologist Dr. Gabor Thomas, who is leading the ongoing excavations. “We set out to solve this mystery once and for all.”
Their mission has now been accomplished , and they’ve recovered thousands of artifacts during their excavations, which paint a picture of a monastery that was generously populated and a beehive of productive activity.
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Excavations have taken place this summer, led by archaeologists from the University of Reading. ( University of Reading )
Thousands of Anglo-Saxon Artifacts Uncovered
The list of artifacts they’ve found include iron tools, bronze jewelry, ceramic vessels for cooking and food storage, metal pots and pans, three women’s dress pins, a piece of a bone comb, and volcanic stones used for flour making. They also found the remnants of three timber buildings, which they believe must have been used for housing. They uncovered a cluster of hearths that appear to have been part of a metalworking operation.
The archaeologists also dug up large collections of discarded animal bones, from cattle, pigs, sheep, and chickens. These would have been consumed during large community feasts, sponsored for worshippers by the nuns and monks residing at the monastery.
The overall impression derived from this eclectic mix of artifacts and ruins is that the monastery was quite prosperous. This is not surprising, given the famed Queen Cynethryth’s connection with this institution.
"Despite its documented royal associations, barely anything is known about what life was like at this monastery, or others on this stretch of the Thames, due to a lack of archaeological evidence,” Dr. Thomas noted. “The items that have been uncovered will allow us to piece together a detailed impression of how the monks and nuns who lived here ate, worked and dressed. This will shed new light on how Anglo-Saxon monasteries were organized and what life was like in them."
“The site is of national importance,” he continued. “It’s extremely rare to find such a wide range of Anglo-Saxon artifacts and such high-quality preservation.”
Remembering Queen Cynethryth of Mercia
One of the primary reasons why archaeologists have been searching for the monastery is because of its relationship to Queen Cynethryth.
She gained her title through her marriage to the ambitious and celebrated King Offa , who ruled over Mercia when it was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the region. The era in which King Offa and Queen Cynethryth lived is known as “The Golden Age of Mercia,” in recognition of Mercia’s prosperity and political influence over weaker neighboring kingdoms.
While her title of queen was honorary, there is no doubt Cynethryth was held in high esteem. She had the distinction of being the only woman from that period to have her image engraved on the face of a coin.
"Cynethryth is a fascinating figure, a female leader who clearly had genuine status and influence in her lifetime,” Dr. Thomas said. “Not only were coins minted with her image, but it is known that when the powerful European leader Charlemagne wrote to his English counterparts, he wrote jointly to both King Offa and Queen Cynethryth, giving both equal status.”
Whatever the Queen’s status had been, it changed after her husband died in 796. Not eligible to become his successor (that honor went to Cynethryth and Offa’s oldest son), she joined a religious order and was appointed the head of the monastery in Cookham.
This was one of many Mercian monasteries that had been opened along the Thames during the eighth century, with the support and encouragement of the Mercian monarchy and aristocracy. Cookham was widely recognized as the most important monastery, however, even before the Queen was sent there.
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Many artifacts have been recovered and will be examined to shed light on monastery life at the time. (University of Reading )
Religious Devotion with Ulterior Motives
Mercian monasteries in the at this time weren’t just retreats or contemplation space for religious devotees. In fact, they were there primarily to represent the interests of the Mercian kingdom.
In the eighth century, the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that occupied England were each interested in gaining control over the Thames River Valley. It was a vital artery for both trade and transportation, running through the heart of English territory before heading directly into London.
Like the other powers, the Mercians were interested in controlling trade along the Thames. Beyond their religious significance, their monasteries were designed to function as commercial and political outposts—and none was more vital than the monastery at Cookham.
Cookham had been a busy river port since the days of the Romans. It was also a crossing point for a now-vanished road that connected people on one side of the Thames with the other. Cookham was just upriver from London, and as long as the Mercians maintained a strong presence there they were guaranteed easy access to the region’s most important city.
The best indicator of how much the Mercians valued the monastery at Cookham was the fact that they chose to put the kingdom’s renowned Queen in charge. From a political and strategic standpoint, she was the perfect selection.
It was moves like these that helped Mercia prosper during their so-called Golden Age, which lasted from the seventh through the ninth centuries. With the location of their most important and influential monastery now revealed, archaeologists exploring there are enjoying their own version of a Golden Age, focused on exploration and learning rather than wealth and prosperity.
Top image: The remains of the monastery of Queen Cynethryth were found in a field next to the parish church of Cookham, next to the River Thames. Source: University of Reading
By Nathan Falde