Cynethryth

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For the 9th century Mercian princess, see Cwenthryth.
Cynethryth
Cynethryth penny obverse.png
Portrait penny of Cynethryth, minted by Eoba at Canterbury. Cynethryth is the only Anglo-Saxon queen known to have had coins issued in her name and these are unique in Western Europe of the period.[1] Coin held by the British Museum.
Queen consort of Mercia
Tenure c. 770 – 29 July 796
Spouse Offa
Issue Ecgfrith
Eadburh
Ælfflæd
Æthelburh
Æthelswith
Died after 798 AD
Coin of Cinethryth, wife of Offa

Cynethryth (Cyneðryð; died after AD 798) was a Queen of Mercia and wife of King Offa of Mercia and mother of King Ecgfrith of Mercia. Cynethryth is the only Anglo-Saxon Queen consort in whose name coinage was definitely issued.

Origins and marriage[edit]

Nothing certain is known of Cynethryth's origins. Her name recalls the wife and daughters of King Penda—Cynewise, Cyneburh, and Cyneswith—which may indicate that she was a descendant of Penda.[2]

A tradition related by the 13th century Vitae duorum Offarum tells that she was of Frankish origin, and that for her crimes she was condemned by Charlemagne's justice system to be set adrift at sea in an open boat. The boat eventually stranded on the Welsh coast where she was taken to Offa. She pleaded that she had been cruelly persecuted and was of the royal house of Charles the Great. Offa left Drida, as she was called, in the charge of Marcellina, his mother. Offa would fall in love with and marry her, at which point she adopted the name Quindrida, but she continued in her iniquitous ways before being murdered by robbers. This seems to relate to a brief mention of Offa's sinful but reformed wife, Thritha, that appears in Beowulf, but also has aspects similar to a story told of the wife of Offa of Angel, a Yorkshire girl set adrift by her father.[3][4]

Unlike the relations of Æthelbald, Offa's predecessor, which had been condemned by the church, the marriage of Offa and Cynethryth was entirely conventional and met with the approval of the church hierarchy.[5] In a letter to Cynethryth and Offa's son Ecgfrith, Alcuin advises him to follow the example of his parents, including his mother's piety. Elsewhere Alcuin refers to Cynethryth as "controller of the Royal household".[6]

Queen of the Mercians[edit]

The date of Offa and Cynethryth's marriage is not known, but it was not until after the birth of Ecgfrith that Cynethryth began to witness charters.[7] She first witnessed a charter dated 770, along with Ecgfrith and Ælfflæd. By 780 she is Cyneðryð Dei gratia regina Merciorum ("Cynethryth, by the Grace of God, Queen of the Mercians").[8]

It has been suggested that Cynethryth's coinage was in emulation of the Byzantine Empress Irene, who ruled during this time through her son Constantine VI. The imagery employed, however, does not follow that on Irene's coinage, but that used on coins of late Roman empresses, just as the image used on Offa's coins show him as a late Roman emperor.[9] It has been suggested that the coins were minted for donations by Cynethryth to the Church, but their similarity to the general issues suggests otherwise. This coinage is unique in Anglo-Saxon England, and indeed in Western Europe in this period.[1]

Cynethryth is associated with her husband in charters and is said to have been a patron of Chertsey Abbey. Pope Adrian I, when elevating Higbert's Bishopric of Lichfield to an Archbishopric, wrote to Offa and Cynethryth jointly.

Her children with Offa, besides Ecgfrith, included at least four daughters:

In the legend of Æthelberht II of East Anglia, a daughter of Offa named Ælfthryth—or Alfrida—appears, but there is no firm evidence for her existence.[10]

Saint Æthelberht[edit]

Cynethryth is said by some later chroniclers, such as Roger of Wendover, to have incited Offa to the killing of Æthelberht II, King of East Anglia, at the royal residence of Sutton, near Hereford, or to have had her servants kill him.

Abbess of Cookham[edit]

After Offa's death in 796 Cynethryth entered religion. She was abbess of the monastery at Cookham and also had charge of the church at Bedford where her late husband was interred. She was certainly alive in 798 when a dispute over church lands with Æthelhard, Archbishop of Canterbury, was settled at the Synod of Clofesho.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Williams, p. 216.
  2. ^ Stafford, p. 36.
  3. ^ Raymond Wilson Chambers (1921). Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem with a Discussion of the Stories of Offa and Finn. Cambridge University Press. pp. 36–37. 
  4. ^ Klaeber's Beowulf, and the Fight at Finnsburg, 4th ed., R.D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles, eds., University of Toronto Press, 2008, pp. 222-226.
  5. ^ Stafford, p. 37.
  6. ^ Keynes. Alcuin's letters 61, 62, and 101 mention Cynethryth; Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolae Karolini aevi (II), pp. 105, 106, & 148.
  7. ^ Stafford, p. 38.
  8. ^ For a list of charters witnessed by Cynethryth, see the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England; for the charters themselves, see the Anglo-Saxon Charters homepage and Dr. Sean Miller's Anglo-Saxons.net.
  9. ^ Kelly; Keynes; Stafford, pp. 39–40.
  10. ^ Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England. The legend is discussed by Thacker, pp. 16–18.

References[edit]