HOW MUCH POWER AND AUTHORITY DID ABBESSES EXERCISE
IN ANGLO-SAXON ENGLAND C. 650 - C. 850
Seventh- through ninth century in Anglo-Saxon England is a time of introducing Christianity. Even though at first glance the time span, with which this essay is concerned, seems short, it is within this very time span that queens turn from mere king's wives and bearers of royal children  into powerful enough figures on which queen Aethelthryth can later base her power of regency . It is the time in which the first monasteries begun to form a net of Christianity over Anglo-Saxon England, a time when women gained control over land, built monasteries, ruled as powerful abbesses and then, suddenly, lost their power again.
Historians can trace this development in several sources. Most notably, the star actors of this play of power and authority: the kings and queens, abbesses, abbots, monks, nuns and pious individuals as low down the social ladder as Caedmon figure in Bede's Ecclesiastical history . Aldhelm's De virginitate  also proves useful; even though it rarely touches on either power or authority directly, it is a valuable source of information on the relationship between a specific bishop and an abbess and sheds light on medieval theology which is the basis for all ecclesiastic authority. In fact it demonstrates the great importance of abbesses in the growing Anglo-Saxon church. The need for them to join the struggle for Christianity was great enough to merit a long piece of prose asserting chastity next to virginity and explaining why chaste women may still serve Christ. This text is going to analyze the role abbesses played in constructing a network of Christian administration. It will deal specifically with the authority they possessed and the power they exerted. Was the fact that most abbesses were of noble blood important in determining the degree of power they wielded and of the authority they possessed? What about the land, the number one factor in asserting power in the Middle Ages. Where did it come from, who inherited it? The complexity grows as we add up the hierarchy of the church and the hierarchy within the kingdom's nobility. Land and family were indeed factors in establishing an authoritative role among the abbess's peers but as far as her subordinates and pupils were concerned her authority hailed from God, according to Aldhelm  by means of her chaste and pious life. I will draw attention to the relationship of power between Bishops and abbesses. Finally throughout the text I am going to argue that even though the royal bloodline played an important part in producing and affirming the authority and position of powerful abbesses it was their role in the spreading of Christianity that in the end rendered more power and authority to noble women, mostly the institution of queens.
Before we can tackle the question of exercising power and authority, we must deal with how and why the position of ‘abbess’ appeared and what it entailed. In the first stages of asserting their role it was the royal families that were of greatest importance. We needn't sift through Bede  very long before we find the first mention of a king having his daughter consecrated. It was in fact primarily royal women that founded monasteries but not before they themselves have spent some time in training as nuns. Aethelthryth /.../ entered the monastery of the abbess Aebbe, /. . ./ receiving the veil and the habit of a nun /. . /  before she finally became an abbess in a year’s time. The idea of women heading a religious house was not new. This was in fact quite a common occurrence in Roman pagan temples  and there is much nuns have in common with vestal virgins. Aldhelm mentioned them in his De virginitate  when relating the story of how Chrysantus converted Daria, a vestal virgin. He even went on to praise her dialectical skills. This praise is very similar to his praise of the 'extremely rich verbal eloquence' of the letters he received from the nuns . There are so many similarities between vestals and nuns that a detailed separate study could be done on this alone.
The idea of women wielding power over Anglo-Saxon monasteries probably did not hail from some lingering Roman custom nor was it imported from the Orthodox Church. Everything points to the conclusion that it was brought over from the nearby northern Gallic monasteries  in particular Faeimoutiers-en-Brie, Chelles and Andelys-sur-Seine . In fact this was where the first kings sent their daughters or indeed as the case may be where the royal widows, and where even wives went (of their own accord perhaps due to the “no divorce” policy of the time), to be taught the rules of monastic life.
But before we tackle the question of these rules, of which none are preserved from Anglo-Saxon England, let us linger at the power of these royal women prior to their consecration.
According to Meyer:
When Pope Gegory sent the initial letter to Bertha, wife of king Aethelberht, he addressed it to regina anglorum, very likely unaware that the queens of Angles did not yet achieve a political role to be compared with the Merovingian Queens. In fact there was no early seventh century vernacular equivalent for that term . [Cwen (Old English) primarily meant woman, hlaefdige (Old English) primarily meant lady] .
But it is not prudent to conclude that this was still the case in the second half of the seventh century, as Bede writes (on the Synod at Whitby):
Queen Eanfled and her people also observed it [Easter] as she had seen it done in Kent... ..., so that the King had finished the fast and was keeping Easter Sunday, while the queen and her people were still in Lent and observing Palm Sunday .
It is clear from this passage that not only did Queen Eanfled have her own court entourage, she possessed at the least some autonomous power over her own life as well. Even so, the degree of individual queens' power in different kingdoms varies; there was for example, as explained by Pauline Stafford , a big difference in the level of power of queens between Wessex and Mercia It is safe to rely on Bede  at least insofar as the royal daughters' hands were given in marriage for dynastic purposes, with no mention of their consent; their role in this is far from independent It is hard to say how many actively protested or even succeeded in averting their designated marriage – a success no doubt followed by them being sent to the nearest monastery.
The queens we are especially concerned with, are the ones that went on to become abbesses. When they returned from their training at the monasteries of Francia, they were first consecrated abbesses and only then allowed built and found monasteries – on land usually owned by their fathers or deceased husbands . Their roles changed as they received new independence and with it new power over their own lives and the lives of those under their rule, both within the walls of the monastery as well as conceivably over those living on the lands attached to it. Their role was no longer to bear royal heirs and serve as threads in inter-dynastic politics . They were upgraded to the ruling class. They ruled their own houses – double houses – where their subordinates were both men and women.
Since double monasteries were 'usually placed away from royal courts, bishop's sees it is likely men were needed for protection against trespassers and arduous manual labour. Some may have been priests taking nuns' confession, saying mass and providing for the sacramental needs of the lay population. And last but not least pure economic reasons might also have been a determining factor at this stage" . The power of a woman over men occurring here might simply be a practical solution to a problem. To contemporaries it might have seemed acceptable for various reasons, not the least of them being the women’s royal position. A question of power and authority in this case is relative to social standing, even if a queen couldn't exert direct power over her husband or father, she could have most likely still ruled over, for example, her own entourage. Whatever the reason, abbesses did in fact rule over male residents of their monastery, as demonstrated in the case tied to Seaxburg : Seaxburg succeeding her sister Aethelthryth at Ely ordered some of the brothers to look for some blocks for the construction of Aethelthryth' s tomb.The passage leaves little doubt as to the men’s gender, occupation or their subordinate position.
We have previously touched on a very important issue regarding abbess's power and authority in practice: the ability to found monasteries. Bede writes that St. Aethelthryth
/.../ entered the monastery /.../ receiving the veil and the habit of a nun from bishop Wilfrid. A year after she was herself appointed abbess in a district called Ely, where she built a monastery /.../ 
This passage is very clear on the order of occurrences: first she was consecrated abbess and only then proceeded to build a monastery. A monastery can therefore not be founded by just anyone, the person founding it, as we have seen must have some sort of ecclesiastical authority in order to do so. The fact that Aethelthryth had to be consecrated by a bishop, demonstrates that a bishop exerted power over her, and when consecrating her abbess he was at the same time relaying to her some degree of church’s authority. Aethelthryth did in fact seek permission from the bishop before founding the monastery as well. Matters are however not black and white. Even though in theory bishops may have held ecclesiastical authority over an abbot or abbess, the state of ecclesiastical affairs and later even geographical location of Anglo-Saxon bishops made it hard for them to exert direct power. This was particularly true in the late seventh century at which time, according to Peter Hunter Blair  many sees were in fact without bishops. Moreover, Canon III of the Synod held by Archbishop Theodore at Hertford dated at 673 states:
‘That no bishop shall in any way interfere with any monasteries dedicated to God nor take away forcibly any part of their property’ .
Bede  writes at length in his Letter to Bishop Egbert, to stress that a position of a single bishop should be instated who would assert power over others. In the same breath he suggests new sees be set up within monasteries, at which point he, by noting his reserves, gives away that the afore mentioned III. Canon of Hertford  was used in practice. It seems that monasteries were vastly independent from the central church if even bishops did not obstruct their power. However such a conclusion would be a generalization. Even though the monasteries might be exempt, some abbesses at least were still subordinates to bishops' power. For example Bede states:
'Hild continued a whole year in the kingdom of the East Angles with the intention of going abroad; but then bishop Aidan called her home/. . ./' 
But what falls under this power they are so "unhindered" to exert, apart from building monasteries? What does it entail exactly, and what limits it? The period of the seventh and eighth centuries precedes the monastic reform. It is therefore very hard to find common denominators in the way the monasteries of this time handled their internal affairs i.e. their rule. There is a slight mention of a semblance of a rule where Whitby is concerned in the description of the way Hild led her monastery as explained by Peter Hunter Blair: 'She [Hild] laid stress upon the virtue of righteousness, devotion and chastity, striving to follow the ways of the primitive church when all men had all things in common and none any private property’ . However no actual written rule of an Anglo-Saxon double house from that period survives.
The monasteries' rules would probably be more alike in the cases where a future abbess having been educated in one monastery uses the same rule in her own monastery educating another future abbess who in turn brings the rule she had learned to her new post. For example, Hild,
/... / was appointed to rule the monastery [Hartlepool] and at once set about establishing there a Rule of life in all respects like that which she had been taught /.../ 
Another example may be constructed from the chain linking the monasteries at Coldingham, Ely, Sheppey, Hanbury, Threckingham, Weedon and Hoo, i.e. the bloodline of the daughters of King Anna . It is quite likely that there was a contemporary connection as well, that these kinswomen wrote letters to each other thus possibly influencing rules and regulations at each of their monasteries. The same goes for correspondence with other learned individuals in the fashion of Aldhelm's De virginitate, Bede’s Letter to Egbert, or the Boniface correspondence . It is no doubt wise to take account of the complexity of factors involved in forming a rule of a monastery; on the other hand there is a certain rigidness to be expected from a rule of an ecclesiastical institution It is easier for it to gain authority if it stays unchanged for a period of time. Alcuin  is said to have told the community at Wearmouth-Jarrow that their holy fathers frequently revisit the monastery and intercede with God for those whom they find keeping the way of life that they had instituted. This might signify that the rule was much more unchangeable than depicted above. A comparison with rules of houses in Francia would perhaps be the best course of action if one was to try and infer what kind of rule the initial abbesses of Anglo-Saxon England promulgated.
The chain of abbesses at Ely is more than just an explanation of how a rule might get formed and modified, it is also proof that bloodlines were of vast importance in determining an abbess's successor. I have described the bishop's role in consecrating an abbess, but it seems that the act of consecration was little more than that of affirmation. In fact, as we can infer from the positions of the female descendents of King Anna, the position of abbess obviously at least some times stayed within the power of the family that owned the land where the monastery was built. Furthermore as the following example demonstrates, the abbess herself had the power to decide who was going to replace her:
Cwenburh. /.../ asked bishop Wilfrid to pray for her ' I . .. / on behalf of her daughter whom she loved greatly and had planned to make abbess in her place . [my underscore]
This further confirms my deduction that an abbot may often have merely confirmed the position of an abbess after she has already been chosen. There is even an example of a nun, Frygith, standing in for the abbess . When she learns of Hild's death she rouses the sisters and orders them to prayer. Apart from naming successors they could apparently also relay their ecclesiastical authority to a nun of their choosing.
What of the abbesses' power and authority outside their monasteries? Exerting power is, in my opinion, more than simply ordering and receiving obedience. When dealing with power wielded by queens we come across something we might dub indirect power, one that M. A. Meyer  describes in this passage:
The ostensible sexual asymmetry endemic in early Anglo-Saxon culture was partially balanced by women's manipulation of men through personal and sexual associations, the number and quality of the offspring they bore, and the prestige of their cognate kinfolk - all potent weapons in women's political arsenals.
As far as this goes, even if we accept this reasoning, we must still take into account that abbesses differed from queens in that they relinquished their sexualities. Even though some may not have adhered to this rule, we must reasonably assume, that the majority of abbesses did, or did at least not use their sexuality to gain politically. Once a woman has relinquished her sexuality in favour of chastity (or virginity) she is no longer
a mere woman, as M. A. Meyer  puts it, she transcends 'the perceived weakness of their sex by becoming desexualized...’ The bearing of this on the subject of exercising power and authority is that an abbess, no longer able to wield the sceptre of offspring and dynastic connectivity, might have filled this gap with something else, perhaps her ecclesiastical authority, and used the influence deriving from said authority to exert power. The most famous case of an abbess's influence on royalty is that of Hild, whose advice was 'sought out by kings' . Whether they were her relatives or not  makes has little bearing on the argument above. A similar amount of influence was exerted by Leoba, even outside her native Anglo-Saxon England:
'Queen Hildigard loved her, the nobles received her, the bishops welcomed her with joy’ 
The abbesses exerted a different type of silent influence through educating future churchmen: 'From Whitby came a number of important bishops’  - educating boys brought about a passive power, with it the abbesses and nuns were forming future minds and thus influencing the basis of their future decisions.
We have mentioned the council of Bishop Theodore at Hertford and the third canon. It might be suitable to use it as a marker denoting the beginning of legal independence of monasteries from bishops and their claims. The obvious markers are also the relevant parts of the laws of King Alfred. Alfred's laws were, as he claimed in his preface, 'traditional both in subject and expression’  Alfred's law number eight stipulates compensation 'if anyone remove a nun from a nunnery without permission of the king or bishop’ . It seems that abbesses in Wessex did not possess the power to allow their own nuns to be removed from the monastery. The law clearly limits this power to kings and bishops. However by this time the monasteries were in disarray, as is clearly stated in the 'preface to St Gregory's Pastoral care' . The clerics also seem to have become lacking in knowledge compared to those in the times of Bede. It therefore seems likely that, for lack of competent abbots and abbesses some monasteries were led by bishops at this time, especially in view of the stipulation of the law mentioned above, that half of the compensation goes to the king and half to the bishop or to the lord of the church in whose charge the nun. It is also likely that Alfred felt the needed to step in and set things right, as well as that he most likely had no opposition in doing so.
The queens might not have been powerful when pope Gregory set the re-Christianisation of Britannia in motion, yet they gave birth to more than just royal heirs and dynastic connections They became educated in Francia and came back to form centres of Christian education and preservation of culture. Through consecration and by means of virginity they received authority on many levels both among their peers and subordinates without entirely giving up their former lay way of life – they continued to be waited on by attendants, they were using the royal land and kept in contact with their royal families. It was these families that formed a line of successors to be traced through royal family saints' cults well into the tenth century.
The fact that men were occupied with politics and war, and women were initially thought to be of little use in these matters other than being married properly was a large factor in their evolution into secular power figures Perhaps in our terms the answer to the question in the title is - not much. But in the terms of the time-frame of 650-850 the amount of power they exerted was vast. After they were consecrated they had the power to build Monasteries and churches, name successors, decide on the rules of their monasteries and educate future bishops. They exerted authoritative influence over bishops and Kings, their flock of both genders and perhaps even over the population of settlements that sprung up outside the walls of these centres. Nominally this power was superseded by bishops but we have shown that it was rarely so in factual life and hinted that bishops also had respect and admiration for them. Their monasteries were legally exempt from outside meddling from the end of the seventh century until the time Alfred's laws stipulated differently There are many relevant matters left un-discussed. Aldhelm, if he could, would have us fill volumes on the relationship between Authority and Virginity and Chastity alone. A path of an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman started with marrying and bearing children and it was through chastity or, if she joined the monastery as a child, virginity that this role could be transcended, independence asserted, authority acquired and power exerted.
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 Further reading in M. A. Meyer, 'Queens, Converts and Conversion in Early Anglo-Saxon England’, Revue Bénédictine, 109, (Maresdous, 1999), 90-116.
 P. Stafford, 'The King's Wife in Wessex', in Helen Damico and Hennesey Olsen (eds.), New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, Indiana University Press, (Bloomington, 1990).
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 Aldhelm, Aldhelm: the Prose Works, ed. Michael Lapidge and Michael Herren, De virginitate (New Jersey, 1979). – from here on – Aldhelm, De virginitate.
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 Lisichar P. , Rimljani, Zagreb, 1971.
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 Bede, EH, III. 8, p. 122. –further reading in S. Foot. Veiled Women I, the Disappearance of Nuns From Anglo-Saxon England. (Aldershot. 2000). p. 49.
 S. Foot, Veiled Women I, pp. 36-37.
 M. A. Meyer, ‘Queens, Convents and Conversion in Early Anglo-Saxon England’, p. 93.
 R. Marsden, Cambridge Old English Reader, (Cambridge, 2005), pp. 419, 450.
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 P. Stafford, 'The King's Wife in Wessex', in Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennesey Olsen (eds.), New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, (Bloomington and Inidianapolis, 1990), 56-57.
 Bede, EH.
 AEthelthryth built the monastery at Ely on the land she received from her first husband Tonberht.
– M. A. Meyer, ‘Queens, Convents and Conversion in Early Anglo-Saxon England’, p. 105.
 paraphrasing M. A. Meyer, 'Queens, …'
 S. Foot, Veiled Women I, p. 48.
 Bede, EH, p. 203.
 P. Hunter Blair, 'Whitby as a Centre for Learning in the Seventh Century', M. Lapidge and H. Gneuss (eds.), Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England, Studies Presented to peter Clemoes on the Occasion of his Sixty-fifth Birthday, (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 15-16.
 Bede, EH, IV. 5, p. 181.
 Bede, Bede's Letter to Egbert, pp. 349-50.
 Bede, EH, IV. 5, p. 181.
 Bede, EH, IV. 5, p. 210
 P. Hunter Blair, 'Whitby as a Centre for Learning in the Seventh Century', p. 13.
 Bede, EH, IV. 23, p. 211.
 M. A. Meyer, 'Queens, Concents and Conversions in Early Anglo-Saxon England', p. 106. Referencing Bede, EH, IV. 19, and the Book of Ely in Liber Eliensis, E.O. Blake (ed.), Camden Society 3rd series, vol. 92, (London, 1962).
 C. E. Fell, 'Some Implications of the Boniface Correspondence', Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen (eds.), New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1990).
 C. Cubitt, 'Universal and Local Saints in Anglo-Saxon England', in Alan Thacker and Richard Sharpe (eds.), Local Saints and Local Churches in the Early Medieval West, (Oxford, 2002), p. 433, quoting Alcuin: The Bishops, Kings and Saints of York, ed. P. Godman, (Oxford, 1982).
 Bede, EH, V. 3, p. 29.
 Bede, EH, IV. 23 (21), p. 214.
 M. A. Meyer, 'Queens, Concents and Conversions in Early Anglo-Saxon England', p. 91.
 M. A. Meyer, 'Queens, Concents and Conversions in Early Anglo-Saxon England', pp. 97-98, and P.E. Szarmach, ‘Aelfric’s Women Saints’, in Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen (eds.), New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1990).
 Bede, EH, IV. 23, p. 211.
 M. A. Meyer, 'Queens, Concents and Conversions in Early Anglo-Saxon England', p. 91.
 C. Fell, 'Women in Anglo-Saxon England', in Christine Fell, C. Clark and E. Williams, Women in Anglo-Saxon England and the impact of 1066, (London, 1984), p 116.
 Bede, EH, IV. 23, pp. 211-212.
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 C. Fell, Women in Anglo-Saxon England, p. 123.