22 July 2014


Honourable Pagan Queens
By Theresa Tomlinson

On the surface of it, the biased, pro-Roman, religious histories, written by a monk of Jarrow who possibly never left his monastery, might not sound appealing as the inspiration for historical fiction, but I have found myself completely hooked by the enticing glimpses Bede gives of many historical events and characters who were not at the forefront of action, but nevertheless, were extremely influential. Bede is not generally known for his championing of women, but there are notable instances when he emphasises the authority and importance of certain holy women e.g. Hild of Whitby - and hidden amongst the dramatic tales of the many kings and saints, he also gives brief impressions of other women, whose prestige and significance he quietly acknowledges. Perhaps the most surprising of all are Bede’s references to pagan queens.

Redwald was the King of the East Angles, usually linked with the Sutton Hoo burial. Sadly we do not even know the name of his queen, but we know that she was a pagan, because when Redwald returned to East Anglia from a visit to Kent and announced that he’d been baptised as a Christian, Bede tells us that ‘his wife and certain perverse advisers persuaded him to apostatize from the true faith.

Edwin of Northumbria exiled in his youth, sought shelter at the East Anglian Court, where the queen would have taken the role of hostess. When emissaries arrived from Athelfrid of Northumbria offering gold in exchange for the young prince’s murder, and issued threats of war if his demand was refused, Redwald was tempted to take the easy way out and order the murder of his guest, but then Bede tells us: ‘when he (Redwald) privately told the queen of his intention… she dissuaded him, saying that it was unworthy in a great king to sell his best friend in the hour of need for gold, and worse still to sacrifice his royal honour, the most valuable of all possessions, for love of money.

Despite his disapproval of her pagan ways, Bede’s warmth for her decency and sense of fairness seems to leap from the page.

Cynewise was Penda’s queen and though her actions are not referred to directly by Bede, he does mention her clearly in a paragraph that again suggests that she was a woman of considerable power and status. Penda’s battles with both Oswald and Oswy of Northumbria continued for many years and eventually their disagreement came to a head at the Battle of the Winwaed, at which Penda was killed. Bede comments that Oswy’s son Egfrid, who was 10 or 11 years old: ‘was at that time held hostage at the court of Queen Cynewise in the province of the Mercians.’ It is a tiny mention, but it tells us a great deal. Penda had a named wife who was considered to be queen of the Mercians, she held her own court and was given the responsible position of being in charge of hostages. Hostage taking was common practice between warring kingdoms and it seems to have been used as a guarantee of friendly behaviour from the other side. When Oswy led his followers into battle against Penda he was putting his young son’s life at risk. As soon as Cynewise heard of her husband’s death, she would have been well within her rights to have taken her revenge by ordering Egfrid to be put to death – but Egfrid survived to become King of Northumbria on his father’s death. We don’t know what happened. Had Cynewise become fond of the young boy put into her care? Did she use him as a bargaining tool for her own safety or that of her sons? I have speculated imaginatively on the possibilities in BETTER THAN GOLD.

Both of these queens are shadowy figures mentioned extremely briefly by Bede, but we learn a great deal from his writings about their times, families and descendants.
ACHA was the daughter of Aelle, King of Deira. Bede mentions her only once as Oswald’s mother: ‘Oswald was nephew to King Edwin by his sister Acha; and it is fitting that so great a predecessor should have had so worthy a man of his own blood to maintain his religion and his throne.’

Acha’s life must have been fraught with difficulties as her husband Aethelfrid killed her father, took over his kingdom and drove her brother into exile – and yet she somehow survived, continuing to have further sons with him. On Aethelfrid’s death his sons fled North West to Dalriada where they were given protection and educated on Iona. The youngest son, Oswy, was only four at the time and so he cannot have travelled north alone. Was it Acha who took her sons to safety? Aethelfrid’s closest companions and war-band would have been expected to have gone down fighting at his side.

BEBBA is usually thought to have been Athelfrid’s queen and possibly to have been a Pictish Princess. She is mentioned twice by Bede, but only in the briefest manner as the queen who Bamburgh was named for. When speaking of Oswald’s relics, he says: ‘They are preserved as venerated relics in a silver casket at the church of Saint Peter in the royal city, which is called after a former queen named Bebba.’ This smallest of references does tell us that Bebba was a woman of power and prominence, who appeared to be in charge of her own fortress and had it named after her.

We do not know what she did to deserve such an honour, but this sort of uncertainty provides the perfect space for much imaginative thinking on the part of a historical novelist. Was Bebba Athelfrid’s first wife and Acha his second wife? Did Aethefrid have two wives at the same time? As a pagan this would be quite feasible. Was there enmity between the two women? I have speculated on the possibilities in THE TRIBUTE BRIDE and was pleased to see the idea that I went with mentioned as a valid theory by Max Adams in his book THE KING OF THE NORTH – The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria. If readers would like an in-depth, but very accessible study of these times, I’d recommend Max Adams book to them.

My latest fiction ideas are inspired by exciting recent archaeological discoveries – e.g. the Staffordshire Hoard and the mysterious Street House burial close to where I live – as well as a study of the works of the Venerable Bede, but I struggled to persuade publishers that this period could be presented to readers in an accessible and exciting manner – ‘such difficult names’ they said, ‘too complicated a period!’

Despite the lack of enthusiasm for this period, I was unable to let my ideas go, and so finally, with the support of my agent, Caroline Walsh, I self-published two adult historical novels using ACORN DIGITAL PRESS in both eBook and paperback form.

However, more recently, with the publication of BETTER THAN GOLD (Children’s Historical Fiction, due in November 2014 from A&C Black) I have hopes that traditional publisher’s reluctance towards 7th Century settings might be shifting a little.  

The version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People that I’ve used is published by Penguin Books. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price revised by R.E.Latham

Fiction with Anglo-Saxon settings
A SWARMING OF BEES by Theresa Tomlinson – published by Acorn Digital Press Ltd 2012
UK Amazon 
US Amazon

THE TRIBUTE BRIDE by Theresa Tomlinson – published by Acorn Digital Press Ltd 2014
UK Amazon 
US Amazon

BETTER THAN GOLD by Theresa Tomlinson – published by A&C Black (Children’s Historical Fiction) November 2014-07-16

WOLF GIRL by Theresa Tomlinson – published by Random House Children’s Books (Young Adult Novel) 2011


  1. What a find! Theresa Tomlinson, I've just added several of your books to my B&N Nook Wish List.

    I don't know why publishers would shy away from such a mysterious and strange era of English history. Personally, I can't get enough!

  2. Thank you Meredith - I don't understand publishers either!

  3. Perhaps one of the first historical novels I read was in secondary school and it was the Forest Wife Trilogy. I loved the stories and a new twist on the Robin Hood legend, brilliant writing. I've just bought A Swarming of Bees for my kindle and I can't wait to start reading it. It's a shame that publishers do view the Anglo-Saxon era in that way, they're missing out on some great novels!

    1. I think part of the problem with publishers for the Anglo-Sazon era is the difficult names, all those vowels... yet tongue-twister personal names never seem to bother the science fiction or fantasy genre does it?

  4. Many thanks for such encouraging comments - they help a great deal!

  5. Theresa is having problems posting - so on her behalf I am replying:
    She says: ‘I think you are right Helen. One publisher said that the names ‘gave him a headache!’
    It’s difficult because you do want to use the correct Anglo-Saxon names. If it’s a real historical character, I try to use the simplest form of the name – and if it’s an invented character I try to use something straightforward, or memorable. I very much hope that as more writer choose this period for fictional settings, we’ll all get more used to the names.’
    Thanks Theresa.

    I had a problem with my Saxon novels in that I had three Ediths In the end I went for Edith, Edyth, and Alditha.


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