ONE of Anglo-Saxon England’s most politically important monasteries, lost for up to 1000 years, has been discovered on the banks of the Thames, 12 miles west of Greater London.
Archaeologists from the University of Reading made the discovery during excavations in the Berkshire village of Cookham.
Historians knew that an Anglo-Saxon monastery had existed in or very near the village, but its precise location was not known for sure, and no trace of it had ever been found. So far, archaeologists have discovered the remains of three timber buildings, Anglo-Saxon artefacts, and evidence of feasting.
The monastery was of great importance in the eighth and early ninth centuries, because of the part that it played in Anglo-Saxon geopolitics. Although it was founded in about 700 by either the kingdom of Wessex or the kingdom of Mercia, by the mid-eighth century it was in the hands of Mercia (based in the English Midlands). Then the Mercian king donated the monastery (and its deeds) to Canterbury Cathedral.
The deeds then appear to have been stolen by two Canterbury clerics (almost certainly agents, acting on behalf of Wessex), and handed over to the King of Wessex. Mercia then took control of the monastery again — after a battle that appears to have been fought about a dozen miles to the west.
With the Mercians again in physical possession of the monastery, the King of Wessex then seems to have returned the stolen deeds to Canterbury, apparently as an act of penance. The Mercians then installed their former Queen, Cynethryth (literally, “royal strength”), as Abbess of Cookham.
The then Archbishop of Canterbury, now in physical possession of the deeds (but not of the monastery itself), then re-established his legal ownership of it — but proceeded to “give” it to Mercia, on condition that the royal abbess cede lands that she owned in Kent, to Canterbury.
The archaeological discovery has highlighted how Anglo-Saxon monasteries were sometimes politically as well as religiously significant.
The monastery lay at the heart of a geopolitical struggle between Wessex and Mercia for control of the strategically crucial Thames Valley: the gateway to London.
Cynethryth was one of the most important women in Anglo-Saxon history: she is the only woman whose head ever featured on Anglo-Saxon coins. Known as “Queen of the Mercians”, she had been the wife of Mercia’s most powerful and famous ruler, King Offa.
The excavation is beginning to paint a picture of high-status Anglo-Saxon monastic life. Evidence of sumptuous feasting has been unearthed, including thousands of bones of cattle, pigs, sheep, and chickens.
The riverside monastery under royal rule was located specifically to secure crucial road and river communications.
The excavations — directed by the archaeologist Dr Gabor Thomas, of the University of Reading — have so far produced thousands of Anglo-Saxon finds, including iron tools, bronze jewellery, ceramic food vessels, kitchen pots, quern-stones, and food debris.
Of particular significance are fragments of Anglo-Saxon window glass, a woman’s delicate bronze bracelet, part of a bone comb, an iron carpentry axe, women’s dress pins, and evidence of metalworking.
It is likely that the monastery was mainly for women religious (often from noble families), although the resident priests and most or many of the lay workers would have been men.