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Ælfflæd [St Ælfflæd, Elfleda]locked

  • Alan Thacker

Ælfflæd [St Ælfflæd, Elfleda] (654–714), abbess of Strensall–Whitby, was the daughter of Oswiu, king of Northumbria (d. 670), and his wife, Eanflæd. She was dedicated to religion when scarcely a year old, in fulfilment of a vow made by her father before his victory at the battle of the Winwæd, and placed in the care of her maternal relative Hild, first at the monastery of Hartlepool and two years later at the new foundation ‘Streanæshalch’, which has been plausibly linked with both Strensall near York and Whitby, and which may have had communities in both places.

Strensall–Whitby, a double monastery ruled by an abbess and comprising a group of high-born nuns served by a group of male chaplains, achieved great eminence under Hild, as a royal proprietary community and a nursery of bishops. That tradition was maintained by Ælfflæd, who succeeded Hild as abbess in 680, initially in conjunction with her mother, Eanflæd. Like Hild, Ælfflæd played an important role in the political and ecclesiastical life of Northumbria. In 684 she summoned the celebrated hermit Cuthbert to meet her on Coquet Island for a consultation about her brother King Ecgfrith's plans to make him a bishop, and about the future of Ecgfrith himself. The exalted nature of her authority as abbess is indicated by the fact that after 685 she maintained under her command at Strensall–Whitby an episcopal adviser, the unfortunate Trumwine, former bishop of the Picts, expelled from his see after Ecgfrith's defeat and death at ‘Nechtansmere’.

Ælfflæd's opinions mattered. She probably inherited from Hild a hostility to Wilfrid, the bishop of the Northumbrians expelled in 678, and maintained friendly relations with his intruded successors, who included the Whitby-trained Bosa at York. She also continued her friendship with Cuthbert after he became bishop of Lindisfarne in 685, and in 687 probably had a hand in promoting Hild's pupil John of Beverley to the bishopric based at Wilfrid's great foundation of Hexham. In 686, therefore, when Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury sought to make peace between Wilfrid and the Northumbrian king, Ælfflæd's half-brother Aldfrith, he found it prudent to write to both king and abbess. Twenty years later, at the final settlement of Wilfrid's affairs, Ælfflæd was among the senior ecclesiastics consulted by Theodore's successor Berhtwald and those ruling in the name of the young king Osred. By then she was clearly more favourably disposed towards Wilfrid and testified to Aldfrith's deathbed intention to seek accommodation with the bishop, earning thereby the commendation of Wilfrid's biographer: 'ever the comforter and best counsellor of the whole kingdom' (Eddius Stephanus, 133). Her speech at the council was presented as decisive: Ælfflæd, it seems, could make and unmake bishops. Significantly, in the rearrangements consequent upon Wilfrid's partial restoration, John of Beverley, who had been trained at Whitby and Canterbury, received the crucial see of York.

Ælfflæd's ecclesiastical activities also included the promotion of saints' cults. She was clearly active in establishing that of her friend Cuthbert, whose girdle she possessed and claimed to have wonder-working properties. More importantly, between 680 and 704, while Eanflæd was still alive, she was responsible for the translation of her grandfather Eadwine's remains from Hatfield Chase, where he had fallen in battle in 633, to a place of honour on the south side of the altar in her conventual church. The move, when coupled with the fact that the church was already the burial place of Oswiu and Hild, made the monastery a shrine to the union of the two Northumbrian kingdoms, that of her father's Bernicia and her mother and grandfather's Deira. As an adjunct to those activities, Ælfflæd also played a key role in promoting the cult of Pope Gregory the Great as apostle of England; Whitby tradition sought to emphasize the link between the king and the pope whose emissary Paulinus had been responsible for his baptism. In this, as in other matters, Ælfflæd seems to have co-operated closely with Archbishop Theodore.

Ælfflæd was clearly a learned woman. Bede terms her magistra and doctrix, epithets which suggests that like Hild she acted as a teacher and spiritual guide at Strensall–Whitby. Her international contacts are indicated by a surviving letter, written about 700, commending an unknown pupil (also an abbess), on pilgrimage to Rome, to Adolana, abbess of Pfalzel, near Trier. The letter is written in competent, if florid, Latin, which may owe more to contact with the school of Canterbury than with the Northumbrian cultural centres of Wearmouth and Jarrow. Other literary productions of Ælfflæd's community include a life of Gregory the Great (a less accomplished work) and perhaps a life of Abbess Hild.

Ælfflæd died aged about sixty in 714 and was buried at Strensall–Whitby. Her cult was late, and she was not commemorated in any pre-conquest calendars. According to William of Malmesbury, her remains, together with those of Trumwine and King Oswiu, were discovered and elevated shortly before 1125. Glastonbury, Durham, and Salisbury claimed to possess relics. Her feast day is 8 February.


  • M. Tangl, ed., Die Briefe des heiligen Bonifatius und Lullus, MGH Epistolae Selectae, 1 (Berlin, 1916)
  • Bede, Hist. eccl., 3.24; 4.26
  • E. Stephanus, The life of Bishop Wilfrid, ed. and trans. B. Colgrave (1927)
  • B. Colgrave, ed. and trans., The earliest life of Gregory the Great … by an anonymous monk of Whitby (1968)
  • B. Colgrave, ed. and trans., Two lives of Saint Cuthbert (1940)
  • Willelmi Malmesbiriensis monachi de gestis pontificum Anglorum libri quinque, ed. N. E. S. A. Hamilton, Rolls Series, 52 (1870), 254
  • P. H. Blair, ‘Whitby as a centre of learning in the seventh century’, Learning and literature in Anglo-Saxon England: studies presented to Peter Clemoes on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday, ed. M. Lapidge and H. Gneuss (1985), 3–32
  • Venerabilis Baedae opera historica, ed. C. Plummer, 2 vols. (1896)
  • P. S. Barnwell, L. A. S. Butler, and C. J. Dunn, ‘The confusion of conversion: Streanæshalch, Strensall and Whitby and the Northumbrian church’, The cross goes north: processes of conversion in northern Europe, ad 300–1300, ed. M. Carver (2003), 311–26
Bede, ed. and trans. B. Colgrave & R. A. B. Mynors, OMT (1969); repr. (1991)