Ælfgif-who? provides short biographies of early medieval English women every two weeks. Click on the podcast player if you’d like to hear this newsletter read aloud in my appealing Yorkshire accent.
Breguswith: Portents and Pendants
Breguswith was the mother of two famous female Northumbrian saints: Hild of Whitby and Hereswith, queen of East Anglia. We know of her through one historical source alone: Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Bede tells us about Breguswith only in reference to a portentous dream that prefigured the success of her daughter Hild. Though Breguswith has survived history only in this one short anecdote, a surprising amount can be gleaned from it about the circumstances of her life.
In a laudatory section of the Ecclesiastical History about the life of Hild, Abbess of Whitby, Bede begins an anecdote about her mother Breguswith. He tells us that Hild’s famous virtue was:
…in fulfilment of the dream which her mother Breguswith had during the child’s infancy. While her husband Hereric was in exile under the British king Cerdic, where he was poisoned, she had a dream that he was suddenly taken away, and though she searched most earnestly for him, no trace of him could be found anywhere.
The beginning of the anecdote raises a number of important questions. Firstly, when did this portentous dream occur? That Hild was in her infancy (infantia) suggests that this occurred when she was under the age of seven, according to the stages of life laid out in Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies. We know from Bede that Hild died in 680, and he tells us that she was age 66. That would put Hild’s birth date in 614 and this incident, assuming Bede has a relatively accurate knowledge of events, between 614 and 621. However, Bede’s assertion that Hild became a nun at age 33 and died at 66 has a perfect symmetry and is likely an allusion to the convention that Christ died at age 33. This is probably meant to emphasise Hild’s Christian virtue and likeness to Christ, rather than biographical fact. On this basis we cannot be certain exactly when Bede places Breguswith’s dream, but we can place Hereric’s death somewhere in the early seventh century.
Bede informs us that Hild’s father Hereric is the nephew of King Edwin of Northumbria (reigned c.616-632), making him the grandson of the late King Ælle of Deira (reigned c.560-588). This means that Hereric would have been a contender for the Deiran throne, and this may give us insight into firstly, why he was in exile, and secondly, why he was poisoned. In 604 the Bernician king Æthelfrith annexed Deira, uniting the two kingdoms into what became Northumbria, having married Edwin’s sister Acha, a Deiran princess. In 616 he was killed in battle and King Edwin, Hereric’s uncle, took the throne. Hereric’s mere existence would have been a threat to either of these men, placing a large target on his back, and it is no wonder he was forced out of his own kingdom to seek safety with Cerdic, likely King Ceredic of Elmet. It is not certain who poisoned Hereric, but I’d argue Edwin’s future positive relationship with Hild suggests it was more likely to be Æthelfrith.
That Breguswith loses Hereric in her dream indicates that he was killed during Hild’s infancy, and that she found out through this vision. The anecdote begs the question why Breguswith and her young daughter (or daughters, as it would follow logically that Hereswith had already been born at this point, though Bede tells us nothing of this) were not with Hereric in exile. Where were they? Did Breguswith stay in Deira with her two young girls, on the understanding they would be safe as they were not heirs? Was she with her own family? Was she elsewhere in exile? When King Edwin was eventually killed, his wife and children were forced to flee to safety in Kent. How was Breguswith’s safety ensured? Bede does not tell us of the personal trials that Breguswith faced during this period, how she felt or how she responded, but we can assume from these few sentences that her separation from her husband, first by exile and then by death, and concerns for her and her children’s safety, were primary concerns.
Bede continues to the end of the dream story:
But suddenly, in the midst of her search, she found a most precious necklace under her garment and, as she gazed closely at it, it seemed to spread such a blaze of light that it filled all Britain with its gracious splendour. This dream was truly fulfilled in her daughter Hild; for her life was an example of the works of light, blessed not only to herself but to many others who desired to live uprightly.
Though elsewhere in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History necklaces are used as symbols of worldliness (for example, Æthelthryth Abbess of Ely has a red sore tumour where she used to wear necklaces in her previous life as a queen), Breguswith’s necklace here is a portent of Hild’s future virtue and influence. In his commentary on the Song of Songs, Bede states that the neck is a fitting symbol for the teachings of the church and says that jewels worn around the neck can signify the divine scriptures and holy virtue. Some have speculated that although Bede tells us this dream took place when Hild was an infant, it is drawing from saintly narratives where the coming of a saint is predicted before their birth. Although this dream is almost certainly a conventional story used by Bede to praise the saintly Hild, archaeological surveys have found that jewellery could be an important signifier of a woman’s status and identity, and even that different types of jewellery were bestowed at significant stages in life such as puberty or marriage – perhaps even the birth of a child. Necklaces would certainly have been important social signifiers to an elite woman like Breguswith, who likely wore necklaces just like the Lincolnshire pendant used as an illustration for this newsletter:
Even with only an anecdote lasting a couple of sentences, we can glean that Breguswith is a young woman, with a young family, who was likely in a very precarious situation, separated from her exiled husband who had now been murdered. From very little evidence we know her name, her status, and we know that she had at least two daughters who grew up to be politically active and religiously devoted. Much of the historical discussion surrounding this short anecdote about Breguswith has focused on what it says about how Bede wanted to present Hild, who cuts an important figure in the Ecclesiastical History. Historians are often at the mercy of Bede’s whims, and he rarely tells us everything we’d want to know about the early medieval English women who appear in his narratives. However, I think it’s worth trying to paint a picture of those women for whom we have little evidence – and in Breguswith’s case a cursory mention with a bit of added context can be expanded into a portrait.
Suggestions for further reading:
Our only source for Breguswith is Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. There is a very good paperback edition which is excellent value: Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People trans. Colgrave and Mynors (affiliate link).
All quotes in this article are from the authoritative translation by Colgrave, from Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People: The Greater Chronicle ; Bede’s Letter to Egbert, ed. by Judith McClure and Roger Collins (Oxford University Press, 1999). The anecdote under discussion in this newsletter concerning Breguswith is in Book IV. Chapter 23 (p. 212).