Anglo-Saxon queen’s missing monastery unearthed after 1,000 years

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Archaeologists from the University of Reading team struck timber and pottery near the Holy Trinity Church in Cookham
Archaeologists from the University of Reading team struck timber and pottery near the Holy Trinity Church in Cookham

A lost Anglo-Saxon monastery governed by King Offa’s wife has been found beneath the grounds of a village church as archaeologists close in on the last resting place of the powerful queen.

The eighth-century Mercian queen Cynethryth led the monastic community at Cookham Abbey, which vanished 1,000 years ago. Its exact location has stumped modern experts.

The missing monastery has been unearthed on the site of a parish church in the village of Cookham, Berkshire and archaeologists believe the Anglo-Saxon queen, who married one of the period’s most powerful kings, is buried at the site.

Written sources from the Middle Ages reference the abbey, but no physical trace had ever been found before a University of Reading team struck timber and pottery near Holy Trinity Church earlier in the summer.

The missing monastery has been unearthed on the site of a parish church in the village of Cookham, Berkshire
The missing monastery has been unearthed on the site of a parish church in the village of Cookham, Berkshire

Dr Gabor Thomas, leading the team at the site, said: “We have solved the mystery of the missing abbey. Our excavation is smack bang in the middle of a monastery complex. This is where Cynethryth, queen of the Mercians, retired after her husband King Offa died. She retired here to rule over this institution.

“She would have been buried and her soul would have been cared for by the community she had led – that was the idea. There is, somewhere in the environs, an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, the burial ground of the people who lived their lives here, the burial ground – odds on – of Cynethryth.”

Cookham lies close to the Thames, a one-time barrier between the kingdoms of Wessex and King Offa’s ascendant Mercia, making it a point of interest for modern archaeologists who set out to explore the contested zone.

The ruler famous for building Offa’s Dyke to contain the Britons in Wales died in 796AD, leaving Cynethryth, the only Anglo-Saxon queen to have her face put on coinage, to enter monastic life in keeping with contemporary customs for noble women.

The abbey she joined after his death is documented in contemporary sources, but appears to have vanished by the ninth century, leaving experts to debate where in Cookham it was originally located.

Cynethryth was the only Anglo-Saxon queen to have her face on coinag
Cynethryth was the only Anglo-Saxon queen to have her face on coinag

Physical remains unearthed by Dr Thomas near Holy Trinity Church, including timbers used for sleeping quarters and pins used to hold up the veils of women in holy orders, indicate that it was once the site of a monastery.

The bodily remains of Cynethryth, who was likely to have been an influential figure in secular and then religious society before her death in 798AD, may prove difficult to locate if they have survived.

Dr Thomas said that the current churchyard, used for burials until the late 19th century, may partly rest above the burial site used by Anglo-Saxons. Nevertheless, it is hoped finds at the site, which include traces of food and cooking vessels, will shed light on life in the monastic community to which the widowed Cynethryth dedicated her final years.

He added: “We know very little about how this abbey was founded and what life was like in these communities. What she took over, clearly, was a functioning montastic centre by that period.

“We hope this will give us a fine-grained picture of the physical details of this monastery, the different activities that took place within it, and what life was like. This would have been not only a religious centre but also a political one, with plenty of feasting, production and other activities all taking place.”

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