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Cookham on Thames: the ‘lost’ monastery of Queen Cynethryth

August 24, 2021

Let me begin at the beginning. This is not my story, nor was I doing any of the digging. The discovery and the moment belong to Dr Gabor Thomas and his team of students from nearby Reading University’s archaeology department, ably assisted by members of the Marlow Archaeology Group.

For as long as I’ve lived near Cookham there have been local stories about lost buildings. These stories have ranged from a Roman temple, built to give thanks for a safe crossing of the relatively shallow and marshy river, to a grand Saxon royal hall and a monastery. There have been disappointing excavations around the immediate area, one of which around 2005 appeared to produce evidence that there had once been an inlet with, perhaps, a wharf* beside Cookham Holy Trinity Church.

Holy Trinity Church itself is interesting. Apart from being attractive in its own right as a later Medieval church it was the epicentre of Stanley Spencer’s creative artwork during the 20th century. If you walk around the outside there are what look very like a few Roman tiles well down in the courses. The stone is an attractive patchwork of local flint, clunch (shaped chalk blocks) and hand made brick. There is a ‘blind’ door in the North side, near a Norman tomb which has been (inaccurately) assumed to mark the final resting place of an anchorite who was walled in to pray for others for 11 years from 1170 until her death.

This year’s discoveries started on a wet and miserable day in Spring. The rain was relentless and the wet grass in the paddock by the church was still knee high but Dr Thomas’ enthusiasm was infectious. He knew what he was looking for as he checked ditches and bumps in the ground.

Fast forward to the Summer. It is extremely fortunate that the site, beside the church, has been an orchard and grazing in the past and hasn’t been under the plough. The magnetometry indicated areas of interest and some sizeable trenches were opened by the team.

I was lucky enough to be able to join one of the tours before the site was closed and the area returned to turf. If you try to visit today there is absolutely nothing to see and Queen Cynethryth’s monastery has been hidden again although there are hopes for further work next year.

The holes indicate post holes where vertical timbers were positioned

We were told that the initial conclusions drawn from the excavations is that there was a series of areas around the monastery – not divided as we tend to think with cloisters, infirmary and so on in the later medieval pattern – but with a central dwelling and then defined service areas, for food preparation, industrial use and living quarters. The areas were defined by ditches, some of which were found during the excavation. It will be fascinating to follow Dr Thomas’ conclusions as his team work to understand exactly what happened on the site as in the long term it is likely that our sketchy understanding of Anglo Saxon monasticism will be hugely enhanced by his discoveries.

The deeper trenches indicate a ditch running E-W

One of the trenches uncovered an area of burnt soil where it had also become reddened through activity which suggests that imported iron ore was worked and smelted there, perhaps to make items for the monastery. During the excavation, very near the final day, evidence was beginning to emerge of a surfaced pathway. This was further evidence of buildings that had been high status if such care had been taken to create a dry and levelled walkway.

There is always excitement in archaeology when a midden is discovered. This is the correct word for a rubbish heap, but what was once rubbish can today yield all sorts of answers about life in the past. In Cookham’s case it appears that the asceticism we associate with monastic life was not apparent in the Saxon period.

A wide range of animal bones collected throughout the site

There was a wide range of butchery evidence that suggests beef, venison, mutton, pork (or boar) and even goat were consumed. A few oyster shells were also discovered. Pottery shards may also yield further evidence in due course if it is possible to analyse the burnt remains.

So who was Queen Cynethryth? She may not be on everyone’s lips, but most folk have heard of her husband, King Offa who was responsible for the dyke that bears his name. The Mercian kingdom was based in the Midlands and over towards Herefordshire and at this point was powerful. The River Thames was a valuable asset as it allows goods to be transported with relative safety down to London. Wessex, also a powerful kingdom, abutted the Mercian lands and the Cookham area around the river was on the borderlands. Her origins seem rather vague: she figures as the villain in some local Herefordshire legends and there are all sorts of later stories about her dubious beginnings, but they are just that: stories. Whatever they were, she married Offa and produced an heir, Ecgfrith. At some point after this she became more important and started being named as the witness to his charters. The first dates to 770 C.E. 10 years later in 780 C.E. she is described as ‘Cynethryth, by the Grace of God, Queen of the Mercians’.

Alcuin of York (roughly 735-804 C.E.) who was described as ‘the most learned man anywhere to be found’, advised Ecgfrith, Cynethryth’s son, to follow the example his parents had set, especially the example of his mother’s piety. Alcuin was presumably knowledgeable about the Mercian court as he was entrusted as envoy to visit Rome and persuade the Pope to license York as an archbishopric. On his way home he visited and subsequently joined the court of King Charlemagne. On a different occasion Alcuin calls Cynethryth the ‘controller of the royal household’. What elevates her above other queens of this period is that she is the only one whose head appears on coinage. It is possible that Offa and Cynethryth had ambitions to marry their children into the family of Charlemagne which would have enhanced Mercian prestige but despite modelling themselves as a devout and noble Christian house they did not succeed in their ambition.

King Offa died in 796 C.E. His heir Ecgfrith died, equally of natural causes only a few months later. This ended the dynasty but left Cynethryth. She was already associated with founding monastic houses, being associated with one in Chertsey, down river from Cookham and Windsor. We know from the records that she retired to Cookham to take charge of the monastery there, and no doubt to control the river and its crossings in Mercian interests. She is mentioned in a synod of 798 C.E. when Athelhard the Archbishop of Canterbury settled a dispute over church lands but after that she, like her monastery, disappeared from record.

Quite why the monastery failed to flourish in succeeding centuries is still only a matter for conjecture. There was nothing in this excavation to suggest a dramatic ending even though we know that later on the Vikings went up the river past Cookham as far as Reading. Perhaps political interest simply shifted. Cookham remained a royal borough. The reason we know about Cookham Church’s anchorite is because she received one half pence per day for her upkeep from the royal purse though we know nothing else about her.

One of the metal veil pins uncovered at the site

Even though the monastery at Cookham enjoyed a brief spell of importance as the home of a queen the finds in the dry soil have been informative rather than valuable. There were a couple of metal veil pins, each a couple of inches long, an axe head, a halved and folded small silver coin from the reign of Edward the Confessor which suggests the place was still functioning in his reign. The tiny item that spoke most warmly to me was a tiny fragment of Saxon glass. One square centimetre of flat, greenish and unremarkable material – but exceptionally rare at this time and speaking volumes about the level of comfort and status that Queen Cynethryth must have enjoyed during her final years of retirement.

*The ‘wharf’ was uncovered again and proven to be a natural inlet from paleolithic times that had naturally dried and back filled centuries before the monastery was built. Queen Cynethryth and her contemporaries would have been unaware of it.

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