The Character of the Treacherous Woman in the passiones of Early Medieval English Royal Martyrs

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Early medieval England is well-known for its assortment of royal saints; figures who, though drawn from nearly five centuries of pre-Conquest Christianity, are often best known from eleventh-century hagiography. Common among these narratives is the figure of the “wicked queen”–a woman whose exercise of political power provides the impetus for the martyrdom of the royal saint. Flatly drawn and lacking in complex motivation, the treacherous woman of English hagiography is a trope, a didactic exemplar tailored to eleventh-century English audiences, and a caution of the dangers of female agency. Here biblical archetypes, clerical scholarship, and an inherent social misogyny unite in a common literary framework. Yet it is also true that each of these “wicked queens” has a unique transmission history that displays a complicated progression of the motif within a living narrative. This article examines the role of the treacherous woman as a narrative device in three royal hagiographies: Passio S. Æthelberhti, Vita et miracula S. Kenelmi, and Passio S. Eadwardi regis et martyris. In so doing, it explores the authorial motives and social influences that informed the composition of these figures, arguing that each is formed of a convergence of the historical and regional contexts of the saints’ cults with the political concerns and ecclesiastical anxieties of the tenth and eleventh centuries.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-21
Number of pages21
JournalRoyal Studies Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jun 2020


  • kingship
  • queenship
  • Hagiography
  • England
  • Aethelred II
  • Ælfthryth
  • hagiography
  • Æthelred II


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