Káta, my guest today – brought by Annie Whitehead, is the Lady of a small manor in 10th Century Mercia. Despite her name change, she is a real person, mentioned in the footnotes of history as the widow Eadflaed, who was deprived of her lands after Alvar (Aelfhere), Earl of Mercia, died. Here she writes a letter, voicing Woman’s lament.
Whenever the men are away, it is left to us women to keep the households running. We weave, we milk, we cook, we store. We dye our cloth with colours drawn from plants like madder root and we grind the corn by hand by turning quernstones. And we labour; in the fields, and in childbirth. Reports only reached you many months later, of the terrible events that day. For a while, you believed me dead.
And so you came to me last night, and I’m sure I saw the relief on your face. You stopped on the path and you stared, as if wanting to make sure that I really was alive. You couldn’t stay long, I knew it. Your overlord was dead, you were to be his successor and there was work to be done before the next campaign. What could I do but introduce you to the boy, be grateful for the chance to see you, however briefly, before you left and took my heart away with you once more?
You talked to me about King Edgar, how he is married now to the beautiful widow whom he coveted even while she was wed to another. They consecrated her too, so she is a true Queen. She must be happy, and yet you say she is not. And whenever you speak of her sad beauty, my hands turn into envious balls. I cannot help it my love, but I sometimes wish I could knock her out of our lives, even though I have never met her.
Were you unsure, when you arrived back at the house last night? Did you wonder what I was thinking? I shall tell you. I had not seen you since I became a mother and my life became complete. When I told you I was pregnant, I recall being angry that you seemed not to care. But it should not have mattered to me whether you held any opinion, because the happy tidings made my life with my husband all the more rewarding. Yet, by telling you, I closed a door without ever knowing if you wished to step through it. Why should I ever have wished to leave that door open? I have been a married woman since before you burst into my life, so why, last night, did I, a happily married mother, find my stomach turning circles much as it did when the early flutters of pregnancy had first stirred in there?
Now you have gone away again. There can never be anything between us; we both know it. I love my husband, for we Anglo-Saxon women are free to choose when and whom we wed. Even had I not been devoted to him, we both know that you and he are hearth-companions, you fight side by side. You would no more betray him and break that bond than I would.
Am I a woman of my time? Or do all women keep such secrets in their hearts? All I know is that I must work, and wait, and hope that all whom I love come home safe from the wars.
Annie Whitehead is a history graduate who now works as an Early Years music teacher. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016. Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, which tells the story of Aelfhere of Mercia, is available now. She is currently working on the novel which was a prize-winning entry in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition and which she was encouraged by judge Fay Weldon to complete.