Today, Cookham is a pretty village near the Berkshire–Buckinghamshire border, perhaps best known for its association with the artist Sir Stanley Spencer. In the 8th century, however, it was the focus of a bitter and long-running land dispute, lying on a contested border between the powerful early medieval kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia. At the heart of this territorial tug-of-war was Cookham minster, which held a key strategic position on the boundary, and whose religious community found themselves pulled back and forth between rival powers over the course of half a century. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury tried to get in on the action, claiming the site for his Kentish see. But how did this conflict begin?
It is not known when Cookham minster was founded, but it was already an important monastery by the 750s when Æthelbald of Mercia (r. 716-757) granted the site – together with 100 hides of land – to Canterbury. This was a surprisingly generous gesture from the territorially ambitious king (who styled himself in charters as ‘Rex Britanniae’), but it may have had a tactical motive. Perhaps Æthelbald had hoped to buy archiepiscopal support for Mercia’s manoeuvres in the Middle Thames corridor, a key Anglo-Saxon trade route that was speckled with wealthy monasteries. It was barely a decade before Cookham had new owners, however – sometime after AD 760 it was annexed by Wessex, but this was not the end of the matter: in the 770s it was wrested back by Mercia once more. By now, this latter kingdom was being ruled by Offa (r. 757-796), who was just as expansionist as Æthelbald in his aspirations, and who would ultimately raise Mercia to supreme status among the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In the course of extending his borders, Offa seized a number of Wessex-held minsters in the Cookham area, and after the king’s death this monastery remained in Mercian hands, with his widow Cynethryth (an influential woman in her own right; becoming abbess. Possession of the site was still being contested at the end of the 8th century, however, with the dispute described in records of the AD 798 Synod of Clovesho.
This long-running controversy is documented in numerous contemporary accounts, mainly pertaining to national church councils that were convened to discuss the matter. These furious arguments surrounding the abbey’s ownership have long faded into history, but the monastery is the subject of impassioned debate today on a different topic. Despite the rich seam of written evidence for the abbey’s activities, its precise location has long been a mystery. Some scholars have suggested that its remains may lie close to the present village church, Holy Trinity, which was built in the 12th century, while an antiquarian tradition sited the abbey on a river cliff some two miles away. Now, though, a community excavation headed by Dr Gabor Thomas of the University of Reading has uncovered archaeological evidence that could help to settle the matter once and for all.
The first archaeological clues had emerged years earlier, when Marlow Archaeological Society carried out a small excavation in Cookham churchyard in 2005. Geophysical survey guided them to concentrate their trenches in a corner of Holy Trinity’s grounds, where they uncovered a collection of animal bone – one of which was radiocarbon dated to the late 7th to early 9th century – and pottery spanning a similar period, as well as a possible trackway incorporating reused Roman material. Specialist analysis was sought and a report published, but the write-up did not explore the wider context of the area’s monastic past, and drew no conclusions about any link to Cookham minster. When Gabor Thomas – who has spent much of the last 20 years running community projects investigating early medieval monastic remains beside later churches (such as at Bishopstone in East Sussex, and Lyminge in Kent – see CA 355) – read the excavation report, he was intrigued. ‘Here we had attested Anglo-Saxon occupation right next to the churchyard – it was very indicative that there was more work to be done,’ he said.
More work would indeed be done, under the banner of the University of Reading’s Middle Thames Archaeology Partnership (see ‘Further information’. This initiative came about because the archaeology of the Middle Thames zone has seen less archaeological investigation and research than the upper and lower stretches of the river, and is therefore less well understood. (This is true for all historical periods, but particularly in the case of early medieval remains, Gabor said.) There are, however, lots of local archaeological societies active in the area, and the Reading initiative aimed to galvanise this energy, and to seek new partnerships and future field schools to help expand knowledge of the region’s past. The collaboration has already borne fruit: many of these local groups – Berkshire Archaeological Society, Marlow Archaeological Society, Maidenhead Archaeological Society, and South Oxfordshire Archaeological Society – were involved in the excavation of an Anglo-Saxon ‘warrior’ burial at Marlow, around 4 miles from Cookham. Initially uncovered by metal-detectorists, this grave contained the remains of an imposing man, 6ft tall and robustly built, who had been buried with a sword, spears, and numerous other personal possessions (CA 369). In August of this year, these groups reunited to explore echoes of Cookham’s early medieval past.
A high-status settlement
This summer, new trenches were opened in the grounds of Holy Trinity Church. This initial investigation was only intended as an evaluation to help establish the extent of, and characterise, the surviving archaeology, but it has already produced illuminating results. Gabor, University of Reading students, and a team of local volunteers have uncovered the remains of what appears to be an extensive Middle Saxon settlement, with the footprints of post-built structures emerging in multiple trenches. While further excavation is required to fully understand the scale and status of these structures, they do indicate the presence of ‘hall-type’ buildings on the site. Sections of boundary ditches were also seen, slicing through the landscape to divide the occupied area into distinct zones. Divisions like these are common across the mid-Saxon settlement spectrum, Gabor said, with the perpendicular arrangement of ditches seen at Cookham paralleled at a number of Thames sites, including downstream at Wraysbury. ‘They are also very much a feature of mid-Saxon monastic settlements, including Brandon in Suffolk,’ he added.
One of the demarcated zones appears to have housed industrial activities: in situ hearths, the remains of further hearths that had been dismantled and discarded in pits, and metalworking slag testify to ironworking taking place in this location, while the recovery of a beautifully preserved carpenter’s axe from one of the ditches suggests that other productive tasks were taking place in this area. Dense clusters of intercutting pits, similar to features recorded during excavations at the royal monastic settlement of Lyminge, have also been observed. ‘Pits are common across Middle Saxon settlements, but feature heavily on documented monastic sites like Lyminge,’ Gabor said. ‘Analysis suggests that they often had complex life histories, starting off as storage features that were subsequently infilled with domestic waste and redeposited midden material. Their use in both capacities indicates developed infrastructure and sustained occupation.’
Another ‘zone’ dominated by timber structures seems to have been more domestic in nature and, after comparing the remains to other known monastic sites of the period, Gabor suggests that this may have been part of the settlement that would have been attached to Cookham minster. Given the religious site’s recorded status, the discovery of traces of metalled trackways on the site, their surface made up of the flints that would have been easily available from the local Thames gravels, is suggestive. Such a level of infrastructure and investment is not typical of a normal Anglo-Saxon settlement, Gabor said, though it is more common in the proto-urban commercial centres known as wics. The monasteries of the Thames Valley, being situated on an important trade artery, were also influential and wealthy economic sites, and so it would not be surprising if the inhabitants of one of these communities had the resources to create purpose-built trackways cutting across the complex. Fragments of window glass recovered during the excavation speak of the settlement’s elevated status: although glazing was not exclusive to monastic sites, it is certainly consistent with the built environment of a wealthy minster of the 8th century.
Signs of life
Particularly promising in terms of future research was the discovery of intact surface middens. These refuse heaps are typically ploughed away over the course of later centuries, but at Cookham they have survived to an unusual extent, and their contents are already proving an important source of information on what life in the settlement was like. Analysis of the midden finds is ongoing, but they include quantities of animal bone (mainly cow, sheep, and pig; the precise proportions are still being determined) which not only provide details about the community’s diet, but also tell us that butchery was taking place on the site. The presence of so many skull fragments, Gabor said, indicates that these animals had been brought to the site on the hoof and slaughtered at the settlement, rather than arriving as pre-prepared portions of meat.
Given that Cookham was presided over by an abbess, the resident religious community is likely to have been a nunnery or a ‘double house’ inhabited by both sexes (sharing facilities but living separately), and, among the more personal finds, the site has produced a number of very delicate copper-alloy pins, most likely associated with female clothing; the fine points could have been used to secure a headdress. The team recovered a small bronze bracelet, too, with its diameter suggesting that it would have been worn by a slightly built woman or a child. As post-excavation analysis continues, it is hoped that other artefacts will shed further light on the settlement’s activities and its inhabitants.
Although the initial evaluation was relatively brief, the project has revealed signs of a site with clear archaeological potential, and Gabor hopes to conduct further excavation, potentially as a Reading field school, in order to reveal more of the settlement. ‘There is huge enthusiasm from the church and the local community for more work to happen here,’ he said. ‘There could be other elements yet to be discovered – there might be parts of the liturgical zone of the monastery, or portions of the monastic cemetery preserved. We don’t know what has survived within this landscape, but we do know that this area encompasses the remains of intensive settlement.’
Cynethryth was queen consort to Offa of Mercia, but very little is known about her life before her marriage. A 13th-century chronicler describes her as being of Frankish origin, however it has been suggested that, like her husband, she may have been a member of the Mercian royal dynasty, as her name echoes those of women linked to another powerful ruler of this kingdom, Penda (r. c.626-655). Penda’s wife and daughters were called Cynewise, Cyneburh, and Cyneswith, so it is possible that Cynethryth was a descendant of his line, following the same naming traditions generations later.
While her early years remain obscure, Cynethryth seems to have enjoyed considerable status and personal power during her tenure as queen. From AD 770, after the birth of her son Ecgfrith, she can be seen witnessing charters as ‘Queen of the Mercians’, and when the Frankish emperor Charlemagne wrote to his royal counterparts in Mercia, he addressed Offa and Cynethryth jointly, suggesting that he viewed them as an equally esteemed power couple. Perhaps most tellingly, Cynethryth is the only Anglo-Saxon queen consort known to have been depicted on coins (an example is pictured above). While the precise purpose of coins issued in her name is unknown – they may have circulated as normal currency, or may have had a symbolic intention, perhaps as gifts to the Church – the appearance of women on coins was rare across Western Europe at this time, suggesting that Cynethryth occupied an unusual position.
After Offa’s death in AD 796, Cynethryth retired to a religious life as abbess of Cookham, and thereafter fades from the historical record. She was still alive in AD 798, as she is mentioned in records of the Synod of Clovesho. Then, it was ruled that Cookham rightly belonged to Canterbury, but Cynethryth was allowed to keep the minster in exchange for some of the lands she held in Kent. After this final mention, the widowed queen vanishes. Her date of death is unknown, though it is possible that she was buried within the minster cemetery; perhaps further excavations at Cookham might reveal the location of her final resting place.
To read more about the University of Reading’s Middle Thames Archaeology Partnership, see https://research. reading.ac.uk/middle-thames-archaeology/projects.
Dr Gabor Thomas is Associate Professor of Early Medieval Archaeology at the University of Reading.
All images: University of Reading, unless otherwise stated.