Tondberht and Ecgfrith in sexless marriages to Æthelthryth

Saint Æthelthryth (Etheldreda)

In seventh-century England, Tondberht, an earl, repeatedly offered to marry Æthelthryth, a beautiful, noble young woman. She wasn’t interested. Her father, however, supported the marriage, and so too did her mother and her relatives. Through divine prompting, Æthelthryth finally consented to marry Tondberht. But after the marriage, she wouldn’t consent to having sex:

Once married, Saint Audry {Æthelthryth} concentrated all her efforts
and intently set her mind on
emulating through her own life
Our Lady, Saint Mary,
who was married to Joseph
but who remained a virgin all her life. [1]

If a woman wants to remain a virgin all her life, she shouldn’t marry a man without making clear to him that he is being set up to emulate Saint Joseph. The literary corpus of the life of Æthelthryth doesn’t even bother recording Tondberht’s preference with respect to marital sex. In any case, he adapted to Æthelthryth’s insistent on a sexless marriage. After a short time, he died.

A twelfth-century Latin account of Æthelthryth’s life disparaged Tondberht. It declared approvingly that Æthelthryth “reduced the virile strength of her first husband to femininity.”[2] Most men value their masculinity. Most women who love men also value men’s masculinity. The Latin account explained that Tondberht had been Æthelthryth’s husband only if “one may give the name of husband to a man who does not inflict the loss of chastity.” Describing marital sexuality as husbands inflicting the loss of chastity on wives disparages husbands. The account also declared that Æthelthryth “could never be defiled by the violence of two husbands.” The literary tradition nowhere gives any indication that Tondberht was violent toward Æthelthryth. Accusations of violence against women are easily made and cause great harm to men.

Ecgfrith took up the husbandly position of Tondberht, but less effectively adapted his life to Æthelthryth’s marital demands. Ecgfrith was a young, strong, high-status medieval warrior-king:

Egfrid {Ecgfrith} was noble and valiant,
and was a young man thirty years old.
He was courtly and generous in giving
and very valiant in bearing arms,
and he had good relations with
the archbishop Saint Wilfrid. [3]

Ecgfrith was poorly informed about love:

This noble king developed a strong and honorable love
toward Saint Audrey {Æthelthryth}
because of the good things that he had heard of her.
In an effort to marry her
he offered to give her very great riches
and a large dower.

Did Ecgfrith not hear about what happened to Tondberht? The literary tradition doesn’t make clear what Ecgfrith knew about Æthelthryth before marrying her. She clearly was very reluctant to marry him. He knew that. Because her relatives strongly favored her marrying Ecgfrith, she finally agreed to marry him. Æthelthryth’s reluctance to marry ultimately was too weak to save Ecgfrith from his own disastrous marital judgment.

Ecgfrith, like Tondberht, entered into a sexless marriage with Æthelthryth. Ecgfrith strove to stimulate her ardor for him, without success:

Once she had married him,
he surrounded her with sweetness and love,
but he did not conquer her heart.
The king was truly amazed
that he could not direct her heart’s affection toward him.
Her religious fervor was so intense
that she was in prayer night and day.
Whenever the king lay
in his royal bed awaiting his pleasure,
it pleased God to have him fall asleep.
The queen would then get up
to pray and make supplication;
she did not want to get back in bed.

The life of Æthelthryth presents a husband having sex with his wife as the vice of corrupting, violating penetration:

She was kept from corruption.
She was strong against all vices
and disdained the pleasures of the world.
Never would her body be penetrated
nor her heart violated.

That’s not an unusual view of men’s sexuality.[4] A similarly disparaging view of men’s sexuality in readily apparent in pioneering nineteenth-century social science and long-standing support for criminalizing men seducing women.

Æthelthryth’s sexual preference dominated in her marriage with King Ecgfrith. She desired a sexless marriage:

She wished to keep the virginity
that she had promised to God.
That is the way she preferred to live
rather than to have intimacy with a man.
She was indeed united in marriage with her husband,
but not by carnal relations.

Having a sexless marriage with Æthelthryth greatly frustrated Ecgfrith. But the young, strong warrior king, like most male primates, was unwilling to rape the woman with whom he sought sex:

Unable to have his way with her,
the king became irritated.
Twice he argued with her,
but he could never vanquish her that way.
When he saw that he could not do
with her what he wanted,
he became extremely angry
and even more ardently wanted her to do his bidding. [5]

Apart from criminal circumstances, if a husband’s wife doesn’t want to have sex, the husband and wife don’t have sex, unless the wife is a truly loving person.

King Ecgfrith sought out the medieval version of marriage counseling and experienced a roller-coaster of emotions. He asked priests to talk with Æthelthryth about sex within marriage. Priests could not convince Æthelthryth to follow spouses’ Christian obligation to have sex with each other. Ecgfrith then convinced himself of his wife’s moral superiority:

King Egfrid {Ecgfrith} amended his ways and began to revere her.
He saw such goodness in her
that he did not ever want to force her
or argue with her or even touch her.
And so it was that they never had
carnal relations together.

The king was married in appearance,
but not in marital acts. [6]

But king could not completely repress his normal masculine sexual desire for his wife:

Yet the king was still desirous
to have that which a husband should have
and a wife should do for him.
But he could not persuade the virgin —
neither by promises nor by gifts,
nor by pleading with her, nor by admonishing her. [7]

The King even appealed for help to Wilfrid, Archbishop of York and later declared a saint. The earliest surviving literary account preserves a cutting emotional reality:

Ecgfrith had promised to give him {Archbishop Wilfrid} estates and money if he could persuade the queen {Æthelthryth} to consummate their marriage, because he knew that there was none whom she loved more than Wilfrid himself. [8]

Even apart from sex, Ecgfrith knew that he wasn’t the most beloved man in his wife’s life. As a marriage counselor, Archbishop Wilfrid didn’t urge upon Æthelthryth the Christian obligation of spouses to have sex with each other. Wilfred instead supported the wife in her determination to have a sexless marriage.[9]

Wifely nagging ultimately prevailed over what medieval scholars commonly label patriarchy. Æthelthryth continually asked her husband to end their marriage:

Not occasionally, but night and day
she begged her husband
for permission to leave him
in order to serve Jesus Christ.
The king granted her nothing of the sort,
and her request grieved him.

Although the glorious queen
was quite eager
to separate from the king,
he refused it time and again.
But the more he refused it,
the more she tormented and begged him. [10]

Despite his wife tormenting him, the king still loved her and did not want to separate from her. Many women throughout history have served Jesus Christ within their marriages, even within marriages in which they actually have sex with their husbands. The queen led an extraordinarily privileged life with her husband the king. None of that reality mattered:

Neither the fine clothes she had,
nor the friends she frequented,
nor the wealth of gold or silver
could change her mind.

Ultimately, after twelve years of sexless marriage, the king surrendered to his wife’s demand:

Despite all, she so troubled her husband
that finally, with great sorrow, he granted her request.
The queen was overjoyed
because of this permission to leave.

Soon thereafter, Archbishop Wilfrid ordained and blessed her as a nun.

Even after twelve years of sexless marriage, the collapse of his marriage devastated King Ecgfrith.  He just couldn’t get over what had happened:

King Egfrid {Ecgfrith} deeply regretted
the separation from her that he had made.
He was so tormented and full of anger
that he did not know what to do or say.
He constantly felt such grief inside
that he almost lost his mind.

After divorce, men commonly feel angry and depressed about their marital experience. That’s particularly true for the many men who are deprived of equal physical custody of their children through deeply entrenched anti-men discrimination in family courts. Being burdened with crushing, patently unjust “child support” obligations also contributes to men’s despair.

Social networks and divine intervention vitiated the king’s subsequent acts toward his ex-wife. As a king, Ecgfrith was skilled in battle, hostage-taking, and repelling enemy forces from his realm. His ex-wife was living in a convent within his realm:

The king, on the advice of his people,
who often saw his suffering,
sought to throw her out of his house
where she had taken up residence.
He was so consumed with anger
that he went all the way to the abbey
with a great company of people, and
sought to throw her out of this convent. [11]

The abbess of the convent forestalled the king’s action by secretly sending Æthelthryth to the island of Ely. She had received rights to that island when she had entered into her first sexless marriage with Tondberht. But the king didn’t want her there, either. He took his force to the island. But his ex-wife climbed a hill with two of her closest female companions. Preposterously re-figuring the extraordinarily privileged ex-queen as Hebrews escaping from slavery in Egypt, the sea rose up like a wall around the hill to protect the ex-wife from her ex-husband. Ecgfrith realized that pursuing Æthelthryth was futile. Within their marriage Æthelthryth had been “ruler over him.”[12] Within gynocentric society extending up to God, the king’s ex-wife remained beyond his power.

The king did have some agency within central aspects of his personal life. The king recognized that Archbishop Wilfrid had betrayed him in relation to his wife. The king had the archbishop removed from his realm. The king also chose to remarry. He almost surely didn’t have any difficulty finding a new wife. But he had lost twelve years of what could have been joyful, Christian family life.

More than 1300 years after the lives of Tondberht and Ecgfrith, their experiences should be contemplated and avoided. The same ideology that supports tendentious and prejudicial labeling of men as rapists and naturalizes vastly disproportionate incarceration of men also tends to depreciate men’s entitlement to sex and to demonize men’s sexuality. That ideology is readily apparent in versions of the life of Æthelthryth across many centuries. It’s also readily apparent in recent decades’ medieval scholarship on Æthelthryth’s life. If more humane ideology and society isn’t possible, men can at least think about what they must do personally to avoid sexless marriage.[13]

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[1] Vie seinte Audree ll. 335-40, from Old French (Anglo-Norman) trans. McCash & Barban (2006) p. 43. Tondberht and his marriage to Æthelthryth are described in ll. 281-394. Subsequent quotes from Vie seinte Audree are specified with line numbers and pages in id., with modifications in translation noted.

Throughout this post I have standardized names based on the Anglo-Saxon forms. They are appropriate to the life’s historical context. In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the first surviving account, the Latin name forms are close to the Anglo-Saxon forms. Later Latin literature often uses the name Etheldreda for Æthelthryth.  In Vie seinte Audree, Tondberht is spelled Tonbert, Ecgfrith is spelled Egfrid, and Æthelthryth is named Audree, commonly modernized to Audrey.

I treat the various versions of the life of Æthelthryth as the relevant textual corpus for this post. I usually don’t distinguish narratives between instances. On changes in versions across time, Blanton (2007) (Table 2, pp. 9-10, lists surviving versions with date of authorship) and Turner (2007). The changes in versions provide different degrees of expression of prevalent ideas relevant to the main points above.

Vie seinte Audree survives in only one manuscript, British Library Additional 70513, f. 100v-134v. The manuscript is a copy made at the end of the thirteenth century. Vie seinte Audree seems to be a adaptation of a life, miracles, and bodily translations of the saint. It was translated linguistically from Latin into Old French in the late-twelfth century or early-thirteenth century. McCash & Barban (2006) Introduction, pp. 3-4. The coda to the text indicates its author is “Marie.” Recent scholarship strongly supports identifying that author as Marie de France. Id. pp. 5-8.

[2] Liber Eliensis, from Latin trans. Fairweather (2005) p. 29. Subsequent quotes in the above paragraph are from id. pp. 17, 33. Liber Eliensis is close to the primary source for the life portion of Vie seinte Audree. It’s the first surviving text to provide many details of the conflict between Ecgfrith and Æthelthryth. It dates to the early-twelfth century.

[3] Vie seinte Audree ll. 849-54, p. 67. King Ecgfrith reigned over the Bernicians in the north. York was his chief city. This and most of the other quotes from Vie seinte Audree provide information also in the Liber Eliensis version. The subsequent four quotes above are from ll. 782-7, p. 63 (This noble king…); ll. 924-36, pp. 69-71 (Once she had married…); ll. 940-4, p. 71 (She was kept…); ll. 949- 54, p. 71 (She wished…).

[4] Bede’s Ecclesiastical History 11 associated a wife having sex with a man as corrupting her post-mortal body:

the divine miracle whereby her flesh would not corrupt after she was buried was token and proof that she had remained uncorrupted by contact with any man.

From Latin trans. Colgrave & Mynors (1969) p. 393.

Gregory of Ely’s life of Æthelthryth, written in Latin verse in the twelfth century, disparages men’s sexuality even more harshly. It analogizes Æthelthryth and Ecgfrith to Judith and Holofernes (Judith 12-13). It also describes “her flight from the marriage-bed in terms of a flight from Sodom and Gomorrah.” Thompson & Stevens (1988) p. 345.

[5] Vie seinte Audree ll. 955-62, p. 71. The Old French for ll. 957-8:

Par deuz foiz estriva a lui,
Unkes ne pur ceo la venqui.

McCash & Barban translate those lines:

and twice he tried to force her,
but he could never subdue her that way.

The English word “force” rather loosely translates estriva. Id. ll. 881-2, p. 67, notes:

Egfrid {Ecgfrith} vanquished his enemies on all sides
and maintained peace in his country.

The young warrior king surely was physically strong enough to rape his wife if such ugly action actually appealed to him.

Blanton takes criminalization of men further. Audrée {Æthelthryth} “endured an attempted rape, and retained her purity in the face of male aggression.” Blanton (2010), p. 96.  Audrée “resisted sexual assault.” Id. p. 106. Imagine the active, young warrior-husband Ecgfrith and his wife Audrée. Then consider this extra-textual misandristic fantasy:

the second marriage is recast as a variation of the faithful resistance model when the husband, thinking to consummate the union through force, assaulted his wife. Æthelthryth, or here Audrée, wrestled the aggressive husband to the ground {sic}, physically overcoming him {sic}, and then persuaded him to allow her to leave their marriage for a religious career.

Id. p. 95. Such scholarships contributes insight into rape-culture culture, ongoing sexual repression and travesties of criminal justice on college campuses, and the vastly sex-disproportionate incarceration of men.

[6] Vie seinte Audree ll. 991-4, 999-1000, p. 73. The Old French for ll. 993-4:

Ne le voleit mes esforcier
N’estriver a lui n’atochier;

McCash & Barban translate l. 994:

or quarrel with her or even lay a hand on her.

Above I’ve use “argue” for estriver to be consistent with the translation for l. 957. I’ve translated atochier more literally as “touch”. The context isn’t drunken belligerence (“don’t lay a hand on me!”), but rather extreme wifely sanctity:

Inspired by his wife
Saint Audrey the glorious,

ll. 989-90, p. 73.

[7] Vie seinte Audree ll. 1005-10, p. 73. The Old French for ll. 1006-7:

D’avoir ceo qu’avient a espous
Et que l’espose li doit faire,

McCash & Barban translate those lines:

of having a husband’s due
from his wife.

That translation flattens the corresponding personal senses of entitlement and obligation.  A similar flattening and trivializing occurs for ll. 1017-8:

Rendist a lui ce qu’el devoit
Si come espouse a espous doit.

McCash & Barban translate those lines:

and to give him what she ought,
as was her wifely duty.

A more appropriate translation:

to give to him what she ought,
as a wife to a husband should.

l. 1018 could carry the translation “as a spouse to a spouse should.” In gendered languages, gender-specific terms commonly carry a universal sense, e.g. “man” used for human beings generically. Such language should be avoided, however, because it tends to obliterate men’s distinctive gender identity. In this specific case, using the previous line to gender-specify the subsequent line, relative to a universal statement, seems reasonable.

[8] Bede, Ecclesiastical History Ch. XIX, from Latin trans. Colgrave & Mynors (1969) p. 393.

[9] Vie seinte Audree ll. 1071-3, p. 77, explains:

Politely but cleverly,
Saint Wilfrid brought about the separation
of the lady from her husband

On Christian understanding of spouses’ sexual obligations to each other, 1 Corinthians 7:3-5.

[10] Vie seinte Audree ll 1149-54, 1159-64. The subsequent three quotes are ll. 1171-74, p. 81 (Neither the fine clothes…); ll 1175-8, p. 81 (Despite all…); ll. 1273-78, p. 87 (King Egfrid…).

[11] Vie seinte Audree ll. 1279-86, p. 87. Lines 1281 (La vout geter de sa maison) and 1286 (La vout geter de ceo covent) are similar in the Old French. McCash & Barban translate these lines as “decided to force her out of the convent” and “intending to take her by force out of the convent.” I’ve translated la vout geter above more closely as “sought to throw her out” and made sense of the other words more precisely.

Subtle issues of translation in the life of Æthelthryth have served to support dominant patterns of criminalization. Liber Eliensis 11 states:

Hence at the suggestion and instigation of his people, he began to attempt to snatch her away from the convent, despite the fact that she was under the protection of the veil of holiness. Without delay, he went up quickly, with fury and hullabaloo, to the convent where the holy virgin was living.
{Unde suorum suggestione atque instinctu, de monasterio illam, licet iam sanctitatis velamine obtectam, eripere conabatur. Nec mora, ad monasterium ubi virgo sancta degebat cum furore et fremitu festinanter ascendit.}

Trans. Fairweather (2005) p. 33, my adaptation. Blanton provides a lengthy discussion tending to associate eripere with rape. Blanton (2007) pp. 149-50. That word, however, probably didn’t have a sexual connotation in twelfth-century Latin. Gretsch (2005) p. 212. Blanton, however, like current college sex tribunals, judged that all possible circumstances indicate that the man attempted to rape:

The chronicler’s decision to utilize more elusive language suggests too that the assault is intentionally metaphoric and that direct terminologies of rape cannot be used to describe the king’s act. … The periphrastic representation of rape in the Liber Eliensis does not state clearly that the king is a rapist, but this indirect language allows the monastic community to critique royal aggression without the reprisal that a direct accusation might have. Periphrastic language also positions the virgin’s symbolic body as a site of potential (but not realized) violence. In other words, the rape is attempted but not completed.

Blanton (2007) p. 150. Blanton’s book won the 2008 Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship Best First Book Prize. This sort of scholarship makes clear the communicative principle of rape. It also helps men in college understand their hostile environment.

[12] Liber Eliensis explains: “he {Ecgfrith} revered her in all respects, not as his queen or his consort but as ruler over him.” Trans. Fairweather (2005) p. 28. On the sea as a wall of water, Exodus 14:22, 29; 15:8.

Liber Eliensis records an additional divine act against Ecgfrith.  Once, when he sought to enter the royal bedchamber when Æthelthryth was there, the room “all lit up inside, as if it were on fire!” Ecgfrith “was seized by very great terror and retreated in astonishment.” Id. p. 29. That event isn’t included in Vie seinte Audree.

[13] A life of Æthelthryth written about 1420 omitted vicious representations of Ecgfrith and added a poignant plea from Ecgfrith to Archbishop Wilfrid. Ecgfrith, with self-effacement, justified his desire for sex within his sexless marriage:

For I would much desire to have an heir between the two of us to inherit our high heritage, a child or two, if God wills it should be so, now in our young fresh age.

From Middle English trans. Dockray-Miller (2009) p. 351.

[image] Saint Æthelthryth of Ely from the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold. Illumination, c. 973. British Library MS Additional 49598, fol. 90v. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Blanton, Virginia. 2007. Signs of devotion: the cult of St. Aethelthryth in medieval England, 695-1615. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Blanton, Virginia. 2010. “Chaste Marriage, Sexual Desire, and Christian Martyrdom in La vie seinte Andrée.” Journal of the History of Sexuality. 19 (1): 94-114.

Colgrave, Bertram, and R. A. B. Mynors, trans. 1969. Bede’s ecclesiastical history of the English people. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dockray-Miller, Mary, trans. 2009. Saints Edith and Æthelthryth: princesses, miracle workers, and their late medieval audience: the Wilton Chronicle and the Wilton Life of St Æthelthryth. Turnhout: Brepols.

Fairweather, Janet, trans. 2005. Liber Eliensis: a history of the Isle of Ely from the seventh century to the twelfth. Woodbridge: Boydell.

Gretsch, Mechthild. 2005. Aelfric and the cult of saints in late Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

McCash, June Hall and Judith Clark Barban, ed. and trans. 2006. The life of Saint Audrey: A Text by Marie de France. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.

Thompson, Paula A. and Elizabeth Stevens. 1988. “Gregory of Ely’s Verse Life and Miracles of St. Æthelthryth.” Analecta Bollandiana 106: 333–90.

Turner, Stacie. 2007. “The Changing Hagiography of St. Æthelthryth.” The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe 10 (May).

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