During the early Middle Ages, several Anglo-Saxons made their way to what is now the Low Countries, as missionaries, pilgrims, mercenaries and refugees. On this blog, I will regularly shed light on places in The Netherlands and Belgium associated with these visitors from early medieval England. This post focuses on the Belgian town of Ghent, once home to Ælfthryth of Wessex, daughter of Alfred the Great.
Medieval Ghent and the patron saint of beer
Belgium is the beer capital of the World and the patron saint of beer, Saint Amandus (c. 585-675), played an important role in the foundation of what is now the city of Ghent. According to the eighth-century Vita Amandi (the text of which can be found here), Amandus experienced a lot of hardship when he tried to convert the pagan inhabitants of the Ghent area: he was thrown into the river Scheldt several times and needed royal body guards to act out his missionary activities. After reviving a convicted criminal, however, Amandus was accepted by the local populace and he founded two monasteries in the area: Ganda (now St Bavo Cathedral) and Blandinium (now St Peter’s Abbey).
The City of Ghent grew around these two monasteries and became one of the main hubs of medieval Flanders. The abbeys attracted various important people to Ghent, such as the biographer of Charlemagne, Einhard (c. 775-840), who served as a abbot of both monasteries. The Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin of York (c. 735-804) may also have visited Ghent and wrote a little distich about a church devoted to Bavo, a disciple of Amandus and a recluse at Ghent:
Haec loca sanctificet venerandus Bavo sacerdos ,
Discipulus vita patris condignus Amandi (PL 101, col. 755d)
[May Bavo the venerable priest, a disciple of the venerable father Amandus, sanctify this place]
Present-day Ghent still bears witness to its rich medieval past, with its many medieval buildings, which include its ‘three towers’: the belfry, St Nicholas’s Church and St Bavo’s Cathedral. Top of the bill is the Gravensteen, the medieval castle of Ghent that looks like it belongs to the set of Game of Thrones or any other medieval-esque fantasy series. While the present Gravensteen dates back to the twelfth century, its foundations were laid by Arnulf I (c. 890–964), count of Flanders and, interestingly, grandson of Alfred the Great.
Ælfthryth of Wessex (d. 929), countess of Flanders
Arnulf I was the son of Ælfthryth of Wessex, the youngest daughter of King Alfred the Great. Relatively little is known of Ælfthryth, apart from the report in in Asser’s Life of King Alfred that she was educated along with her brother Edward at the royal court and that she had a particular interest in Old English poetry:
…and to the present day they continue to behave with humility, friendliness and gentleness to all compatriots and foreigners, and with great obedience to their father. […] they have attentively learned the Psalms, and books in English, and especially English poems, and they very frequently make use of books. (Asser, Life of King Alfred, c. 75)
Her gentleness to all foreigners would have come in handy, since she was married off to Baldwin ‘the Bald’ (d. 918), the count of Flanders. The couple spent most of their days in Ghent and got four children, one of which was Arnulf I, who first built a fortifaction where the Gravensteen now stands. But Ælfthryth’s legacy stretches beyond Arnulf I: she is also one of the ancestors of William the Conqueror (whose wife Matilda of Flanders would have been Ælfthryth’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter). In fact, that makes even England’s present-day queen, Elizabeth II, a descendant of Ælfthryth’s (Wikipedia evidence here – Ælfthryth would be her 29th Great-Grandmother).
Under a parking lot
Ælfthryth and Baldwin both supported St Peter’s Abbey in Ghent and were buried there, side by side. Unfortunately, their graves have not survived – the area where they would have been buried is now an underground parking lot; a fate not uncommon to members of English royal houses.
This was part two of an ongoing series of blogs on the adventures of the Anglo-Saxons on the other side of the North Sea; you can read the first part here: Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Adelbertusakker, Egmond
Works refered to:
- Asser, Life of King Alfred, trans. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge (Harmondsworth, 1983)
- PL = Patrologiae cursus completus, series Latina, ed. J.-P. Migne, 221 vols. (Paris, 1855–1864)
5 thoughts on “Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Ælfthryth of Wessex in Ghent”
Matilda of Flanders was William’s wife, not his mother. Another connection to Alfred’s family was that Judith of France who was once Alfred’s step mother, then sister in law, later married Baldwin Iron Arm, the first Count of Flanders and together they began the line that included Matilda.
Matilda was William’s wife, not his mother. Another tie in to Alfred was that Matilda’s ancestor, Judith of France, who started her line when she married Baldwin Iron Arm, was at one time Alfred’s step mother and then his sister in law.
Woops, you are right about Matilda being his wife, of course; a slip of the pen and now corrected. Thanks! And thank you for pointing out poor Judith of France/Flanders who was twice widowed before she reached her twenties!
Very interesting! Didn’t know this about my home town. One small correction though: Ganda is not now the St Bavo Cathedral. In fact that church was originally dedicated to St John. It only came to be associated with St Bavo after the dissolution of the Abbey of St Bavo (‘Ganda’) in the 16th century.