HistoryExtra Women of the Middle Ages Masterclass: The Loftus Princess with Janina Ramirez
Learn more about the sixth-century Loftus Princess in the first session of our masterclass series with Janina Ramirez...
Our curated three-part virtual lecture series from historian and broadcaster Janina Ramirez offers a fresh look at the medieval world through the women usually written out of it. This first session addresses some of the big themes behind the book, including how history as a subject is changing, the kinds of people we should be looking for, and the tools that we need to uncover lost or hidden narratives. Janina also explores the example of the sixth-century Loftus Princess to reveal the central role played by women in the ideological revolutions of the early medieval period.
Who was the Loftus Princess?
Janina Ramirez introduces the Loftus Princess, who left important legacies for those that came after...
A few beads and pendants were all they found. It wasn’t much to go on, but these diminutive treasures nestled in the soil threw up some tantalising clues about an influential woman who died in the seventh century. That woman lived during a period of huge cultural change in England.
Known as the Loftus Princess, her burial alongside a series of remarkable treasures, overlooking the cliffs of North Yorkshire, testifies that she was honoured by the people who placed her in the earth. The rest of her story – what she achieved, how she lived, who she encountered – can only be surmised.
Should we stop asking questions and dismiss the Loftus Princess as yet another lost woman from our medieval past? Or can we put her in context and build up a world around her using a range of evidence and approaches at our disposal? For all too long, the former option has prevailed.
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That we know that the Loftus Princess existed at all is down to archaeologist Steve Sherlock and his team, who in 2006 discovered an early medieval burial site cut into an ancient landscape near the town of Loftus. Among Iron Age barrows and Roman remains were 109 graves dating from the seventh century.
Acidic soil has claimed the bones, but at this point in English history the belief in Germanic gods and an active afterlife in Valhalla meant that individuals were placed in the grave with things they might need – weapons, jewellery and more. These grave goods allowed the team to build a picture of who was interred here and when. The site was clearly arranged with a focal point. There are entry and exit points which suggest people processed towards and past the main mound in the centre.
That mound is where the Loftus Princess was buried. Post holes show that two small wooden buildings had stood near her grave, one possibly serving as a chapel. The site is complicated: on the one hand the burials contain finds, which means they are part of centuries of pagan practices. On the other, all the graves point from east to west, which was common to Christian burials.
Burial in a bed seems to have been an honour reserved for a handful of prominent women at the moment Christianity was putting down roots in England
Sherlock and the team conclude that this is a site where new ideas from the continent were beginning to reveal themselves in the way people buried their dead. This certainly seems to have been the case with the Loftus Princess, who was lain with great ceremony in a bed. The iron cleats are all that survive, but burial in a bed seems to have been an honour reserved for a handful of prominent women at the moment Christianity was putting down roots in England.
Her jewellery tells a similar story. A gold and garnet cloisonné replicates pieces from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard. The gems have been reused from an older piece. But the central stone is one of a kind. A large garnet cut in the shape of a shell, it suggests that the woman wearing it was tying herself to the new religion that was making an impact in England around the arrival of St Augustine in AD 597. The shell is a Christian symbol connected to martyrdom and resurrection, later associated with St James and pilgrimage.
The Loftus Princess was living at a time when many women were choosing to engage with the ideological changes being introduced through the Christian church. These included Hild, who founded a double-monastery at Whitby, and Bertha, who brought literacy and church buildings to Canterbury. Christianity allowed English women power of a kind they had not had access to before.
Janina Ramirez is a cultural historian, broadcaster and author based at the University of Oxford. Her latest book is Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It (WH Allen, 2022)
This text first appeared in the September 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine
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