Marriage as Exile in Old English Literature

By Cassandra Schilling and Erin Sebo, Flinders University

Image from a manuscript of King Cnut and Queen Emma, together gifting a cross to New Minster
King Cnut and Queen Emma, together gifting a cross to New Minster, Winchester. British Library MS Stowe 944, f. 6r. Wikimedia Commons

In 786, Eadburh, daughter of the powerful Mercian king, Offa, was married to King Beorhtric of Wessex as part of an alliance between the two kingdoms. She held power in the West Saxon court, even executing or exiling her enemies. In 802, Eadburh is said to have taken matters into her own hands, poisoning an enemy—but also her husband. This triggered the first in a series of periods of exile for her.

Fleeing to Francia (with a substantial hoard from the treasury), Eadburh allegedly displeased Charlemagne by preferring to marry the Emperor’s son over to the Emperor himself. Because of this not entirely diplomatic preference, Eadburh was sent into a second exile in a convent. Yet even here Eadburh revolted against her situation, and was reputedly ‘publicly caught in debauchery’ and was expelled from the convent.[1] Left penniless she began her third period of exile, during which she is said to have lived as a beggar in Pavia.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicles E 787, relating Eadburh’s marriage, Bodleian Library MS. Laud Misc. 636 f. 35r. (Photo: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford 2020)

Several elements of this story are probably apocryphal and, even if they aren’t, Eadburh hardly lived a typical life—which is why it’s so interesting that her reactions and impulses can be found in heroines throughout early English literature.

In the modern popular imagination, medieval exile is usually associated with warriors and the feuds that acted as a catalyst for exile. We tend to think of men’s experiences, but exile often played a dramatic role in the lives of early English women. Unlike men, for women exile often meant marriage, and their sense of isolation didn’t come from being alone, but, paradoxically, from being with people. Just as enforced proximity for couples during COVID-19 has caused a spike in divorce rates around the world, the medieval practice of marrying aristocratic women to foreign leaders to secure alliances or end feuds seems to have produced an intense sense of isolation. And, at least in the literature, women are depicted as rebelling against it.

Given that divorce often resulted in exile, we might expect this to be the focus of depictions of female ‘isolation’. The practice of repudiation—divorce or separation—combined with the instability of early English politics, meant that wives and mothers of English kings, like Eadburh, often found themselves exiled from court or to the confines of monastic life in an abbey. Either would mean forsaking social and diplomatic status and the loss of influence—just as exile did for men. Yet, interestingly, marriage-as-exile dominates the medieval zeitgeist, at least as far as we can tell from the surviving literature. Both Wulf and Eadwacer and The Wife’s Lament describe this kind of exile.[2] John Niles notes that, separated from their respective husbands, each woman has ‘only words with which to strike out at the object of her anger’ and thus each ‘exerts her will in an act of verbal violence’ in his absence.[3] Richard Marsden also acknowledges this resentment and refers to the poems as ‘lyrics of complaint sung by female voice.’[4] Interestingly, these women are not consoled by faith. The allusions to salvation that permeate poetic accounts of male exile are absent in their female-voiced equivalents and gone, too, is any hope that their present tribulations may come to an end.[5]

Instead, the emphasis is on their sense of confinement. The setting of the expansive and tumultuous landscape that dominates the imagery of poems depicting male exile is absent from these female experiences. The Wanderer and The Seafarer emphasise isolation through the exposure to the elements that the exile endures: storms beating against rocky cliffs, icy waves, night-shadows. Whereas Wulf and Eadwacer and The Wife’s Lament stress their speakers’ isolation through the restrictions of their exile. In Wulf and Eadwacer the speaker is isolated and alone on an island, separated from another island on which Wulf is imprisoned. The fierce men that guard Wulf’s island serve also as guards for her, preventing her union with Wulf and thus ensuring her continued longing and grief through separation. In The Wife’s Lament the speaker is even more confined. Her former kinsmen force her isolation within the bounds of an earth-cave, where she can only mourn her miseries and ponder the contrasting expanses of the exile endured by her husband as he traverses far off lands.

It is perhaps also surprising that the literature reveals an intense sympathy for female exiles, both as mourning widows like in Deor and as dissatisfied wives in Wulf and Eadwacer and The Wife’s Lament. Some of the most sympathetic portrayals of women’s exile are found in Beowulf—often seen as a poem focused on a masculine heroic ethos. Here, the recurring theme of the mourning woman becomes a symbol of the diasporic exile experienced by survivors of feuds that dismantle and destroy an entire community. The act of mourning through sorrow songs evokes sympathy from the audience for the notion of a mother or widow mourning the loss of loved ones. This is exemplified by Hildeburh who mourns her husband, brother, and son alongside the loss of her community.[6] Yet more surprising is the sense of understanding shown toward the anger and resentment expressed by the women of Wulf and Eadwacer and The Wife’s Lament. In Wulf and Eadwacer the narrator expresses resentment toward Eadwacer as she tells of Wulf taking their welp—likely the illegitimate child of her and Wulf— into the woods. Read this way her anger illustrates the frustrations of being caught in a loveless marriage while desiring to be with another as well as confronting the issue of infidelity, while the narrator of The Wife’s Lament both longs for and yet curses her husband for breaking the vow that they would never be separated.

Image of two pages from the Exeter book
The Exeter Book, Deor, Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501, f. 100r.-100v.

The isolated men in Maxims, the (apparently) male narrators of The Wanderer, Deor, and The Seafarer mourn the loss of their lord and community, it is only women who are confined to their marriages. Marriage for women in early medieval England was complex and often defined by a loneliness that effectively constituted exile. This exile experience was marked by physical restriction, or was at least perceived to have been so. Most interestingly of all though, there seems to have been considerable sympathy for women in this kind of exile, as well as a sympathy for their anger and rebellions against it.


Cassandra Schilling is a PhD candidate researching gender and militancy in early medieval England and Erin Sebo is Senior Lecturer in Medieval Literature, both at Flinders University. This article is part of a Flinders College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences project funding grant – Exiles: Medieval Responses to Isolation. The project seeks to analyse medieval experiences of, and responses to, isolation and loneliness, focusing on strategies of mitigation and their reported effects.


[1] Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other Contemporary Sources, ed. and trans. by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), p. 72.

[2] Editions of the poems can be found in, George Philip Krapp and Elliot Van Kirk Dobbie, eds, The Exeter Book, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, vol. 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936).

[3] John D. Niles, ‘The Problem of the Ending of The Wife’s Lament,’ Speculum 78, no. 4 (2003), p. 1141.

[4] Richard Marsden, The Wife’s Lament, in The Cambridge Old English Reader, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 387

[5] Fiona and Richard Gameson, ‘Wulf and Eadwacer, the Wife’s Lament and the Discovery of the Individual in Old English Verse,’ in Studies in English Language and Literature: Doubt Wisely, ed. by M. J. Toswell and E. M. Tyler, (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 464.

[6] Joyce Hill, ‘Þæt wæs geomuru ides! A female stereotype examined,’ in New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, ed. by Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), pp. 240–42.

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