'Lost' Anglo-Saxon monastery discovered in Cookham

Shay Bottomley

Anglo-Saxon monastery belonging to Queen Cynethryth discovered in Cookham.

The site of the 8th century monastery. Picture from the University of Reading.

Archaeologists from the University of Reading have discovered a ‘lost’ Anglo-Saxon monastery in Cookham which has ‘puzzled historians’ for centuries.

Whilst the existence of the 8th century building has been well known from contemporary historical sources, its exact location has been a mystery for many years. Working with members of local archaeological groups, including the Maidenhead Archaeological and Historical Society, a 40-strong team have finally discovered the hidden monastery.

Written records show it was placed under the rule of a royal abbess: Queen Cynethryth, the widow of the powerful King Offa of Mercia.

The discovery of the monastery in the grounds of Holy Trinity Church provides a unique insight into the life of one of the most powerful women of the Early Middle Ages and her likely final resting place.

The archaeologists have unearthed the remains of timber buildings, which most likely housed the inhabitants of the monastery, along with artefacts providing insight into their lives.

The excavation taking place. Picture from University of Reading.

The excavation taking place. Picture from University of Reading.

Dr Gabor Thomas, the University of Reading archaeologist who is leading the excavation, said: "The lost monastery of Cookham has puzzled historians, with a number of theories put forward for its location. We set out to solve this mystery once and for all.

"The evidence we have found confirms beyond doubt that the Anglo-Saxon monastery was located on a gravel island beside the River Thames now occupied by the present parish church. 

"Despite its documented royal associations, barely anything is known about what life was like at this monastery, or others on this stretch of the Thames, due to a lack of archaeological evidence.

“The items that have been uncovered will allow us to piece together a detailed impression of how the monks and nuns who lived here ate, worked and dressed. This will shed new light on how Anglo-Saxon monasteries were organised and what life was like in them."

Monasteries were established along the Thames to take advantage of one of the most important trade routes in Anglo-Saxon England, developing them into wealthy economic centres.

Cookham’s location on the river was a contested boundary between the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex, meaning the now-discovered monastery was one of strategic and political importance.

During the excavation, the team has discovered a crucial evidence including food remains, pottery vessels used for cooking and eating, and items of personal dress including a delicate bronze bracelet and a dress pin, probably worn by female members of the community.

Further evidence has emerged that the monastery was divided by ditched boundaries, with one zone use for housing whilst another for industrial activity indicated by a cluster of hearths probably used for metalworking. 

 •	‘Animal bones’ shows food remains on the finds table. Image from University of Reading.

‘Animal bones’ shows food remains on the finds table. Picture from University of Reading.

Queen Cynethryth, wife of King Offa of Mercia and mother of King Ecgfrith of Mercia, is the only Anglo-Saxon queen to be depicted on a coin, a rarity anywhere in Western Europe during the period.

Dr Thomas added: "Cynethryth is a fascinating figure, a female leader who clearly had genuine status and influence in her lifetime. Not only were coins minted with her image, but it is known that when the powerful European leader Charlemagne wrote to his English counterparts, he wrote jointly to both King Offa and Queen Cynethryth, giving both equal status.

"We are thrilled to find physical evidence of the monastery she presided over, which is also very likely to be her final resting place."

Cynethryth joined a religious order and became royal abbess of the monastery after the death of her husband in AD 796. Before his death he had ruled Mercia, one of the main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain, which spanned the English Midlands.

King Offa is considered by many historians to have been the most powerful Anglo-Saxon king before Alfred the Great. He is known for ordering the creation of the earth barrier on the border between England and Wales, known as Offa's Dyke, which can still be seen today.

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