The Role of Women in Historical Fiction Set in Anglo-Saxon England

Guest Essay by author Carla Nayland

This essay is derived from a discussion about ‘strong women’ in historical fiction, specifically in the setting of Britain in the 7th century AD. I personally believe it is important that historical fiction should try to recreate (as far as this is possible) a feeling for the culture, expectations and social structure of the time, and should try to avoid (again, as far as possible) projecting modern attitudes back into a previous era. Female action heroes, typified by Xena Warrior Princess and Lara Croft, are fashionable in some modern media (possibly reflecting the attraction of a pretty actress wearing a remarkably small amount of leather). Career conflicts, work-life balance, radical feminism, equality between the sexes and sexual discrimination are all modern issues. Some of these may also have been issues in earlier times, although many of the ideas would have been different and the terminology certainly would have been (I personally would cringe at a seventh-century woman using a term like ‘work-life balance’, for example).

Creating a convincing female character and her story in the distant past requires taking some care to understand the roles and expectations of women in that society at that time. Can the character and her story be supported by evidence, or fit plausibly into the gaps in the evidence?

The essay reviews the evidence for women as warriors, ruling queens or regents, advisors, dynastic links between rival or allied groups, and as capable individuals within local communities in Anglo-Saxon and Norse society. Read the full article on Carla’s website.

Carla Nayland has studied the history and archaeology of post-Roman Britain for many years, and writes both essays and fiction about the period. I am happy to present an essay from such an accomplished and thoughtful writer. Please visit her website at

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