Role of Women in Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon Society
Beowulf, the hero of Anglo-Saxon epic, had many adventures, and many companions and fellow-warriors are mentioned throughout his story. Some of them seem noble and courageous, truly living up to the standards of their culture; some seem cowardly. But all have gained immortality in the words, many times transcribed and translated, of the famous epic. However, the women of the time are rarely mentioned in Beowulf. Still, even from those few women who are mentioned and from other documents of the era, it is possible to see the position of women in of Anglo-Saxon society. In many cases, they enjoyed more rights than women in later Medieval cultures.
Both Wealhtheow, Hrothgar's queen, and Hygd, Hygelac's queen, apparently held power in their courts. Wealhtheow's actions in rewarding Beowulf after his battles show the queen's role and position as hostess. She awards him "two arm ornaments, mail, rings" and a beautiful necklace of apparent fame (Hieatt 47). She and Hygd both offer the mead cup to guests, courtiers and warriors. The Anglo-Saxon wife was in charge of the store-rooms of the house; offering the cup may have symbolized the generosity of the royal couple (Page 72). Wealhtheow and Hrothgar's daughter, Freawaru, also shares in the cup-bearing, perhaps as a sign that she is of age to take on the duties of managing the household (she is already engaged to be married to the king of the Heathobards). While presenting Beowulf with the gifts, Wealhtheow takes the opportunity to ask Beowulf to be a "kind counselor" and "kind friend" to her sons. She also speaks to Hrothgar, telling him that she had heard that he was considering "having this hero [Beowulf] as a son" and to "make use of generous rewards... but leave the people and the kingdom to your kinfolk" (Hieatt 47). In other words, she asks him not to take gratitude too far and name Beowulf heir over their own sons. That she is bold enough to make both requests without hesitation or question shows that she was accustomed to authority and had some power of her own. Another indication of the power wielded by queens is the respect accorded to Hygd. She is beautiful, wise and young. Beowulf gives her the necklace that Wealhtheow had given him as well as three horses. That may have been a gesture meant to win her support within the court.
Page states that "the queen or noble lady of real life must often have acted a diplomatic part like this [Wealhtheow's requests], and have been a force to reckon with," and that "the diplomatic marriage , linking nations or great families, was common...and the daughter of a royal house must often have been used to heal enmity between peoples or to cement friendship." However, those diplomatic marriages were not always successful. Freawaru's marriage fails...