Domneva and Thurnor’s Leap

Dompneva or Domneva, appears to be a Roman abbreviation of Lady Eva, or Domina Eva, of which an instance occurs in the name of Julia Domna, wife of Severus. Ermenburga, Eva, or Dompneva, are used indiscriminately for the Queen of Merowald, son of Penda, in our histories: as there is another Ermenburga, Queen of Egfrid, this abbreviation is adopted to distinguish her from others. Ermenred Clito, King of Kent, had by his wife Oslave, daughter of King Anna, another daughter besides Dompneva, who was called likewise Ermenburga and one called Eormengitha, both of whom became nuns: his sons were called Ethelred and Ethelbright.

Merowald, who was destined to marry Domneva, was King of Herefordshire, or the West Hecanas, over which he had reigned three years. Both this princess and her cousin Ermenilda seem to have been given by their parents in marriage to the Mercian princes, sons of Penda, in the hope of securing a friendship between that royal house and the East Anglian.

At this period the kingdom of Kent had arrived at the highest pinnacle of greatness: the glorious Ethelbert and his amiable consort had transmitted their virtues to their descendants. The alliance of the royal family of Kent was sought with avidity by the other princes of the Heptarchy. It has been seen that the Princess Enfleda had married Oswy of Northumberland, and Etheldreda, the sister of Sexburga and Oslave, became the wife of Egfrid. Domneva and Ermenilda united the kingdoms of East Anglia, Kent, and Mercia. These matrimonial alliances are, in fact, a key by which alone the history of the Saxon Heptarchy can be properly understood.

In spite, however, of her marriage and, it is said, by the consent of her husband, Queen Domneva assumed the religious veil: it appears that she became Abbess of Minstre, in Thanet, about the year 670, King Merowald being yet upon the throne. The circumstances which occasioned the erection of this famous monastery are remarkable and as Domneva was herself the foundress and first abbess, they belong especially to her history.

The two brothers of Queen Domneva had been committed by their dying father, Ermenred, to the care of their uncle Ercombert, King of Kent, who, as long as he lived, fulfilled the sacred trust reposed in him with the honour which might have been expected from so excellent a prince; but when he died, his power, and with it the guardianship of the young Ethelred and Ethelbert, who were still in their minority, devolved on his son Egbert, who regarded these princes, his cousins, as dangerous rivals to his power. He is accused of having employed a Thane, named Thunor, to put the orphans to death and, to prevent discovery of the crime, directed that their bodies should be interred beneath the royal throne in the palace of Estry, in Thanet, the place where they were usually residing under his protection. Heaven, however, would not permit such a crime to escape detection, nor suffer Egbert to pursue in security his guilty career. It is related that a miraculous light, falling on the spot where the bodies of the ill-fated brothers had been deposited by their murderer, revealed their holy relics; and the alarmed monarch was induced, by the united representations of St Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, and St Adrian, Abbot of St Augustine’s, whose councils were seconded by the clamours of the people, to send into Mercia to seek pardon of Domneva, Queen of Merowald, the sister of his victims, for the heinous crime he either perpetrated or permitted, and to offer to indemnify her for their loss by the usual Weregild, or compensation for murder.

The custom of paying a blood-fine, called Weregild or Manbot, did not belong solely to the Saxons. Compositions for murder existed among the Jews, and also the Greeks, as is apparent from Nestor’s speech to Achilles, in the Iliad; and even till a recent period among the natives of Ireland the same custom prevailed, the price of a man’s head being termed by them his Eriach. Spencer, in his “View of the State of Ireland,” writes thus of these cases of composition for murder: “The Brehon, that is, their judge, will compound between the murderer and the friends of the party murdered which prosecute the action, that the malefactor shall give to them, or to the child or wife of him that is slain, a recompense, which they call an Eriach; by which vile law of theirs many murders amongst them are made up and smothered. And this judge being, as he is called, the Lord’s Brehon, adjudgeth, for the most part, a better share unto his lord, or the head of that sept (or family), and also unto himself for his judgment, a greater portion, than unto the plaintiffs or parties grieved.”

On the arrival of Queen Domneva in Kent, Egbert appeared before her in a very sorrowful manner, imploring her pardon, and laying before her a great many rich presents. The Queen generously pardoned her royal cousin, but declined accepting any of his offerings: her request to him was, that he would grant her a place ‘in Tenet’, where she might build a monastery in memory of her two brothers, with a competent maintenance, in which she might, with the virgins devoted to God and obliged to her, pray to the Lord to pardon and forgive the King for their murder. Egbert assenting, asked the Queen “how much land she desired to have?” who replied, “only as much as my deer can run over at one course.” This being accorded, the animal was let loose at a place called Westgate, in presence of the King, and many of his nobles and people, who all crowded towards the spot where the deer was led in expectation of the event. Among the spectators was Thunor, the King’s agent, and the real murderer of the Princes, who cried out that Domneva was a witch, and the King a fool for suffering so noble and fruitful a soil to be taken from him by the decision of a brute. Whilst the King and others around him were diverted with seeing the deer run, “this man endeavoured to put her by, with riding across and meeting her.” While thus endeavouring to defeat the pious object of Domneva, the wrath of God fell on him; for as some say, “the earth opened and swallowed him,” or, as we may with greater credibility receive it, “a fall from his horse” occasioned his death; the spot being ever after called ‘Thunor’s Leap’, while the place where he was buried yet bears the name of this wretched man. At the sight of the signal judgment which had fallen on Thunor, the King is said to have “very much feared and trembled.”

Thunor’s Leap was, according to Lewis, the old chalkpit, which he supposes to have been first sunk when the Abbey and Church of Minstre were built, the bottom of which, in process of time, became overgrown with grass, when the crafty monks invented this fable to frighten the poor people of the neighbourhood.

Immediately adjoining this spot formerly stood a beacon, it being some of the highest land in that locality, and it was here that King Egbert had taken up his position, in order that he might be able to see the deer run almost all the way. “The Deer’s Course,” as it is called by the monks, was nothing more than a lynch or balk, cast up as a boundary, to divide the two capital manors of Minstre and Monkton, in the island, and very probably existed even before the former was granted to Domneva.

“The tame deer of the Queen was to obtain for her royal mistress as much land as it could run over at a breath; the favourite animal having finished her course, from one side of the island to the other, and run over in length and breadth forty-eight plough lands (or ten thousand acres), followed the Lady Domneva, while the King, on his part, returned thanks to Christ Jesus and surrendered to his illustrious cousin the whole tract of land which the deer had run over; St Theodore, the devout Adrian, and others who were present, hallowing the gift with their blessing.” This donation Egbert afterwards confirmed to the ecclesiastical posterity of Domneva by charters, recorded in the Book of St Augustine’s, to the infringers of which he added a frightful curse.

Domneva accordingly founded her new Minster, dedicating it to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to the name and honour of her murdered brethren. A difference of opinion exists as to the exact date of the foundation, some saying it was commenced in 664 and completed in 670 others that it was commenced only at the latter year. It has again been doubted whether Queen Domneva herself ever ruled the establishment. Drayton says she passed the residue of her days –

“Immonaster’d in Kent, where first she breathed the air”

Yet we afterwards trace her as president of another religious community in Mercia. It is, however, highly probable that on the completion of the structure, Domneva superintended it until the arrival of her daughter, St Mildred, who had been sent to France, to the Monastery of Chelles, for her education, that she might be fitly prepared to govern the edifice of her mother’s foundation. All things being made ready for her, Mildred was sent for, as the person most fit for the situation of abbess; and on her arrival the Mercian Princess was consecrated to that holy office by Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, having previously taken the veil at the Monastery of Chelles. Seventy young women at the same time received the nun’s veil, to form a community for their royal mistress, having been selected either from birth or merit. Among the number was Ermengitha, the aunt of Mildred, who was afterwards so much renowned for piety that her tomb, about a mile distant from the monastry, became a favourite resort for devout pilgrims.

(The Queens before the Conquest, Matthew Hall (Mrs), 1854, pp. 52-59)

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