“Oh, Agnes,” Eardwulf said, “you are not tired, I’m sure, for you and I are young and vigorous and we do not tire. But what am I to do? No butter for two more days! So I must let you go with Aunty. But two
days hence! Ah, then I will attend you, with butter and misrule.”
Mother Wynflaed of Whitby Abbey rules a joint house of monks and nuns, and many layfolk besides. Her office forbids her to have favorites, but when a young woman appears on the doorstep, soaked from the sea and too terrified to speak her name, Wynflaed comes to see her not only as a potential postulant, but as a daughter. She names her Agnes, but before Agnes can become part of the community, Wynflaed must discover her secret.
Though Wynflaed finds it impossible to think ill of Agnes, Agnes herself keeps pulling down one penance after another on her head, as if trying to expiate some grave crime. As some in the abbey begin to fear her, Agnes becomes Wynflaed's obsession, upsetting the harmony of the abbey, and leading Wynflaed to question her worthiness to rule.
When Eardwulf, the young king of Northumbria, comes to Wynflaed seeking counsel, he too becomes infatuated with Agnes.
As Wynflaed unwinds Agnes's secret, she begins to fear that Agnes is a danger to both the abbey and the king. She plans to send her away. But Eardwulf has other ideas, and Agnes has other admirers.