Elfrida, mother of Æthelred the Unready has had a bad press historically . She’s usually cited as the reason why the Saxons didn’t really do queens. There was the small matter of her first husband’s death in a hunting accident and the assassination of her step-son Edward the Martyr at Corfe Castle. However the writers who were busily turning her into an assassin usually had their own particular axe to grind.
Eadburgh was a similarly dangerous high status woman. Her father was King Offa of Mercia who lived at the end of the eighth century. She turns up in Asser’s life of King Alfred on account of the fact that she accidentally poisoned her husband. The error wasn’t that it was an accidental poisoning. It was an accident that the wrong person drank the poison, she had been attempting to get rid of one of her husband’s nobles and managed to kill them both if you believe the story.
It should be noted that Asser liked a moral fable so the handsome queen ended her days as an impoverished beggar having had a run in with Charlemagne and a bit of an exciting time in a nunnery before ending up on the streets of Pavia.
Asser included the tale of Eadburgh because the unfortunate spouse was King Beorhtric of Wessex who became king in 787. Offa’s plan was to build political alliances between Mercia and Wessex through the marriage with him as the dominant partner. Offa and Beorhtric worked together to drive another Cerdic claimant, Egbert, into exile. Egbert was Alfred’s grandfather. Egbert took himself off to the court of Charlemagne.
Meanwhile Eadburgh became a little bit over possessive of her husband. She poisoned Beorhtric’s favourites so that she would always be the person most important to his counsels – thus ensuring the Mercian position would always be dominant.
Having accidentally poisoned Beorhtric in 802 Egbert returned from his extended European holiday and Eadburgh found herself without a home. She couldn’t return to Merica as Offa had also died so she packed up her belongings and went off to Charlemagne bearing gifts.
Charlemagne must have liked the look of her because he asked her who she would rather marry – him or his son. Eadburgh opted for the son and was told that had she chosen Charlemagne she might have been the mother of a prince – as it was she wouldn’t get either of them! Charlemagne packer her off to a nunnery as an abbess.
Old habits die hard and she took a lover. When she was discovered she was evicted from the nunnery – thus ending up as a beggar. Asser says this is why the Kings of Wessex were not terribly keen on anointed queens. Elfrida who was the wife of King Alfred’s great-grandson became the first anointed queen of England.
Elfrida received bad press on account of a falling out with Dunstan and later writers blackened her name with each new retelling. In Eadburgh’s case the story is also dubious but Asser in blackening Eadburgh’s name was creating propaganda against Mercia which began the period in a more dominant role to that of Wessex. Asser paints Eadburgh as an unnatural sort of woman being more dominant than her spouse. He also paints her as a poisoner – not a very noble method dispatching your enemies. In reality Egbert was probably not sitting around waiting to be summoned back to Wessex.
“Eadburh, Queen of the West Saxons” by Susan Abernethy, The Freelance History Writer
I’ve been reading MJ Porter’s ‘The First Queen of England’ series about Elfrida and it’s very good.
I have come to take anything negative about women in Anglo-Saxon history with a grain of salt and a bit more research, given the male historians’ tendency to denigrate any powerful woman who didn’t do exactly as the patriarchy told her to.
They certainly fill fairy tale niches of being either very very good or very very bad! I shall settle down to MJ Porter. Thank you for the heads up about it.
Saxon Queens is a subject far away. Some good women stood behind her King but in truth ruled in all ways. When she learns this trick she is more valuable than gold. Trouble is few ever rise beyond greed or child bed.