Eadburgh – royal poisoner

Beorhtric_of_Wessex

King Beorhtric of Wessex – 13th Century Geneological Roll

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.

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King Egbert

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

Muchelney Abbey

Tiles from Muchelney AbbeyMuchelney Abbey on the Somerset Levels was founded by the Saxon Kings of Wessex.  Unfortunately it is impossible to be precise about which one, as some of the charters granting land to Muchelney are medieval forgeries.  Evidence does suggest that King Ine of Wessex founded the abbey and then King Athelstan refounded it when he gave gifts to the abbey – in thanks for his victory over the Vikings at Brunanburgh or possibly as an ‘oops I’ve been a bit of a naughty boy’ offering in relation to his involvement in the murder of the Atheling Edwin in 933. The confusion about the abbey’s foundation may be because the area suffered under the Vikings.  After all, Muchelney is in the vicinity of the hovel where Alfred the Great burnt the cakes. Wedmore, where there was once a royal palace and where Alfred made a treaty with Guthrum is just up the road.

 

The ruins that remain today date from the twelfth century and reflect the Norman desire to found or support existing monastic houses.  There is also a very smart sixteenth century staircase in the abbot’s residence that must have looked a bit out of place when it became a farm house after the dissolution as well as some wonderful recumbent lions over the fireplace which date from a century earlier.

 

Muchelney is mentioned in the Domesday Book.  It turns up again some five hundred years later in Thomas Cromwell’s Valor Ecclesiasticus as being worth £447 with eight monks in addition to the abbot and prior. It had never been a large monastery – Glastonbury was too close for that to happen.

 

There were earlier visitations. The Victoria County History for Somerset mentions a visit in 1335 when the Bishop of Shrewsbury found the Benedictine monks sleeping in richly covered beds and going off for their meals on horseback rather than eating in the monastery itself. In addition the cloisters were being polluted with the presence of the laity – and not just men either. The Bishop also noted that the church was in a bad state of repair. The monastery was swiftly reformed by a new abbot but it didn’t spare the monks from a visit by the Black Death.

 

Cromwell’s commissioners also sent many letters about Muchelney.  The commissioner who arrived in January 1538 was Thomas Leigh (he made himself deeply unpopular during the first phase of the dissolution in Yorkshire.)   By 1538 Leigh had a handy assortment of damning phrases with which to write to his master. He described the abbot as being of “doubtful character” and the monks “unlernyd.” Unlearned or not the brethren at Muchelney could see which way the wind was blowing and swiftly surrendered the abbey into Leigh’s hands.

Henry VIII granted the abbey to his brother-in-law the Earl of Hertford.  The Earl, Edward Seymour whose sister Jane Seymour married the king two years earlier, went on to become Protector of England during his nephew Edward VI’s minority.

Seymour kept the abbot’s lodging turning it into a farm house which he let out to tenants. He used the rest of the monastery as a quarry.

When Seymour was executed for treason Muchelney returned to the Crown where it remained until 1614 when it was sold off by James I.

The church of Muchelney which stood next door to the abbey was not part of the abbey itself – so Seymour couldn’t strip the lead from the roof or take away its dressed stone!  However, the abbey had the living for the church. This meant that they could appoint the priest. An informative display also mentions the fact that the abbey was responsible for providing the vicar with bread and ale every day, meat twice a week, and eggs and fish on the other five days.

 

Victorian excavation of Mucheleny Abbey revealed medieval floor tiles belonging to the Lady Chapel. These were placed inside the church where they remain today as a reminder of how beautiful English abbeys must have once been.