The Curious Backlash Against Queens In 9th-Century Wessex


A noblewoman named Eadburh seemingly caused a multi-generational backlash against the brides of kings in Wessex. She was the daughter of King Offa of Mercia (r. 757-796) and was given in marriage to King Beorhtric of Wessex in 789. Eadburh, like the royal women in Wessex who came before her, was given a queenly title, such as cuen or regina. After Mercia and Wessex were aligned because of the marriage, Offa and Beorhtric worked together to force Egbert, a dangerous claimant to the kingdoms of Kent and Wessex, into a prolonged exile in France. Yet, although the marriage agreement was mainly about the relationship between the monarchs of Mercia and Wessex, Eadburh soon showed herself to be a formidable woman in her role as queen—maybe too formidable for her time.

The actions of Queen Eadburh in Wessex are hard to decipher. In the initial commentary on the reign of her husband, King Beorhtric (r. 786-802), within sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, nothing out of the ordinary is mentioned as occurring in the court Wessex. The entries in those chronicles from 787 to 802, the time in which Eadburh was queen, make no mention of Eadburh except to say that she was the daughter of Offa and the wife of Beorhtric. In fact, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes no more mention of her after recording her wedding. A century after Eadburh’s marriage, however, a Welsh monk named Asser recorded in his Life of King Alfred (written c. 893) several rumors that had festered in Wessex, and his source was none other than King Alfred the Great (r. 871-899). On the subject of Queen Eadburh, Asser wrote down the folklore and gossip known by Alfred:

“There was in Mercia in fairly recent times a certain vigorous king called Offa, who terrified all the neighboring kings and provinces around him, and who had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea. Beorhtric, king of the West Saxons, received in marriage his daughter, Eadburh. As soon as she had won the king’s friendship, and power throughout almost the entire kingdom, she began to behave like a tyrant after the manner of her father—to loathe every man whom Beorhtric liked, to do all things hateful to God and men, to denounce all those whom she could before the king, and thus by trickery to deprive them of either life or power; and if she could not achieve that end with the king’s compliance, she killed them with poison” (Life of King Alfred, section 14).

What exactly inspired this reputation may never be known. Was she a spymaster who besmirched and assassinated her opponents? Did she put the interests of her homeland, Mercia, before that of Wessex? Perhaps, she was simply interested in politics and statecraft, and the courtiers of Wessex did not like her meddling in their affairs. Whatever the case, the impression she left on the noblemen of Wessex was incredibly negative.

King Beorhtric died in 802. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle made no mention of foul play, reporting simply that he ‘died.’ Asser, however, continued painting Eadburh as a careless poisoner, and claimed “Beorhtric himself is said to have taken some of that poison unawares” (Life of King Alfred, section 14). The man who succeeded Beorhtric to the throne of Wessex in 802 did not help Eadburh’s case—it was none other than Egbert, the man her father and husband had forced into exile. With the ascendance of King Egbert of Wessex (r. 802-839), Britain was no longer a safe place for Eadburh. She fled to France, where she joined a nunnery. Yet, Eadburh’s reputation only became more scandalous on the mainland. Asser concluded the unforgiving gossip about the refugee queen with these words:

“When at long last she was publicly caught in debauchery with a man of her own race, she was ejected from the nunnery on Charlemagne’s orders and shamefully spent her life in poverty and misery until her death; so much so that in the end, accompanied by a single slave boy (as I have heard from many who saw her) and begging every day, she died a miserable death in Pavia” (Life of King Alfred, section 15).

Whether or not the tales about Queen Eadburh’s life—the tyranny, poisonings, and scandals on the mainland—were truthful or embellished, the end result in Wessex was the same. Her behavior, whatever it may have been, shocked the noblemen of Wessex, and the subsequent backlash against the royal women in the kingdom was attributed as a response to Eadburh’s actions. Starting during the reign of King Egbert, the wives of the kings of Wessex in the 9th century were stripped of their queenly titles of cuen or regina, and were more closely quarantined away from the political sphere than before the time of Eadburh. No other king’s wife was given the title of queen until King Æthelwulf of Wessex brought his Frankish bride, Judith (daughter of Charles the Bald), to his kingdom in 856 and pulled some strings to have her position recognized. Yet, Judith was the exception. No other king’s wife in Wessex was recognized as a queen in the 9th century.

By the end of the century, however, some courtiers in Wessex (especially foreigners or people originally from other parts of Britain) began to criticize the kingdom’s odd treatment of its queens. Asser (the aforementioned Welshman), himself, opened up his commentary on Queen Eadburh with these critical words against the custom of Wessex: “because many do not know (I suspect) how this perverse and detestable custom, contrary to the practice of all Germanic peoples, originally arose in Saxon land, I think I should explain it a little more fully” (Life of King Alfred, section 13). Thankfully, the status of royal women in Wessex began to improve in the 10th century.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (‘Fair Rosamund’ painted by John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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