Eadgifu of Kent

Eadgifu was born in the years around around 900 CE, she was the daughter of Sigehelm, Ealdorman of Kent and a mother that has been forgotten to history. Eadgifu would become known as the matriarch of the House of Wessex, wielding varying amounts of power as her sons and then grandsons took the throne of England. There are very few contemporary sources that mention Eadgifu, and those that do survive mention her alongside the men in her life or as a “good woman” that helped a saintly cause in the records of the Church. In this post we aim to gather together the information available on this extraordinary woman.

Picture of Queen Eadgifu from “The Saxon Cathedral at Canterbury and The Saxon Saints Buried Therein”

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As the daughter of an Ealdorman, a high-ranking royal official that was in charge of a district or a shire, Eadgifu inherited extensive landholdings in Kent. It has been speculated that her land is why King Edward the Elder chose her as his third wife and second consort.

Until Edward’s son Æthelstan, the makeup of Britain was vastly different to today. The Anglo-Saxon peoples were divided into many small kingdoms which eventually grew into larger kingdoms with the balance of power always shifting until Æthelstan gained control of the area known as the Kingdom of England. Edward the Elder was the king of the kingdom of Wessex and Eadgifu’s land holdings in Kent would cement his hold over the area of Kent. During one of the many battles with the Viking’s it is believed that Eadgifu’s father was killed, we know that he was no longer alive when his daughter married Edawrd, and the marriage not only gained more land for Wessex but also helped to appease the people of Kent who had suffered great losses in the battle with the Vikings, which awkwardly Edward wasn’t present for.

Around the age of 20 Eadgifu married Edward, he was the son of Alfred the Great and his wife Ealhswith. Eadgifu gave birth to at least 4 children before the King’s death in 924 – two sons, Edmund born 920/21 and Eadred born 921/22, as well as two daughters, Eadburh who became a nun and Elgiva who married Louis, King of Arles.

During her short marriage to Edward, Eadgifu was granted more lands by her husband but she had very little power in comparison to the power she would gain later as the QueenMother.

When her husband died in 924 CE, there were three others in line for the throne the half brothers of her sons- Æthelstan, eldest born of Edward’s first wife Ecgwynn, and Edwin and Æthelweard born of Edward’s second wife, Ælfflæd. In 10th century England, succession wasn’t as clear cut as it is today as a council or Witcan had the right to choose from any of the royal house as a successor. It was Æthelstan who took the crown after his father. Æthelweard died shortly after his father in 924 CE and Edwin later died in a mysterious drowning in 933 CE.

It has been speculated that Eadgifu came to some arrangement with her step-son as her sons were named Æthelstan’s successors and Æthelstan himself never produced his own heir. It may be that he was unable to produce children, or having seen the issues that arise following the death of a king he may have chosen to simply refrain from having children. Another school of thought suggests that in order to secure his crown, Æthelstan made a deal with Eadgifu who as the last consort to King Edward would have had some sway with the Witcan, this deal would involve her support for him as king and in return he named her eldest son Edmund as his heir. What we do know is that during Æthelstan’s reign (946-955), Eadgifu was rarely seen at court, perhaps choosing to raise her still young children on the fringes of court.

Æthelstan presenting a book to St Cuthbert, the earliest surviving portrait of an English king. Illustration in a manuscript of Bede’s Life of Saint Cuthbert

In 939 following the death of Æthelstan, Eadgifu’s eldest son Edmund was crowned King and this is when she found her own power at court as the mother of the King. Edmund was married twice but his mother managed to eclipse both of his wives at court keeping both her power and position. We are able to see her influence on the witness lists of many charters of the time. Eadgifu’s name is recorded often, not only was it unusual to see her name so often but she was the only female witness on the documents, whereas during the reign of her husband she had never witnessed a document. A further indicator of her position at court is where on the witness list her name is found, and she, a woman often precedes that of archbishops and other nobels.

As well as witnessing many charters, Eadgifu was also a supporter of religious reform, acquiring and even gifting her own land for various religious foundations as well as patronising religious reformist figures in the Church including Aethelwold and Dunston, who would later be named as saints by the Church.

Eadgifu’s time as Queen Mother would be short lived, in 946 Edmund was stabbed to death in a brawl at Pucklechurch near Bath, his sons were both too young to take the throne so Eadgifu’s youngest son, Eadred succeeded as king but he was often plagued by illness and in 955 after yet another long illness he too died. This left Eadgifu to become the first of only two Queen Grandmothers in history, the second wouldn’t emerge for another thousand years.

As Queen Grandmother Eadgifu had a mixed experience. When Eadwig succeeded his uncle Eadgifu soon found herself out of favour with her grandson and her lands were quickly confiscated.The reason behind this isn’t entirely clear but it has been speculated that it was due to her support of his younger brother Edgar. Historical sources seem to be somewhat biased against Eadwig mainly due to his treatment of Dunstan, who he quickly drove into exile during his reign. He was around the age of 15 when he ascended the throne and the tale of the night of his coronation has become scandalous, as has the annulment of his marriage to Ælfgifu, though to be a distant relative by order of Archbishop Oda ‘because they were too closely related’. Eadwig died on 1st October 959, aged around 19 and the circumstances of his death are still a mystery.

When Eadwig’s brother Edgar took the throne he restored his grandmother’s land. By the 960’s Eadgifu was likely living in semi-retirement and her last public appearance was at the refoundation of the New Minister at Winchester in 966. We don’t have an exact date of her death but it was likely a few years following this public appearance, she is said to have been buried at the monastery at Wilton, Wiltshire.

Eadgifu may have only been a Queen Consort for four years but her power grew when her sons took the throne and she became the Queen Mother. She outlived not only her husband, but three step-sons, her two sons as well as one grandchild. This was a woman made from hardy stuff! As the third wife of Edward the Elder she became his second consort, although never made a queen this appears to be the highest title she could have achieved at the time in Wessex at least.

In 10th century England, the belief that women were inferior to men (mainly due to the teachings of the bible) put the place of the women firmly as the keepers of the household and the mother of children. Eadgifu however, found that as a mother of a king she had the ability to wield more power and she used this for her own agenda, as can be seen by the promotion of those she supported at court and for this she should be commended. Not only did she become the Matriarch of the House of Wessex but she found power when little was available to women at the time.

Author- Emily Casson


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