The King’s Wife

This is the second instalment of guest posts from students who are undertaking research experience placements with me over the summer period. This one comes from recent Cardiff University graduate Laura Richards, whose research placement yielded some interesting gems from a surprisingly small pool of available evidence.

For two weeks I completed some research on Anglo-Saxon marriage alliances focussing on the primary source material. The main thing I learnt was what every person must grapple with when taking on historical research; you have to go through a lot to get a little. What I did find was often scattered across vast pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – the main narrative source for the period c. 800-1066. Most evidence came in the form of the names of the couple involved in the marriage and a brief summary of their genealogy. Little was written in way of formal agreements, nevertheless some ideas about these powerful marriages can be drawn out.Books for research

The status of the wife within these alliances was intertwined and representative of her familial support. Eadburh, Queen of Wessex inspires infamy which extends into today as inspiration for the fictional character Princess Kwenthrith; a Mercian princess with a taste for power and poisoning in TV’s Vikings. This stems from the reputation Eadburh receives within the sources granting her an important role within Wessex history compared to other queens. Asser in his Life of King Alfred recounts how Beorhtric of Wessex married Offa of Mercia’s daughter, Eadburh. Once in power she began ‘to behave like a tyrant after the manner of her father’, poisoning those she could not control or force the King to disown them. As part of her scheming she accidently poisons her husband. She flees to the court of Charlemagne who, after having his age insulted, places her in a nunnery where she is later caught in debauchery and dies in poverty. Asser casts Eadburh as an evil queen to give warning against granting the king’s wife an equal title.

Despite its aspects of legend, through this narrative it is possible to see how women within marriage alliances represented the power of their families and kingdoms. Eighth-century Mercia was the dominant kingdom. Offa was a powerful king and marrying his daughter to Beorhtric cemented Wessex as a lesser kingdom. With the power of her father behind her Eadburh influenced her husband and had the power to destroy those in her way.

However, if the eighth century belonged to Mercia than the ninth was one of Wessex dominance where equal status was no longer granted to the wives of their kings. This could have been more than just a lesson learnt from the evil Eadburh. It shows that Wessex was the dominant power in any alliance so did not need to give power within its court to the female representative of the alliance. The only Wessex queen within the ninth century is Judith, daughter of King Charles the Bald of Frankia who was crowned before her arrival in Wessex. As a Queen Judith was of equal standing to the King and showed the strength Frankia held as an individual kingdom and ally to Wessex. This is seen as a major contributing factor to the conflict between her husband Æthelwulf and his son Æthelbald. Furthermore, Judith created her own scandalous reputation by marrying her step-son and later eloping without permission.

Æthelflaed, lady of the Mercians, from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey

Æthelflaed, lady of the Mercians, from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey

Nevertheless, Wessex, once a dominant kingdom, was quite happy to use its women to extend its influence. Æthelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great married Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians and within his lifetime witnessed many charters as Regina of Mercia and after his death ruled as Lady of the Mercians. However, Alfred’s own wife was unable to challenge the Wessex court’s refusal to name her Queen. As most of the sources for the later Anglo-Saxon period are written from a Wessex viewpoint, exercising power and familial backing was positive for Wessex women exported to other kingdoms but disastrously dangerous habits for women being brought into the Wessex royal family. Therefore Eadburh’s infamy must be viewed from this particular angle.

Overall my experience of research has at times been painstaking and although I have to accept that the evidence is lacking on marriage alliances, it was possible to see examples of power being wielded by married women through their familial alliances and for other related ideas when I allowed the evidence to lead my areas of exploration.

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