Eadgyth and Otto I. . Statue from Magdeburg Cathedral. Photo from Medieval News.
Earlier this week an Anglo-Saxon princess, Eadgyth, made a splash in the news. Her grave and body had been found in a German Cathedral. As the granddaughter of Alfred the Great, and half-sister of Æthelstan, first recognized king of the English, she has got the interest of historians and archaeologists in England. Being of interest only for her links to them – rather than for herself – is a feeling Eadgyth would have been all too familiar. Its pretty well known that Æthelstan sent 19 year old Eadgyth and another sister Algiva/Adiva to 17 year old Otto (912-973), son of King Henry of Germany, and told him to take his pick, the other being married off to some Alpine prince whose name has never been recorded. King Henry probably got to arrange that marriage as another perk. Nice guys all around, huh?
Eadgyth married Otto in 929 when she was about 19. He (or perhaps really his father King Henry) gave her the city of Magdeburg as a wedding gift. I’ve read elsewhere that it was dowry, but husbands don’t give dowry. She gave birth to their son Liudolf in 930 and then a daughter Liutgarde. Otto became King of Germany and Duke of Saxony upon the death of his father in 936. She was Queen of Germany for ten years before her death at age 36 on 26 January 946. She was buried in convent in Madeburg, where she was probably a patron. She was recently discovered in a stone sarcophagus in Magdeburg Cathedral. After her death, Otto continued his conquests until he became Holy Roman Emperor in 962. Otto lived nearly another 30 years and remarried, but he still returned to Magdeburg where he was also buried. Eadgyth was moved and reburied in stone sarcophagus in Magdeburg Cathedral in 151o.
Tests are being done to confirm that these remains are Eadgyth’s because they were found in a lead coffin inside the stone sarcophagus with the inscription “The rescued remains of Queen Eadgyth are in this sarcophagus, after the second renovation of this monument in 1510.” The bones wrapped in white silk appear to be of a woman in her thirties. Isotope analysis will be able to identify where the woman spent her childhood. Presumably they will also do radiocarbon dating and it would be nice if they did a facial reconstruction. Assuming the skull is intact and they have access to it, they should be able to make an accurate model of it and do a facial reconstruction with that without damaging the remains.
Eadgyth gains special attention from English historians (and Anglophiles) because she is believed to have promoted the veneration of St Oswald, King of Northumbria in Saxony and Germany. Why did she have a special attraction to St Oswald? The women of the house of Wessex had a special attraction to King Oswald because his wife was the daughter of King Cynegisl of Wessex, later recorded as Cyneburg. Eadgyth’s half-brother Æthelstan may have been a fosterling in the court of their aunt Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, when she rescued St Oswald’s relics from Viking-occupied Bardney in the year before Eadgyth’s birth. Æthelflaed moved the relics to their new minister at Gloucester, later renamed St Oswald’s Priory. This priory was to be the primary church for the Mercian royal family and their burial place. Lady Æthelflaed also established veneration of St Oswald at Chester alongside St Wereburg (Thacker,1995), a daughter of King Wulfhere of Mercia and great niece of St Æthelthryth of Ely. It is interesting that Lady Æthelflaed translated Wereburg’s relics to Chester but not the relics of St Æthelthryth of Ely, especially given that Wereburg was Abbess of Ely. Yet, Wereburg was a daughter of Mercia where the other abbesses of Ely did not have a connection to Mercia or Wessex. Chester and Gloucester were the two primary cities of Mercia under Lady Æthelflaed with eastern Mercia either ruled by Vikings or in the frontier zone.
Through this marriage, Oswald becomes kinsman and uncle of the Wessex royal family. When Æthelstan sent his sisters to Germany to marry Otto, Eadgyth was described as being of of the “blessed line of King Oswald” (nata de stirpe beata Oswaldi regis) (Thacker, 1995). A bit of an exaggeration that she was a descendant at least by our understanding of kinship and descent. How a culture views kinship is dynamic, not a static thing. In the Gesta Ottonis, written under the orders of Otto’s niece Abbess Gerberga by Hrotsvitha of Gandrersheim in c. 965, Eadgyth’s lineage is held to be greater than her half-brother Æthelstan in part because of her kinship with St Oswald. Otto’s marriage to this Anglo-Saxon princess helped solidify his rule over Saxony (O’Riain-Radel, 1995). It is possible that Eadgyth came to Otto bearing relics, possibly of St Maurice, the leader of the Theban legion, to whom the Cathedral of Madeburg is dedicated. As we know that Æthelstan had received relics of St Maurice, O’Riain-Radel hypothesizes that she brought some of these relics with her to Saxony and were established in the Cathedral where they were both eventually buried. St Maurice, like Oswald, was another soldier saint and perhaps attractive to warrior kings like Æthelstan and Otto. We also know that manuscripts were gifted in both directions between Æthelstan and Otto, including gospel books but perhaps also hagiography. It seems likely that written legends would have accompanied Eadgyth on any saints Wessex wanted to promote in Germany. These would have been valuable to Otto and his father King Henry as information on a holy (Anglo-)Saxon king could have been used to help them get established in Saxony. Yet, the fact that Oswald was a foreign king meant he would not have had local kinsmen to challenge their rights in Saxony.
As the romance of Oswald developed around the marriage of Oswald to Cyneburgh, he would have become all the more attractive to other Wessex girls. From the German point of view, a Wessex princess like Eadgyth could have easily been portrayed as being like Cyneburgh, the Wessex princess that became St Oswald’s wife. There is little evidence of Oswald’s romance within England (and few English medievalists today are aware of it) but it flourished in Germany where these Wessex girls sponsored his veneration. The only trace of the romance in England is the raven and ring iconography found in some Oswald artwork, but most of this artwork is quite late and often lacks the ring (so it could represent the raven in Reginald’s Life of Oswald that had nothing to do with romance). Editions of the German romances are listed in the reference section below; Kalinke being the most complete analysis.
Alan Thacker, (1995) “Membra Disjecta: the division of the body and the diffusion of the cult”. Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint. Paul Watkins.
Dagmar O’Riain-Radel (1995) “Edith, Judith, and Matilda: the Role of Royal Ladies in the Propagation of the Continental Cult” Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint. Paul Watkins.
Medieval News. (20 Jan 2010) Remains of Eadgyth, Anglo-Saxon Queen, discovered in German Cathedral. (actually Anglo-Saxon Queen of Germany)
Additional references for St Oswald on the continent:
Marianne Kalinke (2005) St. Oswald of Northumbria: Continental Metamorphoses, with an Edition and Translation of the ‘Osvalds saga’ and ‘Van sunte Oswaldo deme konninghe’. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
Annemiek Jansen. (1995) The Development of the St Oswald Legends on the Continent. Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint. Paul Watkins.
JW Thomas. (1989) The ‘Strassburg Alexander’ and the ‘Munich Oswald': Pre-courtly Adventure of the German Middle Ages.
Peter Clemoes. (1983) The Cult of St Oswald on the Continent. Jarrow Lecture 1983.
EP Baker. (1949) St Oswald and his church at Zug. Archaeologia 93: 103-123.
EP Baker (1951) The Cult of St Oswald in Northern Italy. Archaeologia 94: 167-194.