Confirming Queen Eadgyth

Six months ago I wrote about the discovery of the remains of Queen Eadgyth of Germany, half-sister of King Æthelstan of England and grand-daughter of Alfred the Great in Magdeburg Cathedral. Eadgyth was the first wife of Otto I of Saxony, later after her death he became the first German Holy Roman Emperor. Through her children, Eadgyth was an ancestor of many European royal families. Historian and broadcaster Michael Wood has written an upbeat biography of her life, claiming that she was the Princess Diana of her time.

Eadgyth and Otto

It had been thought that Eadgyth’s remains had been lost in the renovations of Magdeburg Cathedral, that the late medieval sarcophagus was empty, but much to their surprise, when it was opened earlier this year a bone box was found inside. It had an inscription saying that it held the rescued remains of Queen Eadgyth found in the second restoration of her tomb in 1510.

When I wrote earlier tests on the bones were still pending. Last week the test results were announced. The tests turned out to be more of challenge than I think they expected. The video below has parts of the archaeologists discussion of their findings.

They failed to get usable DNA and the radiocarbon dating of the bones predicts an age 200 years too old. This seems ominous but they assure us that the early date is because she ate so much fish! James Barrett explains here why a high marine diet alters radiocarbon dating; basically, the ratio of C14 to C12 is different in marine and terrestrial environments. Alone this would be quite a problem but there are other isotope tests that can predict the ratio of marine to terrestrial sources in the diet. We’ll have to wait, perhaps years, for a proper archaeological report to see the data. The failure to get viable DNA is puzzling considering that they should have been protected in a coffin in the cathedral since her death even if they had been reburied up to five times.  They believe that they have identified textiles dating to each reburial.

With these standard tests failing, they next turned to strontium isotope analysis from her teeth.  Mike Pitts discusses how isotopes are used to reveal personal histories here. Strontium and oxygen isotopes show that the remains came from a woman who grew up in southern England. In her early years she moved frequently but after about age 10 she says in one area around Winchester. This fits the predicted movements of Eadgyth. In her very early childhood she would have moved with Edward the Elder’s royal court, specifically her mother, around southern England. After her mother’s divorce, her mother and probably Eadgyth are sent to a convent.

Several news pieces refer to Eadgyth being “banished” from the royal courts as a youth. I think they are looking at this the wrong way around. It seems likely to me that girls remained with their mothers until marriage. It would be better to say that her mother got to keep her daughter(s) with her in the convent than to say that the girls were banished. It seems likely that many young noble women would have been sent to monasteries as teenagers to keep them ‘safe’ until their marriages were arranged. They would have probably got most of their education then also. Its fairly likely that they were not the only noble girls in their convent. It is even possible that Eadgyth and her sister would have been sent to a convent even if Edward hadn’t divorced their mother.

The skeleton supports the identification of a 30 to 40 year old woman. Eadgyth was age 36 when she died in 946. The only other insight the bones revealed is wear on the femur that suggests a lot of horseback riding. This is generally viewed as being supportive of an aristocratic lifestyle. For all of their advantages, life was short in the 10th century. Eadgyth was only 36 when she died, but she lived longer than both her recorded children. Her son Liudolf died of fever at 27 and his sister died four years before him (and probably 5 years or more younger). Both her children, Liudolf (930– 957) and Liutgarde (d. 953), were buried at Saint Alban’s Abbey in Mainz.


” Tests confirm that bone are from medieval queen” Medieval News. 17 June 2010

Bones confirmed as those of Saxon Princess Eadgyth, My Science, 16 June 2010.

Ellie, Long-lost bones belong to Saxon Queen Eadgyth Heritage Key, June 17, 2010

Michael Wood (BBC) The life of an Anglo-Saxon princess. The Guardian, 17 June 2010.

Mike Pitts (editor of British Archaeology) How the study of our teeth is revealing our history, The Guardian, 17 June 2010.

James Barrett, The Fish Eaters of Orkney. Orkney Archaeological Trust. Papers and Pictures in Honour of Daphne Home Lorimer MBE, Feb. 2004.

Hello Eadgyth! (previous Heavenfield post)


3 thoughts on “Confirming Queen Eadgyth

  1. I have taken a leaf out of her book and eaten much fish today. I am ready for canonization when the time comes; but do hope that fivefold translation will be easy on the nerves. Martin

  2. Thank you so much for the expert background info, Michelle – much-appreciated as otherwise dependent upon MSM for the details.
    Have enjoyed reading about St Oswald also, having lived in Oswestry, where he died – and where ‘his’ well is respectfully preserved (on Welsh Marches, so holy wells abound!). Once lived near Bury St Edmunds – but am not in fact fixated on Anglo-Saxon martyr kings! Home used to be a few miles upriver from Tintern (glorious). Now live far away, but still fascinated by the history of my country.
    Have enjoyed reading your work: thank you!

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