What little we know about Alfred the Great’s mother comes to us from the biography of Alfred written by his great friend, Bishop Asser. Asser writes only a few lines about her and doesn’t tell us much. She doesn’t appear in any charters from the reign of her husband King Aethelwulf. The role of wives for the kings of Wessex in England was especially limited. They were recognized as wives but not as queens. In fact, West Saxon kings during the ninth century were determined their wives would not be called queen due to a supposedly bad experience with an earlier king’s wife.
We don’t know when Osburh was born but Asser tells us she was the daughter of Oslac who was the butler or cupbearer or seneschal to Aethelwulf. Oslac was most likely of Jute extraction. The seventh century monk Bede tells us in his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” there were three tribes of Germanic people who invaded England in the fifth and sixth centuries. The names of the tribes were Angles, Saxons and Jutes. The Jutes settled in the south and southeast and on the Isle of Wight. Asser says Oslac was a descendant of Stuf and Wohtgar, brothers who were chieftains over the Isle. Osburh’s family most likely owned land in this area. Alfred may have been stressing his mother’s Jutish heritage to make himself more palatable as a ruler of the kingdom of Kent during his own reign.
Asser tells us Osburh was a most religious woman, noble in birth and noble in character. Assuming Osburh was Aethelwulf’s first wife and the mother of all his offspring, Osburh had at least six children who survived. We don’t know the birth order or even the dates for the births of these children but we know Aethelwulf had five sons and a daughter. There appears to be a gap of several years between the four older boys of the family and the birth of Alfred and his sister.
Asser says Alfred was born in Wantage in 849. Wantage was relatively far away from the government of Wessex on the border of Wessex and Mercia. It was in an unprotected area and left Osburh and her newborn son open to kidnapping or worse. The fact that Aethelwulf already had several sons could explain why it wasn’t so important this new child be born close to home. Perhaps Osburh had no control over when she went into labor and just happened to be in Wantage when it started. Or perhaps Alfred wasn’t born there at all. Another likely place that has been suggested is Wimborne, more centrally located in Wessex. Alfred did mention Wantage in his will and he gave it to his wife Ealhswith, suggesting it was a place of great importance to him.
Asser states that Alfred was the favorite child of Osburh and Aethelwulf and grew up exclusively at the royal court in the care of his parents and his tutors. We have a small glimpse of Osburh in a story told by Asser about Alfred’s childhood. The reciting of English poetry was a great Anglo-Saxon tradition and would have been practiced regularly at Aethelwulf’s court. Alfred, in the company of his brothers, was with their mother when she produced a book of English poetry. Alfred was fascinated by the illuminated capital initial on the first page of the volume. Osburh told the children the first one who could come to her and recite the poetry in the book would be given the book. Alfred eagerly asked his mother if she really would give the book to the one who memorized it the fastest. She smiled and said she would. Alfred took the book and along with his tutors, memorized the poetry. He was given the book as his reward.
Whether this really happened or not we will never really know. It probably says more about the importance of books to Anglo-Saxon ladies. It also gives us a small glimpse of life in an Anglo-Saxon household. And it highlights the love Alfred would have for books and learning. This would translate into his crusade to educate his people when he became King.
After this charming episode, Osburh disappears from the record. When Alfred was around five or six, his father took him on a trip to Rome and they traveled for about a year. On their return, they stopped at the court of the King of the Franks, Charles the Bald. Aethelwulf took as a wife Judith, the daughter of King Charles during this trip so Osburh must have died some time before the journey to Rome was taken.
Due to the gap in the births of Aethelwulf’s children, there has been speculation Aethelwulf had an earlier unnamed wife who had his elder sons and Osburh was a second wife who had Alfred and his sister. There is also the possibility that Osburh is not Alfred’s mother and it was another unnamed wife who had Alfred and his sister. The truth may never be known.
Sources: “Alfred the Great: The Man Who Made England” by Justin Pollard, “Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources” edited by Simon Keynes and Michael LaPidge, “The Kings and Queens of Anglo-Saxon England” by Timothy Venning, “British Kings and Queens” by Mike Ashely, Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”