Whether she deserved it or not, Eadburh of the West Saxons is infamous for being an evil queen. She was the daughter of the powerful eighth century King Offa of Mercia, who may rightfully claim to be the first King of the English. Eadburh perhaps was an ardent student of her father’s politics or her reputation for wickedness may have been part of a smear campaign by later chroniclers.
Eadburh was the daughter of King Offa of Mercia and Queen Cynethryth. King Offa had come to the throne after the murder of King Aethelbald in 757. During a period of civil strife in Mercia, Offa gradually consolidated his power there and in Wessex and Kent, Hwicce and Lindsey. There is a lack of dependable contemporary records for Offa’s reign but based on records from his later years, he seems to have ruled with a combination of military strength and competent negotiating. His consolidation seems to have been at its high point by 760 when he turned his attention to fighting the Welsh.
Offa’s control of Kent allowed him to establish a trade route out of London along the Thames and also put him in contact with Canterbury and beyond. The kings of Kent had an established relationship with the kings of Francia and Offa may have instituted his own connections with the Frankish court around this time. He made an alliance by marrying Cynethryth, possibly a Mercian princess. Cynethryth seems to have wielded considerable clout at the court of Offa. Her likeness appears on coins from Offa’s reign, one of the a earliest woman’s images to appear on English coinage. Cynethryth was ambitious and wanted to marry her son Egfrith to one of Charlemagne’s daughters, an offer that Charlemagne rejected. Cynethryth is also blamed, rightly or wrongly, for the scandalous murder of (Saint) King Aethelbert of East Anglia in 794.
Offa arranged to marry his daughter Eadburh to King Beorhtric of Wessex in 789. Beorhtric had become king in 787 and this was a mutually beneficial political alliance. Beorhtric needed help in fighting off a claim to his throne from Egbert, grandfather of King Alfred the Great and Beorhtric’s eventual successor. They did manage to drive Egbert into exile to the court of Charlemagne.
The story of Eadburh is now taken up by Bishop Asser in his “Life of King Alfred”. Alfred supposedly told the tale to Asser so he could record it. After their marriage, Eadburh quickly came to dominate Beorhtric, becoming active in politics and asserting her own rights. Beorhtric retained his title as king but all charters were issued in Offa’s name so it’s possible Eadburh was acting in her father’s interests as well. While her father was seeking to suppress a resurgent Kent, Eadburh may have been keeping Wessex from challenging Mercia.
Eadburh’s dominance supposedly went so far that she began to loathe any men that Beorhtric liked or trusted. She would denounce these men in Beorhtric’s presence. She was called a tyrant. If she couldn’t get her way through the king, she resorted to poisoning the food or drink of the hated councilors and others. Eventually there was a young man who became a favorite of Beorhtric. Eadburh denounced him but Beorhtric wouldn’t give in to her. She decided to poison the young man but Beorhtric took the poison by mistake. Both the king and the young man died at Wareham in 802.
The death of her husband forced Eadburh’s life to take a completely different turn. Egbert was recalled and elected King of Wessex so Eadburh was unable to stay. Her father and her brother had died in 796 so she was unable to return to Mercia. Asser says she packed up countless treasures and fled to Francia and the court of Charlemagne. It is unclear if the treasure consisted of what she owned or was part of the royal cache.
The legend goes on to state that Eadburh was bearing gifts before Charlemagne as he sat on his throne. Charlemagne supposedly asks Eadburh if she would choose between him and his son who was standing next to him. She said she would choose the son as he was younger. Charlemagne smiles and tells her if she had chosen him, she could have had his son. But since she chose the son, she couldn’t have either one of them. Charlemagne then gives her a large convent of nuns over which she would rule as abbess.
Unfortunately, just as she had lived recklessly in England, she lived recklessly in Francia. Eadburh was caught in an act of debauchery with an Anglo-Saxon man and ejected from the convent on the orders of Charlemagne. She would live a life of poverty and misery until her death. She was seen at the end of her days, wandering the streets of Pavia in northern Italy with a single slave boy, begging. Her tomb in Pavia was reportedly shown to passing English pilgrims. King Alfred himself may have seen the tomb on his visits to Rome as a young boy.
Egbert went on to rule Wessex for thirty six years followed by his son Aethelwulf and grandson Alfred the Great. Asser tells us because of resentment for Eadburh, the status and influence of king’s wives was greatly reduced to the point where they were not called “queen” but only “king’s wife” or “Lady”. This argument seems to have merit. Aethelwulf’s wife Osburh and Alfred’s wife Ealhswith were not called queen. Aethelwulf took a wife after Osburh died. She was Judith of France, the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor and Frankish King Charles the Bald. Charles insisted his daughter be crowned in France before she traveled to England. It wasn’t until Alfred’s great-grandson Edgar the Peaceable married Aelfthryth and staged a double coronation at Bath in 973 that there was an anointed Anglo-Saxon queen in England.
Sources: “British Kings and Queens” by Mike Ashley, “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, “Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The King’s Wife in the Early Middle Ages” by Pauline Stafford