Eadgifu, Anglo-Saxon Queen

Picture of Queen Eadgifu from "The Saxon Cathedral at Canterbury and The Saxon Saints Buried Therein"
Picture of Queen Eadgifu from “The Saxon Cathedral at Canterbury and The Saxon Saints Buried Therein”

What little historical records we have pertaining to Queen Eadgifu tell us she exercised considerable power. She was the third wife of Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great. While she didn’t have much prominence during the life of her husband or her stepson Aethelstan, she came to exert her influence during the reigns of her sons and grandsons. She was the first important queen of the tenth century due to her landed interests and to her role in the family politics of the time.

The best estimate of a birthdate for Eadgifu is c. 901. She was the daughter of Ealdorman Sigehelm of Kent. She owned extensive and widespread landholdings in Kent and held Minster in Thanet, and possibly Ely. Edward the Elder had been living with a woman named Ecgwynn at this father’s court. We don’t know for sure he was married to Ecgwynn but he had two children with her, Aethelstan and an unnamed daughter. In 901, when Edward had been king for two years, he had a new wife named Aelflaed. Together they had at least eight children, two sons and six daughters. Around 919-920, Edward set aside Aelflaed and she became a nun at Wilton where she was joined by two of her daughters. It was at this time Edward married Eadgifu, most likely to gain control of her landholdings since he already had plenty of heirs.

Eadgifu would have been around twenty at the time of her marriage. She was called seo hlæfdige or The Lady of Wessex. She had a son named Edmund who was born in 920/1 and another son Eadred, born in 921/2. She also had at least two daughters. Eadburh was a nun who died c. 960 and Elgiva married Louis, King of Arles. Eadgifu gained more lands during her marriage due to grants from Edward. Edward was to die in July of 924, leaving Eadgifu a widow with young children.

There were three half-brothers to her children who stood to succeed to the throne before her sons; Aethelstan, Edward’s eldest son by his first wife and then there was Edwin and Aethelweard by Edward’s second wife. Aethelweard died shortly after his father in 924 and Edwin died in a mysterious drowning in 933. The succession after Edward’s death was not truly settled for about a year when Aethelstan finally secured his position as king. Eadgifu probably lived as an obscure widow during the reign of Aethelstan, bringing up her children at court. But by the end of Aethelstan’s reign, she had maneuvered herself into a better position because Aethelstan named her sons as his heirs. Aethelstan may or may not have promised not to marry in order to secure their succession.

At the Battle of Brunanburh in 937, King Aethelstan was victorious and Eadgifu’s son Edmund fought at his side. Aethelstan reigned for two more years and died in October of 939. Edmund succeeded him as king at the age of eighteen. Eadgifu appears to have gained sudden prominence in the 940’s after a long period where West Saxon queens remained in obscurity. Her power derived from her status as a widow and the mother of the king. She had more power during her son Edmund’s reign that she ever had before. Edmund was married twice and she eclipsed both his wives, maintaining her power and position.

Eadgifu's son King Edmund I
Eadgifu’s son King Edmund I

It is unlikely she was designated as the actual regent for her sons. She is commonly called The King’s Mother in documents from the period. Eadgifu appears in witness lists as one of the most regularly recorded witnesses of diplomas and charters during Edmund’s reign and is the only woman in the lists. And her name appears directly after the king’s. This meant she was included in the hierarchy of the newly expanded kingdom of her sons.

King Edmund was known as the “Magnificent”. He was a great warrior and possibly had a fondness for spectacle. He was stabbed to death in a brawl at Pucklechurch near Bath in 946. His two sons Eadwig and Edgar were too young to rule so his brother Eadred succeeded him as king. Eadred suffered from some kind of stomach ailment and had trouble swallowing. But his illness didn’t affect his ability to rule and he was a strong warrior. He united the kingdom of England once again after some rifts had occurred.

Eadgifu witnessed even more charters during the reign of Eadred, most granting land to laity and the church. She was a patron of the monastic revival and reform in England. It was always beneficial to garner the support of the saints and the church for one’s family. She influenced her sons to support the church reforms. Payments were frequent between kings, queens and churchmen during this time. She assisted in advancing bishops like Dunstan and Athelwold who were significant in driving the reforms. She maintained a high degree of power during Eadred’s reign by making an alliance with Dunstan. Eadred had no wife to challenge her position. After a long illness, Eadred died at Frome, Somerset on November 23, 955.

With the death of her son, Eadgifu’s position was perilous. Her power was at the mercy of any shift in influence. There was a struggle between her two grandsons Eadwig and Edgar, both teenagers. Eadwig declared his position as king and planned to marry a woman of royal descent named Aelfgifu. She was Eadwig’s third cousin once removed. Dunstan didn’t approve of Eadwig marrying a woman he was so closely related to and started working to replace Eadwig with his brother Edgar. Eadgifu may have supported Dunstan in this plan. Neither one of them wanted to give up what power they had. With the support of some noblemen, Eadwig sent Dunstan into exile from court as well as from the kingdom. He also seized Eadgifu’s lands.

Eadgifu disappeared from court and the record. When Eadwig died suddenly in 959, Edgar asserted his position as king and restored Eadgifu’s land to her. Her role as queen/regent was through and she was rarely at court after 959, most likely in a nunnery. She came out of retirement in 966 to attend a meeting granting additional privileges to the New Minster at Winchester. There was also a family celebration to recognize the legitimacy of Edgar’s new son, born to his third wife Aelfthryth.

Eadgifu’s reputation has been heightened by the supportive position she plays in the Lives of Dunstan and Athelwold. She was very interested in acquiring churches and land and actively promoted the extension of West Saxon power. She may have been, for all intents and purposes a regent in Kent. Eadgifu survived her husband Edward by over forty years. It is believed she died c. 966/7. She was associated with the monastery at Wilton and may have been buried there.

Further reading: “The Kings and Queens of Anglo-Saxon England” by Timothy Venning, “Queen Emma & Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh-Century England” by Pauline Stafford, “Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The King’s Wife in the Early Middle Ages” by Pauline Stafford, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England” edited by Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes and Donald Scragg, “Edward the Elder: 899-924” edited by N.J. Higham and D.H. Hill