For anyone interested in the kings and queens of England it was a touching moment last year to see the heavy tomb cover lifted in Magdeburg Cathedral. The inscription said the occupant was Eadgyth, queen of the Germans, the Anglo-Saxon granddaughter of Alfred the Great, sister of Athelstan the first king of a united England. But was it really her? Now the results of the scientific examination are through: isotopes from her tooth enamel confirm that this early medieval woman, a regular horse rider who died in her mid-30s, had indeed spent her first years in southern England. It is her, after all.
As a long-time Athelstan watcher (I’m writing a book on him), I confess I almost felt my eyes prickle when I saw the startling image of the open lead coffin: an ivory silk shroud covering (or at least so I imagined with narrowed eyes) an almost discernible human shape. Under the crumpled folds was a small slim frame slightly bent at the knees, like a child asleep. Buried first in July 946, she had been reburied in this tomb in 1510. As blue bloods go, she was second to none: her grandfather, her father Edward and her brother were three of the greatest rulers in British history (well, why not the greatest?). I must say I was glad not to see the forensic close-ups of her bones and skull: the respect afforded by the antique silk shroud had the strange effect of giving her back something of her life.
She was aged, perhaps, 35 or 36, the same as a famous modern English princess, and, needless to say, Diana comparisons have been made in the last few months. In German sources, our only real clues to her life, it seems she was just as charismatic. She was in her late teens in autumn 929, when an embassy came to England from Germany seeking a bride for Otto, son of Henry I, the founder of the medieval German empire, the First Reich. Unlike the Third Reich, English relations with the First were close and often warm: Germany had been Christianised by English missionaries such as Boniface and they still liked to say they were “of one blood”, their languages still close enough to understand each other.
Her brother Athelstan received the German ambassador at Canterbury and, “extremely enthusiastic” about the proposed union, according to one German account, “took Eadgyth aside and spoke in a loving voice to her, pouring into her heart an affectionate portrait of the young Otto”, then a 17-year-old toughie bred to war and already experienced in the Saxons’ savage campaign against Slavs and the Hungarians. In the event, Athelstan sent her to Germany with her younger sister Eadgifu, “so that Otto could choose which he liked best”. They were unsentimental about their daughters in the middle ages, marrying them off for diplomatic advantage, as dynastic bargaining counters, or just to get rid of a possible source of rival children of the royal blood. But then, as the match made by Lady Di was to show, royals were not so sentimental even in the late 20th century.
The English chronicles tell us nothing about Eadgyth’s later life in Germany. But German sources suggest she was quite a hit: brave, capable and strong-minded. The famous nun and poet Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, who was perhaps too young to have known Eadgyth personally (she was 15 when the queen died), says she was highly esteemed for her personal qualities. Hrotsvit makes much of her calm demeanour and especially her “remarkable sincerity”: she simply “glowed” with charm. Eadgyth also had the common touch. “In fact,” says Hrotsvit, “she was so very highly regarded in her own country that public opinion unanimously rated her the best woman who existed at that time in England.”
Of course these are all stock attributes for admirable women in a patriarchal society, and perhaps that is just what the Germans were told, the hard sell by the English royal family also apparent in the story that Eadgyth was “descended from sainted ancestors”, namely the line of the Northumbrian martyr Oswald, killed nearly 300 years before. But, in fact, Eadgyth had no need of a fake family tree: her family were the oldest royals in Europe whose pedigree, they claimed, went back to a 5th-century adventurer called Cerdic (as, too, incidentally, does that of our present queen).
So Eadgyth sailed to Germany with her sister. And though Athelstan had offered Otto a choice, it was, we are told, “love at first sight”. The couple married at Quedlinburg in Saxony, and soon celebrated the births of a son and daughter. The German public was as fascinated by the young prince as we would be today: though in a world threatened by Vikings, Magyars and Saracens, much more was at stake in the birth of an heir.
In 936 Henry died, and Otto was crowned, with Eadgyth at his side as queen of the Germans. Together they survived a civil war and, for 10 years, ran the kingdom in partnership, with Eadgyth administering her part of the royal household as strong women did. When she died in 946 “the whole of the German nation mourned her with an intense grief . . . a foreign race that she had come to cherish with kindness. Their dearly beloved mistress was thus entrusted to the earth . . . to lie in the tomb until she could rise again.”
And now, though surely not in the way a devout 10th-century woman would have wished, she has. So to Eadgyth, one of the many forgotten women of early English history, welcome back to the light.
Michael Wood is a historian and broadcaster.