Carrying on with posts on England’s most noteworthy queens, no list would be complete without Eadgifu, the third wife of King Edward the Elder. She was one of the most powerful medieval women and I included her in a list of the top ten English queens which I compiled for BBC History magazine last year. Surprisingly, she is very little known today.
Eadgifu, who was born in around 899, was the much younger third wife of Edward the Elder. She was the daughter of the wealthy Kentish ealdorman, Sigehelm, who was killed fighting the Vikings at the Battle of the Holme in 902. She may have been her father’s heiress and, certainly, inherited estates from him in Kent. Eadgifu’s wealth and connections recommended her to Edward the Elder and he married her in 919 after repudiating his second wife. She played no known political role during her husband’s lifetime. This is hardly surprising, however since, in five years of marriage, she produced four children.
Edward’s death in July 924 caused a dispute over the crown. He was initially succeeded by Aelfweard, the eldest son of his second wife, but he died very soon afterwards. This cleared the way for Athelstan, the son of Edward’s first marriage and a man several years older than Eadgifu. It has been suggested that Eadgifu came to terms with Athelstan, offering her support for his claims over that of Aelfweard’s younger brother, Edwin. Certainly, Athelstan seems to have accepted Eadgifu’s young sons as his heirs. He also arranged the prestigious marriage of her eldest daughter to the continental nobleman, Louis of Aquitaine. Eadgifu’s second daughter, Eadburgh, had been dedicated as an infant to the convent at Nunnaminster and was venerated as a saint following her death in around 950.
Eadgifu’s eldest son, Edmund, became king in 939 after Athelstan’s death. As queen mother, she wielded a great deal of influence, using the title of ‘Mater Regis’ (mother of the king), during the reigns of both her sons. She entirely overshadowed both of Edmund’s wives and was regularly at court, appearing prominently in the witness lists of charters. Both of her sons made grants of land to her. In 943, for example, Edmund I, granted Eadgifu estates in Kent. In 953 Eadred granted his mother thirty hides at Felpham in Sussex. Eadred, in particular, was concerned for his mother’s welfare and in his Will he bequeathed land to her at Amesbury, Wantage and Basing, as well as other estates in Sussex, Surrey and Kent.
Edmund died in 946 and was succeeded by Eadred who never married and relied upon his mother as a leading councillor. Eadgifu is remembered as a patron of the early religious reform movement in England and, under Eadred, she played a valuable role in assisting the leading churchmen in the kingdom. The Viking invasions of the late ninth century had impoverished the church. Many monasteries had been burned or deserted during the period and those that survived often failed to live up to the defining principles of monasticism: community life, celibacy and personal poverty.
Eadgifu was very interested in the reform movement, which was led by Edmund’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Oda. She was associated with another leading churchman, Dunstan, who came to prominence during Edmund’s reign. She was also instrumental in the promotion of another leading churchman, Aethelwold. When he petitioned the king to be allowed to study at a continental monastery, Eadgifu – who recognised his promise – persuaded Eadred to refuse. Instead, at his mother’s urging, the king made Aethelwold abbot of the ruined monastery at Abingdon, which later became a centre of reform. Both Eadred and Eadgifu made gifts to the monastery, with the queen mother’s on a ‘lavish scale’.
Eadred’s death in November 955 saw Eadgifu’s fortunes wane. Following a succession disputed between Eadwig and Edgar, the sons of Edmund I, Eadwig came to the throne. Eadgifu, along with her ally, Dunstan, supported her younger grandson, Edgar, and, soon after Eadwig’s accession, she was deprived of her lands and possessions. Dunstan was exiled to Ghent by the young king. Eadwig was not able to establish his authority as king for long and, by 958 Edgar had created his own kingdom north of the Thames. Eadwig died soon afterwards and, with the accession of her younger grandson, Edgar, Eadgifu was one again restored to her lands and possessions. To her satisfaction, Dunstan was appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury and the religious reform reached its peak under King Edgar.
By the late 950s, Eadgifu was considered elderly by her contemporaries and she retired to a religious life, rarely visiting court. She remained an important member of the royal family and, in 966, attended Edgar’s refoundation of the New Minster at Winchester. She was also friendly with Edgar’s queen, the equally reform minded Aelfthryth and, in her Will, she bequeathed to her five hides of land in Essex to be presented on her behalf to the Abbey at Ely. The date of Eadgifu’s death is nowhere recorded, but it appears to have been around 966 or 967 when she was approaching seventy.