Thursday, 9 April 2015

Queen Raedburgh

The next noteworthy queen is also one of the most shadowy. In 802, Egbert – a man not directly related to his predecessors - came to the throne of Wessex. While he never attained direct control over the whole of what is now known as England, he achieved ascendancy over Cornwall, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria during his reign, as well as subduing the Welsh. Egbert was the overlord of most of what would become England and he and his wife were the ancestors of all but four future monarchs of England.

For such an important royal ancestress, Egbert’s wife is very obscure. There is no contemporary record of her, although one later medieval document suggests that he was married to a woman called Raedburgh, and that she was a kinswoman of the great Frankish emperor, Charlemagne. This is possible as Egbert was exiled to Francia in around 800, staying at Charlemagne’s court before returning to Wessex to take the throne. Egbert retained contact with the Frankish royal family, and, according to the Annals of St Bertin’s, he corresponded with Charlemagne’s son and successor, Louis the Pious. The most that can be said for Raedburgh is that it is not impossible that she was a kinswoman of Charlemagne who married Egbert during his exile.

Egbert may have had a good reason for keeping Raedburgh in the background. According to the ninth century writer, Asser, the role of the queen was deliberately kept in obscurity during the ninth century. Asser claimed that:

‘The West Saxons did not allow the queen to sit beside the king, nor indeed did they allow her to be called ‘queen’, but rather ‘king’s wife’. The elders of the land maintain that this disputed and indeed infamous custom originated on account of a certain grasping and wicked queen of the same people, who did everything she could against her lord and the whole people, so that not only did she earn hatred for herself, leading to her expulsion from the queen’s throne, but she also brought the same foul stigma on all queens who came after her’.

The queen in question was Eadburh, daughter of Offa of Mercia and the wife of Egbert’s predecessor, King Beohtric. She was politically influential and ultimately murdered her husband, before fleeing the kingdom, leading the people of Wessex to reject the office of queen altogether.

Given the strength of feeling against her predecessor, Raedburgh would never have used the title of queen and, instead, would have been called ‘lady’. She bore more than one son, although only Aethelwulf survived to adulthood. Her only surviving child had been groomed for a career in the church, with his education entrusted by his father to Bishop Helmstan. According to the twelfth century chronicler, William of Malmesbury, he had previously been subdeacon of Winchester, but the deaths of all other legitimate heirs led to him returning to the secular world with the agreement of the pope.  There is no evidence that Raedburgh survived her husband, who died in 839.

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