The Sisters of King Æthelstan
By Susan Abernethy
King Edward the Elder, son and successor of Alfred the Great of England, had many children. There were three women in his life that may or may not have been his wives. With these women, he had five sons and eight or nine daughters. Before Edward died, he began a concerted effort to marry his daughters to leaders on the continent. This program would be continued under Edward’s son and successor Æthelstan when he became king.
The best information we have on Edward’s daughters is from the twelfth century chronicler William of Malmesbury. We have no order of birth or birth dates and in some cases no names or confusing names for these women. Malmesbury does say Edward’s daughters in their childhood gave their whole attention to literature.
The first woman in Edward’s life was named Ecgwynn. There is no record of a marriage between Ecgwynn and Edward. This doesn’t mean they weren’t married. It’s possible there just is no record or they married in secret. It’s also possible they weren’t married as this wasn’t unusual at the time. However, it appears Ecgwynn lived at court with Edward. They had two children: a son Æthelstan and a daughter whose name we do not know. Æthelstan was a favorite of his grandfather and was given royal gifts when he was a young boy.
When Æthelstan was crowned king in September of 925, one of the first things he did was arrange a marriage for his full sister. In January of 926, he went to Tamworth to have a meeting with Sihtric, the Norse king of York. As part of the truce, Sihtric married this unnamed sister in an effort to secure the northern border of the kingdom of Mercia and to ease the threat of a Viking attack from Dublin. Unfortunately, Sihtric died within about six months of the marriage. The sister was now a childless widow and the most likely scenario is that she went into a nunnery and lived there the rest of her life.
Whatever Ecgwynn’s status was, when Alfred died and Edward the Elder became king, he had a new wife. Ecgwynn died, was set aside or went into a nunnery. By 901, Edward had taken a wife named Ælflaed, the daughter of Æhelhelm, ealdorman of Wiltshire. They had at the very least eight children, two sons and six daughters. Edward and Æthelstan made brilliant continental matches for some of these girls.
Sometime between 917 and 919, Edward arranged the first match between his daughter Eadgifu and Charles III the Simple, King of the Franks and a great-great grandson of Charlemagne. They had two sons; Louis d’Outremer and Charles. In June of 922, King Charles was deposed and a new king named in his place. The new king’s reign was short lived but Charles failed to regain his throne and was thrown in prison. Eadgifu may or may not have returned to Wessex but her son Louis definitely did. King Æthelstan brought up Louis as a foster son at his court. Louis remained there until 936 when an embassy was sent to Æthelstan requesting the return of Louis to assume the throne. Æthelstan gave Louis some aid in regaining his throne. After King Charles died, Eadgifu married Herbert, Count of Vermandois and another descendant of Charlemagne. The marriage produced no children.
In 926, Hugh, count of Paris had recently taken the title of Duke of the Franks. He sent an embassy to King Æthelstan asking for an alliance and one of his sisters in marriage. He supposedly sent lavish gifts including saint’s relics which Æthelstan was famous for collecting. After many negotiations and more gift exchanges, Æthelstan chose his half-sister Eadhild to marry Hugh. They apparently had no children and Eadhild most likely died c. 938.
Henry the Fowler of Germany, known as King of the Eastern Franks, ruled a portion of the eastern half of Charlemagne’s empire. In 928, he sent an embassy to King Æthelstan asking for one of his sisters as a bride for his son Otto. Æthelstan actually sent two sisters to Quedlinburg in Saxony. The elder sister was named Eadgyth or Edith. The chroniclers are not sure of the name of the second sister.
The chroniclers’ state Otto chose Eadgyth and that is was a love match. The wedding took place either in 929 or 930 after a Saxon victory over the Slavs. The match brought great prestige to Henry and would lead to a close relationship between Germany and England for many years. As a marriage present, Eadgyth was given the town of Magdeburg and she came to love the place and made it a royal residence. At first she was the Duchess of Saxony and when Henry died, she became Queen of the Eastern Franks. She is mentioned as interceding for petitioners and helped her husband found the St. Maurice monastery in Magdeburg.
Eadgyth had a son Luidolf c. 930 who became Duke of Swabia and died in 957. Eadgyth also had a daughter named Luitgarde c. 931. Luitgarde married Konrad of Franconia, Duke of Lorraine. Her great-grandson Konrad II became Holy Roman Emperor and founded the Franconian (Salian) dynasty. Otto would be elected as Holy Roman Emperor in 962 and would be known as Otto the Great. Eadgyth died c. 946 and was buried at St. Maurice. Otto asked to be buried next to her. In 2008, during some excavation work at St. Maurice, a tomb with Eadgyth’s name was found. The bones were thoroughly tested and it is with some certainty they are Eadgyth’s. The remains were reburied in the same tomb.
The second sister who went with Eadgyth to Saxony has a confusing history but the most likely scenario is she was the full sister of Eadgyth, possibly named Eadgifu or Ælfgifu. A chronicle mentions she was sent to be married to a certain Duke of the Alps. This was most likely a prince of Burgundy.
Edward and Ælflaed had two more daughters named Eadflaed and Æthelhild. Around 919-920, Edward put aside Aelflaed and she joined the community of Wilton as a nun. Eadflaed also joined Wilton as a nun and Æthelhild joined as a lay sister. It appears all three women were buried at Wilton.
Edward put aside Ælflaed to marry Eadgifu, daughter of Sigehelm, ealdorman of Kent. She was about twenty years old and would live another forty years as a widow after Edward died in 924. She remained an active presence during the reigns of her sons Edmund and Eadred and also into the reign of her grandson Edgar the Peaceable. Eadgifu also had a daughter named Eadburg or Edburga. At an early age she showed signs of being pious and her father probably handed her over the Nunnaminster at Winchester when she was very young. She became a nun and possibly an abbess. She was canonized a saint in 972 and some of her remains were transferred to Pershore Abbey in Worcestershire. In the twelfth century, Osbert de Clare, prior of Westminster, wrote a Latin “Life” of Eadburg. Eadgifu may have had another daughter, also named Eadgifu, who married a prince of Aquitaine.
Edward and Æthelstan were very successful in promoting these matches. The number of continental matches of princesses from Wessex during their reigns was unprecedented. They also safeguarded the spiritual afterlife of their family by giving a few women to the church.
Further reading: “Aethelstan: The First King of England” by Sarah Foot, “The Warrior Kings of Saxon England” by Ralph Whitlock, “The Fall of Saxon England” by Richard Humble. I’d like to express my gratitude to my friend Rania M. for her genealogical work and assistance with this post.