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Queen Eadgyth's remains discovered in Germany
The life of an Anglo-Saxon princess
 
Queen Eadgyth's remains discovered in Germany

Wednesday 20 January 2010    By Ann Wuyts

Remains of one of the oldest members of the English royal family, Edith of England, have been located at the Magdeburger Dom in Germany.   A lead coffin was discovered, bearing the name Eadgyth, the old spelling for Edith. Inside the coffin, a nearly complete female skeleton was found, wrapped in silk.

Queen Eadgyth, the sister of King Athelstan and the granddaughter of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex became the wife of Otto I, the Holy Roman Emperor in 929.   She lived in Saxony and bore Otto at least two children, before her death in 946 at the age of 36.   She was then buried at the Monastery of Mauritius in Magdeburg, Germany.   Her tomb was later marked in the Cathedral by an elaborate sixteenth century monument, thought to be a cenotaph.   If bones were to be found here, they would have had to been moved to this later tomb.

Dr Harald Meller of the Landesmuseum fur Vorgeschichte in Saxony Anhalt, who led the project said: "We still are not completely certain that this is Eadgyth although all the scientific evidence points to this interpretation.   In the Middle Ages bones were moved around as relics and this makes definitive identification difficult."

Apart from the fragmentary bones - wrapped in textiles - inside the lead coffin, other finds included soil sediments and entire beetles.   All the findings and the lead coffin itself are being studied and conserved by a team of scientists including osteologists, archaeologists, archaeometallurgists, specialists in medieval textiles, forensic scientists, pedologists, biologists, art-historians and epigraphers.

As part of the research some small samples are being brought to the University of Bristol for further analysis. The research group at Bristol will be hoping to trace the isotopes in these bones to provide a geographical signature that matches where Eadgyth is likely to have grown up.

Professor Mark Horton of the Bristol University's Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, who is coordinating this side of the research, explained the strategy: "We know that Saxon royalty moved around quite a lot, and we hope to match the isotope results with known locations around Wessex and Mercia, where she could have spent her childhood. If we can prove this truly is Eadgyth, this will be one of the most exciting historical discoveries in recent years."

Eadgyth is likely to be the oldest member of the English royal family whose remains have survived.   Her brother, King Athelstan is generally considered to have been the first King of England after he unified the various Saxon and Celtic kingdoms following the battle of Brunanburgh in 937.   His tomb survives in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, but is most likely empty.   Eadgyth’s sister Adiva was  married to an unknown European ruler, but her tomb is not located.- Adiva was offered to Otto as wife, but he choose Eadgyth instead,

The discovery of Eadgyth’s remains illustrates the close links between European states in the early medieval period and how in the formation of both England and Germany intermarriage between the emerging royal houses of Europe was commonplace and has left a lasting legacy in the present royal families of Europe.
 

 The life of an Anglo-Saxon princess

17 June 2010    By Michael Wood The Guardian

The unearthing of Eadgyth, the Anglo-Saxon princess, was an emotional moment for historian Michael Wood.

She was the Diana of the dark ages – charismatic, with the common touch

Scientists examine the
remains of Princess Eadgyth.

Photograph: Juraj Liptak/LDA Halle/PA


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.
 
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