The first of the English consorts, Ealhswith, was married to Alfred the Great for over thirty years and yet we know very little about her. Not only is she an obscure figure but she was also only a consort, never actually queen. We take a look at what we do know about Ealhswith, why we don’t know more and why she was never dubbed ‘Queen Ealhswith’.
Listen to her podcast episode here or read on to find out more.
We don’t know exactly when Ealhswith was born – she married Alfred in 868, so it would likely have been at least by the early 850s. Her parents were Ethelred Mucil (an Ealdorman of an old tribal group called the Gaini, likely modern day Gainsborough) and Eadburgh. She was born at a time before the nation of England existed and instead there were a series of smaller Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. She was from Mercia in an area roughly covering the midlands of England, though much larger (reaching the Cotswolds on the west and London on the east).
Unfortunately, this was not a good period for any of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Viking had been raiding England since 793 but in 865, the Great Heathen Army (according to legend, led by the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok) began a campaign of conquest. In 867, York and Northumbria fell in the north while Mercia itself saw Nottingham fall and the Vikings overwintered. Thankfully for Mercia, help was at hand in the form of Wessex, the kingdom of the West Saxons in southern England which had been the dominant power since the 820s. Various alliances between the kingdoms had been made in recent decades but in 868, King Burgred of Mercia needed Wessex to help see off the Vikings. Such alliances are often cemented through marriage but Burgred was already married to the sister of the Wessex king so needed to make an alternative match, and Ealhswith was his solution.
Ealhswith’s mother is thought to have been of royal Mercian stock, so although she was not a direct relation to the king, she would have been considered a prestigious bride. The king of Wessex was already married, so instead it was his younger brother, Alfred, who would be the groom. The marriage did not have the best of starts – the military alliance failed to result in a defeat of the Vikings and at the wedding feast, Alfred was “struck without warning in the presence of the entire gathering by a sudden severe pain”. It’s not clear exactly what was amiss – he had previously suffered from piles and subsequent health issues have led some to suggest Crohn’s Disease, but Alfred was apparently so prone to “carnal desires” that he used to pray for minor ailments to help him abstain, so may have considered it a form of divine intervention. Either way, it was not the ideal wedding night for Ealhswith, her new husband racked with pain, praying for piles so he didn’t feel too carnally enthused!
Apart from a disappointing wedding night, the marriage was a good move for Ealhswith. Alfred became king in 871 while Mercia was conquered in 874, resulting in Burgred being exiled. Wessex was now the last surviving independent Saxon kingdom. However, even Wessex came close to conquest when the Vikings ambushed the royal court at Chippenham while celebrating Twelfth Night. Alfred and Ealhswith, together with their 4 children, were forced to flee in the wintry night to the Somerset marshes, making a base on the isle of Athelney. Their eldest child was only 8 years old the youngest about 1, so it would have been a difficult and terrifying time. Thankfully, Alfred was able to link up with loyal allies, emerged from the marshes and defeated the Vikings in the Battle of Edington. He spent the next 20 years rebuilding the country, focusing in particular on defences with a series of burhs (fortified market towns) and education.
Despite all that she went through with Alfred, we know very little about Ealhswith’s role as consort in this time. She would most likely have played a strong role in the upbringing of her children, and was likely present at major ceremonies such as the refounding of London and the marriage of their eldest daughter, Æthelflæd. However, she was never crowned as queen, nor even referred to as queen. In fact, she was not referred to at all during Alfred’s reign. It is only after Alfred died in 899 and her son, Edward the Elder, became king that she was mentioned as witnessing a charter (signing as mater regis – ‘mother of the king’) and founded a nunnery in Winchester (St Mary’s – known as Nunnaminster). She died on 4 December 902, aged c. 52, with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle giving a pretty threadbare obituary: “Ealhswith passed away. That same year was the fight at The Holme between the Kentish and the Danes. Ealdorman Aethelwulf died, brother of Ealhswith.”
A Question of Queens
The obvious question is why we know so little about Ealhswith and why her status seems to have been so low. She was married to Alfred for 31 years, shared the trauma of fleeing from the Vikings as well as having a family together, and yet she is not mentioned by name in any (surviving) contemporary source until the reign of her son. It is not just that we have insufficient evidence from this period because we know more about Alfred than any other Saxon ruler – he commissioned the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a chronicle of Saxon history and the events of his reign) and had his own biographer at court (Asser). If Alfred had wanted us to know about Ealhswith, he had the means to tell us, so why did he choose not to crown and memorialise his wife?
Surprisingly, Alfred actually tells us the reason. There are plenty of examples of powerful queens in Saxon history, but Wessex always seems to have been an exception. Asser observed that “The people of the West Saxons do not suffer a queen to sit next to the king, nor do they even permit her to be called a queen but only wife of the king.” According to Asser, Alfred told him that the reason for this was a notorious woman who was crowned called Eadburh (not Ealhswith’s mother), a daughter of King Offa of Mercia who married King Beorhtric of Wessex. Allegedly, she sought to sow divisions within the kingdom, undermining the king’s closest allies and ultimately murdering her husband. Such was her impact that “not only did she earn hatred for herself but she also brought the same foul stigma on all queens who came after her.”
Alfred may also have brought some personal experience to bear. His father, Æthelwulf, took him on a pilgrimage to Rome in 856 when Alfred was just a child. On the way home, Æthelwulf negotiated a marriage alliance with the French, marrying the daughter of Charles the Bald, Judith. Mindful of his daughter’s status, Charles insisted that Judith be crowned queen before returning to England. Alfred’s older brothers back in Wessex did not take kindly to this news, fearing that any sons born of this marriage might outrank them as they would have been born to a consecrated queen. As such, Æthelwulf returned home with Judith and Alfred to rebellion and was forced to cede the better part of his kingdom to his eldest son.
Alfred’s lesson from this was that queens could be a dangerous and destabilising thing – either due to the individual (Eadburgh) or how the presence of a queen could upset the balance of power (Judith). We shall see with subsequent consorts that it was very easy for Saxon ruler to repudiate their wives and take another, so clearly Alfred did not consider Ealhswith herself as a threat. Instead, it was a deliberate, political decision not to cause runctions at court by crowning his wife for fear of the upset that this might cause. Our lesson is that Ealhswith (as well as many other women) is not missing from the histories because she was unimportant and had no role to play but because a deliberate decision was made to exclude her from the official narrative.
Although we do not have a lot of information about Ealhswith, we still need to review her, so…
We have no evidence of Ealhswith being directly involved in military affairs, but she did have to endure hardships in 878 when the royal court was forced into exile by a Viking ambush. Ealhswith fled along with Alfred and their young children into the marshes in what must have been a terrifying ordeal, followed by several months surviving in the Somerset marshes during winter, knowing that discovery by the Vikings would result in death. After Alfred’s death, her one appearance in a charter of her son, Edward the Elder, is perhaps due to there being a battle for the throne with his cousin, Æthelwold. Edward needed a strong and uniting presence at court to bolster his support and his mother, consort of nearly 30 years, most likely would have been a key figure at this time. However, there is very little positive evidence for us to go on so we cannot give Ealhswith more than a small score.
Score = 3/20
We have no evidence of anything scandalous in relation to Ealhswith, so it has to be a score of 0/20.
Despite the limited evidence for Ealhswith, what little we do know does provide a positive impression of her role. Her main legacy was the foundation of Nunnaminster, a nunnery in Winchester. This would prove to be a very prosperous house, with one of her granddaughters becoming a nun there. It was damaged by fire in 1141 during the Anarchy but remained prosperous until the Dissolution under Henry VIII. Mary Dockray-Miller has argued that Ealhswith was not necessarily “silenced” prior to 899 but was busy with things not considered interesting to male chroniclers, such as motherhood. Remarkably for the time, she raised 5 children who survived to adulthood, all of whom were very successful (King of the English, Lady of the Mercians, Abbess of Shaftesbury, Countess of Flanders, and a wealthy landowner). That Alfred did not seek new marriage alliances suggest that he valued her (despite not bothering to say as much in his chronicles), and Asser refers to he as Alfred’s “excellent wife”, suggesting she fulfilled all the expected duties of a consort and was a respected figure at court. She was clearly valued by her son, who had her witness a charter and buried alongside her husband (quite a rarity for Saxon consorts).
Unfortunately, again, we have very little direct evidence for what Ealhswith got up to as consort. It is likely she was respected and valued but what she actually did will forever remain obscure. As such, she cannot get a high score.
Score = 7/20
Our scoring for the consorts is slightly different to that of the monarchs as we are acknowledging the important role for a consort who survives the monarch, in Ealhswith’s case as Queen Mother. So, Ealhswith was consort from 23 April 871 to 26 October 899 – 28.5 years, and then mother of the king from 26 October 899 to 5 December 902 (3.08 years). We are awarding full marks for the time as consort, half marks for the time as queen mother, so if we add 28.5 to 1.54 (half of 3.08), we get a total score of 30.04. When rated against the other consorts and turned into a score out of 20, Ealhswith gets a score of 15.5/20 (joint 12th for the consorts).
Ealhswith had 5 surviving children, which equates to a score of 15/20 (Joint 10th)
So, does Ealhswith have that certain something, that lasting legacy, the great achievement that we call…the Rex Factor?
She is our first consort, a respected figure who endured the hardship of 878 and left an impressive maternal and religious legacy. She may well have been a very impressive character…but unfortunately, there is just not information for us to go on to give her the Rex Factor.
Our verdict = no, she does not have the Rex Factor.
Let us know what you think in the poll below – does Ealhswith deserve the Rex Factor?
- Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
- Asser, Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources
- Barbara Yorke, Nunneries and the Anglo-Saxon Royal Houses
- Elizabeth Norton, England’s Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York
- Geoffrey Hindley, A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons
- Justin Pollard, Alfred the Great
- Marios Costambeys, Ealhswith (d. 902), consort of Alfred, king of the West Saxons from 871 and of the Anglo-Saxons from 886 (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)
- Mary Dockray-Miller, Motherhood and Mothering in Anglo-Saxon England
- Pauline Stafford, The King’s Wife in Wessex 800-1066 – Past & Present (91, May, 1981, pp. 3-27)
- Tim Clarkson, Æthelflæd: The Lady of the Mercians