Although by no means a famous name today, Eadgifu of Kent is the first of the Wessex consorts to have been a major figure at court and she enjoyed great influence for half a century. Interestingly, however, it was not as the king’s wife but as the king’s mother (and even grandmother) that Eadgifu was to demonstrate the potential power that consorts could wield.
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Eadgifu was born probably between 899-903, the daughter of Sigehelm (the Ealdorman of Kent) and…someone else (we don’t know her mother’s name). England did not yet exist as one unified country and Kent was one of the original Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, particularly influential in the 6th century with the introduction of Christianity, but it was later subsumed into the rival kingdoms of Mercia (roughly the midlands) and Wessex (the south and south-west). In 902, Edward the Elder was King of Wessex but faced a rebellion from his cousin, Æthelwold, and the Vikings of East Anglia. Eadgifu’s father led the men of Kent at the Battle of the Holme, in which Edward had retreated but Sigehelm and his men stayed to fight. Sigehelm was killed and the Kentish army defeated, but crucially the battle saw the death of Æthelwold, meaning Edward was secure on the throne.
Eadgifu was entrusted to a powerful relative for her upbringing and was probably about 20 years old when she became Edward the Elder’s second consort (though third wife) in 919. Edward was some 25 years her senior and had enjoyed great success after the Holme, with years of successful campaigning against the Vikings meaning he now ruled everywhere in England south of Northumbria (York). He already had three sons by two different women so it is perhaps surprising that he should choose to repudiate his wife of twenty years at this juncture in order to marry Eadgifu. A new threat had emerged in York in the form of Norse Vikings, so Edward was preparing for a lengthy campaign in the north and he may have felt the need to shore up his position in the south. It may be that the people of Kent held a grudge for their fate at the Holme, so marrying Eadgifu ensured that he would have their loyalty in the event of a long absence.
Other than having children by Edward, we know nothing of what Eadgifu did as his consort – there is no evidence of a significant political role nor a suggestion that she was crowned or anointed as queen. However, when Edward died in 924, a succession crisis ensued which offered Eadgifu the prospect of much greater influence. The Saxons had no fixed rule for the succession, meaning any legitimate son of a king could claim the throne, and with Edward being something of a serial monogamist, that meant he left 5 such sons contending for the throne. Eadgifu’s sons (Edmund and Eadred) were just infants and had no immediate prospect of success, but as the incumbent consort, Eadgifu no doubt had influence at court (as well as Kent) and had an opportunity to use this to her advantage. She seems to have made a pact with Edward’s eldest son, Athelstan, agreeing to support his claim against the sons by Edward’s second marriage in return for him acknowledging her sons as his heirs. This alliance proved successful – Athelstan defeated his two half-brothers by the 2nd marriage and then never married or had children of his own, instead according great honours to his half-brothers by Eadgifu. When he died in 939 (now the king of all England), Edmund succeeded him without any challenge to his position.
As mater regis (mother to the king), Eadgifu was accorded great prominence at court. She witnessed numerous charters (usually prominently placed near the top of the list ahead of all the nobles and archbishops) and owned extensive landholdings across England. She had particular influence in advancing the cause of monastic reform, a movement calling for stricter and more uniform observance after the chaos caused by decades of Viking raids. Eadgifu not only acquired land and encouraged her sons to follow her lead but she patronised some of the men who would dominate both religious affairs for the next generation, including Ali’s personal favourite, Dunstan!
Tragically, her time as Queen Mother would be relatively short, but not because of her own death. Edmund was stabbed by a notorious thief in 946 aged just 25, while Eadred had continually poor health and died in 955 at just 32. The throne now passed to Edmund’s oldest son, Eadwig (15), making Eadgifu the first of only two Queen Grandmothers in English history (the second being Mary of Teck 1,000 years later!) At this point, Eadgifu’s position was undone. Her grandson turned against the old generation, with Dunstan being exiled to Ghent and Eadgifu being deprived of her lands. Partly, this was a young man asserting himself and promoting his own allies, but equally it may be that Eadgifu and Dunstan had backed his younger brother, Edgar, ahead of him to be king. For Eadgifu, it may be that while Anglo-Saxon England could now accept there being a powerful woman at court it could only be one powerful woman, so when Eadwig married a woman of notable lineage, this marked a form of forced retirement for Eadgifu, with her lands and influence being ceded to the new woman at court.
However, Eadgifu and the old guard were not done yet. Eadwig struggled for support, and Edgar was recognised as king in Mercia in Northumbria. Eadwig then suffered the indignity of his marriage being annulled against his will and he died in 959, leading to Edgar becoming king. Dunstan was recalled from exile and Eadgifu’s lands were restored. Despite this restoration of status, she does not seem to have recovered her old influence and was rarely at court from 959. She was old for the time (in her 60s) and probably was focussed on religious affairs and her extensive estates. She was present in 966 for the refoundation of New Minster (966), a grand dynastic occasion with all the royal women present. This is the last record of her, so it is likely she died soon afterwards.
Eadgifu is an excellent example of how some skillful manipulation of a succession dispute can afford significant influence and power to queen mothers. Although not mentioned during Athelstan’s reign, the fact that he chose to acknowledge her infant sons as his successors is quite possibly thanks to her negotiating with him to bolster his position against his half-brothers by Ælfflæd. It was certainly successful – Athelstan kept the throne but never married and Eadgifu’s sons succeeded him. Consequently, she went on to be a very powerful individual, regularly witnessing charters for her sons, usually immediately after them and ahead of the archbishops and nobles. She was also very wealthy, probably the wealthiest woman in England, with substantial territories inherited from her father in Kent as well as various grants made by her sons. She was also clearly not a woman to be messed with as whenever her lands came under threat, she came out fighting. Her father left her lands in Kent to a man called Goda as security for a loan but when he refuted her claims that this had since been repaid, Edward the Elder intervened to return the lands to her. After the death of Eadred, Goda’s sons seized the lands back and she was dispossessed of her other estates by Eadwig, but she threw her weight behind Edgar and soon enough had all her lands restored.
Eadgifu enjoyed great power under her sons, but for most of the time she is a rather more obscure figure. There is no evidence for any role whilst actually consort beyond childbearing, no definite evidence of a role under Athelstan, and she then had her lands and influence removed by her first grandson (with only the lands being restored by her second). As queen mother, she was highly influential, but the rest of the time she was extremely vulnerable to shifting circumstances and had to struggle to retain her status.
Eadgifu was a successful player of succession politics and as queen mother achieved significant power and influence that showed the potential role that women could play at the Anglo-Saxon court. However, her limited role as consort and her subsequent relegation by her grandsons prevents her from getting a higher score.
Score = 12/20
Eadgifu’s hardiness was such that she was not above conspiring against her own grandson where he deprived her of lands and influence. However, this was in support of another grandson and in response to an attack on her. Otherwise, there is nothing really to go on.
Score = 0/20
Eadgifu enjoyed great influence as Queen Mother and was clearly a highly respected figure in the governance of the country. Charters are a useful indicator of who was important at court when decisions are made and who was considered most important. Eadgifu frequently witnessed charters in this period (unlike her predecessors) and usually appeared ahead of the archbishops and bishops just behind her sons (ahead, even, of subsequent consorts). An area where she left a lasting legacy was monastic reform, a religious movement aimed at restoring standards (and standardisation) in the church after the depredations of the Viking raids. Eadgifu was something of an early adopter and used her influence with her sons to encourage them to make reform a core policy of each regime. Canterbury Cathedral probably owed about half of its total landed endowments to her interventions with her sons (a church close to her heart as a woman of Kent). She was also a patron of the up-and-coming reformers in the church such as Æthelwold (for whom she procured estates in Abingdon to refound a monastery) and Rex Factor favourite, Dunstan! Both men would go on to be very important both to the church and the running of the country, with Dunstan in particular being a key adviser to numerous kings. Monastic reform was not just a religious policy but one that went hand-in-hand with the governance of the country as it was a means of establishing royal authority and unity across England (which was newly established as a singular nation state at this time). Eadgifu’s interventions were an important part of the process of cementing this new nation into a cohesive whole.
While she enjoyed great power and influence, this seems to have been isolated to her as an individual rather than her bequeathing a legacy to future consorts for the office of queen. Indeed, as consort she does not appear to have had any status or influence and the influence she gained through being queen mother she then lost once her grandsons took the throne. Queenship as an office did not enjoyed enhanced prestige and indeed she completely overshadowed the next three consorts (Edmund’s first wife witnessed only one charter and was just 12th on the list). She does also suffer from a lack of evidence – although it is clear she was important and influential, the full scope of what she did and what impact this had is lacking, forcing us to read between the lines. Much of the evidence comes from religious sources with hagiographies of saintly figures (such as Dunstan) in which women are given stock roles – Eadgifu is a “good woman” who helped the saintly cause but details of her role in politics or the succession crises are ignored.
A lack of detailed information prevents Eadgifu getting a top score, but she was clearly an influential person who showed what powers a consort could have (albeit as mother rather than wife to the king) and her patronage of the monastic reform movement was an important contribution to both church and state in the tenth century. And, of course, she gave us Dunstan!
Score = 11.5/20
Eadgifu was consort from 919 to 17 July 924 – 5 years. She was queen mother from 27 October 939 to 23 November 955 – 11.33 years, for which she receives half points (so 5.67 years). Finally, she was queen grandmother from 23 November 955 to 966 – 10 years, for which she receives a quarter credit (so 2.5 years).
Added together, 5 years as consort, 5.67 years for queen mother and 2.5 years as queen grandmother gives her a total score of 13.17 years, which when converted into a score out of 20 gives her a score of 9.5/20.
Eadgifu had 4 children (2 kings in Edmund and Eadred as well as Saint Eadburgh of Wincester and another daughter whose name is not known for certain). A total of 4 children gives her a score of 13/20.
Overall, Eadgifu has a total score of 46, but does she have that certain something that we call…
In her favour, she was the most powerful of the early English consorts. She’s the first of only two queen grandmothers in the entirety of English history PLUS she brought Dunstan into our lives. Against her is the fact that her role actually as consort was very limited and a lack of specifics for her time as queen mother means we are forced to speculate on exactly what she did. She had great power and influence and an important legacy with monastic reform, but she did not advance the institution of queenship a great deal.
Our Verdict = Yes, she has the Rex Factor! Although she has her shortcomings Eadgifu is the first of the Wessex consorts to have a clear role and influence in the running of the country. She may not have advanced queenship as an office but as an individual she was one of the major players for 20 of the most formative years in the creation of the English nation.
Let us know what you think in the poll below – does Eadgifu of Kent deserve the Rex Factor?
- Cyril Smith, “Two Queens of England” in Ampleforth Journal (Summer Number 1977, Part 2)
- Elizabeth Norton, England’s Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York
- Elizabeth Norton, Elfrida: The First Crowned Queen of England
- M. A. Meyer, “Women and the Tenth Century English Monastic Reform” in Revue Benedictine (1977, Nos. 1-2)
- Michael Wood, In Search of the Dark Ages
- Pauline Stafford, “Eadgifu (b. in or before 904, d. in or after 966), queen of the Anglo-Saxons, consort of Edward the Elder” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- Pauline Stafford, “The King’s Wife in Wessex 800-1066” in Past & Present (91, May, 1981, pp. 3-27)
- Pauline Stafford, “Queens, nunneries and Reforming Churchmen: Gender, Religious Status and Reform in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England” in Past & Present No. 163 (May, 1999), pp. 3-35
- Pauline Stafford, “The Portrayal of Royal Women in England, Mid-Tenth to Mid-Twelfth Centuries” in John Carmi Parsons (Ed.), Medieval Queenship
- Pauline Stafford, Queen Emma & Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh-Century England
- Sarah Foot, Athelstan
- Sheila Sharp, “The West Saxon Tradition of Dynastic Marriage” in N. J. Higham & D. H. Hill (Eds.), Edward the Elder, 899-924