A Thousand Year Old Royal Skeleton
The oldest bones which are confirmed as being those of an English royal have been identified this week.
The skeleton uncovered in January 2008 in Magdeburg Cathedral was thought to be Queen Ædgyth’s, and the coffin was labelled as such, but it had been moved more than once, and confusion was entirely possible.
Scientific tests confirmed that the skeleton was indeedthe Saxon Princess, Ædgyth’s, bones.
This article is about Ædgyth / Eadgyth / Edith, who she was, her life and times, and the tests which confirmed her remains were definitely the earliest-known royal bones from an English house.
Ædgyth’s Ancestry and Family
Ædgyth was the daughter of the Saxon King, Edward the Elder, and granddaughter of the best-known Saxon King, Alfred the Great.
Alfred the Great was King of Wessex from 871AD to 899, and the only King in England or Britain to be accorded the suffix “the great”.
Alfred married Ealhswith, daughter of Aethelred Mucil, who was from what is now Lincolnshire. Alfred and Ealhswith had at least 5 children, including Æthelflæd, who became Queen of Mercia, and Edward, Ædgyth’s father.
King Edward the Elder was the second child and oldest son of Alfred and Ealhswith. He was born between about 847 and 877. He became King of Wessex, and King of the Saxons, after Alfred died in 899.
Edward married three times, and had at least 16 children. His first wife (who might have been more mistress than wife) was supplanted by 901 by Ædgyth’s mother, Ælfflæd (also written as Elfleda), daughter of Æthelhelm, ealdorman of Wiltshire.
Edward and Ælfflæd / Elfleda had 6 daughters, one of them Ædgyth, and two sons. Ædgyth / Eadgyth was born in about 910.
William of Malmesbury’s De antiquitate Glastonie ecclesiae, written in the early 12th century, suggests that the marriage of Edward and Ælfflæd / Elfleda ended in divorce, and that Ælfflæd / Elfleda was still alive after Edward the Elder’s death. This may or may not be the case, and is not mentioned in sources before the Norman Conquest.
Whether because of death or divorce, Edward the Elder remarried in about 919. His third wife was Eadgifu, the daughter of Sigehelm, the ealdorman of Kent.
King Edward the Elder died in 924, when his daughter Ædgyth was about 14 years old, and was succeeded by Athelstan the Glorious (also known as Æthelstan), Edward’s son by his first marriage.
King Athelstan the Glorious is usually said to be the first King of England.
In about 928, an ambassador arrived at the English Royal Court, seeking a bride for Otto, son of King Henry I of Germany.
King Athelstan sent two of his half sisters on approval Otto, Duke of Saxony was given the option of either, and chose to marry Ædgyth, and their marriage took place in 929.
Otto, who was born in 912, was the son of Henry I the Fowler and Matilda of Ringelheim. In 936, Otto’s father died, and Otto became King of the Saxons, also known as King of Germany.
An ambitious and successful man, Otto also later became the Holy Roman Emperor, and claimed the title of King of Italy, too. Ædgyth / Eadgyth was anointed as Queen in 936, upon the accession of her husband.
What was Ædgyth like?
Sources from the German royal courts give some details of Ædgyth. Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, a literate nun and poet, wrote that was calm and sincere, and “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 her death, Hrotsvit wrote:
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.
Ædgyth’s death and burial
Queen Ædgyth died in January 946, aged 35 or 36. Her death was apparently sudden, not preceded by lengthy illness.
Ædgyth was buried, and her bones (and those of her husband, Otto, who was later buried with her) were buried in the monastery of St. Maurice, that they had founded. The skeletons were moved at least three times.
In 1510, a memorial was built King Otto and Queen Ædgyth in Magdeburg Cathedral. It was long thought that this was a memorial only. In 2008, however, the tomb was opened.
A coffin within was labelled EDIT REGINE CINERES HIC SARCOPHAGVS HABET which, translated, says, The remains of Queen Edith are in this sarcophagus.
When opened, the coffin contained a skeleton, laid sideways in the coffin, bent at the knees, and covered in a silk shroud. Parts of the skeleton were missing, including bones from the hands and feet, and part of the skull.
Scientific Tests on the Bones and Teeth
Examination of the Bones
Anthropological examination of the bones undertaken in Mainz confirmed that the skeleton was that of a woman aged between 30 and 40 at the time of her death.
The femurs showed that the woman was a frequent rider, which pointed to her being a member of the nobility.
The bones also suggested that the woman had suffered either from serious illness or an eating disorder as a 9 or 10 year old child, which was the age at which Queen Ædgyth’s mother either died or was divorced by Ædgyth’s father.
Further tests on the molecular make-up of the bones suggested that the woman had eaten a high protein diet, including a lot of fish, which also suggested a wealthy upbringing.
Tests on the teeth
Deposits in the enamel of teeth can tell a lot of detail about where a person lived from birth until the age of 14. Isotopes of strontium and oxygen are mineralised in teeth as a person grows, and the precise nature of these mineral deposits depends on the geology of the area where the person lives.
The isotopes in the skeleton’s upper teeth showed that the woman had not been brought up in Magdeburg, or Germany. Instead, the isotopes pointed definitively to the chalk uplands of southern England. They also showed that until the age of 9, the woman had moved regularly between different parts of south England, but that after the age of 9, she had lived in one place until she was about 14.
The results are entirely consistent with what is known of Queen Ædgyth’s childhood and upbringing.
You can read about the University of Bristol’s scientific tests here.