|King Edward receives a drink before his stepmother kills him|
In my second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, I wrote about two such women: one stood accused of romping three-in-a-bed with her husband (the king) and her own mother, and being too closely related to her husband. The other stood accused variously of being complicit in the murder of her first husband, of torturing and then murdering an abbot, of being in an adulterous relationship with her second husband, (king, and brother of the previously mentioned king) and finally of colluding in the murder of her stepson, who succeeded her husband as king.
|King Edgar meets, and is enchanted by, Ælfthryth|
One of these women had no connection with Mercia, but her husband did. One might almost say that he wouldn't have become king without Mercian help. The other lady may well have been related not only to Alfred the Great, but also to a great Mercian family too. I've examined the primary sources and come to my own conclusions about these stories. But they are by no means the only women to be afforded such notoriety.
Researching for my new book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom - to be published by Amberley later this year - I've been 'reacquainting' myself with a few other 'evil' women, and on the face of it, they are deserving of the epithet, and could all have been fitting subjects for the essay.
Allow me to introduce them:
Alhflæd was the daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria, nemesis of Penda of Mercia. The kings met on the battlefield in 655, and Oswiu was the victor. And yet, for all that these two kingdoms were bitter enemies during the seventh century, there was a lot of inter-marriage between the two royal houses. Penda's son married Oswiu's daughter, and Oswiu's daughter married Penda's son. This son was named Peada, and Bede remembered him for converting the peoples over whom he was made king, the Middle Angles, to Christianity. According to Bede:
He asked for the hand of [Oswiu's] daughter Alhflæd ... and gladly declared himself ready to become a Christian. He was earnestly persuaded to accept the faith by Alhfrith, son of King Oswiu, who was his brother-in-law and friend. (HE iii 21)It might be nice to think of these young royals all getting on famously well, but only around three years later, Peada was dead, 'slain', according to one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and specifically by his wife according to Bede, who said that he was murdered:
by the treachery, or so it is said, of his wife during the very time of the Easter festival (HE iii 24)Yet another marriage took place between the two families, this time between the last of Penda's sons to become a king in Mercia, Æthelred, and the daughter of Oswiu and his second wife. This daughter was called Osthryth. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it was in 697 that 'the Southumbrians slew Osthryth, Ethelred's queen and Ecgfrith's [King of Northumbria] sister.'
No explanation is given for the murder. It is known that Osthryth oversaw the removal of the bones of St Oswald, her uncle, to the abbey at Bardney, in an area where he might not have been that fondly remembered. Oswald had been an enemy of Mercia, so perhaps they didn't like her highlighting his memory, but this seems a poor excuse for killing her. Was it retribution for her half-sister's murderous act? Again, it seems a bit of an over-reaction, especially given the amount of time which had elapsed.
|Image of St Oswald in Durham Cathedral|
It must, however, have been a tense situation, given that her husband had waged war on her brother, and in the ensuing battle, another brother of hers had been killed. Bede noted that this young man was about eighteen years of age, and beloved in both kingdoms.
It's clear that even while these marriages were occurring, the two royal houses were still bitterly opposed to one another and that there were conflicting loyalties. It is perhaps in this context that the murder should be viewed, but whatever she had done, or been accused of, we shall never know.
Eadburh's crimes, on the other hand, were written down in great detail, and publicised. She was the daughter of King Offa, and she was married to Beorhtric, king of Kent, whom she accidentally poisoned. Asser, writing the Life of King Alfred, was scathing indeed of this woman, who had behaved 'like a tyrant after the manner of her father'. She loathed all of her husband's friends, and decided to kill them with poison:
This is known to have happened with a certain young man very dear to the king, whom she poisoned when she could not denounce him before the king. King Beorhtric himself is said to have taken some of that poison unawares: she had intended to give it not to him, but to the young man; but the king took it first and both of them died as a result. (Asser Ch 14)The murderess then went to the court of Charlemagne, who established her as abbess of a large convent. But this irredeemable woman apparently lived even more recklessly than before, and was caught 'in debauchery' with a man of her own race, and having been ejected from the nunnery, died in poverty. Asser claimed to have heard this story from witnesses who saw her begging in the streets.
Eadburh's crimes though seem rather run-of-the-mill compared with the next 'evil' woman on this list.
After Offa's death, the Mercian throne passed briefly to his son, Ecgfrith, who reigned for only a few months. He was succeeded by Coenwulf, who reigned until 821.
After this, things get a little hazy. What we do know is that Coenwulf had a son, Cynehelm, and a daughter, Cwoenthryth. William of Malmesbury recorded that:
At Winchcombe rests Cenwulf [Coenwulf] with his son Kenelm [Cynehelm]. At the age of 7 the boy had been left by his father to be brought up by his sister. In her greed, she entertained the illusory hope of the throne, and assigned the job of eliminating her little brother to the retainer who looked after him. He took the innocent child off on the pretence of a hunt, killed him, and hid him in some bushes. (Gesta Pontificum iv 156 3)So far, so traditional. But this concealment was for naught, because a piece of parchment, carried by a dove, floated down onto the altar of St Peter in Rome, revealing the whereabouts of the body. Thus the body was carried to Winchcombe and when the murderess saw what was happening, she began chanting a psalm backwards as some kind of evil spell, but by God's power her eyes were torn from their sockets, with blood splattering to an extent that William of Malmesbury, writing in the twelfth century, proclaimed, 'the bloodstains are there to this day.'
|Detail from a page of the Winchcombe Psalter|
There is very little recorded evidence about Cynehelm, and all we really know is that he existed, and predeceased his father. His sister had been in dispute with the Church over monastic property. Unlikely, then, that she was to be remembered fondly in William's Gesta Pontificum (Deeds of the Bishops of England) but clearly the story, as presented by William, is nonsense.
Even so, in comparison, the 'crimes' of the subjects of my novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, might seem mild. Ælfgifu, wife of King Eadwig, and Ælfthryth, first, second or possibly third wife of King Edgar, both had cause, like Cwoenthryth, to be reviled by the Church, but not necessarily for obvious reasons...
[all above images are in the Public Domain]
Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom is available for pre-order now.
To read more about Oswiu, Oswald, Penda et al, try my latest novel Cometh the Hour
To read the fictionalised account of the two infamous queens who scandalised tenth-century England, read Alvar the Kingmaker