Queen Edith of the Eastern Franks

When German archaeologists found Queen Edith’s remains in 2008, they were baffled and confounded. The remains had been found in a grave in Magdeburg's cathedral. Nobody had expected the find. True, documents mention her grave in the cathedral, and the grave had been a prominent one marked with her name. Then why the confusion?



Archaeology had fallen prey to one of its most common traps (and yet it works every time): It assumed that a person born a century after an event was telling the literal truth about something that had happened a hundred years or more before their time. Some writer at some time called Queen Edith’s grave in Magdeburg cathedral a cenotaph (from Greek meaning empty tomb). That singular mention of cenotaph was enough to somehow engraved itself in archaeologists’ brains for at least a century, and it kept on percolating there until now.


Works of restoration in Magdeburg's cathedral were combined with extensive archaeological research. The tomb of Queen Edith had to be moved to allow excavation of lower lying strata. Lifting the outer tomb casing dating from 1510, a sarcophagus from the 7th century was discovered inside it. Its inscription declared that it contained the remains of Queen Edith. When lifting the heavy lid of 1.5 tons, it revealed a leaden box from the 13th century. An inscription declared the remains inside as belonging to Queen Edith. Hiatus ensued.


The bones were sent to Bristol and Mainz Universities and detailed tests were undertaken to establish whose bones had been lying in the grave. Modern techniques can work wonders, but there was still a lot of deduction to be done after the results are collated.


Little is known about the life of Queen Edith. This is partly due to the lack of sources, partly due to her name being spelled differently as Eadgyth, Ædgyth, Edith, Edgitha, and Editha (and maybe also Ediva) in documents. Add to this that she is in turn referred to as ‘of Wessex’, ‘of England’, ‘of Germany’, ‘of Saxony’, and ‘of Wettin’, and you get the picture. The lack of information on the other hand is surprising as she had profound influence on the future development of Eastern Europe.


She was born either 910 or 912 as a daughter to King Edward the Elder in England. As a child she had been part of the court of her father and had accompanied him and her mother Elfleda (Ælfflæd) on their travels through the kingdom. After her mother's death (or maybe her parents’ divorce) in 919, she went into a nunnery, maybe Winchester or Winton.


When King Henry the Fowler of Germany (or at that time more correctly King of the Eastern Franks) asked King Æthelstan for the hand of an English Princess for his son Otto, Æthelstan took Henry seriously enough to send two princesses. He sent his two half-sisters Edith and Edgiva to Quedlinburg in Saxony. According to Widukind the court chronicler it was a love match between Otto and Edith. Edgiva in turn traveled on to the court of the King of Burgundy and married the king’s brother. 


Otto and Edith were married in 929, and Edith received the town Magdeburg as a bride gift from Otto. What may sound great today was a pittance on that day. Magdeburg was a small border town on the very fringe of the kingdom which earned its money through trade with the pagan Slavs. But Edith fell in love with the place, had the town moved a few miles inland to its present location to make it more defensible and made it with Otto a Royal Residence (in fact one of the capitals of the realm). The gift wasn't to be used immediately either; these bride gifts were intended as a widow’s pension fund.


The marriage was most important to King Henry. He was the first king of the house of Wettin, the first Saxon on a Frankish throne, and in fact his kingship was nothing more than being accepted as Duke of Saxony to lead his fellow Dukes in the realm. With the marriage of Otto, the family was accepted as an equal by the most important royal line in Europe. As a grand-daughter of Alfred the Great, Edith brought with her Royal panache; as a descendant of Saint Oswald of Northumbria, she also had the necessary clout to shape church history. As a bonus, the house was now related not only to the Kings of Burgundy, but also to the Kings of France (or rather Kings of the Western Franks), as King Charles the Simple was married to a half-sister of Edith's.


Edith is not often mentioned as involving herself in politics. The few sources that mention her involvement mainly show her as a petitioner for others, interestingly enough most often for friends and retainers of Otto’s mother Matilda, less surprisingly for the many monasteries and clergy in the realm. She founded (with Otto) the monastery of St Maurice in Magdeburg as a first step in obtaining the pope's seal of approval for a bishop's see at Magdeburg. With their move to the eastern border, Otto and Edith laid down the politics for the realm’s expansion to the east.


By marriage, she had become Duchess of Saxony and in 936 she became Queen of the Eastern Franks. It may be inferred that it was her status that made Otto go through with his plans to elevate Henry’s nominal kingship to the full status of reigning king and ram it down his nobles’ throats if necessary by force of arms. It was Otto who finally managed to blackmail the Pope into granting Magdeburg not only the seat of a bishop but of an archbishop. 


And maybe it was a love match. Otto and Edith had a son and a daughter before Edith died in 946 in Magdeburg. Most tellingly, Otto decreed in his testament that he should be buried by the side of his beloved wife, Edith (while at the same time being married to Queen Adelaide of Italy). Edith in turn was remembered by the people of Magdeburg as a generous and loving Queen and they prayed to her as a saint. She was buried in the monastery of St Maurice in Magdeburg which stood where the cathedral now stands. That makes archaeologists’ surprise at finding the grave of hers in exactly the place where contemporaries of hers had pointed to even more surprising.


The popular accolade as a saint was never followed up by the church, probably because the popes were miffed that she had got her way with getting a bishop for Magdeburg (even though late) and lack of political interest. Later, her story got confused with her half-sister's, Saint Edith of Tamworth, Queen of Dublin and York. To confound things further, there was also Saint Edith of Wilton, half-sister of King Edward the Martyr and King Ethelred, and her aunt Edith, sister of King Edward the Elder, who resided at the nunnery of Wilton as well.


As to the scientific results gained from Edith's bones: they are as secure as they can be. The bones are ‘almost certainly’ those of Queen Edith as reburied in 1510. To arrive at this conclusion, though, archaeologists had to use the most sophisticated scientific methods available. Using those, a lump of fabric, bones, and beetles has told them its history as clearly as if it had been written on parchment.


The bones were subjected to radio-carbon-dating and provided a date of a person living sometime in the 8th century. That was not a promising start, but the scientists in Mainz persisted. Isotope analysis of the bones showed that the person had been living on a diet rich in meat and fish. While this clearly indicated a person of high rank, the fish diet explained the odd date obtained from radio carbon dating. Fish is high in certain isotopes that influence this dating method.


An analysis of the bones had revealed that they were from a single individual and had therefore not been mixed-up with another person during the reburial in 1510. Such little mishaps happened quite frequently, and Queen Edith had been reburied more than once. The bones also were from a female and, as the femur showed, a horse-woman.


Bristol in turn made a strontium and oxygen isotope analysis of the teeth. Teeth grow during the teenage years and the isotopes form something like tree rings in the teeth showing where a person grew up. The isotopes built into the minerals in the teeth are the ones found in the landscape of abode and thereby give away their geographical origin. The result showed that the woman had lived her young years wandering around Wessex while spending her early teenage years in one location in Wessex. This tied in neatly with what is known about Edith.


The missing pieces in the history of these bones may have been filled in, but missing bones opened a new puzzle. There were only 42 bones found in the grave, and most notably both feet, the cranium except for the upper jaw, and most of the hands were missing. As these bones are the parts usually used in relic worship, they might have been given away by the monastery of St. Maurice in Magdeburg to other places where Edith was worshiped as a saint. It is possible that the writer naming her tomb a cenotaph was doing nothing more than propagate one of those Protestant lies that should stop people praying to saints they adore.


Queen Edith was reburied in October 2010 in a silver plated titanium cask inside her sarcophagus covered with the elaborate tomb of 1510.