The Wicked Queen and Her Scandalous Daughter: How Murder & Mayhem Took a Saxon Princess from Palace to Poverty
While we might be gripped by the intrigues, the machinations, and the violence of the Lannisters and the Starks in the Game of Thrones television series and the Song of Ice and Fire series of novels, at the end of each episode or chapter, we can all breathe a sigh of relief and say “Well, it’s just fiction, an entertaining made-up story.” Or can we?
Regular Ancient Origins contributor Charles Christian has been digging through the dustier pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and uncovered a tale of two Saxon queens whose antics would have caused even Cersei Lannister to shake her head in disbelief…
A Powerful Woman Brought Down
The time is the late eighth century; the location is England, and we are looking at the bloody careers of Queen Cynethryth (the closest modern equivalent would be Gwyneth) and her daughter Princess, later Queen Eadburh, (also spelled as Eadburgh or Edburga – the modern equivalent would be Edith) who was born in circa AD 773.
Bust of Queen Cynethryth, wife of Offa of Mercia. ( Public Domain )
Cynethryth was married to King Offa of Mercia, a man now best known for ordering the construction of Offa’s Dyke, a massive 150-miles (241 km) long series of earthworks that broadly follows the modern border between England and Wales, but in the eighth century it separated the Kingdom of Mercia from the hostile Welsh kingdoms of Powys and Gwent. (And the inspiration for the Games of Thrones ’ ice wall?)
Looking along Offa's Dyke, near Knill, Herefordshire. (Mike Christie/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )
However, in his time, Offa was the most powerful king in England, dominating the Midlands and the South, becoming the Bretwalda or overlord of all the other Saxon kingdoms, with the exception of Northumbria. As for his wife Cynethryth, she was the only Saxon queen who had coins issued in her own name—a clear indication her power and status.
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But, there was also a darker side to the tale of Cynethryth.
Although her name suggests she may have been descended from the family of the early seventh century Mercian monarch and bretwalda King Penda, there is a legend that Cynethryth was actually of Frankish origin and as a consequence of (unspecified) crimes she committed, was condemned by King (later Emperor) Charlemagne’s justice system to be set adrift in a small open boat and left to her fate. This appears to have been a favorite form of effectively delayed execution in this era as in most instances it would have been a death sentence but it left the authorities without blood on their hands and the ability to attribute the condemned’s death to divine punishment.
They set the queen adrift ( Public Domain )
But, Cynethryth survived her enforced sea crossing and eventually washed up on the English shore, where she claimed she was a member of the Carolingian royal family who had been cruelly and unfairly persecuted for (unspecified) crimes she did not commit. Her story apparently convinced Offa, who promptly fell in love with her, married her, and made her the Controller of the Royal Household.
It was, however, towards the latter part of Offa’s reign (he died in 796) that Cynethryth achieved her notoriety when she allegedly organized the assassination of King Aethelberht II of East Anglia in 794. Aethelberht (or Ethelbert) was a sub or client-king and engaged to marry another of Offa’s daughters, Aelfthryth. But, on a visit to one of Offa’s royal palaces, he was treacherously seized and beheaded, possibly because he was showing signs of becoming too independent…
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Charles Christian is a professional writer, editor, award-winning journalist and former Reuters correspondent. His non-fiction books include Writing Genre Fiction: Creating Imaginary Worlds: The 12 Rules
Top Image: Some Saxon Queens had killer reputations. (Public Domain);Deriv.