Anglo-Saxon queens receive very little attention, with it commonly believed that there were no pre-Conquest queens in England. Such an assertion is patently untrue, as the lives of early queens, such as Elfrida, Emma of Normandy and Edith Godwin show. All three of these women lived late in the Anglo-Saxon period. A century before the first of these three women became queen, another woman – in fact, a young girl – arrived in England to take the throne as queen of Wessex.
Charles the Bald, King of the Franks, married a noblewoman named Ermentrude on 13 December 842, with the new queen producing her first child – a daughter – around a year later. The princess, who was named Judith after her father’s mother, was to be the eldest of the couple’s eleven children and she was raised away from court with her siblings.
Judith was born a member of the Carolingian Dynasty, which was the most powerful family in Europe. In order to preserve this elite royal bloodline, Carolingian princesses were rarely allowed to marry with Judith instead raised to expect a future in a nunnery. All this changed in the summer of 856 when a Viking army attacked the Seine valley, ushering in a decade of fierce attacks on the Frankish kingdom. When Charles looked for allies, he noticed King Ethelwulf of Wessex, who had an impressive military reputation and had been successful in offering resistance to the raiders in his own kingdom. Conveniently, Ethelwulf, attended by his youngest son, Alfred, passed through Francia as a pilgrim intent on visiting Rome in 855. On his return the following year, he was invited to visit Charles’s court, where he spent three months.
Ethelwulf was at least fifty years old in 856 and a widower with adult sons. He was, however, attracted to the idea of marrying into the Frankish royal house and made it clear that his price for an alliance was marriage to Judith, Charles’s only daughter of marriageable age. Surprisingly, Charles agreed, sending for his twelve year old daughter, who was brought to his palace at Verberie.
Ethelwulf and Judith did not even speak the same language, quite apart from the vast age difference between them and it must have been a bewildering experience for the princess. Nonetheless, the couple were married on 1 October 856. At the same time, at Charles’s insistence, Judith was crowned and anointed as Queen of Wessex by the Bishop of Reims. Such a ceremony increased the status of any children born to Judith relative to that of their elder half-siblings, whose mother had not been consecrated. It was a provocative act and, unsurprisingly, on their return to Wessex, the couple found Ethelwulf’s eldest son, Ethelbald, in rebellion against him.
Ethelwulf was unable to counter the threat posed by his son, who refused to allow him to return to Wessex. Instead, a compromise was reached whereby Ethelbald retained the western part of the kingdom, while Ethelwulf took the lesser eastern and central parts. This was a major blow, although Ethelwulf does not seem to have blamed Judith. Instead, ‘although the whole dispute was on account of his foreign wife, he treated her with the greatest deference and even defied the tradition of the West Saxons and set her beside himself on the throne’. Judith’s first marriage was, in any event, brief. She became a childless widow at fourteen with Ethelwulf’s death in 858.
With the death of her husband, Judith would have expected to return to Francia and life in a nunnery. Her later conduct would show that she had no vocation for such a life and she may have been involved in personally arranging her second marriage. Certainly, her new match was a shock to her contemporaries, since she took Ethelbald, the new king of Wessex and her own stepson as her husband.
Although Judith was some years younger than Ethelbald, her marriage caused outrage since, in the eyes of the church, she was effectively his mother. Her contemporary, Asser, voiced the disgust of many when he wrote that Ethelbald ‘against God’s prohibition and Christian dignity, and also contrary to the practice of all pagans, took over his father’s marriage-bed and married Judith, daughter of Charles, King of the Franks, incurring great disgust from all who heard it’.
As far as her contemporaries were concerned, Judith’s second marriage was incestuous, although it probably at least gave her some personal satisfaction. During her second marriage she was accorded a good deal of importance for a woman in Wessex, witnessing a surviving charter behind only her husband and his younger brother, Ethelbert, sub-king of Kent and before all the churchmen and noblemen who attended her husband’s court.
In marrying Judith, a consecrated queen, Ethelbald hoped to provide additional status for his own children. However, the queen’s second marriage was as brief as her second, with the king dying in 860. Judith was left a childless widow at the age of sixteen and, this time, there was no further English marriage to be arranged. Instead, soon after Ethelbald’s death, Judith returned to her father, who placed her in a nunnery at Senlis. As far as he was concerned, her political role was at an end.
Judith had no plans to become a nun and, in 862 stunned her contemporaries by eloping with Count Baldwin of Flanders. For Baldwin, it was probably a political marriage, with the Count hoping to gain access to Judith’s cross-channel connections, as well as securing an alliance with her father. For Judith, the marriage represented freedom.
Charles the Bald was furious when he heard of Judith’s marriage and he ordered the Archbishop of Reims to excommunicate the pair. Judith and Baldwin then travelled to Rome to ask for the intercession of Pope Nicholas I himself. This was a bold move, since the church frowned upon the remarriage of widows, but the pope took pity on the young couple, reversing the sentence of excommunication and granting them his personal protection. With such support, there was nothing that Charles could do but recognise his daughter’s marriage.
Judith’s third marriage was to be considerably more lasting than her first two matches. She bore several children, before disappearing into obscurity as Countess of Flanders. Although no record of her death survives, it is tempting to believe that she was still living in 884 when her eldest surviving son, Baldwin II, married the daughter of her former stepson and brother-in-law, Alfred the Great. Judith of Francia, twice queen of Wessex, would have been perfectly placed to arrange the match.
Photo Credit: An Anglo-Saxon Grave Slab from Steyning, West Sussex, which is traditionally believed to have marked King Ethelwulf’s grave (Author’s own image)