1,000 Years After This Dark Age Anglo-Saxon Queen Died, Archaeologists Made An Astounding Discovery

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Archaeologists in Magdeburg, Germany, are about to open a stone tomb that has laid undisturbed for 500 years at the city’s cathedral. With any luck this monument will contain the remains of Edith of England, who had been queen of Germany more than 1,000 years ago. And while there’s a strong likelihood that this ancient grave will be empty, what the researchers find when they open the lead coffin astonishes them.

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We’ll find out what the archaeologists discovered in that ancient tomb in magnificent Magdeburg Cathedral shortly. But, first, let’s learn something about the Englishwoman who began her rule of Germany in 936. For starters, Edith is a modernizing of her name; in Old English, the moniker was the tongue-twisting Eadgyth.

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We’ll find out what the archaeologists discovered in that ancient tomb in magnificent Magdeburg Cathedral shortly. But, first, let’s learn something about the Englishwoman who began her rule of Germany in 936. For starters, Edith is a modernizing of her name; in Old English, the moniker was the tongue-twisting Eadgyth.

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Edith was actually one of eight children that Edward and Ælfflæd had together. Notable among her siblings were Eadgifu, who went on to wed King of West Francia Charles the Simple, and Eadhild, who eventually married Duke of the Franks Hugh the Great. Edith’s parents sadly divorced when she was aged just nine or ten, however. And after that, she joined her mother, who is said to have been sent to a monastery – perhaps in the cities of Salisbury or Winchester.

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In all, then, the princess came from considerable pedigree. Indeed, her royal lineage was said to be the oldest in Europe, stretching back to one Cerdic of Wessex. Cerdic is said to have been among those who led the Anglo-Saxon conquest of England; Britain’s current monarch, Elizabeth II, can also apparently trace her line back to that same ancient ruler.

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And Edith’s maternal grandfather, Alfred the Great, had ruled the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex from about 871 to 886. Alfred’s territory had once stretched across the south and west of England before the nation was unified – a process that the monarch had actually started himself by expanding the influence of the Wessex kingdom across the country.

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Alfred is arguably most famous, however, for a culinary mishap. The likely apocryphal moment occurred when Wessex was under severe pressure from Viking attacks; indeed, it’s said that the king himself only escaped a deadly Viking assault on the town of Chippenham in January 828 by the skin of his teeth. After that, the Danes put most of Chippenham’s citizens to death.

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But Alfred managed to escape such a grisly fate by fleeing to the southwestern county of Somerset. There, a country woman, ignorant of the king’s identity, gave him a place to stay. And at one point, she left the monarch in charge of some wheat cakes cooking on an open fire. Distracted by the cares of the world, though, he allowed the food to burn.

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When the woman returned and discovered Alfred’s mistake, then, the ruler felt the sharp edge of her tongue – or so the tale goes, anyway. But regardless of the truth of this story, the monarch’s real place in history comes from his success in fighting off the Vikings and increasing his kingdom – the precursor to a fully united England.

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And Alfred had died well before Edith was born in 910, with her father, Edward, having ruled for 11 years at that point. The creation of a united nation was still an ongoing project, too. But there was some success on that front during the princess’ childhood. Eventually, Edward succeeded in seizing control of most of England – meaning only the territory of Northumbria was still under the sway of the Vikings.

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Then, in 924, Edith’s half-brother, Athelstan, succeeded to the English throne after Edward the Elder’s death. His mother was Edward’s first wife, Ecgwynn – one of the more obscure figures in English royal history. And after Athelstan began his reign, European affairs began to impinge on Edith’s life.

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In particular, Henry the Fowler, King of the East Franks, decided that it would be a good idea to unite his nation – which occupied territory that now lies in modern Germany – with the English crown. According to legend, the monarch was named “the Fowler” because he was engaged in snaring birds when he heard that he was to be ruler.

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Henry therefore proposed to Athelstan that his eldest son, Otto, marry one of the English king’s half-sisters – one way of strengthening ties between the two territories. Athelstan agreed, with Edith and her sibling Edgiva subsequently traveling to East Francia to meet the man who would potentially be their husband. And once the two were there, Henry’s heir simply picked the woman he found to be most pleasing as his future wife.

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In those days, royal marriages tended to be matters of high politics rather than romance. Nevertheless, Otto evidently preferred Edith, as it was she whom he decided to marry. And it seems that Henry’s son chose well, if the words of tenth-century German nun and poet Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim are anything to go by.

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Describing Edith, Hrotsvitha wrote, “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.” A glowing tribute indeed, even though no one was likely to utter an unkind word about a princess in tenth-century Germany.

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So, Edith and Otto duly married in 930. Six years after that, a stroke killed Henry the Fowler, which naturally meant that Otto now became the king of the Franks. And as a consequence, Edith was also propelled into a new role – one she assumed at around 25 years old. Yes, the Wessex girl was now the queen of Germany – or East Francia, at least.

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Otto I, meanwhile, went on to become known as Otto the Great. This accolade came about owing to his success in continuing Henry’s work in uniting the disparate tribes of Germany under his rule. Otto also took control of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany before going on to become Holy Roman Emperor from 962.

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Yet at the time that Otto assumed the position of Holy Roman Emperor, Edith had already been dead for some 16 years; she had passed away in January 946 in her mid-thirties. And in fact we don’t know a great deal about how the queen had occupied her time on the German throne; it’s said, though, that she was active in charitable works involving gifts to various religious institutions.

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And during Edith’s reign, she also gave Otto two children: a son and a daughter. Liudolf was born in 930 – the very year in which the royal couple had married. He in turn died of a fever at just 27 while invading Italy. Liutgarde, on the other hand, came into the world in 932; after she had married Conrad the Red, however, she too passed away in 953 at the age of only 22. Early death was an occupational hazard of being born in the Middle Ages, it seems.

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Edith herself, meanwhile, was originally interred in the Benedictine Monastery of St. Maurice – an institution that she and Otto had founded in Magdeburg in 937. St. Maurice is believed to have been an Egyptian Christian who served in the Roman Army in the third century, during which he ultimately rose to the rank of commander of 1,000 legionaries. He later died as a martyr for not agreeing to fight other Christians.

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But the St. Maurice monastery was not to be Edith’s final resting place. Her remains were in fact moved three times or more over the years until their reinterrment in 1510 at Magdeburg Cathedral. And there they remained, as far as anyone knew, for the next 500 years. In 2008, however, German archaeologists prepared to open Edith’s tomb.

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The strong assumption was that Edith’s tomb would actually be empty; researchers instead thought that it was likely to be a cenotaph. Then the scientists opened the stone sarcophagus to find a lead coffin that had a Latin inscription on its lid.

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The writing looked promising, too, as it read “Edit Regine Cineres Hic Sarcophagvs Habet” – or “The remains of Queen Eadgyth are in this sarcophagus.” And once the archaeologists prized open the receptacle, much to their amazement, they did indeed find human remains. A remarkably well-preserved shroud of fine silk covered the ancient bones.

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In a 2010 piece for The Guardian piece, historian and author Michael Wood is quoted as describing what the researchers found in the coffin. “Under the crumpled folds was a small, slim frame – slightly bent at the knees like a child asleep,” he wrote. Nevertheless, this by itself was not enough to convince scientists that the remains were definitely those of Edith.

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A 2010 article on the University of Bristol website quoted Professor Harald Meller, project director from the German Saxony-Anhalt Heritage Management and Archaeology state office. He described the uncertainties that surround such archaeological finds as well as pointing out the difficulty of being sure of a particular identity for the bones.

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“Medieval bones were moved frequently and often mixed up. So, it required some exceptional science to prove that [the remains were] indeed those of [Edith],” the professor said. Indeed, the next step in matching the bones to the historical figure to which they were assumed to have once belonged required some high-tech scientific analysis. First stop for the remains, then, was Germany’s University of Mainz.

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In Mainz, Professor Kurt Alt examined the bones and was able to state categorically that they had come from one female who had perished between the ages of 30 and 40. Alt was even able to say that one of the thigh bones offered strong evidence that she had often rode horses. In effect, the woman was more than likely from the upper echelons of her society – just as Edith had been.

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It’s worth noting, though, that the skeleton of the woman from the Magdeburg lead coffin was far from complete; bones from the feet and the hands as well as a large portion of the skull were not present. Scientists think that these remains may have fallen foul of a practice common in medieval times: removal and use as relics.

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Nevertheless, there was enough of the woman to warrant further analysis, and as a consequence the bones thus traveled to England. And if the skeleton did indeed belong to Edith, it would be her first visit to the country of her birth for more than 1,000 years. Specifically, the contents of the coffin in Magdeburg Cathedral made their way to the University of Bristol.

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You see, the University of Bristol housed staff who had the necessary expertise and equipment to perform an in-depth analysis of the ancient remains. Even so, initial investigations were not encouraging, as carbon dating produced a result that was two centuries older than the cathedral remains should have been if they were to have belonged to Edith. This was despite the fact that the fabrics found in the coffin seemingly dated back to the time of Edith’s reign.

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Sadly, subsequent attempts to extract DNA from the bones failed owing to their lack of preservation. But the scientists persevered, turning instead to advanced analysis of the teeth found in the coffin. Indeed, the upper jaw had been one of the only parts of the skull unearthed from the German tomb.

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This particular technique involved analyzing the chemical compositions, or isotopes, of oxygen and strontium that all teeth contain. These chemical fingerprints build up as the dental structures develop over time. And the isotopes vary depending on both the environment and geological make-up of a location where the deceased had once dwelled.

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Dr. Alistair Pike, a senior lecturer at Bristol’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, explained the science on the university’s website. “Strontium isotopes on tiny samples of tooth enamel have been measured. By micro-sampling using a laser, we can reconstruct the sequence of a person’s whereabouts month by month up to the age of 14,” he said.

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And the results of the analysis showed that the owner of the teeth had grown up in southern England’s distinctive chalklands. This offered firm evidence that the individual had once lived in the Wessex region, which is famous for its chalk deposits. Dental analysis provided further suggestions that the teeth had belonged to Edith, too.

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As such, the focus of the research then returned to Magdeburg, with one of Professor Alt’s research staff, Corina Knipper, analyzing teeth from graves around the German city. “The isotopes in the teeth supposed to be [Edith’s] are completely different from those in the people local to Magdeburg. This individual cannot have spent her childhood in Magdeburg,” the University of Bristol website quotes her as saying.

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And the evidence from the teeth seemingly matched up with historic knowledge of Edith’s childhood in Wessex. Bristol archaeology professor Mark Horton said, “[Edith] seems to have spent the first eight years of her life in southern England. But [she] changed her domicile frequently, [which matches] quite variable strontium ratios in her teeth.

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“Only from the age of nine do the isotope values remain constant,” Horton went on. “[Edith] must have moved around the kingdom following her father, King Edward the Elder, during his reign. When her mother was divorced in 919 – [the princess] was between nine and ten at that point – both were banished to a monastery, maybe Winchester or Wilton in Salisbury.”

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In addition, researchers offered an explanation for the anomalous findings produced by the radiocarbon dating. It seems that Edith consumed her fair share of protein as a child – something that can throw off carbon-dating techniques. And this protein-rich diet was seemingly another piece of evidence pointing to an individual from an aristocratic family.

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But there was one other anomaly that caught the attention of the researchers involved in the project. In Christian burials of that era, the body was often accompanied by grave goods – and none remained in what was alleged to be Edith’s tomb. Regardless, the high quality of the silk and the dyes used for the shroud were yet more pointers towards this being the grave of a person of aristocratic birth.

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So, Edith of England, Queen of the East Franks, made an extraordinary journey from the west of England to Magdeburg in what is now Germany. Then, after a millennium, her bones returned to England’s West Country, with the resulting analysis strongly suggesting that the mortal remains found in the cathedral did indeed belong to the ruler. In October 2010, then, Edith went back to her adopted home, where she was buried once again in Magdeburg – this time in a titanium coffin.

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