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lord have mercian
Or, Poison-Loving Queen Eadburh of Wessex and why I hate Charlemagne.
I’m pleased to report that this week’s dirtbag is a reader submission! Friendly reminder that you, too, can always pass along a historical dirtbag you’d like to read a profile of. Comment on this post, reply to an email, note at me on Substack Notes or whatever, whisper a name to a moth and send it to fetch the Great Eagle Gwahir. Whatever you prefer.
Big thank-you to reader Cyndie, who tipped me off to this week’s subject:
Eadburh, the Free-Wheelin’ Murderin’ Mercian!
We’re going back to the 700s for this one. So let’s take a second to set some context, a phrase which here means “give exactly as much information as you need to know to understand the drama that’s coming, and not a bit more.”
Wessexology? The Study of Wessex? It’s First Grade, Spongebob.
As you might remember from our newsletter on the Battle of Hastings, Britain pre-1066 was a loose collection of kingdoms that spent the vast majority of their time either naming their children whimsical things like Tostig or stabbing each other through the eye.
The particular kingdom where our story starts this time is Mercia, aka the big purple splodge on the map below.
The year is roughly 780ish, when the king of Mercia is a guy named Offa. He was a powerful warrior who quested around Britain picking wars with basically every kingdom that bordered Mercia, which you’ll notice from the map above is all of them. The goal was to make Mercia the most powerful kingdom on the island and to pack all the neighboring kingdoms with puppet kings who were aligned with what King Offa wanted to do.
You know. Classic Civilization VI maneuvers.
Fortunately for the Mercians, the kingdom of Wessex was making it really easy for them to do this, because the kings of Wessex kept killing each other and then spontaneously dropping dead themselves of suspicious causes.
So to fill the power vacuum, Offa lobbied to have a guy named Beorhtric named King of Wessex. Not a lot is written about Beorhtric, but from what I have read, the guy sounds like a real dweeb.
And just to make extra extra sure that Beorhtric didn’t get any bright ideas about ruling Wessex in a way that would make Offa mad, Offa married the new king to his second daughter, Eadburh, whose job was to keep an eye on things.
What Is History but Two Drunk Monks Gossiping
Not much is known about Eadburh prior to her marriage to Beorhtric in 789, because she is a woman in history, so of course there isn’t. However, what we do know is that once the two were married, Eadburh took one look at her Super Weenie Hut Jr. of a husband and said “No, fuck this, actually I’m going to rule Wessex myself.”
How did she do? Well. That’s partly why we’re here.
The vast majority of what’s written about Eadburh’s reign as de facto ruling queen of Wessex comes to us from Asser, a Welsh monk, historian, and messy bitch who lived for drama. No hate on Asser, though. I like to think that if I lived in pre-Norman-invasion Britain, I too would have been a gossipy monk who traveled from court to court talking shit about people.
Asser’s writing tells us that there was one major hallmark of Eadburh’s time in charge of Wessex, and that hallmark was murder. Eadburh didn’t like anybody saying no to her or steering her husband toward political independence, and when they did, her signature move was to harass Beorhtric until he murdered them. Which it sounds like he did, most of the time.
On the rare occasions when her husband didn’t give in and murder her enemies for her, Eadburh would do it herself, usually by poison. The absolute quantity of royal counselors this lady is purported to have murdered is spectacular.
Obligatory caveat: how much murdering did Eadburh actually do? Was this all a smear campaign by sexist chroniclers trying to defame a powerful woman? Listen, man, probably. Let me have this. It’s a good story.
Oops! All Poison
This rhythm of rule-attack-murder-poison went on for more than ten years, but shit really hit the fan in 802. At this point, Beorhtric was extremely close to a young man named Worr, whom history records as a “royal favorite.” I, personally, am delighted that Beorhtric might have been queer, a conclusion I am leaping to with the wild and reckless abandon allowed of all queer historians.
Eadburh, though, was less delighted than I am. She hated Worr, probably because he was giving her husband political advice and providing a trusted advisor who was not her. So she decided to do what she did best, by which of course I mean she decided to poison Worr behind her husband’s back.
Unfortunately, she was extremely bad at poison aim, and she killed both Worr and Beorhtric by accident.
Charmander, Charmeleon, Charlemagne
Then as now, murdering the king was not something you wanted to put on your resume, whether it was accidentally or on purpose. So Eadburh decided to run away from the court of Wessex, before a new king came in who was less inclined to let her continue her career of recreational poisoning.
Offa had died just a few years before, so Mercia was in chaos, and there was no way for Eadburh to return home. Instead, she gathered up as much money as she could carry and ran away to Francia (now France, the Netherlands, Belgium, that general area).
The king of Francia at this time was a guy you might have heard of named Charlemagne, and Eadburh sought refuge in his court after killing her husband. Now, candidly, I don’t know that much about Charlemagne, and for the purposes of this newsletter I didn’t care to learn. So let me share with you the single fact I know about Charlemagne based on this week’s research: he was an insecure little fuckhead.
When Eadburh arrived at the Frankish court, Charlemagne took one look at her and said “Yes absolutely, that is the sexy poisoning king-murdering despot who I want to marry.” But did Charlemagne deal with his feelings in a rational, straightforward manner?
Of course he did not! Because he was a man in history!
What he did instead was this:
Charlemagne: OK, Mercian princess. Which of us would you rather marry? Me, a fifty-five-year-old guy who’s already been married roughly four to six times by this point in history? Or my hot young son?
Hot Young Son: *waves hello*
Eadburh, who has eyes and is not a dumb sack of shit: Uh. If you’re really asking? I mean. Your son’s hot and also my age.
Charlemagne: Joke’s on you, I was not really asking! Go be a nun or I’ll kill you!
Eadburh: Jesus Christ, man
Hot Young Son: *waves goodbye*
Moral of the story is fuck Charlemagne.
Yet Another Example of a Convent Not Solving the Problem
Eadburh accepted her fate and became the abbess of a nunnery somewhere near the Frankish court. But as I previewed in the subhead of this section, she wasn’t…very good at nunning.
Honestly, I don’t know if y’all have a Dirtbag Nation bingo card going yet, but “Very Bad at Nunning” should be a square. We’ve got Julie d’Aubigny. We’ve got Madame de Montespan. We’ve got Catalina de Erauso. Stop sending lady dirtbags to nunneries. It’s not going to work.
Anyway, Abbess Eadburh almost immediately got into trouble for having loud and obvious sex with some Saxon guy. History doesn’t record his name, but I like to believe it was the Hot Young Son of Charlemagne, who was stopping by the nunnery on a day trip to piss off his dad.
Charlemagne himself ordered that Eadburh be expelled from the convent, and she spent the rest of her life in Pavia, a small town in Lombardy. She died a few years after leaving the convent, probably before 805. Charlemagne survived another decade or so before dying of pleurisy in 814. I hope Eadburh gave him the slowest-acting poison in the world.
Maybe I’ll do a newsletter in the future just yelling about Charlemagne. I’m sure he deserves it. I’m getting mad Napoleon vibes from the guy.
Anyway, thank you for joining me in old-timey Britain for this week’s story. Until next time, be well, and if you’re gonna poison someone—which I’m absolutely not saying you should do—but if you do it—which you shouldn’t—just watch your aim, is all I’m saying,