Hidden historical heroines (#16: Judith of Flanders)


Judith and BaldwinJudith of Flanders (c. 843 – 870) was a great-granddaughter of Charlemagne, the eldest daughter of the Frankish King and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles the Bald of the House of the Carolingians. She was twice-over Queen of Wessex, the dominant and largest Anglo-Saxon kingdom.


In 855 King Æthelwulf of Wessex, an extremely pious man, made a pilgrimage to Rome. On his way back the following year he took rest at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor. Both men, it seems, were growing increasingly troubled by the aggression of the Vikings and were in need of each other as an ally.


Æthelwulf had a handfast wife, a Saxon woman called Osburh who had given him a daughter and five sons – four of which would eventually rule as King of Wessex. Perhaps she had died by the time of Æthelwulf’s pilgrimage, or perhaps – like so many other Saxon handfast wives – she was put aside, as Æthelwulf agreed to marry the Emperor Charles’ firstborn daughter. Æthelwulf was approaching 60, whilst this girl – Judith – would have been around 13. Charles insisted that his daughter be treated with the utmost respect, and be formally crowned and known as Queen, which was not customary in Saxon England at the time.


Whilst it is clear that this union was for diplomatic purposes and not for the getting of further heirs, the marriage provoked a rebellion by Æthelwulf’s eldest surviving son, Æthelbald, who feared displacement in the line of succession by a higher born half-brother. However father and son soon negotiated a compromise, where Æthelbald was reaffirmed as his father’s heir and given the sub-kingship of Kent.


As it turned out, Æthelbald had no need for concern, as Judith had no children by Æthelwulf, who died on 13 January 858. He was succeeded, as promised, by Æthelbald as his eldest surviving son. Judith, a Dowager Queen, still only in her mid-teens, began making arrangements to return to the home of her father. Æthelbald moved quickly, marrying her, tying her and her Carolingian prestige once again to the House of Wessex.


All of Europe was aghast. The incest implicit in marrying your father’s widow not only went against Christian law, but pagan sensibilities also. Realising the level of disgust he had inspired in his men, Æthelbald finally agreed to an annulment of the marriage on the grounds of consanguinity. It proved not to matter; he died before the year was out, to be succeeded by the next brother in line.



Having learnt her lesson, Judith moved even faster this time, liquidising her assets in Wessex and returning to her father, who promptly stuck her – for safekeeping, we assume – in a monastery. Over Christmas 861, with the collusion of her brother “Louis the Stammerer”, Judith eloped from the monastery with the man she had fallen in love with, Count Baldwin, and the pair fled north.


Emperor Charles was furious and immediately sent men after the couple. They managed to evade capture for almost a full year, before – in October 862 – they sought refuge at the court of Judith’s cousin, Lothair II (of a now defunct kingdom west of the Rhine). Unable now to touch Judith and Baldwin, Charles attempted to damn their eternal souls, ordering his bishops to excommunicate them. Judith and Baldwin travelled onwards to Rome, where they had the Pope himself confirm the validity of their marriage. Charles now had no choice but to recognise the marital contract and he settled the area of Flanders upon his new son-in-law. Flanders would grow to become one of the most powerful principalities of France.


Judith gave Baldwin three sons, including the future Baldwin II, before dying young – even by the standards of the 9th century – in just her mid-twenties. Whilst her two royal marriages with the House of Wessex produced no children, she is – through her sons with Baldwin – the ancestress of Matilda of Flanders, the queen-consort of William the Conqueror, and therefore a genetic matriarch of the later monarchs of unified England.



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