Women of the Tenth Century

Medieval Women Who Changed History: Lived 901 - 1000

Queen Elfrida, artist conception, 1850s
Queen Elfrida, artist conception, 1850s. The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

In the tenth century, a few women achieved power but almost entirely through their fathers, husbands, sons and grandsons. Some even served as regents for their sons and grandsons. As Europe's Christianization became nearly complete, it was more common for women to achieve power by founding monasteries, churches, and covents. Women's value to royal families was mainly as childbearers and as pawns to move around in dynastic marriages.

Occasionally, women (like Aethelflaed) led military forces, or (like Marozia and Theodora) wielded direct political power. A few women (like Andal, Lady Li and Hrosvitha) achieved prominence as artists and writers.

Saint Ludmilla:  840 - 916

Ludmilla raised and educated her grandson, a duke and the future Saint Wenceslaus. Ludmilla was key in the Christianization of her country. She was murdered by her daughter-in-law Drahomira, a nominal Christian.

Ludmilla was married to Borivoj, who was the first Christian Duke of Bohemia. Ludmilla and Borivoj were baptized about 871. Conflict over religion drove them from their country, but they were soon recalled and ruled together for seven years more.  Ludmilla and Borivoj then resigned and turned over rule to their son Spytihnev, who died two years later. Another son Vratislav then succeeded.

Married to Drahomira, a nominal Christian, he left his eight-year-old son Wenceslaus to rule.

Wenceslaus had been raised and educated by Ludmilla. Another son (perhaps a twin) Boreslav "the Cruel" was raised and educated by his father and mother.

Ludmilla continued to influence her grandson, Wenceslaus. Reportedly, pagan nobles stirred up Drahomira against Ludmilla, resulting in the murder of Ludmilla, with Drahomira's participation.

Stories say she was strangled by her veil by noblemen at Drahomira's instigation.

Ludmilla is venerated as a patron saint of Bohemia. Her feast day is September 16.

  • Father: Slavibor, Prince of Psov(?)
  • Mother: unknown
  • Husband: Borivoj (Boriwoi), Duke of Bohemia
  • Children:
    • Spytihnev (Spitignev)
    • Vratislav (Wratislaw, Radislav) I, Duke of Bohemia; married Drahomira
  • Grandchildren:
    • Boreslav (Boleslaw, Boleslaus) I the Cruel
    • Saint Wenceslaus (Wenceslas, Vyacheslav) I, Duke of Bohemia
    • Strezislava of Bohemia (?)

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians: ? - 918

Aethelflaed was a daughter of Alfred the Great. Aethelflaed became a political and military leader when her husband was killed in battle with the Danes in 912. She went on to unify Mercia.

Aelfthryth (877 - 929)

She’s known mainly as a genealogically link of Anglo Saxon kings to the Anglo Norman dynasty. Her father was Alfred the Great, her mother Ealhswith, and her siblings included Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, Aethelgifu, Edward the Elder, Aethelweard.

Aelfthryth was raised and educated with her brother, Edward, a future king. She was married to Baldwin II of Flanders in 884, as a way of solidifying an alliance between the English and the Flemish to oppose the Vikings.

When her father, Alfred, died in 899, Aelfthryth inherited several properties in England from him. She donated several of these to the abbey of St. Peter in Ghent.

Aelfthryth's husband Baldwin II died in 915. In 917, Aelfthryth had his bodied moved to the abbey of St. Peter.

Her son, Arnulf, became the count of Flanders after his father's death. His descendant Baldwin V was the father of Matilda of Flanders who married William the Conqueror. Because of Aelfthryth's heritage as a daughter of the Saxon king, Alfred the Great, the marriage of Matilda to the future Norman king, William, brought the heritage of the Saxon kings back into the royal line.

  • Husband: Baldwin II, Count of Flanders, son of Judith of France, who had briefly been stepmother and then sister-in-law to Aelfthrgyth's father, Alfred the Great (married 884)
  • Children: Arnulf I of Flanders, Adalulf, Count of Boulogne, Ealswid, Ermentrud

Also known as: Eltrudes (Latin), Elstrid

Theodora: ? - 928

She was a senatrix and serenissima vestaratrix of Rome. She was the grandmother of Pope John XI; her influence and that of her daughters was called the Rule of the Harlots or the pornocracy.

Not to be confused with the Byzantine empress Theodora.  This Theodora’s alleged lover, Pope John X, whose election as Pope she supported, was allegedly murdered by Theodora’s daughter, Marozia, whose father was Theodora’s first, Theophylact. Theodora is also credited as the grandmother of Pope John XI and great-grandmother of Pope John XII.

Theodora and her husband Theophylact were key influences during the papacies of Sergius III and Anastasius III. Later stories associated Sergius III with Marozia, daughter of Theophylact and Theodora, and claim that the future Pope John XI was their illegitimate son, born when Marozia was only 15 years old.

When John X was elected Pope it was also with the support of Theodora and Theophylact. Some stories claim that John X and Theodora were lovers.

  • Husband: Theophylact
  • Daughter: Marozia
  • Daughter: Theodora (confused by historian Edward Gibon with her mother)
  • Rumored to be the mistress of Pope John X and Pope Sergius III

An example of historians' judgment of Theodora and Marozia:

Towards the beginning of the tenth century a powerful noble, Theophylact, aided by his beautiful and unscrupulous wife, Theodora, secured control of Rome. Their daughter Marozia became the central figure of a corrupt society which completely dominated both the city and the papacy. Marozia herself married as her third husband Hugh of Provence, then king of Italy. One of her sons became pope as John XI ( 931-936), while another, Alberic, assumed the title of "prince and senator of the Romans" and ruled Rome, appointing four popes in the years 932 to 954.

(from: John L. Lamonte, The World of the Middle Ages: A Reorientation of Medieval History, 1949. p. 175.)

Olga of Russia: about 890 - 969

Olga of Kiev was the first known woman to rule Russia, the first Russian ruler to adopt Christianity, the first Russian saint in the Orthodox Church. She was the widow of Igor I, regent for their son. She is known for her role in bringing Christianity to official status in Russia.

Marozia: about 892-about 937

Marozia was the daughter of the powerful Theodora (above), as well as allegedly mistress of Pope Sergius III. She was the mother of Pope John XI (by her first husband Alberic or by Sergius) and of another son Alberic who stripped the papacy of much secular power and whose son became Pope John XII.  See her mother’s listing for a quote about Marozia.

Saint Matilda of Saxony: about 895 - 986

Matilda of Saxony was the Empress of Germany (the Holy Roman Empire), married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry I. She was the founder of monasteries and builder of churches. She was the mother of Emperor Otto I, duke Henry of Bavaria, St. Bruno, Gerberga who married Louis IV of France and Hedwig, whose son Hugh Capet founded a French royal dynasty.

Raised by her grandmother, an abbess, Saint Matilda of Saxony was, as were so many royal women, married off for political purposes. In her case it was to Henry the Fowler of Saxony, who became King of Germany. During her life in Germany Saint Matilda of Saxony founded several abbeys and was noted for her charity. Her feast day was March 14.

Saint Edith of Polesworth: about 901 - 937

Daughter of Hugh Capet of England and widow Sigtryggr Gale, King of Dublin and York, Edith became a nun at Polesworth Abbey and Tamworth Abbey and abbess at Tamworth.

Also known as: Eadgyth, Edith of Polesworth, Edith of Tamworth

One of perhaps two Ediths who were daughters of King Edward the Elder of England, the history of Saint Edith is ambiguous. Attempts to trace her life identify the mother of this Edith (Eadgyth) as Ecgwyn. Saint Edith's brother, Aethelstan, was King of England 924-940.

Edith or Eadgyth was married in 925 to Sigtryggr Gale, King of Dublin and York. Their son Olaf Cuarán Sitricsson also became King of Dublin and York. After her husband's death, she became a nun and, eventually, abbess at Tamworth Abbey in Gloucestershire.

Alternatively, Saint Edith may have been a sister of King Edgar the Peaceful and therefore an aunt of Edith of Wilton.

After her death in 937 Saint Edith was canonized; her feast day is July 15.

Edith of England: about 910 - 946

Edith of England was the daughter of King Edward the Elder of England, and the first wife of Emperor Otto I of Germany,

One of two Ediths who were daughters of King Edward the Elder of England, the mother of this Edith (Eadgyth) is variously identified as Aelflaeda (Elfleda) or Edgiva (Eadgifu). Her brother and half-brothers were kings of England: Aethelstan, Aelfweard, Edmund I and Eadred.

Typically for the female offspring of royal rulers, she was married to another expected ruler, but far from home. She married Otto I the Great of Germany, later Holy Roman Emperor, about 929. (Otto married again; his second wife was Adelaide.)

Edith (Eadgyth) is interred at St. Maurice Cathedral, Magdeburg, Germany.

Also known as: Eadgyth

Hrosvitha von Gandersheim: about 930 - 1002

Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim wrote the first plays known to be written by a woman, and she is the first known European woman poet after Sappho. She was also a canoness and a chronicler. Her name translates as "strong voice."

Also known as: Hroswitha, Hrostsvit, Hrotsvithae, Hrosvitha of Gandersheim

Saint Adelaide: 931 - 999

The Empress Adelaide was Western empress from 962 (consort of Otto I), and later was regent for Otto III from 991-994 with her daughter-in-law Theophano.

Daughter of Rudolf II of Burgundy, Adelaide was married to Lothair, king of Italy. After Lothair died in 950 —perhaps poisoned by Berengar II who seized the throne for his son—she was taken prisoner in 951 by Berengar II who wanted her to marry his son.

Otto I "the Great" of Saxony rescued Adelaide and defeated Berengar, declared himself king of Italy, and then married Adelaide. His first wife was Edith, daughter of Edward the Elder. When he was crowned as Holy Roman Emperor on February 2, 962, Adelaide was crowned as empress. She turned to religious activity, promoting monasticism. Together they had five children.

When Otto I died and her son, Otto II, succeeded to the throne, Adelaide continued to influence him until 978. He married Theophano, a Byzantine princess, in 971, and her influence gradually superceded that of Adelaide.

When Otto II died in 984, his son, Otto III, succeeded him, though he was only three years old. Theophano, the child's mother, was in control until 991 with Adelaide's support, and then Adelaide ruled for him 991-996.

Michitsuna no haha: about 935 – about 995

Japanese poet who wrote The Kagero Diary, documenting life in the Japanese court. The diary is known for its critique of marriage.  Her name means “Mother of Michitsuna.”

She was the wife of a Japanese official whose descendents by his first wife were rulers of Japan. Michitsuna's diary stands as a classic in literary history. In documenting her own troubled marriage, she helped document that aspect of 10th century Japanese culture.

  • The Kagero Diary (The Gossamer Years)

Theophano: 943? – after 969

Theophano was the wife of Byzantine emperors Romanus II and Nicephorus II, and regent for her sons Basil II and Constantine VIII. Her daughters Theophano and Anna married important 10th century rulers -- the Western emperor and Vladimir I "the Great" of Russia.

Theophano's first marriage was to the Byzantine Emperor Romanus II, whom she was able to dominate. Theophano, along with a eunuch, Joseph Bringus, essentially ruled in her husband's place.

She was alleged to have poisoned Romanus II in 963, after which she served as regent for her sons Basil II and Constantine VIII. She married Nicephorus II on September 20, 963, barely a month after he became emperor, displacing her sons.  He ruled until 969 when he was assassinated by a conspiracy that included John I Tzimisces, whose mistress she had become.  Polyeuctus, the patriarch of Constantinople, forced him to banish Theophano to a convent and punish the other murderers.

Her daughter Theophano (below) married Otto II, the Western emperor, and her daughter Anna married Vladimir I of Kiev. (Not all sources agree that these were their daughters.)

An example of a highly-charged opinion of Theophano—a few quotes from the lengthy The World of the Middle Ages: A Reorientation of Medieval History by John L. Lamonte, 1949 (pp. 138-140):

he death of Constantine VII was caused in all probability by poison administered to him by his son, Romanus II, at the instigation of his wife Theophano. This Theophano was a notorious courtesan, the daughter of a tavern keeper, who had won the affection of the young Romanus, a dissipated and generally worthless youth, so that he married her and associated her on the throne. With her father-in-law removed and her debauched husband on the throne, Theophano took into her own hands the reins of power, ruling with the advice of the eunuch Joseph Bringas, an old functionary of Constantine's.... Romanus departed this world in 963 leaving Theophano a widow at the age of twenty with two small sons, Basil and Constantine. What could be more natural than that the widowed empress should seek a supporter and helpmate in the gallant soldier? Bringas attempted to assume the custody for the two young princes at the death of their father, but Theophano and the patriarch engaged in an unholy alliance to confer the government on the hero Nicephorus…. Theophano saw herself now the wife of a new and handsome emperor. But she had been duped; when the patriarch refused to recognize Tzmisces as emperor until he had "driven from the Sacred Palace the adulteress . . . who had been the chief mover in the crime" he cheerfully repudiated Theophano, who was banished to a nunnery (she was then 27 years old).

Emma, Queen of Franks: about 945 – after 986

Emma was married to Lothaire, King of the Franks. Mother of King Louis V of the Franks, Emma is alleged to have poisoned her son in 987. After his death, Hugh Capet succeeded to the throne, ending the Carolingian dynasty and beginning the Capetian.

Aelfthryth: 945 - 1000

Aelfthryth was an English Saxon queen, married to King Edgar "the Peaceable." After Edgar’s death she may have helped end the life of her stepson Edward "the Martyr" so that her son could become King as Aethelred (Ethelred) II "the Unready."  Aelfthryth or Elfrida was the first queen of England known to have been crowned with that title.

Also known as:  Elfrida, Elfthryth

Her father was Earl of Devon, Ordgar. She married Edgar who died in 975, and was his second wife. Aelfthryth is sometimes credited with organizing, or being part of, a 978 assassination of her stepson Edward "the Martyr" so that her 10-year-old son Ethelred II "the Unready" could succeed.

Her daughter, Aethelfleda or Ethelfleda, was abbess at Romsey.

Theophano: 956? - 991

This Theophano, possibly the daughter of the Byzantine empress Theophano (above) and emperor Romanus II, married the western emperor Otto II ("Rufus") in 972. The marriage had been negotiated as part of a treaty between John Tzmisces, ruling for the princes who were Theophano's brothers, and Otto I. Otto I died the next year.

When Otto II died in 984, his son, Otto III, succeeded him, though he was only three years old. Theophano, as the child's mother, was in control until 991. In 984 the Duke of Bavaria (Henry "the Quarrelsome") kidnapped Otto III, but was forced to turn him over to Theophano and her mother-in-law Adelaide. Adelaide ruled for Otto III after Theophano died in 991. Otto III also married a Theophano, also of Byzantium.

This Theophano's sister, Anna (below), married Vladimir I of Russia.

Saint Edith of Wilton: 961 - 984

Illegitimate daughter of Edgar the Peaceable, Edith became a nun at the convent at Wilton, where her mother (Wulfthryth or Wilfrida) was also a nun. King Edgar was forced to do penance for kidnapping Wulfthryth from the convent.  Wulfthryth returned to the convent when she was able to escape, taking Edith with her.

Edith was reportedly offered the crown of England by nobles who had supported one half-brother, Edward the Martyr, against her other half-brother, Aelthelred the Unready.

Her feast day is September 16, the day of her death.

Also known as: Eadgyth, Ediva

Anna: 963 - 1011

Anna was a Byzantine princess, probably the daughter of the Byzantine Empress Theophano (above) and Byzantine Emperor Romanus II, and thus the sister of Basil II (though occasionally identified as Basil's daughter) and , sister of western empress, another Theophano (also above),

Basil arranged for Anna to be married to Vladimir I of Kiev, called "the Great," in 988. This marriage is sometimes credited for Vladimir's conversion to Christianity (as has the influence of his grandmother, Olga). His previous wives had been pagans as he had been before 988.  After the baptism, Basil tried to back out of the marriage agreement, but Vladimir invaded the Crimea and Basil relented.

Anna's arrival brought significant Byzantine cultural influence to Russia. Their daughter married Karol "the Restorer" of Poland. Vladimir was killed in an uprising in which some of his former wives and their children participated.

Sigrid the Haughty: about 968 – before 1013

Legendary queen (perhaps mythical), Sigrid refused to marry King Olaf of Norway because it would have required her to give up her faith and become Christian.

Also known as: Sigrid the Strong-Minded, Sigrid the Proud, Sigríð Tóstadóttir, Sigríð Stórráða, Sigrid Storråda

Most likely a legendary character, Sigrid the Haughty (once assumed to be an actual person) is noted for her defiance. The chronicle of King Olaf of Norway says that when it was arranged for Sigrid to marry Olaf, she refused because it would have required her to convert to Christianity. She helped organize opponents of Olaf who, later, defeated the Norwegian King.

According to the stories that mention Sigrid, she was married to Eric VI Bjornsson, King of Sweden, and was mother of Olaf III of Sweden and of Holmfrid who married Svend I of Denmark. Later, perhaps after she and Eric divorced, she is supposed to have married Sweyn of Denmark (Sveyn Forkbeard) and is cited as mother of Estrith or Margaret of Denmark, who married Richard II "the Good" of Normandy.

Aelfgifu about 985 - 1002

Aelfgifu was the first wife of King Aethelread Unraed (Ethelred) "the Unready," and probably the mother of his son Edmund II  Ironside who briefly ruled as King of England.

Also known as: Aelflaed, Elfreda, Elgiva

Aelfgifu's life shows one fact of women's existence in the tenth century: little is known of her besides her name. The first wife of Aethelred "the Unready" (from Unraed meaning "bad or evil counsel"), her parentage is disputed and she disappears from the record early in his long conflict with the Danes which resulted in the overthrow of Aethelred for Sweyn in 1013, and his subsequent brief return to control 1014-1016.  We don't know for sure whether Aelfgifu died or whether Aethelred put her aside for his second wife, Emma of Normandy whom he married in 1002.

While the facts aren't known for certain, Aelfgifu is usually credited as the mother of Aethelred's six sons and as many as five daughters, one of whom was the abbess at Wherwell. Aelfgifu was thus probably the mother of Aethelred's son Edmund II Ironside, who ruled briefly until Sweyn's son, Cnut (Canute), defeated him in battle.

Edmund was allowed by the treaty to rule in Wessex and Cnut ruled the rest of England, but Edmund died in the same year, 1016, and Cnut consolidated his power, marrying Aethelred's second wife and widow, Emma of Normandy. Emma was the mother of Aethelred's sons Edward and Alfred and daughter Godgifu. These three fled to Normandy where Emma's brother ruled as Duke.

Another Aelfgifu is mentioned as the first wife of Cnut, mother of Cnut's sons Sweyn and Harold Harefoot.

Andal: dates unsure

Andal was an Indian poet who wrote devotional poetry to Krishna. A few hagiographies survive of Andal, a poet in Tamil Nadu who wrote devotional poetry to Krishna in which her own personality comes alive at times. Two devotional poems by Andal are known and are still used in worship.

Adopted by her father (Perilyalwar or Periyalwar) who finds her as a baby, Andal avoids earthly marriage, the normal and expected path for women of her culture, to "marry" Vishnu, both spiritually and physically. She is sometimes known by a phrase which means "she who gave garlands that had been worn."

Her name translates as "savior" or "saint," and she is also known as Saint Goda. An annual holy day honors Andal.

The Vaishnava tradition honors Shrivilliputtur as the birthplace of Andal. The Nacciyar Tirumoli, which is about the love of Andal for Vishnu and Andal as beloved, is a Vaishnava marriage classic.

Her exact dates are unknown, but are likely to have been the ninth or tenth centuries.

Sources include:

  • Phillip B. Wagoner. Tidings of the King. 1993.
  • Joseph T. Shipley. Encyclopedia of Literature. 1946.

Lady Li: dates unsure

Lady Li was a Chinese artist from Shu (Sichuan) who is credited with beginning an artistic tradition by tracing on her paper window with a brush the shadows cast by the moon and bamboo, thus inventing monochromatic brush painting of bamboo.

The Taoist writer Chuang-tzu also uses the name Lady Li for a parable about clinging to life in the face of death.

  • Kang-i Chang. Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism. 1999. (mentions Lady Li briefly)
  • Marsha Weidner. Flowering in the Shadows: Women in the History of Chinese and Japanese Painting. 1990.

Zahra: dates unsure

She was the favorite wife of Caliph Adb-er-Rahman III. She inspired the palace of al-Zahra near Cordoba, Spain.

Ende: dates unsure

Ende was a German artist, the first known female manuscript illustrator.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Women of the Tenth Century." ThoughtCo, Mar. 25, 2017, thoughtco.com/women-of-the-tenth-century-4120690. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, March 25). Women of the Tenth Century. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/women-of-the-tenth-century-4120690 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Women of the Tenth Century." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/women-of-the-tenth-century-4120690 (accessed September 22, 2017).