Last edited 20 Mar 2022

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Magdeburg Cathedral

What was Germany’s first cathedral in the new gothic style contains the 10th-century tomb of Queen Eadgyth, the oldest known remains of a burial of English-born royalty.

Magdeburg Cathedral.jpg
Magdeburg Cathedral, still unobstructed by modern buildings. Painting by Carl Hasenpflug, 1828 (Photo: Wikimedia).

In 927 King Aethelstan of Wessex conquered the Viking Kingdom of York, uniting the Anglo-Saxons in a single kingdom of all England for the first time. As he gradually secured English supremacy over large parts of Britain, his foreign political horizon widened towards the European continent, particularly Germany, from where his Saxon ancestors had migrated four to five hundred years earlier. Here it was Henry I, King of the East Franks, including Saxons, Swabians and Bavarians, who accelerated a similar process of nation-building by uniting the German-speaking nations on the continent.

Both Aethelstan and Henry had an interest in a lasting bond between their two Saxon dynasties, and in 929 Aethelstan sent his two half-sisters Eadgifu and Eadgyth to Germany to be presented to Henry’s son and heir apparent Otto. As granddaughters of Alfred the Great and descendants of the revered martyr king St Oswald, the princesses were considered to be highly eligible. The 17-year-old Otto married the 19-year-old Eadgyth, who received the royal manor of Magdeburg on the River Elbe as a gift on the morning after their wedding.

In 937, a year after succeeding his late father Henry I and being crowned in Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel in Aachen, Otto I founded the monastery of St Maurice in Magdeburg, intended as a burial site for his immediate family, including queen consort Eadgyth. Chroniclers report the genuinely close relationship of the royal couple. When Eadgyth unexpectedly died in 946 Otto was grief-stricken. He remained a widower for five years. In 973 he was buried next to his first wife in Magdeburg, his favourite location, by then the seat of a newly created archbishopric.

The design of Magdeburg’s first cathedral reflected the exceptional position Otto was reaching after Eadgyth’s death. Known as Otto the Great in his lifetime, at the battle of Lechfeld in 955 he freed western Europe from the Hungarian raiders who subsequently settled down in their modern-day territory; in 961 he conquered Italy, which remained connected to the German kingdom throughout the middle ages; and in 962 he was crowned Emperor at Old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, constituting the Holy Roman Empire that lasted until 1806. To demonstrate his imperial status, Otto had ancient porphyry, marble and granite columns removed from palace walls in Ravenna and transported to Magdeburg. There they were integrated into the fabric of the cathedral and re-used in prominent positions as the cathedral evolved in later centuries. Of the Romanesque cloister that was built on the south side of the cathedral church, the southern arcade still survives.

When in 1207 a fire destroyed much of the fabric, archbishop Albrecht II decided to pull down the surviving walls of Otto’s church except those of the crypt containing Otto’s and Eadgyth’s tombs, and to build Germany’s first cathedral in the new gothic style. In a country where the traditional Romanesque style was in use well into the mid-13th century, more than a century after the gothic began in France with the rebuilding of St Denis, his decision appears revolutionary. It expressed the confidence of an innovative and highly educated prince-bishop, trained at Bologna and Paris, who as a student had seen gothic cathedrals being built in France. Their layouts informed the floor plans of Magdeburg Cathedral when the foundation stone for the choir was laid in 1209, yet the structure erected on top remains indebted to Romanesque forms.

There are no flying buttresses and the west front with its pair of towers appears as an arrangement of giant cubes, cylinders, and cones. Gothic features only gradually emerged during the construction of the choir, reflecting interruptions and changes of plan. The originally planned pair of eastern towers, for instance, remained incomplete. The first element to exemplify gothic architecture is the bishops’ gallery above the ambulatory, which illustrates the Cistercian influence in the 1230s. Ancient column shafts salvaged from the ruins of Otto’s first cathedral building were integrated into the new choir where they carry the statues of saints as a background for the high altar and imperial tomb. It took until 1363 to complete transept, nave, aisles and, following a century-long interruption, until 1520 to complete both western towers.

At the start of the 311-year-long gothic building project, the axis of the cathedral church had been adjusted anti-clockwise in relation to its original foundations, thereby achieving a slightly more accurate eastward orientation. Only the cloisters on the south side of the church kept their original layout, with the exception of the new northern arcade, whose attachment to the new south transept gives the courtyard a notable wedge shape. The axis may have been rotated around the tomb of Eadgyth, who was buried in civitate Magathaburg in basilica nova, latere aquilonali ad orientem [1] (in the city of Magdeburg, in the north-eastern part of the new basilica) before her husband. Around 1510 a sandstone cenotaph for the queen was sculpted and placed in the cathedral to complement Otto’s tomb. Both now define the axis of Magdeburg Cathedral, with the shrine of the king and emperor Otto the Great positioned in front of the altar and Queen Eadgyth’s cenotaph behind the altar in the easternmost position of the ambulatory.

The richly sculpted mid-15th-century rood screen between transept and choir still marks the boundary of the inner sanctuary containing Otto’s tomb. The long closure and reopening of the cathedral in 1567 following the Reformation prevented the screen’s demolition, which would almost certainly have occurred had the chapter retained its Roman Catholic allegiance and implemented the measures prescribed by the Council of Trent. During the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), in which a third of Germany’s population perished, Magdeburg’s fate was even worse. On 20 May 1631 troops loyal to the Habsburg emperor totally destroyed the city. The Catholic soldiers, including Croatian and Walloon mercenaries who regarded the city’s Lutheran inhabitants as heretics, slaughtered all who did not burn, escape or buy their release, approximately 20,000 men, women and children. Only those barricaded in the cathedral were spared. The Protestant Swedish army arrived far too late to save the town and its inhabitants.

The old imperial city turned into a community of 449. The massacre of Magdeburg sent shockwaves through Europe, particularly through Protestant countries like England. In accordance with the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the territory of the archbishopric fell to Brandenburg in 1680 and the cathedral ended up as church of the Prussian garrison. In 1810, during the French period, the Protestant chapter was dissolved and the cathedral became a warehouse, temporary stable for horses and sheep pen.

The cathedral was in a lamentable state when, following the liberation from Napoleon’s troops in 1814, the national awakening and growing Romanticism drew the attention of the Prussian government to the imperial shrine. Sponsored by Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia and under Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s direction, a comprehensive restoration was undertaken in 1826 to 1834 by Clemens, Mellin and Rosenthal. Their well-documented interventions, modest by 19th-century standards, concentrated on repair and reinstatement rather than conjectural reconstruction. Rosenthal’s approved cost estimate, dated 1826, refrains from a reconstruction of the never-completed east towers, proposing the cathedral’s vollständige Reparatur [2] (complete repair) instead. Remarkably, the works on site were accompanied by archival research and detailed three-monthly progress reports. In comparison, the historicist replacements carried out after 1880 behind the cloister arcades show a less sympathetic approach.

Magdeburg Cathedral contains important medieval and modern sculptures, including Ernst Barlach’s anti-war memorial from 1929 (meeting place of the local peace movement preceding Germany’s reunification). From around the year 1250 are the astonishingly life-like ‘Five wise and five foolish virgins’, integrated into either side of the portal in the north transept; the statue of the patron saint Maurice, the first realistic image of an ethnic African in central European art, which survived war and fascism while hidden away in the compound of the moated castle Flechtingen; and a sculpture of the ‘Royal Couple’ seated inside a 16-sided chapel, which is seen by modern historians as Christ and Ecclesia (personifying the Church), but traditionally identified as Otto and Eadgyth. Queen Eadgyth’s cenotaph, like the tomb of her husband, survived the second world war under reinforced concrete slabs.

In 1996, during a partnership meeting of the Meissen Commission between the Church of England and the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland, when I guided the German delegation, including my late father, through Magdeburg Cathedral, Queen Eadgyth’s cenotaph was still thought to be just that: an empty tomb. But when in 2008 archaeologists opened it, a lead coffin was discovered inside with an inscription: EDIT REGINE CINERES HIC SARCOPHAGUS HABET [3] (this sarcophagus contains the remains of Queen Eadgyth). In 2010, before their ceremonious reburial, the bones were brought to the University of Bristol for isotope tests on tooth enamel. They were confirmed as the remains of Eadgyth, Queen of the East Franks (Germans), making them the oldest known remains of a burial of native English royalty.


  • [1] Widukindi res gestae Saxonicae II 41, in Quellen zur Geschichte der sächsischen Kaiserzeit, bearbeitet von Albert Bauer und Reinhold Rau, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, 1971 (2nd print 1977)
  • [2] Findeisen, Peter (1990), Geschichte der Denkmalpflege. Sachsen-Anhalt, Verlag für Bauwesen, Berlin
  • [3], downloaded 16.6.2021

This article originally appeared as: ‘Magdeburg Cathedral and a queen from England’ in Context 169, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in September 2021. It was written by Michael Asselmeyer, an architect and historian, who has been a lecturer in architecture at the University of Dundee and a senior lecturer in architecture at the University of Central Lancashire.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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