Ælfthryth: England’s first queen

She wielded more influence than any Anglo-Saxon woman before her and, in doing so, redefined the role of 'king's wife'. But did Ælfthryth cement her power through a brutal murder? Levi Roach investigates...

Illustration by Sarah Young

This article was first published in the May 2017 edition of BBC History Magazine

If asked to name a medieval queen of England, most would probably fasten upon Eleanor of Aquitaine, the influential wife of Henry II, made famous by Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter. A few Plantagenet and Tudor enthusiasts might think of Elizabeth Woodville, the capable consort of Edward IV and grandmother to Henry VIII. One or two of the more adventurous might even fix upon Emma of Normandy, the indomitable wife of King Cnut in the early 11th century. Many would struggle to think of any at all. But very few indeed would name Ælfthryth, the third wife of King Edgar (reigned 959–75) and mother of Æthelred ‘the Unready’ (r978–1013 and 1014–16).

This is understandable. Beyond her outlandish name (sometimes modernised as Elfrida), Ælfthryth faces a number of difficulties. For a start, our sources for her life are much scarcer than they are for her more famous successors. To this may be added the lower public profile of Anglo-Saxon history.

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