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.
All too often we think of the Middle Ages as starting in 1066. Before this lurks the mysterious ‘Dark Ages’: a period filled with fascinating, semi-mythical figures such as Arthur and Merlin, but little in the way of real historical evidence. Still, it is a pity that she is not better known, for if any medieval English queen deserves to be a household name, it is Ælfthryth. And for all the importance of an Eleanor or an Elizabeth, it is Ælfthryth who has the honour of being the ‘first queen of England’.
Ælfthryth’s reign came at a decisive time in English history. The second half of the ninth century had seen the Vikings subdue the north and east of England. Only the kingdom of Wessex, south of the Thames, survived – and this only thanks to the dogged efforts of Alfred the Great (r871–99). Under Alfred’s successors, the English went on the offensive, and by his grandson Æthelstan’s time (r924–39) most of what is now England had been brought under their control. Later kings had to fight hard to maintain these gains, but in the end they succeeded.
Ælfthryth herself was born in the early to mid-940s to a prominent family in the South West. Upon coming of age, she was married to Æthelwold, the ealdorman of East Anglia (a royal officer, the equivalent of the later ‘earl’). Æthelwold’s family was one of the most powerful in England (his father had borne the nickname ‘half-king’, on account of his quasi-regal standing) and in this capacity he was responsible for almost a quarter of the realm. However, Æthelwold soon died under circumstances that are unclear. But rather than a setback, this proved the making of the young Ælfthryth.
In 964 Ælfthryth, still only in her late teens or early twenties, went on to marry King Edgar, who had himself succeeded to the throne five years earlier. Like Ælfthryth, Edgar had been married before. In fact, he had two prior spouses, one of whom was still alive. Not surprisingly, there were questions as to whether this was a true marriage ‘till death do us part’: an indissoluble union in the language of the church.
Such concerns were soon put to rest, however. On the occasion of the marriage itself, Edgar granted land to his new wife – a particular honour accorded to neither of his previous consorts. In fact, this seems to have been a different kind of union from the outset. Unlike her predecessors, Ælfthryth regularly appeared in government records. And, far from being there for purely decorative purposes, she seems to have influenced and guided royal policy.
Before this, royal wives had been minor players. They appear only rarely in the documentary record, and when they do, they invariably bear the title ‘king’s wife’ or ‘king’s consort’ rather than ‘queen’. Such terms emphasise the dependency of these women on their husband; queen was not yet an office in its own right. But this too was now to change. From the start, Ælfthryth is styled ‘queen’.
The ruins of Corfe Castle, Dorset, England. (Alamy)
The reason for this change lies in another break with tradition: Ælfthryth was also the first consort of England to be crowned and consecrated. The tradition of royal consecration had developed on the continent in the early Middle Ages. At its heart lay the ritual anointing of the monarch with holy oil and investment with symbols of office (above all, the crown – hence the modern term ‘coronation’). The ceremony enacted and symbolised the transition from heir apparent to king, and was thought to endow the monarch with divine favour. It made him king ‘by the grace of God’.
Royal consecration had become common in England in the ninth century, but it was reserved for ruling monarchs, invariably men. That Ælfthryth should be formally anointed like her husband marks an important point of departure. It indicates that, in both practical and symbolic terms, queenship was starting to become an office. Ælfthryth’s influence would not be owed entirely to her husband, but also to ‘divine grace’.
The partnership between Ælfthryth and Edgar is visible throughout the remaining years of his reign. In the year of their marriage, they began to reform the bishopric of Winchester. This was a process that involved removing the existing clergy, who were accused of lax standards, and replacing them with monks. In future years, the two worked closely to foster similar reforms elsewhere. And when, in 973, Edgar decided to undergo a spectacular second coronation at Bath, Ælfthryth was right there by his side.
A succession struggle
In early July 975, at the height of his powers, Edgar died at the age of no more than 32. This had not been foreseen, and a succession struggle soon erupted. This pitted Ælfthryth and Edgar’s son, Æthelred, against Edgar’s eldest son, Edward (Æthelred’s half-brother).
Most surprising is that there was a dispute at all. Though succession rules had yet to be formalised, it was generally anticipated that the eldest son would succeed (at least in the absence of a royal brother). That some were willing to back the much younger son Æthelred, who may only have been six at the time, requires some explanation.
It’s likely that the imposing figure of Ælfthryth lay behind their decision. As queen, she had enjoyed great power and influence and was understandably hesitant to let go of this. Edward’s succession posed a real threat to her. If Edward proved long-lived, there was every chance that Æthelred might be cut out of the succession. Yet Ælfthryth was not just power-hungry. As a consecrated queen, she may have felt that she was more legitimate than Edgar’s previous wives: his only true consort. And if this were so, then Æthelred was his only true offspring.
It was this that seems to have been the real point of contention: was Edward a throne-worthy heir, or an illegitimate bastard? Some were clearly convinced of the latter, but in the end age trumped legitimacy and Edward was consecrated king in his father’s stead.
Edward’s succession was a major blow to Ælfthryth, and such wounds were not easily healed. Barely had Edward taken control of the realm, when he was killed at Corfe in Dorset by supporters of Æthelred and Ælfthryth. He had been travelling to visit the two at the time, and it is hardly surprising that suspicion has often fallen upon them. However, contemporary sources, of which there is little shortage, do not implicate them. We are probably dealing with a situation rather like that of Henry II and Thomas Becket two centuries later: one of zealous supporters seeking to do their masters a favour, and going beyond their orders.
Whatever the precise circumstances, this act landed Æthelred on the throne that his mother had worked so hard to secure for him. However, he was still a child (no older than 12,
and perhaps only eight or nine) so there could be no question of him ruling on his own. Instead, an informal regency was established with Ælfthryth and her supporters at its head. For the next six years, it was they who would rule with quiet efficiency. Only when the queen regent’s chief allies, Ælfhere of Mercia and Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester, died in quick succession in 983 and 984, did Æthelred finally take control of affairs. Initially, he distanced himself from the politics of his regents, and for the next eight or nine years Ælfthryth disappears from the record entirely. She was clearly removed from court, and her policies with her.
Crisis of confidence
These years saw something of a youthful rebellion from the teenage Æthelred, who took the opportunity to promote new favourites and attack religious houses associated with his earlier regents. Yet it was also at this juncture that the Vikings began to plague his coasts. In 991 they defeated a major English force at Maldon in Essex. Æthelred suddenly suffered a crisis of confidence.
As was common in the Middle Ages, the king interpreted this as a sign of divine displeasure, and set about mending his errant ways – starting with restoring his mother to favour. He welcomed Ælfthryth back at court and reversed previous policies. Æthelred also charged his mother with the important task of raising his children (her own grandchildren, the heirs to the throne). Reconciliation seems to have been complete.
When Ælfthryth died on 17 November 1001, the king was deeply moved. She was buried at Wherwell, the nunnery she had founded in Hampshire. Soon after Æthelred issued an extraordinary document in favour of this centre. Like most royal enactments, the resulting text opens with a meditation on God’s will. Yet unlike other documents of the era, this quotes the biblical dictum: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” then cites the fifth commandment: “Honour thy father and thy mother”.
Ælfthryth’s legacy lived on in the queens who followed her. Æthelred’s second wife, Emma of Normandy, cut quite the figure in future years, as did Edith, the wife of Edward the Confessor (and the sister of Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England). The office of queen had been born, and had a long and bright history before it.
Levi Roach is a lecturer in history at the University of Exeter and author of Æthelred the Unready (Yale University Press, 2016).
Two women who set the template for the queen’s achievements
In the years before Ælfthryth, the status of royal women varied significantly. The dynasty that united England in the early 10th century was that of Wessex (south of the Thames), and prevailing attitudes were drawn from there. At the time of Alfred the Great, the king’s Welsh biographer, Bishop Asser, criticised the “strange” West Saxon tradition of denying royal consorts the title of queen – a custom that reportedly went back to the king Beorhtric in the early ninth century (r786–802), whose wife accidentally poisoned him! This is the stuff of legend, but whatever the real grounds, West Saxon royal women – aside from Judith, crowned queen of the West Saxons in 856 – did not have a high profile.
Elsewhere, matters were different. In the Midlands kingdom of Mercia, royal wives traditionally held a more active role. It is here that the most famous female figure of the 10th century is to be found: Æthelflæd, ‘lady of the Mercians’.
Æthelflæd was the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great. She married the Mercian
nobleman Æthelred, who oversaw the region on Alfred’s behalf. When her husband died in 911, she took power, working with her brother, King Edward the Elder (r899–924), to conquer much of the east Midlands and East Anglia. Her political links to Wessex doubtless helped her position, but her achievement is no less impressive for this. She may have offered a model for Ælfthryth, whose first husband hailed from East Anglia.
Another likely inspiration was Eadgifu, wife of Edward the Elder. Little is known about Eadgifu during her husband’s reign, but when her sons Edmund (r939–46) and Eadred (r946–55) ruled, she seems to have been the power behind the throne.