Queen Aelfthryth, Wife of Edgar
Queen Mother of England
At 55 years, the once beautiful Aelfthryth is still a handsome woman.
Ælfthryth (c. 945-1000, also Alfrida, Elfrida or Elfthryth) was the second or third wife of King Edgar of England. Ælfthryth was the first king’s wife known to have been crowned and anointed as Queen of the Kingdom of England. Mother of King Ethelred the Unready, she was a powerful political figure. She was linked to the murder of her stepson King Edward the Martyr and appeared as a stereotypical bad Queen and evil stepmother in many medieval histories.
Ælfthryth was the daughter of Ealdorman Orgar. Her mother was a member of the royal family of Wessex. The family’s power lay in the west of Wessex. Ordgar was buried in Exeter and his son Ordwulf founded, or refounded, Tavistock Abbey. Ælfthryth was first married to Æthelwald, son of Æthelstan Half-King as recorded by Byrhtferth of Ramsey in his Life of Saint Oswald of Worcester. Later accounts, such as that preserved by William of Malmesbury, add vivid detail of unknown reliability.
Ælfthryth was of royal blood on both sides of her family. She was reputed to be so lovely that it is said that the great King Edgar sent Æthelwald, a trusted ally, to go and see for himself and, if the stories were true, to make an offer for her hand on the behalf of the king. Æthelwald, discovering just how beautiful she was, married her himself. he wrote to King Edgar and told him the woman was a hideous beast. Edgar was no fool, and he sent word that he would come to console Ælfthryth for her affliction. Æthelwald begged his new wife to make herself appear as ugly as possible for the king, but she did the opposite. King Edgar fell madly in love with her and murdered Æthelwald during a hunt. That a marriage with so high a noblewoman helped his own standing was all gravy.
King Edgar had been married before and had children with his first two wives. He and Ælfthryth were married in 964 or 965. Although Edward, the son of his first wife, was older, the king declared his first son by Ælfthryth, as his heir. Alas, Edmund died in 970, leaving a little brother, Ethelred, who was born in 968. In 973 Edgar, no doubt to strengthen his claim to being King of England, arranged to be crowned a second time, and he also had Ælfthryth crowned and anointed as queen, the highest status yet held by the wife of the king.
Two years later Edgar died, leaving two sons, Edward by his first and Ælfthryth’s son Ethelred. Edward was much nearer his majority and had the support of the archbishops of Canterbury and York Dunstan and Oswald, and the powerful Æthelwine, Ealdorman of East Anglia, who happened to be the brother of Ælfthryth first, late husband. Though Ethelred had his own strong supporters, Edward was crowned as their father’s successor.
In 978 Kind Edward visited his stepmother and brother at Corfe Castle. As he rode into sight, he was attacked and murdered by men believed to be in Ælfthryth’s servbice. Ethelred, just a few years old, became King of England, with his mother Ælfthryth in power as regent until he came of age in 984. Ælfthryth, her former allies all dead, retired from court life when her son became king, but wielded influence as the caretaker of the children Ethelred had by his first wife, Ælffigu.
In spite of her legendary murder of her stepson Edward, Ælfthryth was known as a deeply religious woman. She spent many years supporting the cause of monastic reform. She died between 999 and 1001 at the Hampshire village of Wherwell.