Queen Aelfgifu

  • Age: 21
  • Born: 975

Ælfgifu of York (fl. c. 985-1002) was the first wife of King Æthelred (r. 978-1016), by whom she bore many offspring, including Edmund Ironside. It is most probable that she was a daughter of Thored, earl of southern Northumbria.

Her name and paternity do not surface in the sources until sometime after the Conquest. The first to offer any information at all, Sulcard of Westminster (fl. 1080s), merely describes her as being “of very noble English stock” (ex nobilioribus Anglis), without naming her,1 while in in the early 12th century, William of Malmesbury has nothing to report. All primary evidence comes from two Anglo-Norman historians. John of Worcester, in a chronicle which is thought to rely on earlier material compiled c. 1100, tells that Æthelred’s first wife was Ælfgifu, daughter of the nobleman Æthelberht (comes Agelberhtus) and the mother of Edmund, Æthelstan, Eadwig and Eadgyth.2 Writing in the 1150s, Ailred of Rievaulx had reason to identify Æthelred’s first wife as a daughter of earl (comes) Thored and the mother of Edmund, though he supplies no name.3 Ailred had been seneschal at the court of King David I of Scotland (r. 1124–53), whose mother Margaret descended from King Æthelred and his first wife. Although his testimony is late, his proximity to the royal family may have given him access to genuine information.4

These two accounts are irreconcilable at the point of ascribing two different fathers to Æthelred’s first wife (in both cases, Edmund’s mother). One way out of it would be to assume the existence of two different wives before the arrival of Queen Emma, Æthelred’s Norman wife, although this interpretation presents difficulties of its own, especially as the sources envisage a single woman.5 Historians generally favour the view that John of Worcester was in error about the father’s name, as Æthelberht’s very existence is under suspicion:6 if Latin comes is to be interpreted as a gloss on the office of ealdorman, only two doubtful references to one or two duces (ealdormen) of this name can be put forward that would fit the description.7 All in all, the combined evidence suggests that Æthelred’s first wife was Ælfgifu, the daughter of Earl Thored. This magnate is likely to have been the Thored who was a son of Gunnar and earl of (southern) Northumbria.8

ased largely on the careers of her sons, Ælfgifu’s marriage has been dated approximately to the (mid-)980s.9 Considering Thored’s authority as earl of York and apparently, the tenure of that office without royal appointment, the union would have signified an important step for the West-Saxon royal family by which it secured a foothold in the north.10 Such a politically weighty union would help explain the close connections maintained by Ælfgifu’s eldest sons Edmund and Æthelstan with noble families based in the northern Danelaw.11
The marriage produced six sons, all of whom were named after Æthelred’s predecessors, and an unknown number of daughters. The eldest sons Æthelstan, Ecgberht, Eadred and Edmund first attest charters in 993, while the younger sons Eadwig and Edgar first make an appearance in them in 997 and 1001 respectively.12 Some of these sons seem to have spent part of their childhood in fosterage elsewhere, possibly with Æthelred’s mother Ælfthryth.13
The only ætheling to become king was Edmund Ironside, whose brief reign came to an end when Cnut won a series of victories and so conquered England (1016). Æthelred gave three of his daughters in marriage to ealdormen, presumably in order to secure the loyalties of his nobles and so to consolidate a defence system against Viking attacks.14

Ælfgifu seems to have kept a low profile in her husband’s political life, to judge by her total absence from royal diplomas. She did, however, make at least some impression on the contemporary record. In a will issued between 975/980 and 987, the thegn Beorhtric and his wife bequeathed to their “lady” (hlæfdige) an armlet worth 30 gold mancuses and a stallion, calling upon her authority to oversee the implementation of the arrangements set out by will.21 In a will of later date (AD 990 × 1001), in which she is addressed as “my lady” (mire hlæfdian), the noblewoman Æthelgifu promised a bequest of 30 mancuses of gold.22 Just as little is known of Ælfgifu’s life, so the precise date and circumstances of her death cannot be recovered.23 In any event, she appears to have died by 1002, probably from childbirth, when Æthelred took to wife Emma, daughter of Count Richard of Rouen, who received or adopted her predecessor’s Anglo-Saxon name, Ælfgifu.

Queen Aelfgifu

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