Yorkshire’s Little Prince

Æthelread II (known to history as the Æthelread Unready)

It may come as no surprise that very few royals have been born in Yorkshire over the years. There was Ӕlfgifu of York, the first wife of Ӕthelred II (known to history as Ӕthelred the Unready). Ӕlfgifu was the daughter of the earl of Northumbria and the marriage was intended to strengthen the links between the north and south of England. Ӕlfgifu was the mother of, among others, Edmund II Ironside, and therefore the great-grandmother of Margaret of Wessex, (St Margaret) Queen of Scots as the wife of Malcolm III Canmor. Ӕlfgifu died before April 1002 when Ӕthelred II married his second wife, Emma of Normandy.

Another royal with links to Yorkshire was Henry I. The youngest son of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders, Henry was the only king of England born in Yorkshire. Henry was born in Selby in the summer of 1068, whilst his father was in Yorkshire, stamping out rebellion and pursuing his Harrying of the North. He would seize the throne in 1100 following the death of his older brother, William II Rufus, in a hunting accident in the New Forest. In the same year, Henry would marry Edith of Scotland, who changed her name to Matilda on her marriage. As the daughter of Malcolm III and St Margaret, Edith/Matilda was herself a descendant of Ӕthelred II and Ӕlfgifu of York.

There is one other medieval royal born in Yorkshire, a little prince who spent his entire – though tragically short – life in our great county. William of Hatfield.

I read a book recently that mistakenly said William of Hatfield was born in Hatfield, Hertfordshire. I was amazed that the author wasn’t aware that he was actually born at the royal hunting lodge of Hatfield, near Doncaster. I thought everyone knew this! Then I realised that most people, when talking about royals and Hatfield, would automatically think of the Hertfordshire Hatfield, It was, after all, where Queen Elizabeth I was living when she was told that she was queen of England. It makes sense that most people would think of that Hatfield first. But I’m a Yorkshire lass and, as I say, we don’t get many royals born up our way. So, I suppose, when we do, we know about them.

Monument to William of Hatfield, York Minster

William of Hatfield was the fourth child and second son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. The king and queen were keeping Christmas at the manor of Hatfield, in the old West Riding of Yorkshire, in 1336, when Prince William was born. Hatfield was situated in the midst of the royal hunting grounds of Hatfield Chase and was close to the Earl Warenne’s hunting lodge of Peel Castle, Thorne. The young prince was baptised by William Melton, Archbishop of York, but died soon afterwards. After his death, the little prince’s body was transported a little further north, to York. On 10 February 1337, William was buried in York Minster, the church in which his parents had been married in January 1328. His short life memorialised by an elaborate tomb surmounted with his effigy and located in the north quire aisle of the Minster, though the site of his grave is now lost.

In 1345, the tragic little prince’s story was caught up in the marital affairs of John de Warenne, 7th and last earl of Warenne and Surrey. John had been married to a granddaughter of King Edward I, Joan of Bar, in 1306, when John was 20 years old and Joan a girl of 10. The marriage was a disaster, with John having a number of affairs and spending many years trying to obtain a divorce. In pursuit of this divorce, and in the hope of finally being able to marry his mistress of the time, Isabella Holland, John claimed that he had had an affair before marrying Joan, with his wife’s maternal aunt Mary of Woodstock, when he was 19 and Mary 27 years of age. This was indeed a drastic claim, as Mary had been a nun since she was about 7 years old, and it was probably born out of desperation; John was becoming increasingly infirm and still had no heir to succeed him. It was a last-ditch attempt to marry Isabella and have legitimate children. It failed, though the earl’s confession was presented to Pope Clement VI who,

on 15 May, 1345, issued a mandate to the Bishop of S. Asaph to absolve John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey and Stratherne, Lord of Bromfeld and Yale, from excommunication, which he has incurred by inter-marrying with Joan, daughter of Henry, Count de Barre, whose mother’s sister, Mary, he had carnally known. A penance is to be enjoined; and as to the marriage, canonical action is to be taken.

Calendar of Papal Registers, Papal Letters (p. 116) quoted in Fairbank, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey’, p. 245
Roche Abbey, South Yorkshire

No further action seems to have been taken with regards to the marriage. John and Joan would remain husband and wife until John’s death at Conisbrough Castle at the end of June, 1347. John’s penance, however, appears to have been the generous donation of the manor of Hatfield to Roche Abbey:

1345. November 22. Westminster. Whereas the King’s kinsman, John de Warenna, Earl of Surrey, holds the manor of Haytfield for life of the grant of Edward II, with successive remainders to Maud de Neyrford for life, to John de Warenna her son, in tail male, to Thomas his brother, in tail male, and to the heirs of the body of the said earl, and reversion to the said King and his heirs, as in the letters patent is more fully contained; the earl has now made petition that – Whereas the said Maud is dead, and John son of Maud and Thomas have taken the religious habit in the Order of the Brethren of the Hospital of S. John of Jerusalem in England, at Clerkenwell, he may have licence to grant for his life to the abbot and convent of Roche, the advowson of the church of Haytfield, held in chief, which church is extended, of the value of 70 marks yearly; and the King has assented to his petition. Also, as a further grace, the King has granted that the abbot and convent shall retain in frankalmoign the said advowson, which should revert to him on the death of the earl; and may appropriate the church whenever they deem it expedient to do so, to find thirteen monks as chaplains to celebrate divine service daily for ever in the abbey for the King, Queen Philippa, and their children, and for the earl; also for the soul of William, the King’s son, who lately died in the said manor; also the souls of the progenitors of the King and of the earl.

Calendar of Papal Registers, Papal Letters (p. 116) quoted in Fairbank, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey’, p. 246

It is touching that John’s penance also served as a means for the king and queen to remember their infant son, William, who had been born in late 1336 at the manor of Hatfield, Doncaster, and died there in early 1337.

The motte of Peel Castle, Thorne, near Doncaster

William had been born six years after his older brother Edward, known to history as the Black Prince. Edward who was their father Edward III’s heir, until his death in 1376, a year before the king. As a consequence, Edward III was succeeded by the Black Prince’s only surviving son by his wife, Joan of Kent, Richard II. It was the unsurpation of Henry iV, who seized the crown from King Richard in 1399, that caused the fatal rivalry of the royal houses of Lancaster and York. Had William survived to adulthood, the story of England in the 15th century could have been very different; the rival houses of Lancaster and York were both descended from sons of Edward III who were younger than William. Had he lived, the Wars of the Roses may never have happened….

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Images:

Courtesy of Wikipedia, except Peel Castle and Roche Abbey, which are © Sharon Bennett Connolly

Sources: 

The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn;  Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadraei; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; oxforddnb.com; royaldescent.net; Fairbank, F. Royston, ‘The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of hisPossessions’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol. XIX, (1907), pp. 193–266; Historic England, ‘Peel Hill Motte and Bailey Castle, Thorne’, historicengland.org.uk; ‘Peel Hill Motte’, http://historyofthorne.com/peel_hill.html

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My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

In Search of Ӕlfgifu of York, Ӕthelred II’s First Wife

Æthelread II the Unready

The first wife of Ӕthelred II, Ӕlfgifu of York is a shadowy figure in history, with very little known about her. She was probably born sometime in the 960s. Ӕthelred and Ӕlfgifu were married around 985, when he was in his late teens or early twenties; Ӕlfgifu may have been a little younger.

The monk Ailred of Rievaulx, writing in the 1150s, identified her as the daughter of, Thored. Ailred had served in the household of David I, King of Scotland, a great-great-grandson of Ӕthelred II and Ӕlfgifu through his mother, Queen Margaret and so Ailred was well place to learn the ancestry of King David with some accuracy. Thored was Earl of Northumbria between, about, 975 and 992 and regularly attested charters by King Ӕthelred II during the 980s.

Marriage to the daughter of the leading noble of Northumbria would have been a beneficial move for King Ӕthelred. It would have helped to expand and strengthen his influence over the north of England, an area notoriously independent of the royal administration of the south, and bring him powerful friends and allies.

Ӕthelred was the youngest son of King Edgar the Peaceable and his last wife, Ælfthryth. The grandson of Edward the Elder, and great-grandson of Alfred the Great, Edgar was king from 959 until his death in 975. His wife, Ælfthryth, was probably born around 945; she was the daughter of Ealdorman Ordgar of Devon, her mother an unknown woman who is said to have been descended from the royal family. She was first married around the age of eleven to Æthelwold, the son of Æthelstan Half-King, ealdorman of East Anglia. However, Æthelwold died in 962, probably in a hunting accident, although there were rumours of murder on the orders of his wife’s supposed lover, King Edgar. Edgar’s marital history was already chequered. Ælfthryth could be Edgar’s second or third wife; she was certainly the third relationship by which children were born.

Ælfgifu’s son Edmund II Ironside

Ælfthryth and Edgar were married in 964 and were soon the parents of two sons; Edmund and Æthelred. Despite having an older half-brother, Edward, it is Edmund who was treated as Edgar’s acknowledged heir; his name being above that of Edward’s in a charter of 966, witnessed by both boys, which founded the New Minster at Winchester. Poor Ælfthryth must have been distraught when, in 971 and still only a child of about seven, young Edmund died.

When King Edgar died suddenly in 975 it was Edward, at the age of  13, who was proclaimed king, despite Ælfthryth trying to claim the crown for her surviving son, Æthelred, who was aged between 7 and 10 years of age. Edward reigned for just 3 years before he met a violent and untimely death at Corfe Castle in Dorset.

It was on 18th March 978 that 16-year-old King Edward visited his step-mother and half-brother at Ælfthryth’s estate at Corfe. Whether Edward had been out hunting, or was in the area to specifically visit Ælfthryth and Æthelred seems to be uncertain. However, he did send a message that he would be calling on them and Ælfthryth’s retainers were awaiting the young king at the gate, when he arrived with a small retinue. Still sitting in the saddle, he was handed a drink; and stabbed. It must have been a horrific sight, as the king’s horse panicked and bolted, racing off with Edward’s foot stuck in the stirrup and the dying king being dragged along behind. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded:

No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain. Men murdered him, but God hath magnified him. He was in life an earthly king. He is now after death a heavenly saint. ¹

With Edward’s death his surviving brother, Æthelred, possibly as young as 10 years old, and certainly no older than 13, was now king of England, with his mother and a council of prominent nobleman to guide him. He would rule over a tumultuous period in English history, when Saxon England was under frequent attacks from the Danes. His tendency to inaction, indecision, his ineffectual handling of the Danish incursions and the fact he lost the throne to Sweyn Forkbeard, have earned him a reputation as one of England’s worst rulers.

Edward the Exile, grandson of Ælfgifu and father of St Margaret, Queen of Scotland

As his mother and adviser – and a force to be reckoned with – it may well have been Ælfthryth who chose Ӕlfgifu of York as a bride for Æthelred. It is also possible, even likely, that Ælfgifu was never crowned because her mother-in-law, the crowned and anointed queen, was still alive. Indeed,  Ælfgifu’s successor as Æthelred’s wife, Emma of Normandy, was given a coronation, but Ælfthryth was dead by then.

In the 15-or-so years of marriage to Ӕlfgifu of York, the couple had a large number of children, including at least 6 boys and 4 girls. It is even likely that Ӕlfgifu’s mother-in-law, Ælfthryth, raised a number of her children, including the royal couple’s first-born son and ætheling, Æthelstan. Ӕthelstan, was born c.986 but would die before his father, in June 1014, either killed in battle or from wounds received during the wars against Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Cnut. Ӕthelred and Ӕlfgifu’s other sons included Ecgberht, Edmund, Eadred, Eadwig and Edgar and all died young.

In April 1016 Edmund succeeded his father as King Edmund II Ironside but died in November of the same year, probably from wounds received in battle after a summer of constant fighting. His sons, Edward and Edmund, escaped Cnut by being sent into exile in eastern Europe. King Edmund’s sole-surviving brother Eadwig was murdered in 1017, on the orders of the victorious King Cnut.

Of Ӕthelred and Ӕlfgifu’s daughters, three were married to prominent Saxon noblemen. Edith was married to the traitorous Ealdorman, Eadric Streona, who kept changing sides during the wars against the Danes and eventually met his death on the orders of the triumphant King Cnut. Ӕlfgifu married Uhtred, Earl of Northumbria, an ally of Edmund Ironside who had to submit to Cnut when his earldom was under threat of being overrun by the Danes. He and forty of his supporters were murdered on Cnut’s orders in 1016. A third daughter, Wulfhild, married Ulfcytel, Ealdorman of East Anglia, who was killed in the fighting of 1016. A possible fourth daughter, whose name is unknown, became the abbess at Wherwell, a prominent convent at the time, and died in the 1050s.

Other than the children she bore, however, Ӕlfgifu of York has left very little imprint on history.  She gets barely a mention in the chronicles of the time. Sulcard of Westminster, writing in the second half of the eleventh century, says that she was “of very noble English stock”, but fails to give her name, while William of Malmesbury ignores her altogether. John of Worcester makes mention of Ӕlfgifu, giving her name and listing her sons but states, probably erroneously, that she was the daughter of Ӕthelberht. Ailred of Rievaulx provides us with the details of Ӕlfgifu’s parentage but, again, fails to name her. The poor woman doesn’t even make it into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

St Margaret, Queen of Scotland

There is no evidence that Ӕlfgifu was a crowned and anointed as queen, unlike her successor, Emma of Normandy. We know nothing of her, not her personality or her actions during her time as Ӕthelred’s wife. We don’t even know the date of her death, though it must have been before April 1002, when Ӕthelred married Emma of Normandy.

Ӕlfgifu of York’s story has been greatly overshadowed by her larger-than-life successor, Emma of Normandy, the twice-crowned Queen of England as the wife of both Ӕthelred II (the Unready) and King Cnut (the Great). However, although she may have had little impact on history during her lifetime, it is the blood of Ӕlfgifu of York that still runs in the veins of the British royal family today, through the descendants of her son, Edmund II Ironside and his granddaughter, St Margaret, Queen of Scotland. Margaret’s daughter, Edith, was married to King Henry I of England. Her name was changed to Matilda on her marriage and it is through this Matilda and her daughter and namesake, Matilda, the Lady of the English, that all English kings and queens are descended.

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Footnotes: ¹ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle edited by Michael Swanton.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir;The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; oxforddnb.com.

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My books

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly