Eight Interesting Discoveries on writing 11th century non-fiction

Ooh, I have just time to sneak in one more post for 2022!

First, though, I would like to take the opportunity to thank all my readers, near and far, for sticking with me and helping me to make History…the Interesting Bits a blog that people want to read.

I would like to wish each and every one of you a Happy and Healthy New Year. May 2023 be kind and generous to you all!

So, on with the article…

Following on from my 10 Facts About Women and Magna Carta, I thought I would revisit the Norman Conquest and started thinking about I found most interesting when writing about 1066 and the years either side. And here’s what I discovered:

1. Not all primary sources are contemporary.

Emma of Normandy

Let me explain. Of course, all sources written in the 11th century are primary sources, but you do find people quoting sources as primary sources – only to discover that they were written 100 or even 200 years after the events.

One such legend, appearing two centuries after the events, suggested that Emma of Normandy’s relationship with her good friend, Bishop Stigand, was far more than that of her advisor and that he was, in fact, her lover – although the legend did get its bishops mixed up and named Ælfwine, rather than Stigand, as Emma’s lover. The story continues that Emma chose to prove her innocence in a trial by ordeal, and that she walked barefoot over white-hot ploughshares. Even though the tale varies depending on the source, the result is the same; when she completed the ordeal unharmed, and thus proven guiltless, she was reconciled with her contrite son, Edward.

However, there is no 11th century source for this event and it seems to have been created to explain Emma’s estrangement from her son, Edward the Confessor.

2. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the most famous source of 11th century news. 

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives wonderful snippets of information about life in Anglo-Saxon England – and the weather! If you have ever wondered where the English get their obsession with the weather, read the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is also very dramatic.

For example, the year 1005 starts with; ‘Here in this year there was the great famine throughout the English race, such as no-one ever remembered on so grim before…’

1032 relates; ‘Here in this year appeared that wild-fire such as no man remembered before, and also it did damage everywhere in many places.’

And 1039 opens with ‘Here came the great gale…’

In 1053 we read, ‘Here [1052] was the great wind on the eve of the Feast of St Thomas, and the great wind was also all midwinter…’

And, of course, in 1066 we read about the appearance of Halley’s Comet; ‘Then throughout all England, a sign such as man ever saw before was seen in the heavens. Some me declared that it was the star comet, which some men called the ‘haired’ star; and it appeared first on the eve of the Great Litany, 24 April, and shone thus all the week….’

3. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a fabulous source of news about church leaders.

Don’t get me wrong, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is invaluable to anyone studying the history of Anglo-Saxon Britain, but you can tell it was written by monks. There are some years where you learn little more than which church leader died, and who replaced him.

For example, the entry for 1023 from the E chronicle; ‘Here Bishop Wulfstan passed away, and Ælfric succeeded…’

And in 1032; ‘In the same year Ælfsige, bishop in Winchester, passed away, and Ælfwine, the king’s priest, succeeded to it.’

The only entry in the E Chronicle in 1033 was; ‘Here in this year Merehwit, bishop in Somerset, passed away, and he is buried in Glastonbury.’

And again in 1034; ‘Here Bishop Æthelric passed away.’

4. Not all inheritance was based on primogeniture.

King Harold II, Waltham Abbey

Primogeniture, where the eldest son inherited from his father, was not unusual in 11th century England; when Earl Godwin of Wessex died, his eldest surviving son, Harold, succeeded him. However, it was not yet established as the definitive rule of inheritance of later centuries. When Siward, Earl of Northumbria, died in 1055 his heir, Waltheof, was still a child and too young to hold such a formidable position on the borders of Scotland. The earldom was given to Tostig Godwinson, the favourite brother of Edward the Confessor’s queen, Edith. Though he didn’t do a great job with it…

And in the opening days of 1066, when Edward the Confessor died, the ætheling, Edgar was only a teenager, and so was passed over as king for the more mature and militarily experienced Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, who became King Harold II.

5. Travel to distant places was not uncommon for the nobility.

At different times in the 11th century, both King Cnut and Tostig Godwinson are known to have travelled to Rome; indeed, during his trip to Rome in 1027, Cnut was present at the coronation of Holy Roman Emperor, Conrad II and arranged for the marriage of his daughter by Emma of Normandy, Gunhilda, to Conrad’s son, the future King Henry III of Germany.

As for Tostig, travelling to Rome was not without its dangers, and shortly after leaving the city, his travelling party was caught up in a local dispute between the papacy and the Tuscan nobility; they were attacked. Tostig was able to escape by the ruse of one of his own thegns, a man named Gospatric, who pretended to be the earl.

Tostig and Harold’s brother, Swegn Godwinson, who had murdered his own cousin, even went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem – barefoot – he died on the journey home.

And when I started writing Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest I discovered that there are several links to the story of 1066 with the Russian principality of Kyiv. The baby sons of England’s short-lived king, Edmund II Ironside, who reigned and died in 1016, were given sanctuary and protection in Kyiv, saving them from the clutches of Edmund’s successor, King Cnut. The first wife of Harald Hardrada, the third contender for the English throne in 1066, Elisiv, was a Kyivan princess. And after the Conquest, Harold II Godwinson’s own daughter by Edith Swanneck, Gytha, would make her life in Kyiv as the wife of Vladimir II Monomakh and as the mother of Mstislav the Great, the last ruler of a united Kievan Rus. Vladimir was the nephew of Harald Hardrada’s first wife, the Kyivan princess, Elisiv.

6. Having 2 wives at the same time was not THAT unusual.

Elisiv of Kyiv

In the story of 1066 there were not one BUT three men who had two wives simultaneously.

Harold Godwinson is known for having been in a relationship with the famous Edith Swanneck for 20 years before becoming King, and then marrying Ealdgyth of Mercia without divorcing Edith. Edith is often referred to as Harold’s concubine, but most historians agree that she was his ‘hand-fast’ wife and had undergone a Danish – rather than Christian – style of wedding with Harold. Edith was no ignorant peasant, she was a wealthy woman in her own right and it is highly doubtful she would have accepted being Harold’s mistress, and raising his children, without some kind of marital protection.

Harald Hardrada also married a second ‘wife’, whilst still being married to Elisiv. Elisiv had given the Norwegian king two daughters, but his second wife, Thora, gave him two sons, Magnus and Olaf, who each succeeded their father as King of Norway.

King Cnut was the first to take two wives; he had two sons by Ælfgifu of Northampton before marrying Emma of Normandy and producing a second family. The chronicles, however, claim that Ælfgifu’s sons were not the children of Cnut, with John (also known as Florence) of Worcester saying, ‘Ælfgiva desired to have a son by the king, but as she could not, she caused the new-born child of a certain priest to be brought to her, and made the king fully believe that she had just borne him a son’. And the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claimed ‘[King] Harold [I Harefoot] also said that he was the son of king Canute and Ælfgiva of Northampton, although that is far from certain; for some say that he was the son of a cobbler, and that Ælfgiva had acted with regard to him as she had done in the case of Swein: for our part, as there are doubts on the subject, we cannot settle with any certainty the parentage of either.’

7. There were some incredible, strong women in the 11th century.

Lady Godiva

The story of the Norman Conquest invariably revolves around the men involved, Edward the Confessor, Harold II, William the Conqueror, Harald Hardrada, and so on. However, there were some amazing women whose strength and perseverance helped to steer and shape the events of the era.

There were, of course, the queens, Emma of Normandy, Edith of Wessex and Matilda of Flanders, who supported their husbands and helped to shape and – even – preserve history, with Emma and Edith both commissioning books to tell the stories of their times and Matilda being the image of queenship that all future queens of England modelled themselves on.

There was also the notorious Lady Godiva, who was probably a lot less scandalous than the legend, of her riding naked through Coventry, leads us to believe. And the incredible Gytha of Wessex, a woman whose story is entwined with every aspect of the period. From the reign of Cnut to that of William the Conqueror, Gytha and her family were involved in so many aspects of the 11th century, from the rise of her sons, through the Battle of Hastings itself, to the English resistance in the years immediately following the Conquest. Gytha was not one to give up easily, despite the horrendous losses her family suffered (three of her sons died in one single day at Hastings), she encouraged her grandsons to lead the opposition against the Conqueror in the west, but her eventual failure saw her seek shelter in Flanders, where she disappears from the pages of history.

8. There is still so much we don’t know!

Ӕlfgyva, the mysterious woman in the Bayeux Tapestry

What you discover when researching the 11th century and the Norman Conquest is that there are gaps in our knowledge. For instance, we do not know why Harold was travelling to Europe in 1064, when he was shipwrecked and became a guest at the court of William, Duke of Normandy (the future William the Conqueror). The Bayeux Tapestry depicts Harold swearing an oath during his stay there. Was Harold promising to support William’s claim to England when Edward the Confessor died?

The Bayeux Tapestry has another tantalising mystery. That of Ӕlfgyva. Ӕlfgyva is depicted in a doorway with a priest touching her cheek. Whether the touch is in admonishment or blessing is open to interpretation. Above her head, written in Latin, is the incomplete phrase  ‘Here a certain cleric and Ӕlfgyva’. But who was the mysterious Ӕlfgyva? Will we ever know?

Historical Writers Forum hosted a fabulous debate on ‘Ӕlfgyva’: The Mysterious Woman in the Bayeux Tapestry, which is available on YouTube. Hosted by Samantha Wilcoxson, it features myself, Pat Bracewell, Carol McGrath and Paula Lofting.

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I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for your support and encouragement over the years, and to wish you all a Happy and Healthy New Year.

May 2023 be generous to you.

All my love, Sharon xx

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A version of this article was first published on Carol McGrath’s website in December 2018

Images:

Courtesy of Wikipedia, except King Harold II, which is ©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly FRHistS.

Sources:

A Historical Document Pierre Bouet and François Neveux, bayeuxmuseum.com/en/un_document_historique_enThe Mystery Lady of the Bayeux Tapestry (article) by Paula Lofting, annabelfrage.qordpress.com; Ӕlfgyva: The Mysterious lady of the Bayeux Tapestry (article) by M.W. Campbell, Annales de NormandieThe Bayeux Tapestry, the Life Story of a Masterpiece by Carola HicksÆthelred II [Ethelred; known as Ethelred the Unready] (c. 966×8-1016) (article) by Simon Keynes, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, oxforddnb.com; Britain’s Royal Families; the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Queen Emma and the Vikings: The Woman Who Shaped the Events of 1066 by Harriet O’BrienThe Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James IngramOn the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams; Swein [Sweyn], earl by Ann Williams, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, oxforddnb.com, 23 September 2004; Ӕlfgifu [Ӕlfgifu of Northampton (fl. 1006-1036) (article) by Pauline Stafford, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, oxforddnb.com; The Chronicle of John of Worcester, translated and edited by Thomas Forester, A.M; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles edited and translated by Michael Swanton.

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My Books:

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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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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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 & SwordAmazonBookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

Alternate Endings: An anthology of historical fiction short stories including Long Live the King… which is my take what might have happened had King John not died in October 1216. Available in paperback and kindle from Amazon.

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©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly FRHistS.

Edward the Exile and the Last Saxon Royal Family

Edward the Exile

The story of Edward the Exile is a sad tale of an opportunity lost. Edward the Exile was one of the two sons of Edmund II Ironside, King of England in 1016; Edmund was the son of Ӕthelred II and his first wife, Ӕlfgifu of York. Edward’s grandfather was, therefore, Ӕthelred II (the Unready) and his uncle was Edward the Confessor, England’s king from 1042 until 1066.

Edward the Exile’s mother was Ealdgyth, the widow of Sigeferth, a thegn from East Anglia, who had been betrayed in 1015, along with another thegn, Morcar, by Eadric Streona. Eadric had lured them into his chamber during a great assembly at Oxford and killed them.  After her first husband’s murder, King Ӕthelred ‘took possession of their effects, and ordered Elgitha [Ealdgyth], Sigeferth’s widow, to be taken to the town of Malmesbury’.¹

Taking a stand against his father and Eadric, however, Edmund rescued Ealdgyth from Malmesbury and ‘married her against his father’s will’, between the middle of August and the middle of September 1015, Edmund then rode into the territories of Sigeferth and Morcar, in the Five Boroughs (The Five Boroughs were Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford), ‘and seizing the lands of Sigeferth and Morcar, compelled the villeins to acknowledge him as their lord’.¹

Edmund and Ealdgyth were probably married at the beginning of August 1015. They would have two sons, Edward and Edmund, who may well have been twins or were born just one year apart. Edward was born in 1016, with Edmund being born no later than 1017. Their father spent the rest of 1015 and 1016 trying to encourage resistance to the constant Danish onslaught.

Edmund II Ironside

Following the death of Ӕthelred II on 23 April 1016, Edmund was proclaimed King Edmund II as the old king’s oldest surviving son. He was to spend the remainder of his life fighting the forces of King Cnut, the Danish contender for the English crown. He even allied with the treacherous Eadric Streona in the hope that their combined forces could fend off the Danes. However, when it came to the crunch, in the Battle of Assundun, on 18 October 2016, Streona fled in the face of the enemy, leaving Edmund and his allies to fight on alone. The result was defeat for Edmund, and the deaths of many of England’s leading nobles.

A peace was eventually negotiated, in which England was divided between the two contenders, with Edmund taking Wessex and Cnut taking Northumbria and, probably, Mercia. Under the treaty it was agreed the other would inherit the remainder of the country from whichever died first. Unfortunately, on 30 November 1016, Edmund died, either from wounds received during the summer of battles, or by more nefarious means – it is impossible to tell. A later story that Edmund was killed, by a sword or spear thrust into his bowels, as he visited the latrine, does not appear in any contemporary chronicles.

Cnut was now sole king of England.

As soon as he had control, Cnut sent Edmund’s infant sons to the court of the king of Sweden, Olof Stötkonung, apparently with instructions to have them killed. However, the Swedish king was understandably squeamish about murdering two innocent toddlers. He was an old ally of the boys’ grandfather, Ӕthelred II and spared the children, sending them to safety in Hungary. When Cnut’s assassins almost caught up with them there, they were forced to flee for their lives, settling at the court of Yaroslav the Wise in Kyiv, where Ingegerd, the daughter of King Olof of Sweden, was queen.

Edmund Aetheling, brother of Edward the Exile

In 1046,  as young adults, Edward and Edmund made their way back to Hungary and helped in the restoration of the exiled Andrew of Hungary. Edmund is said to have married a Hungarian princess but died sometime before 1054. Around 1043 Edward married Agatha, whose origins are extremely obscure. She may have been a daughter of Yaroslav and Ingegerd of Kyiv but was more likely the daughter of Luidolf, Margrave of West Friesland and a relative of Holy Roman Emperor Henry III. The couple had three children together. Margaret, the eldest, was born in either 1045 or 1046; her sister, Christina was born around 1050 and her brother Edgar, the Ӕtheling was born sometime between 1052 and 1056.

The family could have spent their whole lives in European exile, were it not for Edward the Confessor’s failure to produce a legitimate heir by his wife, Edith of Wessex. In 1054 Edward, having realised that he needed to settle the question over the succession, sent an embassy to eastern Europe in search of his brother, Edmund’s children. Ealdred, Archbishop of York, spent several months at the court of Holy Roman Emperor Henry III, but was initially unsuccessful in arranging Edward the Exile’s return to England.

A second embassy in 1056 managed to persuade the prince to return to his homeland and he arrived back in England in 1057, forty years after he was sent into exile.  We do not know whether his family travelled with him or arrived later. However, just days after his return Edward the Exile was dead, before he even saw the king, his uncle. He died on 19 April 1057, and was laid to rest in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, where his grandfather, Ӕthelred II, was also buried. Whether his death was caused by nefarious means or simply a sad twist of fate is uncertain. The suspicion has been raised that Edward’s rival for the throne, Harold Godwinson – the future Harold II – may have taken the opportunity to remove his rival; although it was likely that it was Harold who had escorted Edward back to England, as he was on the continent at that time. So surely, had he intended murder, he would have done it sooner and far from English soil?

Christina, daughter of Edward the Exile and Agatha

Edward the Exile’s brother, Edmund, is not mentioned as a candidate for the English throne, nor is he spoken of when his brother returned from Hungary in 1057, so it seems likely that he had died in his eastern exile in the late 1040s or early 1050s; otherwise it would have been prudent for the king to send for him following Edward the Exile’s unfortunate demise in 1057.

Whatever the circumstances, the death of Edward the Exile was a blow for Edward the Confessor’s dynastic hopes. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle bemoans his death, ‘Alas! That was a rueful time, and injurious to all this nation – that he ended his life so soon after he came to England, to the misfortune of this miserable people.’¹ With Edward’s death, his son, Edgar, became the ӕtheling, but Edgar was still very much a child of about five years of age and unlikely to inherit if King Edward died in the near future. He and his sisters, along with their mother, were now in the protection of King Edward. They continued to live at court, Edgar was adopted by Queen Edith, who raised him and saw to his education. Margaret and Christina were probably sent to the nunnery at Wilton, where the queen had been schooled, to continue their education. They would have undergone instruction in religion, spinning and embroidery, household management and possibly music and dancing.

By January 1066, when Edward the Confessor died, Margaret was approaching her twentieth birthday, while Edgar could have been as young as ten and was, probably, no older than fourteen. Due to his tender years Edgar was passed over as a candidate for the throne, in preference for the older and more experienced Harold Godwinson; who was crowned as King Harold II the day after King Edward’s death. Following Harold’s death at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066, Edgar was proclaimed king by some of his supporters, including Archbishop Ealdred of York, but was hardly capable of mounting any real challenge to William the Conqueror and by December had come to terms with him at Berkhamsted.

Edgar the Aetheling, son of Edward the Exile and Agatha

By 1068 Edgar the Ӕtheling had become involved in the opposition to Norman rule, which had been festering in northern England. However, when events turned against him he fled to Scotland, taking his mother and sisters along with him. The family was warmly received at Dunfermline by Scotland’s king, Malcolm III Canmore. Malcolm III Canmore was the son of Duncan I and Sybilla of Northumbria. His father had been killed by Macbeth, of Shakespeare fame, in August of 1040. Malcolm himself had defeated King Macbeth in battle, at Lumphanan, in August 1057 and Macbeth’s son Lulach in March 1058, to take the throne. By 1069 he was well established as king and had two sons by his first wife, Ingebiorg. Ingeborg was the daughter of Fin Arnasson, friend of Harald Hardrada and Jarl of Holland. The couple had three sons Duncan, Malcolm and Donald. In 1069 Malcolm asked Edgar and his mother for Margaret’s hand in marriage:

‘Then began Malcolm to yearn after the child’s [Edgar] sister, Margaret, to wife; but he and all his men long refused; and she also herself was averse, and said that she would neither have him nor anyone else, if the Supreme Power would grant, that she in her maidenhood might please the mighty Lord with a carnal heart, in this short life, in pure continence. The king, however, earnestly urged her brother, until he answered Yea. And indeed he durst not otherwise; for they were come into his kingdom … The prescient Creator wist long before what he of her would have done; for that she would increase the glory of God in this land, lead the king aright from the path of error, bend him and his people together by a better way, and suppress the bad customs which the nation formerly followed: all which she afterwards did. The king therefore received her, though it was against her will, and was pleased with her manners, and thanked God, who in his might had given him such a match.’¹

Margaret was reluctant to agree to the marriage, she was more inclined to a religious life and had hoped to become a nun. Nonetheless, with pressure from Malcolm, her brother and, possibly, her own sense of obligation to the king who was sheltering her family, she eventually accepted his proposal. They were married at Dunfermline sometime in 1069 or 1070 and, by all accounts, it seems to have been a happy and successful marriage and partnership.

St Margaret, Queen of Scotland

Every English monarch, from Henry II onwards, could also claim descent from Alfred the Great, but through the female line of St Margaret, Queen of Scotland, daughter of King Edward ‘s nephew, Edward the Exile, and mother of Henry I’s wife, Matilda of Scotland.

Margaret’s sister, Christina would later take holy orders, becoming the abbess of Romsey Abbey and overseeing the education of her nieces, Edith and Mary, the daughters of her sister, Margaret, Queen of Scotland.

Edgar seems to have been only a minor player in the politics and upheaval following the Norman Conquest. His political isolation meant that few took his claim to the English crown seriously. While his participation in military actions, and in relations with Scotland are mentioned in various documents, his death passed without notice – or remark. William of Malmesbury wrote of him in 1125, that ‘he now grows old in the country in privacy and quiet’². Nothing is mentioned of him thereafter; neither is it ever remarked that he had a wife of children.

If he had only been a few years older in that crucial year of 1066, or if his father had survived to inherit the throne from Edward the Confessor, the story could have been very different.

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Footnotes: ¹The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James ingram; ²William of Malmesbury, De gestis regum; ³Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1097, Text E.

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

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, Bookshop.org 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,  AmazonBookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org 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, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

England’s First Queen, the Original Wicked Stepmother?

330px-A_Chronicle_of_England_-_Page_072_-_Edward_Murdered_at_Corfe
Queen Ælfthryth and King Edward at Corfe

After writing an article about Edward the Martyr the other week, I thought it only fair to take a look at the other side of the story and write about Ælfthryth, England’s first ever crowned queen and Edward’s stepmother – and possible murderer.

Author Annie Whitehead researched Ælfthryth for her book Alvar the Kingmaker and rather likes her. So she can’t be all bad – can she?

Ælfthryth was probably born around 945; the daughter of Ealdorman Ordgar of Devon and an unknown woman who is said to have been descended from the royal family. As you can imagine, after the passage of more than 1,000 years, nothing is known of her childhood; although she had a least one sibling, a brother, Ordulf, who was founder of Tavistock Abbey. She was married around the age of 11 to Æthelwold, the son of Æthelstan Half-King (I have to do a post about him! What a name!) and ealdorman of East Anglia.

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 and Æthelwold would have known each other very well. After being orphaned as a baby, Edgar was raised in Æthelstan’s household alongside his own sons; of whom Æthelwold was one of the youngest.  Some stories have Edgar wielding the dagger himself, while others don’t even mention murder. Whether the suspicion arose at the time of the event, or following Ælfthryth’s marriage to Edgar 2 years later, is also unclear.

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. Edgar’s first wife, Æthelfled “the Fair”, was the mother of his eldest son, Edward (the Martyr). Following Æthelfled’s death, Edgar had a relationship with Wulfryth from which a daughter, Edith, was born around 963/964. The sources are uncertain as to whether or not Edgar and Wulfryth married, and some even suggest that she was a nun Edgar had seduced; although this may be confusion due to the fact that Wulfryth entered a convent shortly after Edith was born. Edith joined her mother in the abbey at Wilton, where Wulfryth eventually became abbess; in time both mother and daughter would be venerated locally as saints.

New_Minster_Charter_966_detail_Edgar
King Edgar the Peaceable

Ælfthryth and Edgar were married in 964 and were soon the parents of 2 sons; Edmund and Æthelred. Despite having an older half-brother, Edward, it is Edmund who appears 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 7, young Edmund died.

The grandson of Edward the Elder, and great-grandson of Alfred the Great, Edgar had been king since 959; however on 11 May 973 he had a coronation, at Bath Abbey. Whether this was his first coronation, or a second ceremony seems to be still debated by historians. Edgar was about 30 and the venerated Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury officiated. It is the first known coronation of a queen of England, Ælfthryth.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography there is a near contemporary account of the coronation, which depicts Ælfthryth feasting with many abbots and abbesses, wearing a silken gown sewn with pearls and precious stones. The coronation was an important display for Edgar and Ælfthryth, as a way to emphasise the legitimacy of their union, especially given Edgar’s marital history, and the claims of their children as Edgar’s heirs. Ælfthryth’s new position as a consecrated queen would give her surviving son, Æthelred, seniority over Edgar’s oldest son, Edward, whose mother was never queen.

However, when it came down to it, Æthelred’s tender age was held against him, when Ælfthryth’s security was destroyed just 3 years later. King Edgar died unexpectedly at the young age of 32. With their eldest son dead and the youngest only 7 years old, the crown went to Edgar’s eldest son, the 12/13-year-old Edward. Edward faced opposition when Ælfthryth pressed Æthelred’s claim, supported by several leading figures, including Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester and her first husband’s brother, Æthelwine, ealdorman of East Anglia.

Corfe_Castle,_Dorset
Corfe Castle, Dorset

However, with the backing of the revered, future saint, Archbishop Dunstan it was Edward who was crowned. Following his coronation Edward honoured his father’s promises to his wife, confirming the gift of jurisdiction over the whole of Dorset as Ælfthryth’s dower. As a consequence, Ælfthryth and her son, Æthelred, settled at Corfe, in the Purbeck Hills; it was a large estate surrounding a defensive mound, which would later become the Norman stronghold of Corfe Castle.

And it was at Corfe on 18th March 978 that Ælfthryth’s reputation was irrevocably damaged, following a visit from 16-year-old King Edward. Whether Edward had been out hunting, or was in the area to specifically visit his stepmother and half-brother 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.

330px-Ethelred_the_Unready
Æthelred II the Unready

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

Although Edward’s brother, Æthelred, only around 10 years old but now king of England, was above suspicion due to his age, Ælfthryth had no such protection. Some traditions go so far as to accuse Ælfthryth of wielding the dagger herself. However, while most believe she was complicit in the murder, it is by no means certain and it is entirely possible that court malcontents, who had migrated to Æthelred’s corner, were responsible for the murder.

Ælfthryth rode out the ensuing furore and with her son as the new king, Ælfthryth was exonerated of any complicity; amid the necessity of stabilising the country, establishing the new reign and rescuing England’s reputation. Æthelred was crowned at Kingston, Surrey, on 4th May 979, a year after his brother’s death and just a few months after the reburial of Edward’s remains, with great ceremony, at Shaftesbury. A council was established to assist the young king in ruling the country, probably involving Queen Ælfthryth, who may have acted as regent during Æthelred’s minority; it also included the aging Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, and Ælfhere, ealdorman of Mercia.

As Dowager Queen Ælfthryth’s dower lands in Rutland and east Suffolk helped to extend West Saxon rule over East Anglia as a whole.

Even when Æthelred was old enough to rule alone, Ælfthryth did not retire entirely. Following her son’s marriage to Ælfgifu of York, it was Ælfthryth who seems to have had the responsibility of raising their first-born son and ætheling, Æthelstan. Æthelstan died aged about 20 in 1014, 2 years before his father, and spoke warmly of his grandmother in his will. Æthelred and Ælfgifu had over 10 children together, including Æthelred’s eventual successor in 1016, Edmund II Ironside, before Ælfgifu died; Æthelred then married Emma of Normandy, mother of England’s future kings, Harthacnut by her 2nd husband, King Cnut, and Edward the Confessor by Æthelred.

As queen Ælfthryth had substantial influence over the nunneries of England; she ousted the abbess of Barking, a cousin of Edgar’s second wife, Wulfthryth.  She endowed convents at Amesbury and Wherwell; her granddaughter would eventually become abbess of the latter.

Peterborough.Chronicle.firstpage
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Peterborough

And it was to Wherwell that the queen did eventually retire from the limelight, sometime before the year 1000, dying there on 17 November in either 999, 1000 or 1001.

Over a thousand years later Ælfthryth’s actions and reputation are still being debated by historians. While it is not inconceivable that she played a part in Edward the Martyr’s death, we also have to be aware that women of power and influence were much vilified in Medieval times; a strong, independent woman would be blamed for many crimes, simply because she dared to know her own mind….

While I am not entirely convinced of her innocence, neither am I certain of her guilt.

Ælfthryth’s career and influence, however, stretched far beyond that one action. As the first crowned queen of England, her prestige and honour is incomparable with those who had gone before her. And it is telling, perhaps, that her daughter-in-law, Ælfgifu of York, was never crowned, nor was accorded the title while her Ælfthryth still lived. The next crowned Queen of England was Æthelred’s second wife, Emma of Normandy, who married the king after his mother’s death.

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Footnotes:

¹ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle quoted by Martin Wall in The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts.

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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; oxforddnb.com.

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©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly FRHistS