Ӕlfgifu of York

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 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 estate at Corfe. Whether Edward had been out hunting, or was in the area to specifically visit his 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. He died in June 1014, either killed in battle or from wounds received during the wars against Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Cnut. Their 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 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 Swaton.

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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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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Edgar – The Boy Who Wouldn’t Be King

edgar_the_aetheling
Edgar the Aetheling

Edgar the Ætheling was the only son of Edward the Exile and his wife, Agatha. His father was the son of Edmund II Ironside, king of England in 1016; Edward’s grandfather was, therefore, Ӕthelred II (the Unready) and his uncle was Edward the Confessor, England’s king from 1042 until 1066. When his father was murdered in 1016 Edward and his younger brother, Edmund, were sent into exile of the continent by England’s new king, Cnut.

It is thought that Cnut intended that they would be killed, but the boys were protected by the king of Sweden and sent on to safety in Kiev, at the court of its prince, Jaroslav. Around 1043 Edward married Agatha, probably the daughter Liudolf, margrave of West Friesland and a relative of Emperor Heinrich III. Margaret, the oldest of three children, 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 may have spent their whole lives in European exile, were it not for Edward the Confessor lacking an heir to the English throne; although Edward was married to Edith Godwinson, the couple remained childless. Sometime in 1054 Edward sent an embassy to Edward the Exile, to bring him back to England as ӕtheling, heir to the throne. The family could not travel immediately, possibly because Agatha was pregnant with Edgar, and only arrived in England in 1057, having journeyed by ship, provided by Emperor Heinrich III.

Just days after their return Edward the Exile was dead, whether by nefarious means or simply a 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 Harold who brought Edward back to England, so surely, had he intended murder, he would have done it sooner?

Whatever the circumstances, the death of Edward the Exile was a blow for Edward the Confessor’s dynastic hopes. Little Edgar, now the ӕtheling was much too young to assume a political role. He and his sisters, along with their mother, were now in the protection of King Edward. They continued to live at court and 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, and lack of powerful allies, Edgar was passed over as a candidate for the throne in preference for the older and more experienced Harold Godwinson; who was crowned as Harold II.

edward_the_exile
Edward the Exile. Edgar’s father

Following Harold’s death at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066, Edgar was proclaimed king in London by some of his supporters, led by Archbishop Ealdred of York, ‘as was his proper due by birth’¹; he was also promised backing by the earls Edwin and Morcar, brothers-in-law of Harold II but their support did not materialise, and without it Edgar’s cause was hopeless.  He submitted to William of Normandy, at Berkamsted, in early December. William treated Edgar honourably, allowing him his life and freedom, and giving him land.

However, by 1068 Edgar the Ӕtheling had become involved in the opposition to Norman rule, which had been festering in northern England. 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. At the time, Malcolm was married to Ingebiorg and the father of two sons, Duncan and Donald. Whether Ingebiorg died or was put aside, seems uncertain; her sons were exiled from court, although Duncan would eventually reign as Duncan II he was killed at the Battle of Monthechin in 1094.

Although we do not know Ingebiorg’s fate, we do know that in 1069 Malcolm asked Edgar and his mother for Margaret’s hand in marriage. 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 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.

330px-stmargareth_edinburgh_castle2
St Margaret, queen of Scotland

In 1069, Edgar was back in northern England, at the head of the Northumbrian rebels who entered York. After defeat at York, he fled again to Scotland, but returned to lead the Northumbrian army when a Danish fleet arrived in the Humber. The army captured the Norman castle at York and killed its garrison. During the winter, Edgar narrowly evaded capture when he raided into Lincolnshire with a ship from the Danish fleet. Although he was part of the rebellion, there does not appear to have been any specific plans to make Edgar king and in 1070 William brought the full force of his wrath down on the north, systematically and brutally crushing the rebellion.

Edgar fled again to Scotland, and played no part in the 1071-2 rebellion at Ely. By 1074 he was in exile in Flanders. He was shipwrecked in the same year, while on the way to take control of the castle of Montreuil, offered to him by the French as a base from which he could torment King William. Having returned to Scotland, and on the advice of his brother-in-law, Malcolm III, Edgar submitted to William I and was established at his court. According to William of Malmesbury he remained ‘at court for many years, silently sunk into contempt through his indolence, or more mildly speaking, his simplicity’².

According to the Domesday Book, Edgar held 2 estates in Hertfordshire in 1086; Barkway and Hormead. He became close friends with 2 of the Conqueror’s sons; Robert Curthose and William Rufus. In 1086, he was sent to Apulia, another land under Norman rule, with a force of 200 knights, although the nature of his mission is unknown, the mission itself is testament to the high regard the Normans held him in. Edgar then joined Robert Curthose, duke since his father’s death in 1087, in Normandy, but was expelled from there in 1091, following a treaty between Robert and his brother, William II of England.

robert_curthose_-_ms_royal_14_b_vi
Robert Curthose, duke of Normandy

As a result, Edgar went to Scotland and encouraged Malcolm III to invade England. Peace was eventually restored and in 1093 Edgar was employed by William to escort King Malcolm to the English court. Both Malcolm and Margaret died within a few days of each other, in November 1093. In 1095 Edgar campaigned with William against the rebellious earl of Northumbria, Robert de Mowbray and by 1097 as guardian for his nephew, Edgar, in Scotland, he ‘went with an army, with the king’s support, into Scotland, and conquered the country in a severe battle’³ making his nephew and namesake king of Scotland.

According to Orderic Vitalis, in 1098 Edgar joined the First Crusade, arriving at Latakia in the Levant in June; having taken the area under his protection he then transferred it to Robert Curthose, also a Crusader. However, Orderic is the only source for Edgar’s participation and another possibility is that his journey to the Holy Land was later, in 1102 – or maybe he made 2 journeys?

Edgar returned to England in the early 1100s and fought his last action, for Robert Curthose, at the Battle of Tinchebrai in 1106. Robert was defeated by his younger brother, Henry I of England, and was imprisoned until his death in 1134. Edgar, however, was incarcerated for only a short while and was soon released;his Anglo-Saxon royal descent was no longer an issue of contention, since Henry had married Edgar’s niece, Matilda, soon after taking the crown in 1100.

matylda_zena
Matilda, Edgar’s niece and queen of England

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, his story could have been very different. instead, he simply slips from the pages of history, remembered only as England’s lost king.

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Footnotes: ¹Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1066, Text D; ² William of Malmesbury, De gestis regum; ³Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1097, Text E.

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Sources: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; William of Malmesbury, De gestis regum; Oxforddnb.com; The History Today Companion to British History, Edited by juliet Gardner and Neil Wenborn; The Battle of Hastings, 1066 by m.K. Lawson; The Oxford Companion to British History edited by John Cannon; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Edward the Confessor, King of England by Peter Rex; The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The Norman Conquest by Teresa Cole

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

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©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2016