Ælfthryth of Devon (c. 945 – c.1001) was a Saxon Queen: wife, stepmother and mother to a succession of kings. She was in fact the first king’s wife known to have been crowned and anointed as Queen of the Kingdom of England.
To say Ælfthryth was a ‘heroine’ is stretching the usual definition of the word! Ælfthryth was, in truth, more the original wicked stepmother. Nevertheless, she was a queen-regent of England, whose actions shaped the country (and the monarchy) we have today, and she should not be as ignored as she is by history teachers and novelists!
Ælfthryth was royal on both sides of her family; her father was the Ealdorman of what is now Devon and her mother was of the royal family of Wessex. She was rumoured to be surpassingly lovely and Edgar, the King (known as ‘the Peaceable’) needed alliances in that part of his kingdom. He sent a trusted companion to scope her out as a potential bride. So lovely indeed was the young Ælfthryth that this companion married her himself, reporting back to Edgar that the girl was a hag.
His suspicions probably aroused, Edgar said he would meet with this girl himself and look upon her unfortunate face. Alarmed, the duplicitous companion ordered Ælfthryth to make herself look as ugly as possible for the king’s visit. Showing the personality that would eventually have her known as a quarrelsome termagant, Ælfthryth did just the opposite. Edgar fell madly in love with her and his erstwhile friend soon found himself killed in a hunting ‘accident’. The two were married.
By all accounts, Ælfthryth was an effective queen and managed her vast estates and dower lands well. People petitioned her on a regular basis, suggesting she had the ear of the king and was allowed, at least in some capacity, to offer opinions and advice to him. She was extremely active in the matter of religious reform, supporting and renovating abbeys and other religious buildings.
Edgar had a bevy of children by his first two wives and Ælfthryth soon added two more sons to the total – the first was to die young, the second to become the derided Æthelred ‘the Unready’. When Edgar died in 975, his son Edward (by his first wife), was almost a man grown; Æthelred could have been no older than nine or ten. By some accounts Edward was not a likeable man and this may be the reason that the clergy and noblemen divided in loyalty between he and his half-brother Æthelred. Even after Edward was formally crowned King, the tension continued. Æthelred’s supporters claimed that Edgar’s first marriages had not been Christian ones, the wives never known as queens, and therefore all offspring from said marriages – Edward included – should be considered illegitimate.
In 978, King Edward came to Corfe Castle to visit his stepmother and half-brother. As he came through the gate, he was rushed by a clutch of men who pulled him from his horse and stabbed him to death in the castle courtyard. The world was shocked. The previously unpopular Edward immediately and forever more became known as ‘Edward the Martyr’.
Although it seems unlikely for such a deeply religious woman, Ælfthryth was credited with masterminding the regicide so that her son could become king and she his regent – which is exactly what transpired. Ælfthryth was apparently so wicked that when Æthelred expressed consternation at the cold-hearted assassination of his brother and king, she beat him black and blue with a candlestick.
Ælfthryth ruled on behalf of her young son until about 985, by all accounts with an iron fist. There was a deep seated resentment towards both her and Æthelred however, that would swell up after her death. She was charged with the raising and education of Æthelred ‘s sons by his first wife, the eldest – Æthelstan – was to remember her fondly in his will. She retired to a nunnery in Hampshire that she had founded and died some time between 999 and 1001.
It’s no exaggeration that – if Ælfthryth was instrumental in the death of Edward the Martyr – she changed the course of the English monarchy. It could be argued that without the tensions that derived from this action – and subsequent heightened unpopularity of Æthelred – there might never have been a Danish, followed by a Norman, invasion. Regardless of her personal unpopularity and the scandals and sins she may or may not have been guilty of, she was a technically admirable ruler as regent for her son and without a doubt surpassed the limitations of her sex and time. More people should know her name – which was probably pronounced “Alf-frith”, by the way..!