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Ælfgifu of York

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Title: Ælfgifu of York  
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Subject: Æthelred the Unready, Emma of Normandy, Edmund Ironside, Edgar the Ætheling, Stigand, List of English monarchs, Edward the Exile, Ælfgifu, List of women who died in childbirth, Avalon (novel)
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Ælfgifu of York

Ælfgifu of York
Queen consort of England
Tenure 980s–1002
Spouse Æthelred the Unready
Æthelstan Ætheling
Ecgberht of England
Edmund Ironside
Eadred Ætheling
Eadwig Ætheling
Edgar of England
Edith, Lady of the Mercians
Ælfgifu, Lady of Northumbria
Wulfhilda, Lady of East Anglia
Father Thored
Born fl. c. 970
Died c.1002

Ælfgifu of York (fl. c. 970 – 1002) was the first wife of Æthelred the Unready (r. 968–1016), by whom she bore many offspring, including Edmund Ironside. It is most probable that she was a daughter of Thored, earl of southern Northumbria.

Identity and background

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 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]

Problem of fatherhood

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]

Marriage and offspring

Based largely on the careers of her sons, Ælfgifu's marriage has been dated approximately to the (mid-)980s.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] Some of these sons seem to have spent part of their childhood in fosterage elsewhere, possibly with Æthelred's mother Ælfthryth.[12]

Out of Ælfgifu's six sons, only Edmund Ironside outlived his father and became king. In 1016 he suffered several defeats against Cnut and in October they agreed to share the kingdom, but Edmund died within six weeks and Cnut became king of all England. 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.[13]



  • Eadgyth (born before 993), married Eadric Streona, ealdorman of Mercia.[14]
  • Ælfgifu, married ealdorman Uhtred of Northumbria.[15]
  • (possibly) Wulfhild, who married Ulfcytel (Snillingr) (d. 1016), apparently ealdorman of East Anglia.[16]
  • possibly an unnamed daughter who married the Æthelstan who was killed fighting the Danes at the Battle of Ringmere in 1010. He is called Æthelred's aðum, meaning either son-in-law or brother-in-law.[16] Ann Williams, however, argues that the latter meaning is the appropriate one and refers to Æthelstan as being Ælfgifu's brother.[8]
  • possibly unnamed daughter, who became abbess of Wherwell.[17]

Life and death

Unlike her mother-in-law, Ælfthryth, Ælfgifu was not anointed queen and never signed charters.[18] 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.[19] In a will of later date (AD 990 x 1001), in which she is addressed as “my lady” (mire hlæfdian), the noblewoman Æthelgifu promised a bequest of 30 mancuses of gold.[20] Just as little is known of Ælfgifu's life, so the precise date and circumstances of her death cannot be recovered.[21] In any event, she appears to have died by 1002, possibly in childbirth, when Æthelred took to wife Emma, daughter of Count Richard of Rouen, who received or adopted her predecessor's Anglo-Saxon name, Ælfgifu.



Primary sources

  • Ailred of Rievaulx, De genealogia regum Anglorum ("On the Genealogy of the English Kings"), ed. R. Twysden, De genealogia regum Anglorum. Rerum Anglicarum scriptores 10. London, 1652. 1.347–70. Patrologia Latina 195 (711–38) edition available from Documenta Catholica; tr. M. L. Dutton and J. P. Freeland, Aelred of Rievaulx, The Historical Works. Kalamazoo, 2005.
  • Anglo-Saxon charters
    • S 1511 (possibly AD 980 x 987)
    • . AD 990 x 1001)
  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ed. D. Dumville and S. Keynes, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: a collaborative edition. 8 vols. Cambridge, 1983
    • Tr. Michael J. Swanton, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. 2nd ed. London, 2000.
  • John of Worcester, Chronicon ex Chronicis, ed. Benjamin Thorpe, Florentii Wigorniensis monachi chronicon ex chronicis. 2 vols. London, 1848–49
    • Tr. J. Stevenson, Church Historians of England. 8 vols.: vol. 2.1. London, 1855; pp. 171–372.
  • Sulcard of Westminster, Prologus de construccione Westmonasterii, ed. B. W. Scholz, “Sulcard of Westminster. Prologus de construccione Westmonasterii.” Traditio; 20 (1964); pp. 59–91.
  • William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum, ed. and tr. R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, William of Malmesbury. Gesta Regum Anglorum: The History of the English Kings. (Oxford Medieval Texts.) 2 vols.; vol 1. Oxford, 1998.

Secondary sources

  • Fryde, E. et al. Handbook of British Chronology. 3d ed. Cambridge, 1996.
  • Keynes, Simon. “Æthelred II (c.966x8–1016).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 200.4 Accessed 1 Sept 2007.
  • Stafford, Pauline. "The Reign of Æthelred II. A Study in the Limitations on Royal Policy and Action." In Ethelred the Unready. Papers from the Millenary Conference, ed. D. Hill. BAR British series 59. Oxford, 1978. 15-46.
  • Stafford, Pauline. Queen Emma and Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh-Century England. Oxford, 1997.
  • Trow, M.J. Cnut: Emperor of the North. Sutton, 2005.
  • Williams, Ann. Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counselled King. London, 2003.
Preceded by
Queen Consort of England
Succeeded by
Emma of Normandy
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