It is often claimed that the Anglo-Saxons did not have queens. Instead, Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror is credited with being the first queen of England. While most Anglo-Saxon king’s wives failed to rise to the status of queen, some did. The most prominent in the tenth century was Elfrida, who was also the first woman to be crowned as Queen of England.
A romantic nineteenth century depiction of the meeting between Edgar and Elfrida
Elfrida (or Aelfthryth to use her more correct, but less easy to pronounce, name) was the third wife, but only queen, of King Edgar. She was born in the mid-940s, probably in Devon, where her father, a nobleman, held considerable lands. Elfrida grew to be a beautiful women, with stories claiming that her first husband, an ealdorman named Ethelwold, fell in love with her at first sight. Post-Conquest sources also claimed, probably with no evidence, that Edgar murdered Ethelwold after also falling under Elfrida’s spell.
The couple married in around 964, as soon as Edgar had divorced his second wife, Wulfthryth, by sending her to Wilton nunnery. They were committed to their marriage in the face of ecclesiastical censure from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dunstan, who burst into their bedchamber one morning to berate them for committing adultery. It is, perhaps, no surprise that Elfrida and Dunstan later became sworn enemies.
Elfrida’s most important political contribution during her husband’s reign was as part of the tenth century religious reform. Monasticism in England had been largely destroyed during the Viking attacks of the late ninth century, with many houses occupied by secular clerks, rather than men living under a monastic order. By the mid-tenth century there was a growing Continental movement to introduce the rule of St Benedict, with leading English churchmen, such as Dunstan of Canterbury, Oswald of York and Ethelwold of Winchester, helping to bring this to Edgar’s kingdom. Edgar himself also heartily believed in reform, as did Elfrida.
Elfrida was strongly linked politically to Bishop Ethelwold of Winchester and, even before her marriage, she had used her influence with Edgar to persuade him to sell land at Stoke to the Bishop to benefit a reformed house. It was Ethelwold who made the arrangements for the retirement of her predecessor as Edgar’s wife to Wilton. Early in their marriage, Edgar and Elfrida jointly commissioned an English translation of the Rule of St Benedict from Ethelwold and the queen was prominent at a council held at Winchester in which a famous document, the Regularis Concordia, was produced.
The Regularis Concordia, which was drafted by Bishop Ethelwold, was a statement by the reformers, setting out how monks and nuns were expected to live. It is remarkable for the prominence it gives to Elfrida as queen, providing her with the first specified political role for a queen consort in English history: that of protectress of the nunneries. This role effectively made Elfrida chief-abbess in England, something which cannot have pleased her predecessor as king’s wife, Abbess Wulfthryth of Wilton. That it was no empty appointment can be seen in the fact that Elfrida later stepped in to expel the Abbess of Barking from her monastery. Many of the scurrilous stories about Elfrida seem to have originated in the nunneries – probably due to the resentment that her ‘interference’ in their affairs caused.
Elfrida’s religious work was also not confined to the nunneries and, during the reign, she felt able to boast that she had been responsible for expelling the secular clerks from the New Minster at Winchester, as the king had done at the Old Minster, and establishing monks in their place.
Elfrida was a consort, but she was a powerful one, with Edgar supporting her position and seeking to demonstrate that she, of all his wives, was his legitimate one. In the charter for the re-foundation of the New Minster in 966, Elfrida witnessed as ‘the legitimate wife of the king’, while her eldest son by Edgar, who was still an infant, witnessed as ‘the legitimate son of the king’. Tellingly, he also witnessed before Edgar’s eldest son, Edward, who was described merely as ‘begotten by the same king’. Edward was the son of the king’s first wife, Ethelflaed, who was probably repudiated in order to allow the king to marry Wulfthryth.
Elfrida may, perhaps, have been crowned soon after her marriage. She was certainly crowned with Edgar in 973 when he underwent a second, imperial, coronation at Bath to highlight his considerable prestige. There had never before been a queen consort of England as prominent or influential as Elfrida.
It was a shock for Elfrida when, on 8 July 975 her husband, who was still only in his thirties, died suddenly. Her eldest surviving son by Edgar, Ethelred, was then aged only seven, while the eldest prince, Edward, was in his teens. Although Elfrida and her supporters campaigned for Ethelred, his youth made his candidacy all but impossible. With Edward’s election, Elfrida retired to her home at Corfe with her son.
It is for the murder of her stepson, Edward the Martyr, in March 978 that Elfrida is chiefly remembered. The evidence of her involvement is debateable and there is another, more plausible candidate, as set out in my earlier article here. Elfrida was, however, the person who benefitted the most. With the coronation of her son, she was able to rule England, effectively, as regent, until finally banished from court in 984 when Ethelred attempted to assert his own political dominance. Even then, Elfrida was not an entirely spent force. She regained some influence in the 990s, as well as involving herself in legal disputes concerning her kin. She died aged around sixty – an advanced age for the period – in 1000, 1001 or 1002.
Elfrida ranks as one of the most powerful people in tenth century England, male or female. She rose from obscurity to become a major participant in the tenth century religious reform movement, as well as greatly extending the role and power of a queen consort. Finally, she was the virtual ruler of England for some years, presiding over the last few years of peace before Ethelred the Unready began his disastrous personal rule of England.