In researching medieval queens, I came across the story of a queen having all the elements of a fairy tale. Her name is Aelfthryth, the wife of King Edgar the Peaceable who was the great-grandson of Alfred the Great. Her son by Edgar was Aethelred the Unready so she was also the mother- in- law of our Queen Emma.
Aelfthryth was born c. 945, the daughter of Ordgar who held numerous properties in southwest England. Her mother was a member of the royal family of Wessex and her brother Ordulf founded the abbey of Tavistock. Edgar was born c. 943 and became King in 959. He married a childhood friend, Aethelflaed when very young and had a son named Edward by this wife who appears to have died soon afterward. There is some confusion over whether he married his second wife or not. Her name was Wulfthryth and she had a daughter with Edgar who later became Saint Edith of Wilton but, there were no male heirs born. Eventually, Edgar disposed of Wulfthryth as his “wife” and began a search for another wife.
What happened next is the subject of debate. Legend says Edgar heard that Aelfthryth was exceedingly beautiful and Edgar needed allies in the part of the country where her father was ealdorman. He sent one of his courtiers, Aethelwald, ealdorman of East Anglia to visit Aelfthryth to determine if she was beautiful and suitable to be his queen. Aethelwald found her so astoundingly beautiful he married her himself, telling the King she was unsuitable. Edgar found out the deception and decided to judge for himself if Aelfthryth was beautiful. Alarmed, Aethelwald asked Aelfthryth to make herself unattractive for the King’s visit. She did just the opposite. Edgar was so enticed by her gorgeous looks he wanted her for himself and managed to have Aethelwald killed in a hunting accident so he could marry her.
Aelfthryth and Edgar were married in 965. When Aelfthryth had a son named Edmund in 966, there was a huge christening ceremony at Winchester where all of Edgar’s extended family attended. Aelfthryth took precedence over Edgar’s elder son Edward which may have created conflict within the family. The child Edmund was to die in 970 but Aelfthryth had another son in 968 named Aethelred who obviously became her favorite son.
While they were married, Aelfthryth seems to have had a positive relationship with her husband. She identified with the reformers of the church who wanted to organize under the Benedictine rule and Edgar became a strong supporter too. She persuaded Edgar to support and repair the abbeys of Ely, Barking and Peterborough. She used her influence to settle legal disputes in favor of her preferred abbey at Winchester and found a great friend and ally in the Bishop of Winchester, Aethelwold. Historians and others of the time state she had a conspicuous and vigorous role in the monarchy. People knew she had influence on the King and used her to gain access to him. She may have had some kind of capacity on the King’s council and witnessed charters. She was the guarantor of other people’s wills which was common for the time. She also exercised control over substantial estates and revenue which she used to support her households and gave gifts in reward for others support.
In 973, Edgar decided to stage a second coronation with a more momentous ceremony and with an actual anointing with holy oil as a show of his authority and strength. It was also decided, probably at the insistence of Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester that Aelfthryth would be crowned and anointed as well. Queens had been anointed on the continent but this would be the first time an English queen had been consecrated. This bestowed on her authority to aid the King in governing the realm and allowed for some stability in the succession allowing her to secure her own position and that of her son. Aelfthryth and Edgar were anointed on May 11 at Bath by Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Edgar was to die on July 8, 975 at the age of 32. His eldest son Edward was crowned King by Dunstan but there was considerable animosity and tension between those who supported Edward as King and those who wanted Aethelred, especially his mother. Because of the controversy over Aelfthryth’s first husband and Edgar’s intrigue with his second “wife”, Archbishop Dunstan accused Aelfthryth and Edgar of committing adultery to cast doubt on Aethelred’s legitimacy. Aethelred’s supporters argued he had better claim to the throne because his mother was consecrated queen. All this acrimony lasted until 978 when something extraordinary happened. King Edward was invited to visit his stepmother Aelfthryth and half brother Aethelred at Corfe Castle. As soon as he arrived at the gate, men came forward and stabbed him to death. The death of a crowned King was a shock to the world, let alone England. Aelfthryth was accused of plotting the murder so her son could take the throne. It was also said she beat Aethelred with a candlestick for not being grateful for her efforts. The murder was never avenged and the body was desecrated. Edward was to be called “The Martyr” from then on. Whether she was instrumental in plotting or executing the murder, she definitely gained from it.
Aethelred became King of England. His mother was effectively Queen during the first half of his reign, overshadowing his first wife. There was some semblance of stability for the first 20 years of his tenure on the throne, possibly due to the influence of Aelfthryth acting on his behalf. She ruled until 985 when she retired to Wherwell Abbey. She was probably responsible for the upbringing and education of the sons of Aethelred by his first wife. Her grandson Aethelstan remembered her fondly in his will. She died c. 1000. Aethelred waited until his mother was gone before he married Emma of Normandy in 1002.
Further reading: “Matilda of Scotland: A Study in Medieval Queenship” by Lois L. Huneycutt, “Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The Kings Wife in the Early Middle Ages” by Pauline Stafford, “Unification and Conquest” by Pauline Stafford, “British Kings and Queen” by Mike Ashley