Sunday, 15 September 2013

The 'She-Wolf' Aelfthryth, queen consort of Edgar I

Edgar King of England.jpg
Above: Edgar (c.943-975), king of England and husband of Aelfthryth.

The infamous epithet 'she-wolf' as a term to denigrate and condemn controversial royal women who participated in domestic politics has most famously been associated with the fifteenth-century queen Margaret of Anjou, consort of Henry VI of England; although it has also been linked with Isabella of France, unpopular wife of the deposed Edward II and less commonly with the likes of Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Boleyn. However, it can more fairly be argued that court chroniclers and historians over the last thousand years viewed Aelfthryth, queen consort of King Edgar, as the original 'she-wolf'.

Living over one thousand years ago in the Anglo-Saxon age, Aelfthryth's story was nothing if not tumultuous and dramatic. She was the first consort of England to be crowned and anointed as a queen consort, and later became the mother of a famous English king, Aethelred the Unready. She was the daughter of Ealdorman Ordgar, and she had royal blood by virtue of her mother's position within the Wessex royal family. Court chronicles created a dramatic legend surrounding Aelfthryth's rise to the queenship, for they claimed that King Edgar, besotted by Aelfthryth's incomparable beauty (in a story somewhat similar to the fabrications regarding the first meeting between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville five hundred years later), ordered the death of her first husband so that he could marry her himself.

How Aelfthryth felt about the murder of her first husband and her rise to the position as queen remains unknown and mysterious, for chroniclers, in believing that, as a supposedly evil and immoral woman who sought to fulfil her own ambitions at any cost, did not seek out her true motives and feelings in these dramatic events. Rather they, and later historians, appeared to assume that her immoral qualities led her to rejoice in her husband's death and elevation to queenship.

In 964-5, Aelfthryth became queen consort of England, aged perhaps nineteen or twenty. Whether or not she was Edgar's second or third wife is uncertain, although he is known to have fathered illegitimate children by at least two women before his marriage to Aelfthryth. Although Edgar according to later legends may have been entranced by his new queen's enchanting beauty and impulsively married her, it is probable that he was well aware that Aelfthryth's family had traditionally held great power in Wessex. Because the king's power base was centred in Mercia, the marriage alliance between the pair was a sound means of consolidating and extending Edgar's influence and power in England.

The following year, Aelfthryth cemented her position as queen by providing her husband with a son, Edmund, who was to die young. Queen consorts were only fully secure once they had borne their husbands the much required male heir, in order to ensure that the royal family's lineage was assured and a peaceful succession probable. Royal wives who failed to provide sons were discarded or suffered ignoble fates, as the consorts of Henry VIII found to their cost. In 968, Aelfthryth bore her husband a second son, Aethelred. In 973, Edgar chose to crown himself as a means of asserting his unprecedented authority and power in England, with his queen also crowned and anointed. This splendid ceremony was a watershed in England's history, for never before had an English queen consort enjoyed a status so high or position as exalted.

Aelfthryth was a suitable and effective queen consort whose sound political and religious duties have often been obscured or ignored in light of later scandals associated with her. She acted as an advocate in several legal cases, acting as a mediator between prosecutors and the crown, and because of her protection of female litigants she was effective in allowing greater possibilities for women in Anglo-Saxon England. She extended her protection to several abbeys, and was a benefactress at Peterborough and Ely. Her friendship with Bishop Aetholwold of Winchester allowed her to be closely involved in monastic reform; while taking charge of her children's upbringing.

Aelfthryth was an unpopular queen consort among religious chroniclers, who demonised and denigrated her as an enemy of St Dunstan and, in order to blacken the name of her son Aethelred, associated her with the death of a bishop of Ely, with the seizure of Barking Abbey, the death of her first husband, and the murder of her stepson King Edward so that her own son could inherit the throne. Too much should not be read into these venomous and improbable accusations. Other early queens, such as Isabella of France, Margaret of Anjou, and Anne Boleyn were routinely slandered and cruelly attacked by contemporaries on account of their husbands' decisions, faults, and alliances. The gender of these women rendered them suspicious and accountable to prejudiced male observers; in the tenth century, Aelfthryth was linked with the heinous sins of witchcraft, murder and adultery by virtue of her gender and position as queen consort. As historian Pauline Stafford notes, 'most of the stories can be dismissed as later stereotyped accretions'.

Aelfthryth's position and security as queen was threatened in 975 with the death of her husband, Edgar king of England. Although she felt that her son Aethelwold by virtue of his position as son of her husband had a natural right to become the next king, it was decreed that in fact her stepson Edward should inherit the throne. In 978, King Edward was murdered at Corfe Castle by Queen Aelfthryth's servants in order to ensure that Aethelwold acceded to the throne in place of his stepbrother. Because Edward later became a martyr and revered by religious figures, Aelfthryth was slandered as a she-wolf and a murderess. Interestingly, contemporary accounts did not directly blame her for her stepson's murder. It is more probable that it was the ambitious Aethelwold, eager to become king, who authorised his sibling's murder. Stafford again insightfully notes that 'candidates for succession were besmirched through their mothers'. Aelfthryth had died by 1001, aged in her mid-fifties, and she was buried in her foundation at Wherwell.

It is highly unlikely that Aelfthryth was the murderous, cunning and evil woman later portrayed by venomous chroniclers and hostile religious figures at court, who sought to undermine her son's rule in favour of Edward the Martyr. Although she was probably ambitious for her son to become king of England, there is scant to no evidence that she was involved in her stepson's murder. Reading her experiences in light of contemporary gender and sexual prejudices illuminates the unfairness of continuing to view her as a she-wolf, for prejudice, distortion and hatred obscures our true vision of what she was really like. Her own actions during her tenure as Edgar's consort indicate that she was an effective and hardworking queen who operated smoothly in political and social relations. But the later rise of her son to the kingship and the murder of her stepson Edward blackened her earlier good works and destroyed her reputation irrevocably.

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