10 February 2014

Tales of Love: King Edgar the Peaceable and Queen Elfrida

By Michelle Styles

One tends to assume the politics of Royal marriage is not very interesting during the Anglo Saxon period. After all the queens are slightly shadowy figures. However, if you start digging, Anglo Saxon royal marriage is a lot more scandalous and a lot more like Game of Thrones.

King Edgar the Peaceable and Queen Elfrida (or Aelfthyrth) is a great love story which deserves to be more widely known. Or rather it is interesting and full of scandal and gossip. But it goes to show that people behaving badly and strong women who mould events to suit them have existed for a long time.
King Edgar (source Wikipedia)

King Edgar was married at least twice before Elfrida (it depends on the source). When he tired of his wife, he tended to have her retire to a nunnery, leaving him to free to marry again. His first wife Ethelflaed the Fair was a Anglo Saxon noblewoman who was put aside so that he could marry the very political Wulfthryth who was royally descended and very devout. They had two children  -- both of whom became saints –Edward the Martyr and St Edith of Wilton.

Elfrida was a beautiful  and clever daughter of a minor nobleman. Edgar sent his best friend Aethelwald to see if she was as truly beautiful as they said. Aethelwald struck by her beauty reported back – no she wasn’t -- and then duly married her. She was supposedly playing chess with her father and beating him handily when they first met. She apparently learnt to play chess from the Vikings.

Once Edgar learnt of the trick, he decided to visit to see the woman for himself. Aethelwald implored his wife to make herself ugly but she did just the opposite. For the king, it was love at first sight. They may have begun an affair there and then but the sources grow hazy.

Aethelwald is supposed to have died in a hunting accident. Post conquest sources claim the accident was arranged by Edgar (or perhaps Elfrida who was ambitious after all?) The spot is supposedly commemorated by the Dead Man’s Plack in Harewood Forest, Hampshire.  After Aethelwald’sdeath, Wulfthryth is forcibly retired to a nunnery and becomes an abbess, leaving Elfrida and Edgar free to marry. However, all was not smooth sailing as the archbishop of Canterbury, Dunstan burst in their bedroom and accused the pair of adultery. The king and his queen weathered the storm.

Edgar was so besotted with his wife that he had crowned queen of England. Neither of his other two wives enjoyed the status of queen. In his second coronation in 973, Edgar had Elfrida jointly crowned. It is this coronation, presided over by Dunstan that forms the basis of the present day coronation.  Shortly afterward, at Chester, the other six kings of Britain, including the king of Scots and the king of Strathclyde paid homage to Edgar and his queen.

There was a huge emphasis on Elfrida’s role as protector of religion. She also served an important function in the legal system, serving as  forespeca or advocate in at least seven cases.

When Edgar died in 973, he left two sons. Edward by Wulfthryth and Aethelred by Elfrida. It is said that Elfrida arranged for Edward’s murder.  When visiting Elfrida at Corfe Castle, her servants set upon him and killed him.  This cleared her path to act as regent for Aethelred the Unready. She did so until he came of age in 984 at which point she retired (was retired?) and concentrated on bringing up the next generation. Her grandson Aethelstan Aetheling mentions her in his will as the woman who brought him up. Atheling is the Anglo Saxon term for someone who might be heir to the throne as the succession was never straight forward and there might be multiple claimants.

If you are interested in reading more about Elfrida, Elizabeth Norton recently published a biography entitled Elfrida and it is well worth a read. The first crowned queen of England deserves to be better known, particularly as she was such a strong and interesting woman!

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romance in a wide range of time periods including Viking. Her next book The Return of the Viking Warrior will be published in May 2014 by Harlequin. You can learn more about Michelle’s  books on www.michellestyles.co.uk