Ælfflæd was the second of Edward the Elder’s three wives and, although the longest serving of Edward’s wives, is a good example of the vulnerability of Saxon consorts. We take a look at her time as consort and then her efforts to have a role in the succession and the significance of consorts in this process.
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We don’t know when Ælfflæd was born, but it was probably at some point in the late 870s or early 880s. She was the daughter of Ealdorman Æthelhelm of Wiltshire and…someone else (her mother’s name is not recorded!) We also don’t know exactly when she got married to Edward the Elder, but it was most likely around 899 or 900 (either just before or just after he became king).
By the end of the reign of her father-in-law, Alfred the Great, a vision of creating the nation of England (made up of all the Anglo-Saxons) was in place but far from being finished. Half of the country was ruled by Vikings (the Danelaw – essentially the east and north of England) while the old kingdom of Mercia (the midlands) was still ostensibly independent from Wessex (the south and south-west). Despite Alfred’s successes, Edward was under much pressure when he came to the throne – not just from Vikings, but also from his own cousin (Æthelwold) who claimed the throne. Edward’s marriage to Ælfflæd (the daughter of a powerful nobleman in Wessex) was intended to help improve his standing in the kingdom. Some historians have speculated that she may have been Edward’s cousin (so Æthelwold’s sister) and that the marriage was also targeted at winning over the rival part of the royal family. This is probably unlikely (it was unusual for sons of a king to become an ealdorman, which would be the case if her father was the son of a king) but either way, Edward still had a battle on his hand.
Saxon consorts in this period (particularly in Wessex) had very limited status or power (see our post on Ealhswith for why this was the case) but Edward’s precarious position saw more recognition for royal women than exhibited under his father. A charter issued in 901 was witnessed by both his mother, Ealhswith, and Ælfflæd while under Alfred, Ealhswith never witnessed a charter. Edward was aware that he needed to win support and may have felt that greater prominence to his wife and mother would also enhance his own position (presenting a more elevated, regal court as opposed to his cousin). There is some speculation that Ælfflæd may even have been crowned, but her title in the charter is just conjux regis (wife of the king) and nothing subsequent in the reign suggests that she was granted such a prestigious honour.
This is the only charter witnessed by Ælfflæd, perhaps reflecting the fact that she did not remain so important to Edward (at least from a PR-perspective) after Æthelwold was killed in the Battle of the Holme in 902 and the succession crisis was over. Edward was busy for the rest of his reign working with his sister, Æthelflæd Lady of the Mercians (virtual queen of Mercia from 910) campaigning against the Vikings, retaking territory from the Danelaw. This brother and sister act had great success, winning a major victory at Tettenhall in 910, building numerous burhs (fortified market towns) from 911-16 as a springboard for campaigning in 917-18, with Edward capturing East Anglia and Essex before joining Æthelflæd attacking the Five Boroughs. When Æthelflæd died in 918, Edward took control of Mercia and was the dominant force in Britain.
What Ælfflæd was doing in this period is almost completely unknown. Edward was clearly frequently campaigning but the long marriage and the high number of children they had together suggests that they were often together (or that Edward was very regular and efficient in returning home to fulfil his conjugal duties). However, despite the success of the marriage, in 919 (after 20 years of marriage), Edward repudiated Ælfflæd, sending her off to a nunnery (along with 2 of her daughters) and took a new wife (Eadgifu of Kent). This is surprising, given that Edward now had adult sons and now need to produce more heirs, so it is likely that his focus was turned to York, where a Norse Viking (Ragnall) had just captured the city. Perhaps Edward was concerned at a lack of support in the south-east so married Eadgifu to enable him to safely campaign in the north without fear of facing rebellion in the south.
It was actually quite common for kings in this period to repudiate their wives. Marriages were often largely secular affairs with various stages, not all of which needed to be complete for some form of marriage to be acknowledged. As Pauline Stafford has noted, “Marriage by stages is a lawyer’s nightmare & a repudiator’s charter. The omission of any stage can be an argument for a less than fully binding tie.” Edward was the classic example of a royal serial monogamist, allowing him to move from one wife to another without any great impediment, whenever circumstances required. For Henry VIII, this would have been the ideal scenario but for consorts it left them extremely vulnerable. Ælfflæd had produced numerous children (including sons) but maternity was not enough to ensure her position at court, and without the protection of being crowned and anointed as queen, there was nothing to protect her from being cast aside.
However, when Edward died in 924, there was an opportunity for Ælfflæd to regain her influence. While serial monogamy was good for kings, it created great uncertainty in the succession as they left sons by numerous wives (of debateable legitimacy) with no firmly established process of primogeniture. The throne could be claimed by any ætheling (son of a king) if they could convince the Witan (parliament). In such circumstances, there was inevitably a propaganda battle with different sons claiming they had the best claim. In such circumstances, the most loyal and trustworthy supporters for a claimant were their mothers, who would also (through their time as consort) have contacts and influence at court to be effective figures for political intrigue.
So, in 924 there was a battle for the succession. Edward’s eldest son was Athelstan, born of his first marriage to a woman called Ecgwynn (probably cast aside or dead before he became king), but he also had two adult sons by Ælfflæd (Ælfweard & Edwin) and 2 young boys by Eadgifu (Edmund & Eadred). To add extra spice, Athelstan had been brought up at his aunt’s court in Mercia, so while he was declared king there, it was Ælfflæd’s son, Ælfweard, who was declared king in Wessex. It is likely that she was an active player in this conflict and may well have been responsible for the rumours that Ecgwynn was only a concubine rather than a full wife and that Athelstan was illegitimate. As Wessex was the heart of the kingdom, it may be that Ælfweard was the intended heir of Edward and Ælfflæd was poised to be a major figure in the new regime.
Unfortunately for Ælfflæd, hers is very much a story of what might have been. Ælfweard died just 16 days after his father and Edwin does not seem to have been as well established as his older brothers. There was still something of a stand-off between Wessex and Mercia, but in 925 Athelstan was crowned as king. Edwin seems to have later been implicated in plots to blind Athelstan and in 933 was drowned at sea (having been exiled in a leaky boat), Ælfflæd would remain in the nunnery at Wilton, never to return to power. The last certain recording for her is the granting of land by Athelstan in 928, though there is a possibility that she was granted an estate in Dorset by Edmund in the 940s (though she would have been very old by this point). Her death is not recorded, but it was likely at some point in the 930s or 940s.
Despite being sent to a nunnery in 919, it seems that she did not give up on the secular world and was resolved on returning to power. She may well have re-emerged to lead the fight to secure her son’s succession, perhaps being behind the rumours about Athelstan’s illegitimacy and maybe even the plot to blind Athelstan.
Unfortunately, we have no direct evidence of Ælfflæd’s activities after 919, so the above is only speculation. If she did fight Athelstan’s succession, she ended up on the losing side and neither of her sons managed to become king.
Score = 3/20
Ælfflæd is a likely candidate to have been behind rumours that Ecgwynn was not Edward’s first wife but instead a low-born concubine. Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, a poet of the 960s who was writing for the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto the Great (married to one of Ælfflæd’s daughters) wrote that Athelstan’s mother was lower in status than Ælfflæd, suggesting that this propaganda was being spread across Europe and through Ælfflæd’s family. Alfred the Great is said to have invested Athelstan (his grandson), indicating his throne-worthiness, which he is unlikely to have done if Ecgwynn was a simple farm-hand’s daughter, while Ecgwynn’s daughter would go on to marry Sihtric Caech (King of Northumbria) in 926. It is far more likely that Ecgwynn was of noble birth, which suggests that Ælfflæd was spreading porky pies in 924. Having dabbled in the dark arts for one son, it’s entirely possible that she was also involved in the plot to blind Athelstan and so see her second son, Edwin, take the throne.
Again, we have no direct evidence of Ælfflæd’s involvement in any of this, so this is all speculation. Arguably, it’s not unreasonable that she would be pushing the claims of her sons over Athelstan and she does not seem to have been notorious enough to warrant censure in contemporary chroniclers.
Score = 4/20
The lack of evidence so far would suggest that we would have nothing to go on here. However, she is thought to have been responsible for the Saint Cuthbert Embroideries – a stole of silk (worn round the neck of priests) and a maniple (strip worn over the left arm) were donated to the tomb of Cuthbert by Athelstan when it was opened in 934. However, an inscription on the reverse panel says “Ælfflæd had this made for the pious bishop Frithestan”, indicating that she was the one who initially made this commission. There is a strong possibility that she personally worked on it with her own hands. This is a significant legacy as it is the only piece of royal secular dress surviving from Edward’s reign (if not all of Anglo-Saxon England) and is often described as the only surviving embroidery from Anglo-Saxon England (though technically the Bayeaux Tapestry is actually an embroidery). This was considered a great art form for the Saxons but all other examples have been lost to history. This gift to a bishop is perhaps indicative of her wider piety – charters from Athelstan (and possibly Edmund) saw land granted to her which she then donated to Glastonbury, perhaps suggesting she was an early proponent of monastic reform.
It’s impressive that we have an actual physical object commissioned (if not physically created) by Ælfflæd, but there is nothing else to go on.
Score = 7/20
Ælfflæd was consort from 899 to 919, which is 20 years. We also give half-credit for the time spent as queen mother, though as in her cases this was only 16 days, it does not have any impact on her score.
Score = 13/20 (19th best overall)
Ælfflæd had a very impressive 8 children – 2 sons and 6 daughters. Many of her daughters would enjoy highly prestigious marriages, including to the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor.
Score = 17/20 (5th best overall)
Ælfflæd’s total score is 43.5, but does she have that certain something, that lasting legacy, the great achievement that we call…
Unfortunately, the answer must be no. She is something of a ‘nearly’ figure – had her eldest son not died just 16 days after being acknowledged king, she might have been a major figure during his reign and perhaps more details of her time as consort would have been recorded. To have been married to the king for 20 years (and had 8 children together) suggests that she was a valuable figure for Edward for a long time. Some have suggested, the fact that he left it so late to repudiate her indicates the affection between them, though it is doubtful that she would have considered this an appropriate demonstration of affection. Instead, she was repudiated and forced to remain in the obscurity of religious retirement, while her successor as consort (Eadgifu of Kent) would demonstrate the potential power that a consort could wield as queen mother.
Our verdict = no, she does not have the Rex Factor.
Let us know what you think in the poll below – does Ælfflæd deserve the Rex Factor?
- Elizabeth Norton, England’s Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York
- Geoffrey Hindley, A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons
- Henrietta Leyser, Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England, 450-1500
- M. A. Meyer, “Women and the Tenth Century English Monastic Reform” in Revue Benedictine (1977, Nos. 1-2)
- N.J. Higham & D.H. Hill (Eds.), Edward the Elder, 899-924 [see chapters by Barbara Yorke, Sheila Sharp, Alex Woolf and Elizabeth Coatsworth)
- Pauline Stafford, The King’s Wife in Wessex 800-1066 – Past & Present (91, May, 1981, pp. 3-27)
- Pauline Stafford, ‘The Portrayal of Royal Women in England, Mid-Tenth to Mid-Twelfth Centuries’ in Medieval Queenship by John Carmi Parsons (Ed.)
- Pauline Stafford, Queen Emma & Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh-Century England
- Sarah Foot, Athelstan
- William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the Kings of England: From the earliest period to the reign of King Stephen