Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury was the first consort of King Edmund I of England, and while her impact on the historical record was limited in life, in death she achieved the lucrative status of sainthood. We look at who the real Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury was and how and why she came to become a saint.
Listen to her podcast episode here or read on to find out more.
We don’t know when Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury of born, but as she became consort in about 939 it is likely that she would have been born by the early 920s at the latest. Unusually, we know the name of her mother (Wynflæd), but not her father. Her mother left a will, indicating that she was a major landowner in Wessex with connections to the royal abbeys at Shaftesbury and Wilton. She is also identified as the grandmother of Edgar the Peaceable in one of his charters.
We don’t know exactly when she married King Edmund I, but as he became king in 939 (aged 18) and their first child was born in about 940, it is likely that they married when he became king. Probably her mother’s extensive lands would have made Ælfgifu a wealthy and attractive prospect for a king’s bride. What she did as queen, however, is largely a mystery. The Anglo-Saxons only seem to have had room for one dominant woman at court, and in the 940s, that woman was Eadgifu, Edmund’s mother. She regularly witnessed charters of lands, usually signing just after her sons, whereas Ælfgifu only witnessed one charter where she was placed twelfth on the list. She was described as concubine regis, which does not imply the modern connotations of a scandalous relationship but rather the reality of rather more loose and flexible marriage practices among the Saxons at this time.
Edmund seems to have been a promising young king, having fought heroically alongside his brother, Athelstan, at the Battle of Brunanburh (937). His succession saw Olaf Guthfrithson retake Northumbria and the Five Boroughs (Mercia) but by 944, Edmund had succeeded in winning them back. Unfortunately, 944 was a year of triumph and tragedy for it was at this time that Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury died, probably still only in her mid-twenties. According to William of Malmesbury, she had been ill for a number of years, which might explain her limited presence on the historical record.
For Ælfgifu, it was the afterlife that would prove to be more notable! Her death was quickly followed by a cult around her burial place of Shaftesbury. Dunstan was said to have heard heavenly voice calling out when her son Edgar was born in 943 while in the 970s while after her death, various miracles were reported at her tomb. Even in the 970s, a young man was said to have kept vigil at her tomb in hope of being cured of blindness.
The development of a cult around Ælfgifu probably says more about the dynastic and imperial ambitions of the royal family (and, potentially, Shaftesbury Abbey) than about Ælfgifu herself. As in their contrary attitude to queens, the old kingdom of Wessex did not encourage leading roles for women in religious houses nor did they have many of their own saints. However, from Alfred the Great onwards (perhaps influenced by continental courts as well as Mercia), there was an increased patronage of female religious houses and prominent roles for royal women within them (indeed, Shaftesbury Abbey’s first abbess was a daughter of Alfred’s). By the time of Edgar, the Saxons had imperial ambitions across Britain and were mindful of enhancing their status through their wives and mothers – women like Ælfgifu were not royal before marriage, but making her a saint elevated her to an even higher plain that would thus reflect well on Edgar (the son of a warrior king and a saintly queen) and his dynasty. For places like Shaftesbury Abbey, being associated with a cult (and a royal one at that) made their continued patronage and survival more likely. The real Ælfgifu, perhaps, gets lost in the mix, though her cult survives. for several generations. Her grandson, Æthelred the Unready (born over 20 years after her death), insisted on his second wife, Emma of Normandy, adopting the English name of Ælfgifu for official documents, suggesting that Saint Ælfgifu continued to be a significant dynastic figure.
Unfortunately, we don’t have enough information to give her any score at all – it has to be 0/20.
Again, a lack of any information in this category means she must score 0/20.
Ælfgifu was literally a saint, which surely must count for something! She was a patron to the Shaftesbury community in her lifetime and may even have refounded the nunnery. William of Malmesbury was certainly full of praise for her:
“[She was] a woman intent on good works, and gifted with such affection and kindness, that she would even secretly discharge the penalties of those culprits whom the sad sentence of the judges had publicly condemned. That costly clothing, which, to many women, is the pander of vice, was to her the means of liberality; as she would give a garment of the most beautiful workmanship to the first poor person she saw. Even malice itself, as there was nothing to carp at, might praise the beauty of her person and the work of her hands.”William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the kings of England: From the earliest period to the reign of King Stephen
As discussed, the cult of Ælfgifu of Shafetsbury continued to be popular decades after her death, eclipsing the fame of the first abbess (daughter of Alfred the Great) and even requiring a name change (in official documents) for Emma of Normandy. Plus, you’d certainly have positive feelings towards you if a trip to her tomb had resulted in being cured of blindness. On the other hand, while we don’t have any evidence of nefarious behaviour, and she most likely was pious and did good things for Shaftesbury, she was sanctified because of her identity as Edgar’s mother rather than the deeds of her real life. As such, we don’t have much real evidence to go on.
It’s likely that she did some good and pious deeds, but we have no real evidence of what these were and she did not have long to do them, so sadly her score must remain on the low side.
Score = 3.5/20
Ælfgifu was consort from about 939 to 944 – 5 years, which converts to a score of 5.5/20.
Although she was only consort for a short time, she was survived by two sons – Eadwig and Edgar the Peaceable, both of whom became king. A total of 2 children is converted into a score of 10/20.
Overally, then, Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury has a total score of 19 but the crucial question is does she have that certain something, that lasting legacy, that star quality and great achievement that we call…
In her favour, she was literally a saint, which surely gives her a bit of star power and legacy. Unfortunately, this is all largely retrospective and about her dynasty rather than about her, about whom we know very little. Consequently, it’s a no, Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury does not have the Rex Factor.
Let us know what you think – does Saint Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury deserve the Rex Factor?
- Barbara Yorke, Nunneries and the Anglo-Saxon Royal Houses
- Elizabeth Norton, England’s Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York
- Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England
- Henrietta Leyser, Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England, 450-1500
- MA Meyer, M. A. Meyer – “Women and the Tenth Century English Monastic Reform” in Revue Benedictine (1977, Nos. 1-2)
- 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
- Pauline Stafford, “Queens, nunneries and Reforming Churchmen: Gender, Religious Status and Reform in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England” in Past & Present No. 163 (May, 1999), pp. 3-35
- William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the kings of England: From the earliest period to the reign of King Stephen