Ælfgifu of Northampton
|Queen consort of England, Denmark, and Norway
Queen regent of Norway
|Spouse||Cnut the Great|
|Sweyn Knutsson, King of Norway|
|House||House of Denmark (by marriage)|
|Father||Ælfhelm, Ealdorman of York|
Ælfgifu of Northampton (c. 990 – after 1040) was the first wife of King Cnut of England and Denmark, and mother of King Harold I of England (1035–40). She served as Queen regent of Norway from 1030 to 1035.
Ælfgifu was born into an important noble family based in the Midlands (Mercia). She was a daughter of Ælfhelm, ealdorman of southern Northumbria, who was killed in 1006.1 John of Worcester names his wife Wulfrun, but it is possible that he had her confused with the Wulfrun who was Ælfhelm's mother and possibly patron of the community at Wolverhampton.2 Another noteworthy figure who belonged to this family was Ælfhelm's brother (hence Ælfgifu's uncle) Wulfric Spot, a wealthy nobleman and patron of Burton Abbey.3 Her cognomen 'of Northampton' is attached to her in Manuscript D of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in order to distinguish her from Emma of Normandy, and consequently adopted by later historians such as John of Worcester. It would seem to indicate that she was a prominent landholder in the area.
Ælfgifu's date of birth is unknown. Any conjectures are largely based on the date of her father's death (1006), the approximate date of her betrothal to Cnut (1004 × 1016, see below) and the time by which she had borne him sons, whose ages are themselves difficult to establish. To remain on the safe side, it can be assumed that she was born sometime between the (mid-)980s and (mid-)990s.
In 1013 Swein Forkbeard, King of Denmark, invaded northern England. The northern peoples, many of them of Scandinavian descent, immediately submitted to him. He then married his young son Cnut to Ælfgifu to seal their loyalty. Swein went on to conquer the whole of England and was accepted as King, but he died in February 1014 after a reign of only five weeks. Æthelred then sent an army which forced Cnut to flee back to Denmark, and in the opinion of historian Ian Howard, he left his wife and their baby son, Svein, the future King of Norway, behind with her family. They were anxious to make their peace with Æthelred, but unwilling to hand Ælfgifu and her son over to Æthelred to be murdered, so they sent the mother and child with King Swein's body to Denmark. There she became pregnant again and in 1015 or 1016 she gave birth to Harold Harefoot.4
In the period immediately following, she may have been given authority over some region of Denmark, perhaps that of a Danish controlled area of the Baltic coastline.5
Her two sons were to figure prominently in the empire which their father built in northern Europe, though not without opposition. After his conquest of England in 1016, Cnut married Emma of Normandy, the widow of King Æthelred. It was then regarded as acceptable to put aside one wife and take another, a practice which might be described as "serial monogamy".6 The status of Cnut's two 'marriages' and their social context in England and Scandinavia has been discussed recently by Timothy Bolton.7 Emma's sons, Edward and Ælfred by Æthelred and Harthacnut by Cnut, were also claimants to the throne of her husband. Exactly how the second marriage affected Ælfgifu's status as Cnut's first consort is unknown, but there is no evidence to suggest that she was repudiated.
Cnut sent Ælfgifu with their eldest son Svein to rule Norway, in 1030. Their rule was, however, so harsh that the Norwegians rebelled against them. They were driven out, in 1034 or 1035, while Svein died of wounds in Denmark shortly after, probably in 1036. In Norway, where she was known as Álfífa in Old Norse, this period entered history as 'Álfífa's time'(Álfífuǫld), remembered for her severe rule and heavy taxation. In the Norwegian Ágrip, for instance, the following verse is attributed to her contemporary, the skald Sigvatr:
- Ælfgyfu’s time
- long will the young man remember,
- when they at home ate ox’s food,
- and like the goats, ate rind;8
Cnut died at Shaftesbury in 1035. Symeon of Durham and Adam of Bremen suggest that Cnut had reserved the English throne for Harold, while the Encomium Emmae Reginae claims that he done so for Harthacnut. In any event, on Cnut's death, Ælfgifu was determined that her second son Harold should be the next English king. She had returned to England (at least) by 1036, while Emma's son Harthacnut was away in Denmark, at war with the Norwegian king Magnus I, and the Swedes under their king Anund Jacob. Emma's other sons, Ælfred and Edward, stayed in Normandy. With help from her supporters, Ælfgifu was able to secure the throne for her son. In the view of Frank Stenton, she was probably the real ruler of England for part, if not the whole, of his reign.9
1035: Here King Cnut died, and his son Harold succeeded to the kingdom. He departed at Shaftesbury on 12 November, and he was conveyed to Winchester, and there buried. And Ælfgifu, the Lady, settled inside there [Winchester]. And Harold said that he was the son of Cnut and the Northampton Ælfgifu – although it was not true. He sent and had taken from her all the best treasures which King Cnut possessed.10
Manuscript E, which is known for its Godwinist sympathies, adds a number of details, including the assembly at Oxford in 1037 at which Harold was elected king of England and the mustering of support north of the Thames, where the power base of Ælfgifu's family was concentrated.
1036 [for 1035]: Here Cnut died at Shaftesbury. and he is buried in Winchester in the Old Minster. [...] And soon after his passing, there was a meeting of all the councillors at Oxford, and Earl Leofric and almost all the thegns north of the Thames, and the men of the fleet in London, chose Harold as regent of all England, for himself and his brother Harthacnut who was in Denmark, And Earl Godwine and all the foremost men in Wessex opposed it just as long as they could, but they could not contrive anything against it. And then it was decided that Ælfgifu, Harthacnut's mother, should settle in Winchester with the king her son's housecarls, and hold all Wessex in hand for him; and Earl Godwine was their most loyal man. Some men said of Harold that he was son of King Cnut and Ælfgifu, daughter of Ealdorman Ælfhelm, but to many men it seemed quite unbelievable; nevertheless he was full king over all England11
During 1036 opinion in England moved towards Harold. By August a report had reached Emma's daughter, Gunnhild, at the German court that her "unhappy and unjust step-mother" (i.e. Ælfgifu) was working to deprive Gunnhild's brother, Harthacnut, of the kingdom by holding great feasts, and trying by argument and gifts to persuade the leading nobles to give their fealty to Harold.12 Emma's encomiast attributes to her even more seriously dishonest methods. He makes Ælfgifu an accomplice in the murder of Emma's youngest son, Alfred, by suggesting that she was responsible for sending a forged letter to Normandy inviting Alfred to England.
Another way in which the legitimacy of Harold's succession was disputed in the wake of the succession crisis was by focusing on his and his brother's parentage. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions how Harold's claim that he was the son of Cnut and Ælfgifu is either distrusted or simply denied. In the Encomium Emmae Reginae it is heard that Harold was secretly a servant's son. John of Worcester heard tales in which the fathers of Svein and Harold were respectively a priest and a shoemaker. Adam of Bremen states that Svein and Harold were sons to Cnut and a concubina (but that Cnut nevertheless reserved England for Harold, Denmark for Harthacnut).13
Ælfgifu fell into obscurity after Harold's death in 1040, and the crowning of Harthacnut, the legitimate heir to Cnut and also the King of Denmark. It is unknown when she died.
+Said to have been a great-granddaughter of Cnut's grandfather Harald Bluetooth, but this was probably a fiction intended to give her a royal bloodline. Gytha was the daughter of Thorgils Spregaleag (last king of Scania (Ohlmarks) & Sigrid. Thorgils was the son of Styrbjorn The Strong (son of Olaf, King of Sweden) & Thyra Haraldsdottir (the daughter of Harald Bluetooth).
- Anglo-Saxon Chronicle MSS C, D and E, 1006. For the earliest reference to Ælfhelm as her father, see citation from the E-version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle below.
- John of Worcester, Chronicon, year 1035.
- See Wulfric's will, Sawyer no. 1536 and for Wulfric as the son of Wulfrun, the charters, Sawyer nos. 877, 886 and 939.
- Ian Howard, Harthacnut: The Last Danish King of England, The History Press, 2008, pp. 13–4. Pauline Stafford, in her Online DNB article on Ælfgifu states only that the marriage took place between 1013 and 1016, but she also states that the marriage was part of Swein's effort to establish himself first in the north Midlands, and as he died in February 1014 it seems likely that the 1013 date is correct.
- Timothy Bolton, 'Ælfgifu of Northampton: Cnut the Great's other woman', Nottingham Medieval Studies LI (2007), pp. 260–261
- Howard, op. cit., p. 15
- Timothy Bolton, 'Ælfgifu of Northampton: Cnut the Great's other woman', Nottingham Medieval Studies LI (2007), pp. 253–258
- M.J. Driscoll (ed. and tr.), Ágrip af Nóregskonungasǫgum, pp. 44–5 (§ 32)
- Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1971, p. 421.
- Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Manuscript D
- Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Manuscript E
- Stevenson (1913), cited in Pauline Stafford, Queen Emma & Queen Edith, Blackwell, 1001, p. 238
- Adam of Bremen, ch 72.
- Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, MSS C, D and E, ed. D. Dumville and S. Keynes, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A Colloborative Edition. Cambridge, 1983; tr. M.J. Swanton, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. 2nd ed. London, 2000.
- Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. and tr. Alistair Campbell, Encomium Emmae Reginae. Cambridge, 1998.
- Letter of Immo, chaplain at the court of Worms, to Bishop Azeko of Worms, preserved in the Lorsch manuscript, Codex Palatinus Latinus 930 (Vatican Library), ed. W. Bulst, Die ältere Wormser Briefsammlung. MGH Epistolae. Die Briefe der deutschen Kaiserzeit 3. Weimar, 1949. 20–2 (no. 5.). Available from the Digital MGH.
- William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum, ed. and tr. R.A.B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, William of Malmesbury. Gesta Regum Anglorum. The History of the English Kings. OMT. 2 vols: vol 1. Oxford, 1998.
- Symeon of Durham, ed. T. Arnold, Symeonis Monachi Opera Omnia. 2 vols. London, 1885.
- John of Worcester, Chronicle (of Chronicles), ed. Benjamin Thorpe, Florentii Wigorniensis monachi chronicon ex chronicis. 2 vols. London, 1848–9.
- Ágrip af Nóregskonungasögum §§ 27, 32, 35, ed. and tr. M.J. Driscoll, Ágrip af Nóregskonungasǫgum. Viking Society for Northern Research Text Series 10. 2nd ed. 2008 (1995). Available online from the Viking Society for Northern Research
- Theodoricus monachus, Historia de Antiquitate Regum Norwagiensium, chapter 21, tr. David and Ian McDougall. The Ancient History of the Norwegian Kings. Viking Society for Northern Research, 1998.
- Legendary Óláfs saga helga ch. 71
- Morkinskinna, ed. Finnur Jónsson. Morkinskinna. Copenhagen: Samfund til udgivelse af gammel nordisk litteratur, 1932.
- Adam of Bremen, Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum.
- The Chronicle of Hugh Candidus
- 'Ælfgifu 1', 'Ælfhelm 17', 'Wulfrun', 'Wulfric 52', Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England.
- Campbell, M.W. "Queen Emma and Ælfgifu of Northampton. Canute the Great's women." Medieval Scandinavia 4 (1971): 60–79.
- Rognoni, L., "Presenza e azione di Ælfgifu di Northampton, regina madre e reggente nell'Impero del Nord di Canuto il Grande (1013–1040)" (in Italian) 
- Stenton, Frank. Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford, 1971. 397–8.
- Stevenson, W.H. "An alleged son of King Harold Harefoot." English Historical Review 28 (1913): 112–7.