Thursday, September 17, 2015

Aelfgifu of Northampton & Emma of Normandy: Strong Women in a Man’s World

by Kelly Evans

History would have us believe that very few women had a part to play in England’s story. Typically women took a back seat, relying on their fathers or brothers to make decisions on their behalf. And while this may be true (it was, after all, a patriarchal society heavily led by the male-dominated church), there have been more and more examples of women’s involvement in traditionally male-led areas of life coming to light. Recent evidence suggests that up to 50% of Viking attackers were women (McLeod, Shane 2011. Warriors and Women: The Sex Ratio of Norse Migrants to Eastern England up to 900 CE. Early Medieval Europe, 19(3)).

In my novel The Northern Queen, I focus on two powerful women who did as much to further their respective causes, and that of England, than most men. The novel’s main character, and to whom the title refers, is Aelfgifu of Northampton. Born around 990 CE to a wealthy and respected northern family, her father’s loyalty to the Danish invaders led to Aelfgifu marrying the son of the Viking leader. From the (very) little we know it was as much a love match as an astute political union.

A panel from the Bayeux Tapestry, showing the mysterious Aelfgifu.
Aelfgifu of Northampton is one of the five potential ‘Aelfgifus’ whom this panel depicts.

At the time of their marriage, Canute’s father Sweyn Forkbeard (grandson of Harald Bluetooth, whose initials comprise the Bluetooth symbol we see everyday) had decided to conquer England, partly as revenge for the death of his sister at the St Brice’s Day massacre in November 1002 (ordered by King Aethelred). Canute fought alongside his father, who eventually won, but died five weeks later.

King Aethelred the Unready,
Emma’s first husband.
Emma was Aethelred’s second wife.
Aethelred, who had fled to his wife Emma’s (our second powerful woman – more later) homeland of Normandy was invited back by the council or ‘Witan’ to rule. Canute fled to Denmark with Aelfgifu to raise money and men and a year later returned to conquer the country, defeating both Aethelred, who died, and his eldest son. But as a ruler of a mainly Christian nation (there were still small pockets of paganism left, mainly in the Danelaw) Canute’s council declared that the king must marry a Christian wife and abandon Aelfgifu, whom he had joined in a traditional pagan hand-fasting ceremony. The woman the Witan selected was Emma of Normandy, Aethelred’s widow.

Born in 985 CE in Normandy, she was sent to England when only a young girl as part of a bargain made between her brother, the Duke of Normandy, and Aethelred the Unready, the King of England. (Side note: the ‘unready’ part of his name doesn’t mean he was unprepared, it’s an Anglo-Saxon play on words meaning that he was ill-advised by his councillors: Aethelraed = well-counselled; Unraed = ill-counselled). Her marriage to a man 20 years her senior sealed a pact that would prevent Danish invaders using the ports of Normandy to prepare their attacks on England.

Emma receiving a book about her life
that she had commissioned
(Encomium Emmae Reginae).
Her sons look on.
Of course, like many political accords of the time, someone reneged and, being close to hand, much of the blame fell on Emma. She was advised to quickly provide Aethelred with sons in order to strengthen her position at court and this she did. But Aethelred had a first wife who gave him at least ten children and the odds of Emma’s boys rising to the throne were slim.

King Canute, Aelfgifu’s only
husband and Emma’s second.

Canute, despite agreeing to the marriage, did not abandon Aelfgifu. Instead he defied the council and gave her responsibility for ruling the north of England on his behalf. He even made her his regent of Norway from 1030 to 1035.

When Canute died in 1035, both Emma and Aelfgifu pushed for their children to be crowned. Emma had had her coronation oath changed to specifically exclude Aelfgifu’s sons by Canute from the throne. This meant nothing to Aelfgifu. Her first son with Canute, Sweyn, had died in 1035. But her second, Harold Harefoot, was ready, and already in England. Emma’s son Harthacanute was not; he had moved to Denmark to protect his father’s homeland from invaders.

Harold Harefoot
While Aelfgifu sent gifts of money and land to powerful men to gain their support for her son Harold’s claim to the throne, Emma sent letters begging Harthacanute to return and take the country. Harthacanute refused, choosing instead to remain in Denmark and leaving Harold the undisputed ruler of England. Harold was still relatively young when he came to the throne, a 20 year old with little military experience, and Aelfgifu effectively ran the country until Harold was able to assume full responsibility.

But Emma did not sit idly by. She invited her sons by her first husband (Aethelred) back from Normandy where they had resided since their father’s death years ago. Sadly the ploy failed, ending in the death of her son Alfred under circumstances still debated today. Emma even tried to discredit Harold Harefoot: in the book she had commissioned about her life, Encomium Emmae Reginae, she accuses Harold of being illegitimate, not in fact the son of “a certain concubine” of Canute (as she referred to Aelfgifu) but “was secretly taken from a servant who was in childbed and put in the chamber of the concubine, who was indisposed.”

The Northern Queen tells the story of these women: their lives, their families and their passion.

Edith of Wessex

My next novel, The Confessor’s Wife, continues the Anglo-Saxon tale with Edith of Wessex, wife of Edward the Confessor and member of the great Godwin family.


Kelly Evans was born in Canada of Scottish extraction but spent much of her life in London, England. She obtained degrees in History and English in Canada and continued her studies in London, focusing on Medieval Europe, landscape archaeology, and the Icelandic Sagas.

Kelly moved back to Canada eight years ago, shortly after which her first short stories were published. The Northern Queen is her first novel. Her work can be found on or via Nordland Publishing
Twitter: @chaucerbabe


  1. I found it interesting that 50% of the Viking attackers were women. Sounds like Game of Thrones! The Israelis have women in their armed forces as did the Japanese Samurai.

  2. A great piece Kelly. I find the lives of both these women fascinating. Will be sharing this!

  3. I'm so glad that authors like you and others are researching how some women lived, giving us a bigger picture of women in history. I also was surprised about the comment of 50% of Viking invaders being women. Huumm, guess we can't trust old Hollywood films to give us history facts. 😄


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.