Ælfgifu of Northampton (c. 990 – after 1040) was an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who became the first consort of King Cnut of England and Denmark, and mother of King Harold I of England (1035–1040). She served as regent of Norway from 1030 to 1035. She is not to be confused with her rival Emma of Normandy, whose name could be rendered as Ælfgifu in Old English, nor with King Ætehlred's first wife, Ælfgifu of York.
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. 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. 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. her cognomen of Northampton 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 x 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-)980's and (mid-)990's.
In 1013 Swein Forkbeard (Sven Tveskæg),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, leaving his wife and their baby son,Svein (Svend Alfifasen) 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 (Harald Harefod).
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 which might be described as "serial monogamy".Emma's sons, Edward and Ælfred by Æthelred and Harthacnut (Hardicanute) 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 (Sigvard:
- Ælfgyfu’s time
- long will the young man remember,
- when they at home ate ox’s food,
- and like the goats, ate rind.
- 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. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (versions C, D and E) describes how Harold and his men forcefully laid claim on the treasury house in Winchester, where Cnut was buried and Emma had taken up residence: That Ælfgifu was such a key figure in these political machinations is spelled out in messages which reached the German court. Immo, a chaplain and cathedral canon at the court of Worms, reported to the bishop of Worms that Anglo-Saxon messengers (legati Anglorum) had come to Worms and there informed Gunhild, daughter of Cnut and Emma, about the latest developments.
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:
- Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Harold's claim that he was the son of Cnut and Ælfgifu is either distrusted or simply denied.
- Encomium Emmae Reginae: 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).
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.
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