Ælfgifu of Northampton

Queen consort of England, Denmark and Norway
Queen regent of Norway
Queen regent of Norway
Reign 1030–35
Born c. 990
Died After 1040
Spouse Cnut the Great
Issue Sweyn Knutsson, King of Norway
Harold Harefoot, King of England
Father Ælfhelm, Ealdorman of York

Ælfgifu of Northampton (c. 990 – after 1036) 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.


Family background

Ælfgifu was born into an important noble family based in the Midlands (Mercia). She was a daughter of Ælfhelm, ealdorman of southern Northumbria, and his wife Wulfrune. Ælfhelm was killed in 1006, probably at the command of King Æthelred the Unready, and Ælfgifu's brothers, Ufegeat and Wulfheah, were blinded. Wulfric Spot, a wealthy nobleman and patron of Burton Abbey, was the brother of Ælfhelm or Wulfrune. The family again came under suspicion during the invasion of England by Swein Forkbeard, King of Denmark, in 1013–14, and further members were charged with treachery and killed.[1]

Marriage to Cnut

When Sweyn invaded, 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.[2]

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.[3]

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".[4] The status of Cnut's two 'marriages' and their social context in England and Scandinavia has been discussed recently by Timothy Bolton.[5] 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.

Regent in Norway (1030–35)

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;[6]

Succession crisis after the death of Cnut (1035)

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, written to defend Harthacnut's mother, Emma, claims that he had done so for Harthacnut. 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.[7]

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (versions C, D and E) describes how Harold and his men forcefully laid claim on the treasury housed in Winchester, where Cnut was buried and Emma had taken up residence:

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.[8]

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 England[9]

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.[10] 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. The Encomium Emmae Reginae also claimed that Harold was a servant's son.

Ælfgifu is not recorded after 1036, apart from a possible reference to her as the "lady", and it is not known when she died.[1]

Family tree


  1. 1 2 Stafford, Ælfgifu
  2. 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.
  3. Timothy Bolton, 'Ælfgifu of Northampton: Cnut the Great's other woman', Nottingham Medieval Studies LI (2007), pp. 260–261
  4. Howard, op. cit., p. 15
  5. Timothy Bolton, 'Ælfgifu of Northampton: Cnut the Great's other woman', Nottingham Medieval Studies LI (2007), pp. 253–258
  6. M.J. Driscoll (ed. and tr.), Ágrip af Nóregskonungasǫgum, pp. 44–5 (§ 32)
  7. Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1971, p. 421.
  8. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Manuscript D
  9. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Manuscript E
  10. Stevenson (1913), cited in Pauline Stafford, Queen Emma & Queen Edith, Blackwell, 1001, p. 238
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 "KINGS OF WESSEX AND ENGLAND 802–1066" (PDF). The official website of The British Monarchy. Retrieved 2015-07-05.

Primary sources

Secondary literature

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