Thursday, April 19, 2012

Women at Sea: Scourge of the Vikings

In the great era of Viking piracy which today we tend to think of as “The Dark Ages”, the British Isles were a favorite spot for Norsemen to spend some time raiding, pillaging and generally making mayhem. It’s a rare occasion when the tables were turned, and today’s oft-forgotten piece of history is made even rarer for the fact that it was a woman who turned those proverbial tables.

The woman in question is known by the tongue-twisting name of Aelfgifu of Northampton or, less frequently, Northumberland. She was born some time in the late 10th century – most scholars put her birth date around 990 – to a wealthy and powerful Saxon family. She grew up in privilege and was probably taught to do more than the usual castle management. Her father, Aelfhelm, was a tribal chief who was eventually slaughtered by a rival clan who was probably either of Viking lineage or in league with the marauding denizens of Swein Forkbeard, the high chief of the Danes.

One version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle written after Aelfgifu’s death says that she had three brothers who were either killed or blinded in the same conquest. Either way, Aelfgifu lost a good deal of personal status and doubtless her marriage prospects – at least locally – fell.

Enter Swein Forkbeard, who swooped in some time around 1013 and claimed all of Northern England. This included the territory which had once been Aelfhelm’s. Along with Swein, or perhaps even in his stead, was his son Cnut. Now remembered in English history as King Canute, Cnut was a strapping warrior who may very well have had an eye for the ladies. Vikings being notoriously fond of girls from the British Isles, it should come as no surprise that Cnut took Aelfgifu as something akin to a wife. What her exact status was in his household remains debatable to this day, but we’ll discuss that further in a bit.

The two seem to have settled in amicably while Swein went on to become high chief in England. His seemingly sudden death in February of 1014 created a point of tension both historically and personally for Cnut and Aelfgifu. Aethelred, later known as the Unready, showed up from the south claiming that Cnut had no rights in England, and he brought the military strength to back up his bluster.

Cnut was forced to flee to Denmark, leaving Aelfgifu and their infant son Swein in England. The setback was only temporary, however; by the spring of 1016 Cnut had reclaimed England and the unfortunate Aethelred the Unready was dead. At this point, Aelfgifu was living in Denmark and pregnant once again, so it may have come as a bit of a shock that her “husband” officially married Aethelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, later that year.

As Timothy Bolten, in his 2007 paper on Aelfgifu, points out the new family arrangement was problematic in the extreme. Though Cnut’s official marriage to Emma (who is called Aelfgifu in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles) made his claim to England’s throne more legitimate, it created a potential firestorm of family feuding upon his death. Not only did his sons by Aelfgifu of Northampton, Swein and newly born Harold Harefoot, have claim to England so too did Emma’s sons by Aethelred, Alfred and Edward. To make things even more confusing, Emma would later bare Cnut’s son Harthacnut.

At some point before 1020, Aelfgifu returned to England to live in Cnut’s household along with her children, his “official” wife and queen, and Emma’s children as well. Of course the idea of multiple wives and concubinage was less eyebrow-raising in 1020 than it would be now, but the atmosphere even in this Saxon palace must have been remarkably tense. It may be telling that in 1030 Cnut declared his son Swein King of Norway and named the boy’s mother as his protector and regent, shipping them both off in a flotilla of long boats to the Viking heartland.

She immediately set up a lavish court on the North Sea and began a virtual reign of terror on her son’s people. She raised taxes to a back breaking level, possibly as high as 80% of income per household, and sent military forces to collect on the unpaid portions. The 5 year period of her tyranny was so memorable that it remains recorded in Norse poetry as a time when men “ate ox’s food” and chewed on rinds “like goats.” Ultimate power may corrupt ultimately but one has to wonder if the old adage about a woman scorned isn’t more appropriate in Aelfgifu’s case.

The Viking people were not accustomed to being bullied, and they rose up in 1035 to chase Aelfgifu and the unfortunate Swein, who died of a battle wound, out of Norway. Banished to Denmark and now alone in the world, Aelfgifu was informed that Cnut was also dead. She hurried back to England and strove with all her underhanded might to set her son Harold on the throne. She managed to succeed for a brief two years but as clever and ruthless as Aelfgifu may have been, she had met her match in Emma of Normandy.

The Queen of England began a smear campaign against her hated rival so thorough and lasting that it is passed off as history to this day. The so called Encomium Emma has come down to us as the Queen’s biography. In this contemporary document, doubtless written with Emma’s guidance, Aelfgifu is dismissed as a deceptive harlot who never really married Cnut. Not only that but both of her sons were neither Cnut’s nor hers. She schemed to have lower-class infants brought into her home when she and Cnut were apart and passed them off as both his and hers.

Emma’s son Edward, known as the Confessor, went on to seize the throne of England and Aelfgifu, the determined, powerful and ruthless first wife of King Canute, disappeared into the fog of history. All the same, the Norse remember “Aelfgifu’s time” when a Saxon woman brought them to heel.

Header: Emma of Normandy and her sons, illustration from a manuscript c 1100


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Well you can't really blame her for trying. She sounds like a tough and fairly shrewd lady.

I will also say that when I tried to pronounce Aelfgifu, I had the urge to follow it with "gesundheit"...


Pauline said...

She was, despite her - to modern ears - unfortunate name. Don't name your daughter Aelfgifu, girls.

I did like Undine's appropriate assessment of the Aelfgigu/Emma/Cnut triangle which she put in high '80s terms: they were like "Dynasty's" Alexis/Krystle/Blake. Well put.