FEMALE Ælfgifu (?)

Wife of Æthelred II the Unready, king of England.

The first wife of king Æthelred II, mother among others of Eadmund Ironside, has no clear historical identity. Even her name is uncertain, and accounts of her parentage are contradictory. There is also a possibility that the elder children of Æthelred were by more than one earlier wife [Freeman (1870-9), 1: 688; Stafford (1997), 72, 85; Williams (2003), 25 & n. 35 (p. 170)]. Among medieval authors who give her name are John of Worcester, who calls her Ælfgifu ["Ælfgiva" John Worc., 1: 275, see further below], and Ranulph Higden, who calls her Æthelgifu ["Ethelgiva" Higden, vi, 13 (vol. 7, p. 42), see further below]. See the more detailed discussion in the Commentary section.

Date of birth: Unknown.
Place of birth:

Date of death: Unknown.
Place of death: Unknown.

Father: Unknown.
See the Commentary section.

Mother: Unknown.

Spouse: Æthelred II "the Unready", d. 23 April 1016, king of England, 978×9-1013, 1014-6.

(Perhaps by more than one wife of Æthelred II. Most of these children have no mother explicitly attributed to them in the sources. See the Commentary section and the page of Æthelred II for further details.)

MALE Æthelstan, living 1012, d. 1012×6.

MALE Ecgbeorht, living 1005, prob. d. bef. 1007.

MALE Eadmund "Ironside", d. 30 November 1016, king of England, 1016;
m. ca. August 1015,

MALE Eadred, living 1012, prob. d. bef. 1014.

MALE Eadwig, d. 1017, bur. Tavistock.

MALE Eadgar, living 1008, prob. d. soon after.

FEMALE Eadgyth;
m. Eadric Streona, d. 25 December 1017, earl of Mercia.
(conjectured to have m. (2) Thurkill, living 1023, earl of East Anglia, viceroy of Denmark)

FEMALE Ælfgifu;
m. Uhtred, d. 1016, earl of Northumbria.

FEMALE Wulfhild (possible daughter);
m. Ulfcytel Snilling, d. 1016, ealdorman of East Anglia.

m. Æthelstan, regis gener, d. 5 or 18 May 1010.


No single source gives Æthelred II more than one wife prior to his marriage with Emma of Normandy. Thus, it remains uncertain whether the uncertain sources are giving Æthelred two different wives prior to Emma, or just offering different statements regarding the parentage of a single wife. In any case, the sources provide two different fathers-in-law for Æthelred (with a third candidate being most likely a textual corruption):

Supposed father (uncertain): Thored (Torethus, Thoretus), fl. 979-992, earl of Deira.
Ailred of Rievaulx states that the mother of Eadmund Ironside was a daughter (name not given) of the most noble comes Thored ["Tunc rex [Edelredus] missis in Normanniam nuntiis Emmam filiam Richardi ducis sibi in uxorem dari et petiit, et accepit, cum jam de filia Torethi nobilissimi comitis filium suscepisset Edmundum." Ailred, Genealogia Regum Anglorum, PL 195: 730; "Cum igitur gloriosus rex Ethelredus ex filia præclarissimi comitis Thoreti filium suscepisset Eadmundum, cognomento Ferreum latus, ..." Ailred, Vita S. Edwardi Regis, PL 195: 741]. Ailred's Thored can be identified with the dux Thored who appears in charters of Æthelred II dated 979 ["Ðoreð dux" Codex Dipl. Sax. 3: 171 (#621)], 983 ["Ðuræð dux" ibid., 3: 198 (#639); "Ðorod dux" ibid., 6: 113 (#1279); "Ðureð dux" ibid., 6: 115 (#1280)], 984 ["Ðureð dux" ibid., 6: 118 (#1282)], 985 ["Ðured dux" ibid., 6: 121 (#1283)], and 988 ["Ðureð dux" ibid., 3: 237 (#663)]. His last known appearance is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 992, where he is listed as one of those to whom the king entrusted the army in that year ["Þorode eorl" ASC(E) s.a. 992]. Earl Thored has sometimes been identified with the Thored son of Gunner who ravaged Westmorland in 966 ["Her Þored Gunneres sunu forhergode West moringa land." ASC(E) s.a. 966], but it has also been suggested by Whitelock [Whitelock (1959), 78-9] that he was the Thorth son of earl Oslac who appears in the Liber Eliensis ["Thorð nomine, Oslaci comitis filius" Liber Eliensis ii, 32 (p. 106)]. [For more on Thored, see Freeman (1870-9), 1: 661; Whitelock (1959), 78-80]

Supposed father (uncertain): Æthelbeorht (Ægelbertus), comes, fl. 981?
["... in regnum successit frater suus Ægelredus. Hic ex Ælfgiva, comitis Ægelberhti filia, III. filios habuit, Eadmundum, Eadwinum, et Æthelstanum, ac Eadgitham filiam; ..." John Worc., 1: 275] He may be the dux Æðelbriht who witnesses a supposed charter of 981 [Codex Dipl. Sax. 3: 184 (#629), listed as doubtful by Kemble; listed as authentic by Finberg; see Sawyer (1968), 262-3 (#838)].

Supposed father (almost certainly an error): Ecgbeorht (Egbertus), comes.
Ranulph Higden calls Æthelred's first wife Æthelgifu (Ethelgiva), and makes her father a count Ecgbeorht ["Hic quoque ex Ethelgiva filia Egberti comitis genuit Edmundum, cognomento Ferreum latus, Edwynum, Ethelstanum, et filiam Edgivam; ..." Higden, vi, 13 (vol. 7, p. 42)]. As these are almost certainly corruptions of the names given by John of Worcester, there is no need to consider this possibility further.

Since Eadmund Ironside is given different maternal grandfathers by Ailred of Rievaulx and John of Worcester, assuming that we are dealing with two different wives of Æthelred does not reconcile the statements. One of the two authors must be at least partially incorrect. Authors have tended to give precedence to Ailred's claim that Æthelred's wife was a daughter of Thored. This is no doubt partly due to the fact that Thored is a clearly identifiable character, especially compared to John of Worcester's totally obscure Æthelbeorht.

However, there have been suggestions that Ailred and John were referring to two different wives of Æthelred. Based on the witness list of a doubtful charter [Codex. Dipl. Sax. 3: 204 (#643)], Freeman stated that the sons listed looked like the children of more than one wife [Freeman (1870-9), 1: 688]. Without fully endorsing two earlier marriages, Stafford states that Æthelred had a first marriage in 984×5 and possibly a second ca. 990 [Stafford (1997), 72; see ibid., 91, n. 116]. She divides Æthelred's six eldest sons into two groups, with Æthelstan and Ecgbeorht in the first group and the other four in the second group, saying that these two groups "lend some credence to the idea that Æthelred had married twice before 1002." [ibid., 85] According to Stafford, Æthelstan and Ecgbeorht "belonged to a marriage designed to cement Northern alliances in the mid 980's" [ibid., 85]. Williams states that Æthelred may have been married first to the daughter of Thored and then to Ælfgifu, but also says that "there is no need to multiply royal wives without good reason." [Williams (2003), 25]

Given the slenderness of the evidence, it seems best to reserve judgement about whether Æthelred had one or two wives prior to 1002. The name(s) of her (or their) father(s) thus remain uncertain.

Falsely attributed name: Ælfflæd.
Lappenberg gives this name for Æthelred's first wife based on a reading from Adam of Bremen ["Schol. ad Adam. Brem. ii. 37, has probably under the corrupt reading 'Afficud' (al. affiluit) concealed the name of Ælflæd" Lappenberg (1834-81), 2: 201 n. 1]. The reference does not appear under that chapter in the MGH edition of Adam, but in Book 2, chapter 51, scholia 39, we have the reading Afelrud with variants Affilrud, Affiluid, Affikud. ["Edgar, potentissimus rex Anglorum, a legitima filium habuit Edwardum, virum sanctissimum. Cuius noverca Afelrud fuit, quae regem privignum occidens, filium suum eundem in regem posuit." Adam of Bemen, ii, 51, schol. 39, MGH SS 7: 324]. As this refers to Æthelred's mother, and not his wife, we can set aside this reference.

Falsely attributed identification: Ælfgifu, will 966×975 (wrongly dated 1012).
The will of a certain Ælfgifu has been edited by Kemble [Codex Dipl. Sax. 3: 359 (#721)], by Thorpe [Thorpe (1865), 552-5], and by Whitelock [Whitelock (1930), 20-3 (#8)]. Both Kemble and Thorpe dated the will to 1012, apparently identifying the bishop Aþelwold of the will with bishop Æthelweald II of Winchester (1006-1012×4). Kemble calls the testator "Queen" without identifying her husband, and Freeman states that the will "reads to me like the will of a King's wife" [Freeman (1870-9), 1: 687]. The only individuals whose relationship is given are the testator's mother (not named), her sister Ælfwaru, and her brother's wife Æthelflæd. Based on references to this Ælfgifu in the Liber Eliensis, Whitelock dates the will 966×975, and states that "[t]here is no evidence for the assumption that she is a queen." [Whitelock (1930), 118] The bishop mentioned in the will is in fact Æthelweald I of Winchester (963-984). Whitelock also suggests that the testator might have been a sister of the chronicler Æthelweard [ibid., 118-9].

Falsely attributed identification: Æthelflæd (Ægelfled), will 1004×14.
The will of Æthelflæd has been edited by Kemble [Codex Dipl. Sax. 4: 304 (#972)], by Thorpe [Thorpe (1865), 542-3], and by Whitelock [Whitelock (1930), 67 (#22)]. Kemble did not date the will, nor did he identify the testator as a queen. Thorpe dated the will in 1000, and identified "Æthelflæd" as the first wife of Æthelred II, but this was evidently based on Lappenberg's mistaken identification of Æthelred's queen as being named Ælfflæd [see above]. Whitelock dates the will to probably 1004×14, and also points out Thorpe's error [Whitelock (1930), 175-6].


ASC = Charles Plummer, Two of the Saxon Chronicles parallel, based on the earlier edition by John Earle, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1892-9). ASC(A) indicates the "A" manuscript of the chronicle, and similarly for the other manuscripts.

Codex Dipl. Sax. = John M. Kemble, ed., Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici, 6 vols. (London, 1839-48).

Freeman (1870-9) = Edward A. Freeman, The History of the Norman Conquest of England (5 vols. + index vol., Oxford, 1870-9).

Higden = Churchill Babington (vols. 1-2) and Joseph Rawson Lumby (vols. 3-9), eds., Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden Monachi Cestrensis, 9 vols. (Rolls Series 41, London, 1865-86).

John Worc. = Benjamin Thorpe, ed., Florentii Wigorniensis monachi chronicon ex chronicis, 2 vols., (London, 1848-9). (The work formerly attributed to Florence of Worcester is now generally attributed to John of Worcester.)

Lappenberg (1834-1881) = J. M. Lappenberg, A History of England under the Anglo-Saxon Kings (translated by Benjamin Thorpe, new edition by E. C. Otté), 2 vols. (London, 1881, orig. pub. 1834).

Liber Eliensis = E. O. Blake, Liber Eliensis (Camden 3rd. ser. 92, London, 1962).

MGH SS = Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores series.

PL = P. Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus, series Latina, 221 vols. (Paris, 1844-1859).

Sawyer (1968) = P. H. Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters. An Annotated List and Bibliography (London, 1968).

Stafford (1997) = Pauline Stafford, Queen Emma and Queen Edith (Bodmin, Cornwall, 1997).

Thorpe (1865) = Benjamin Thorpe, ed., Diplomatarium Anglicum Ævi Saxonici (London, 1865).

Whitelock (1930) = Dorothy Whitelock, ed. & trans., Anglo-Saxon Wills (Cambridge, 1930).

Whitelock (1959) = Dorothy Whitelock, "The Dealings of the Kings of England with Northumbria in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries", in Peter Clemoes, ed., The Anglo-Saxons - Studies in some Aspects of their History and Culture presented to Bruce Dickins (London, 1959).

Williams (2003) = Ann Williams, Æthelred the Unready - The Ill-Counselled King (London & New York, 2003).

Compiled by Stewart Baldwin

First uploaded 20 June 2010.

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