Elfrida: England’s First Crowned Queen
Ethelred could not have been more than twelve years old at the time of his accession. He was at least three or four years away from political maturity and some sort of regency was required. Elfrida, as a crowned queen and the young king’s mother, was in the best position to take this role for herself.
There was no precedent for a child king in recent Wessex history. Both Eadwig and Edgar, the only other young kings, were both in their mid- to late teens and appear to have been considered fully fit to rule, as was Edward the Martyr. Ethelred, on the other hand, was certainly not politically mature. No direct details survive concerning the regency arrangements but, although a fiction was maintained that he ruled alone, a regency council would have been in place. Elfrida and Bishop Ethelwold took the main places, as well as seeking to reward their own supporters, such as Ealdorman Elfhere and Elfrida’s brother, Ordulf, who returned to court in the early years of his nephew’s reign.
Although the role of queen mother was invariably powerful, the only known Anglo-Saxon precedent for a queen officially taking the role of regent for a minor is Elfgifu of Northampton, the first wife of Cnut, who was sent to Norway in 1029 to rule on behalf of her young son, Sweyn. Elfgifu acted in her son’s name, but it was clear to all in Norway who was behind the new regime: ‘Elfgifu’s time’ is, even to this day, remembered as a time of oppression and disaster. Clearly, she made her authority felt in Norway, introducing a number of unpopular new laws.
Ethelred’s reign is chiefly remembered for the return of the Vikings to England. These attacks by Scandinavian raiders had largely ceased by the end of the ninth century. In 980 the peace was shattered when a Viking raiding army arrived at Southampton and ravaged the settlement there. It was the start of one of the most devastating periods in English history.
The first Viking attack in 980 was during Elfrida’s period of regency and she must have been informed immediately of the new threat, ordering that the coastal settlements be on their guard against future attacks. The attack quickly proved not be isolated, with a raid on Padstow in 981 and then attacks all along the south coast. The following year Elfrida and the rest of Ethelred’s council were shocked to hear that London, one of the country’s principal settlements, had been burned. In the 980s the raids were still small-scale and sporadic, but they soon increased in scope and ambition.
King Edgar and Queen Elfrida’s choice of the name Ethelred for their second son proved unfortunately prophetic, and the people of late tenth-century England were uncomfortably reminded of the reigns of Alfred the Great and his elder brother, Ethelred I, who were plagued by raiders intent on conquest. In 865, the very year that Ethelred I had succeeded to the throne, a great Viking army landed in England and spent the winter in East Anglia, marking the beginning of an attempt to conquer the kingdom of Wessex. Ethelred I’s namesake, Elfrida’s own son, was similarly plagued with raiders looking to settle in his wealthy and hitherto peaceful kingdom.
The Viking raids continued into the 990s and it became clear that they were there to stay. In 991 ninety-three Viking ships arrived off the coast of England and raided first around Folkestone before travelling on to Sandwich and Ipswich. The sight was terrifying, with the best surviving description of a Viking fleet, in the eleventh-century Encomium Emmae Reginae, declaring that
so great, also, was the ornamentation of the ships, that the eyes of the beholders were dazzled and to those looking from afar they seemed of flame rather than of wood. For if at any time the sun cast the splendour of its rays amongst them, the flashing of arms shone in one place, in another the flame of suspended shields. Gold shone on the prows, silver also flashed on the variously shaped ships. So great, in fact, was the magnificence of the fleet, that if its lord had desired to conquer any people, the ships alone would have terrified the enemy, before the warriors whom they carried joined battle at all. For who could look upon the lions of the foe, terrible with the brightness of gold, who upon the men of metal, menacing with golden face, who upon the dragons burning with pure gold, without feeling any fear for the king of such a force? Furthermore, in this great expedition there was present no slave, no man freed from slavery, no low-born man, no man weakened by age; for all were noble, all strong with the might of mature age, all sufficiently fit for any type of fighting, all of such great fleetness, that they scorned the speed of horsemen.
This description refers to the Viking fleet commanded by Cnut in 1015, but it is likely that the Viking fleets of the late tenth century fitted a similar description. The raids themselves were no less terrifying, where the raiders ‘fell upon a part of the country, seized booty, attacked and destroyed villages, overcame the enemies who met him, captured many of them, and at length returned to his comrades victorious with the spoil’. The violence of such raids and their destructiveness profoundly shocked the people of England, who were used to the peace of Edgar’s reign.
The Vikings focused many of their attacks on the reformed religious establishments, which were, of course, newly wealthy. This was a particular source of grief to Elfrida, who had worked so hard to increase the prosperity of the Church. According to William of Malmesbury, Vikings burst into the church at Malmesbury Abbey, only to find that most of the treasures housed there had already been removed by the monks to safety. The large shrine of St Aldhelm had proved impossible to dismantle, with the monks reasoning that the saint ‘would protect it, if he wished. Alternatively, he could allow himself to become a laughing stock.’ St Aldhem did not wish to become a laughing stock and when a Viking attempted to cut the jewels from the shrine he was knocked down unconscious by the saint. Terrified by this, the Vikings fled, leaving the shrine intact. The Viking attack on Malmesbury shows something of the violence of the raids but, unfortunately, not all raids had quite such a happy ending.
The Viking fleet of 991 took the appearance more of an organised army than a band of opportunistic raiders. It was also comparable in size to the ninth-century Viking Great Army that Alfred the Great had faced and there must have been at least 2,000 Vikings present in Ethelred’s kingdom. While the king and his advisors discussed how to respond, the Viking army entered the Blackwater estuary and took possession of Northey Island. During August 991, an English army, led by Byrhtnoth, Ealdorman of Essex, who was the brother-in-law of Edgar’s stepmother, Ethelflaed of Damerham, arrived at nearby Maldon and gave battle there with the Vikings. This battle caught the imagination of the English and inspired an epic poem praising the valour of Byrhtnoth and his men and, essentially, portraying the English action as a heroic last stand, with the ‘stout-hearted warriors’ standing firm in the face of peril. Byrhtnoth, in particular, was portrayed as a valiant warrior, fighting on even when wounded. Finally, the earl’s hand was smashed to pieces by a Viking blow but he still urged on his troops as he lay dying. The ealdorman’s stand was, however, ultimately in vain and both he and most of his men were killed in an encounter that proved to be an important Viking victory. The poem was also intended as a reproach to Ethelred and his government for their inactivity, with Byrhtnoth referred to as ‘one who intends to save this fatherland, Ethelred’s kingdom’.
After the Viking’s victory at Maldon, the raiding fleet spent four months travelling around southern England, forcing local leaders to buy peace from them.15 Paying the Vikings for peace was an established practise in England, with the intention being that the Vikings would then move on to another place to raid. This policy did not, however, always have the desired effect, as an example from Kent in 864 shows:
In the year of the Lord’s Incarnation 864, the Vikings spent the winter on the Isle of Thanet, and concluded a firm treaty with the men of Kent. The men of Kent undertook to give them money to ensure that the treaty was kept. Meanwhile, however, the Vikings, like crafty foxes, secretly burst out of their camp by night, broke the treaty and, spurning the promise of money (for they knew they could get more money from stolen booty than from peace), laid waste to the entire eastern district of Kent.
In this case, the Vikings did not actually accept the money, instead preferring to plunder it. What the people of late tenth-century England found more often, however, was that the Vikings were quite prepared to take the money but would return, regardless of their promises, soon after, seeking more. In spite of this, Ethelred had resolved to pay the Vikings tribute (or ‘Danegeld’) by the end of 991.
Ethelred is chiefly remembered for his attempts to pay off the Vikings with Danegeld payments and this appears to have been yet another policy on which he was badly advised. He held a number of council meetings at court once word had arrived of the defeat at Maldon. According to William of Malmesbury, a solution was finally suggested by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who suggested ‘that money should repel them whom the sword could not; so a payment of ten thousand pounds satisfied the avarice of the Danes’. Ethelred’s council were demoralised by news of the heavy defeat at Maldon and believed that the Vikings were invincible. The king immediately set about organising a tax to provide funds for the payment, as well as sending an embassy to the Vikings to secure their agreement to leave following a payment of £10,000. Ethelred must have waited anxiously for news that the Vikings had accepted the payment and would have been relieved when the fleet sailed away.
Ethelred’s payment to the Vikings in 991 was not as naive as it may first seem. The king was clearly under no illusions that it would mean the end of the Viking raids. Early the following year, amid reports that a raiding army still remained within England, he ordered a royal fleet to be built in the hope of entrapping his enemy and, perhaps, obtaining a victory on the same scale as Alfred the Great at Edington, a battle that had brought the ninth-century Viking threat to an end. Once again, however, Ethelred found himself less well advised than his great-great-grandfather had been and his plans to defeat the Vikings through a military campaign were betrayed. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 992,
here the king and all his councillors decided that all the ships that were worth anything should be gathered to London town, in order that it should be attempted to entrap the raiding-army somewhere outside. But Ealdorman Aelfric, one of those to whom the king had most trust, ordered the raiding-army to be warned; and on the night before the morning on which they should have come together, this same Aelfric scurried away from the army, and then the raiding-army escaped.
With advisors like Ealdorman Elfric and Archbishop Sigeric, who first suggested the Danegeld, it is no wonder that Ethelred recalled his mother to court in 993. By then, rather than remembering the irksome nature of his minority under Elfrida and Ethelwold, he had probably begun to look back at the early 980s as a time of peace and tranquillity. Elfrida was, by the 990s, elderly for the time. Like the rest of the king’s advisors, she was at a loss as to how to respond to the threat. She was never able to regain the influence that she had previously held.
Ethelred’s attempts to fight the Vikings in 992 had ended in failure due to the treachery of one of his own advisors and that, coupled with the memory of the heavy defeat at Maldon, gave the Vikings a popular reputation for invincibility. When a large Viking fleet arrived in England in 994, the king made no attempt to meet them in battle. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘here Olaf and Swein came to London with ninety-four ships; and determinedly attacked the town, and they also wanted to set it on fire’. The Londoners managed to drive the Vikings away, but they then moved through the country ‘and wrought as much harm as any raiding-army ever could, in all things wherever they travelled’. Ethelred and his council again decided on a tribute, paying the increased sum of £16,000. This time, Ethelred also resolved to meet with the leader, King Olaf of Norway, personally, giving hostages to the Vikings so that Olaf would come to him at Andover. This time his policy met with some success, since the Norwegian king promised, truthfully, never to return in hostility, but this failed to solve the problem since there were always other raiders ready for plunder.
Ethelred must have been concerned about the fact that in 991 he had been able to buy the Vikings off with £10,000, but by 994 this figure had increased to £16,000, an enormous amount of money. By paying the Danegeld, Ethelred inadvertently showed the Vikings the wealth of the country and increased their expectations of reward. The Vikings would accept Ethelred’s tributes when they were offered, but they always returned in greater numbers and the money paid to them always increased. The Danegeld may, therefore, have bought the king some time in which to repair the country after the raids. It was, however, only a short-term remedy and merely encouraged the Vikings to return again, seeking bigger and bigger payment.
In 997, a new raiding army arrived in the West Country. For Elfrida, who owned lands in the area and had been raised there, this must have been a grave concern. The raiders made their way around Devon, plundering anything they found, as well as moving into Cornwall and Wales. This raid became particularly personal to Elfrida when the Vikings made their way up the River Tamar and burnt her brother’s monastery at Tavistock, which he had worked so long to build. Tavistock was the great symbol of Elfrida’s own family’s commitment to reform and its devastation was daunting, with the building lying in ruins for several years.
By the late 990s, it must have been clear to everyone in England that the Viking raids were not simply going to go away and that a more concerted policy was required to defeat them. Ethelred was at a loss as to what exactly he should do and, in 1002, he agreed to pay the Vikings £24,000 ‘on condition they should leave off from their evil deeds’. Once again, this payment shows a huge leap in the amounts that the Vikings expected, and finding the money must have been a source of worry across the kingdom. This payment was followed in 1006 by a further payment of £30,000. Although the Vikings kept on coming, for Ethelred, there must have been some small consolation in the fact that they appeared to be content with raiding and accepting the Danegeld. This changed in 1013, when the purpose of the Viking attacks went suddenly from merely raiding to a campaign of conquest, a disaster for Ethelred and his kingdom that his mother mercifully did not live to see.
Ethelred’s entire reign was dominated by the return of the Vikings and it is on his response to these attacks that his reputation principally lies. On her return to court in 993 Elfrida was elderly, although the fact of the Vikings meant that she could not settle down to a comfortable old age.