Elfrida: The First Crowned Queen of England by Elizabeth Norton (Review)

At the heart of Elizabeth Norton’s latest royal biography, Elfrida: The First Crowned Queen of England is a murder mystery that is more than one thousand years old. In 978, the teenaged King Edward of Saxon England was killed while visiting his stepmother Elfrida (Ælfthryth) and younger half-brother, Aethelred at Corfe Castle, The horrified author of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle wrote, “No worse deed for the English race was done than this was, since they first sought out the land of Britain. Men murdered him, but God exalted him. In life he was an earthly king; after death he is now a heavenly saint. His earthly relatives would not avenge him, but his Heavenly Father has much avenged him.” The murdered King went down in history as Edward the Martyr and his brother succeeded him as Aethelred the Unready.

While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stated only that Edward’s relatives “would not avenge him,” subsequent writers blamed Elfrida for the young King’s death. In subsequent chronicles, Elfrida was the quintessential wicked stepmother, willing to do anything to ensure her own son became King. In Elfrida: The First Crowned Queen of England, Elizabeth Norton, author of numerous other books about royal women including She Wolves: The Notorious Queens of Medieval England and The Boleyn Women, provides the first full biography of the controversial queen, revealing the full extent of her influence over 10th century England and evidence pointing to what really happened at Corfe Castle in 978.

The wives of Saxon KIngs receive little attention in English history books because at first glance, they appear to have been comparatively powerless. Only Elfrida’s daughter-in-law, Queen Emma, the wife of Aethelred the Unready and Canute, the mother of Edward the Confessor and the great-aunt of William the Conqueror has been the subject of a popular biography of her own, Queen Emma And The Vikings. The word “Queen” comes from the Old English word for “wife” rather than “King” and most consorts of Saxon Kings were simply called “Lady.”

Alfred the Great’s biographer and contemporary Asser wrote that Saxon England did not have influential queens “on account of a certain grasping and wicked queen of the same people, who did everything she could against her lord and the whole people, so that not only did she earn hatred for herself, leading to her expulsion from the queen’s throne, but she also brought the same foul stigma on all the queens who came after her. For as a result of her great wickedness, all the inhabitants of the land swore that they would never permit any King to reign over them who had during his lifetime invited the queen to sit beside him on the royal throne.”

Norton provides a vivid account of how Elfrida defied all these expectations for the wives of Saxon kings. She was crowned alongside her second husband, King Edgar the Peaceable at his Imperial coronation at Bath Abbey in 973, setting a precedent for future queens consort to follow. As Queen, Elfrida became a leader of tenth century religious reform. While Edgar directed his attention to ensuring the monasteries followed the rule of St. Benedict, Elfrida took charge of the convents, receiving both praise and criticism for her leadership. After Edgar’s sudden death, Elfrida championed her son Aethelred’s succession prospects over Edward’s claim. The death of Edward the Martyr allowed Elfrida to become regent until her son declared his independence by challenging her political preeminence and her program of religious reform.

The strongest sections of the book cover Elfrida’s life as crowned queen then regent for Ethelred. The early chapters of the book are slower as little is known about Elfrida’s childhood or her relationship with her first husband. The book would also be improved by the inclusion of a family tree and/or a cast of characters as there are numerous prominent figures with similar names and complicated genealogies. For example, “According to the Life of St. Wulfhild, in the early 960s an aunt of both Wulfhild and Wulfthryth, named Wenflaed, was living at Wherwell.” Nevertheless, Norton demonstrates how Elfrida stood out from both her contemporaries and the previous wives of Saxon kings as a political player and religious reformer in the 10th century. Elfrida: The First Crowned Queen of England rescues a key historical figure from obscurity and provides a possible solution to a thousand year old murder mystery.

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