Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ælfgifu (fl.956)

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ÆLFGIFU [Lat. Elgiva] (fl. 956), wife of King Eadwig, has been made the subject of monastic legend, and it should be remembered that she was the enemy of Dunstan, and that her fall marked the triumph of the party which he upheld. Signatures to a charter make it certain that she was the wife of Eadwig, and that her mother's name was Æthelgifu. Her father's name is not known. The ‘Chronicle’ says that Archbishop Oda parted Eadwig and Ælfgifu because they were too near akin. A contemporary ‘Life of Dunstan,’ written some forty years later by a foreigner from Lüttich, who describes himself as B., and attributed, though without good reason, to Brihtferth, speaks of an unlawful connection between the king and Ælfgifu, and makes the monstrous assertion that Æthelgifu encouraged this connection both with herself and her daughter in the hope that Eadwig would marry one or other of them. The writer says that on the day of his coronation, 956, Eadwig left the feast, at which the bishops and nobles of his kingdom were sitting, for the company of these women. Indignant at this insult, Archbishop Oda proposed that he should be brought back, and Dunstan and Bishop Kinesige were sent to seek him. They found the king in the company of Æthelgifu and her daughter with his crown thrown carelessly on the floor. The abbot reproached Æthelgifu, and led the king back to the feast by force. Æthelgifu did not forget the insult. She prevailed on Eadwig to banish Dunstan, and to give her leave to seize his goods. The biographer refers to a belief which he evidently discredits, that she sent messengers to tear out the eyes of the abbot, but that he embarked before they could take him. A ‘Life of St. Oswald,’ written about the same time as the ‘Life of Dunstan’ by B., and copied by Eadmer, says that Eadwig left his lawful wife for Ælfgifu, that Oda used armed force against him, a statement which refers to the insurrection of the Northumbrians and Mercians, and that the archbishop seized the lady and banished her to Ireland. Florence of Worcester repeats both the statement of the ‘Chronicle’ and the account which adds adultery to Eadwig's offence, and makes no decision between them.

The story of Ælfgifu grew rapidly. Æthelgifu figures more prominently in older accounts; by later writers the first place in the story is assigned to her daughter. Osbern in his ‘Life of Dunstan,’ written in the time of Lanfranc, asserts that when the people of the north rose against Eadwig they caught the adulteress at Gloucester, as she fled with the king, that they hamstrung her and so slew her. The same writer, in his ‘Life of Oda,’ says that the archbishop, finding it impossible to keep the king apart from the woman he loved, seized her, carried her from the court, and, having had her branded in the face, sent her to Ireland. After a while she came back with her scars healed, and then the ‘men of the servant of God’ seized her at Gloucester, and put her to death in the way described in the ‘Life of Dunstan.’ This is the latest form of the story. That the young king, who was then probably not more than fifteen years old, should have left the coronation feast for the society of his wife and her mother is natural enough, and the fact that their marriage was uncanonical would give double bitterness to the words with which Dunstan executed his commission.

What the relationship between the king and Ælfgifu was cannot be made out with certainty. Mr. Robertson has suggested with considerable probability that Æthelgifu was foster-mother of Eadwig. This spiritual relationship would render his marriage with her daughter unlawful. No weight need be given to the vile accusations of immorality which the monastic writers make against the boy-king and his wife and her mother. If, as William of Malmesbury believed, Dunstan urged Oda to force the king to repudiate Ælfgifu, her mother had good reason to hate him. Leaving, however, this late statement out of the question, the fact that the abbot was charged by the assembled nobles with the insulting mission which he executed on the day of Eadwig's coronation was enough to insure her evil will; and she was upheld in her designs against Dunstan by enemies within the walls of his own abbey. If we may trust the ‘Life of St. Oswald,’ the banishment of Ælfgifu was connected with the revolt of the north in 958. For the personal cruelties inflicted on her there is not one scrap of evidence, for they are not mentioned until 150 years after they are said to have been practised. Even if they had ever been inflicted on Ælfgifu or Æthelgifu—for the mother and daughter are confounded together—Dunstan could have had nothing to do with them; for they would belong to the period of the war which preceded the election of Eadgar when the abbot was still in exile.

[S. Dunstani Vita, auctore B.; Epistola Adelardi de Vita S. Dunstani; Vita, auctore Osberno; Vita, auctore Eadmero, all in Memorials of St. Dunstan, ed. Dr. Stubbs, Rolls Ser., see Introd.; Osbernus de Vita Odonis; A.S. Chron. sub ann.; Florence of Worcester; Inquiry into the Life of King Eadwig, by J. Allen, 1849; Robertson's Historical Essays, 1872.]

W. H.