Historical Women Case Studies
A tongue-in-cheek recreation of the Battle of Clontarf, in which Gormflaith ingen Murchada was an integral figure, at the St Patrick’s Day parade in 2014, the 1000th anniversary of the battle. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
The events catalogued in the history section of this website are primarily focused on the movements of raiding parties and armies and the interactions between rulers that are related to us in our primary sources. From these pages, one might gain the impression that women did not play a particularly prominent role in politics during the Viking Age; however, this could not be further from the truth. One of the most important diplomatic mechanisms in the medieval period was the marriage alliance. Two dynasties that were joined by a marriage alliance would theoretically be uninclined to go to war against one another. As such, the prominent women of the Viking Age often illustrate the close dynastic links between different parts of northern and western Europe in this period.
From our perspective, the system of marriage alliances does not appear to give much agency to the women involved, treating them rather as commodities or bargaining chips. Nevertheless, primary sources do inform us of several women who were able to take advantage of the role that others had defined for them, becoming some of the most powerful players on the Viking Age political scene. Regrettably, our knowledge of powerful female figures of this sort in Scandinavia is somewhat limited due to the general lack of source material from the Viking Age itself. Although the Sagas of Kings tell us about a number of prominent Norwegian and Danish queens (such as Gunnhild, the wife of Erik Bloodaxe and mother of Harald Greycloak), little is known about them beyond the saga accounts. The following case studies focus on women from Britain and Ireland for whom we have reasonable contemporary evidence (even though we may occasionally need to supplement them with later accounts).
Lady of the Mercians (c. 870–918)
The daughter of Alfred the Great, Athelflad was married to Athelred of Mercia at some point in the 880s. Athelred was a key ally of Alfred’s and played an important role in strengthening what remained of Anglo-Saxon England against Viking attacks in the latter part of Alfred’s reign. He took power in Mercia as Alfred’s vassal following the death of King Ceolwulf, whom sources portray as a Viking puppet. Athelred’s health may have begun to decline in first decade of the tenth century, giving Athelflad a prominent role in the running of the Mercia. In 902, for example, we are told that Athelflad granted permission for the Norse who had been expelled from Dublin to settle near Chester. Athelflad fortified Chester itself in around 907, and a Viking attack on the city at around that time failed as a result.
A twelfth-century manuscript depiction of Athelflad of Mercia. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Athelred died in 911, and Athelflad became the de facto ruler of Mercia until her own death in 918. Her rule was marked by the successful fortification of Mercia against the Vikings as well as Athelflad’s own struggles to resist the encroachment of her brother King Edward the Elder, who wished to expand his direct authority in Mercia. Shortly after Athelred’s death, Edward seized London and Oxford, but it is possible that Athelflad accepted this in return for his recognition of her authority in Mercia. Athelflad is credited with establishing ‘burhs’ (fortified towns) at Bridgnorth, Tamworth, Stafford, Warwick, Chirbury, Runcorn, Hereford and Shrewsbury, among other locations. These defences paid off when Viking invasions were repulsed in 914 and 917. In 917, Athelflad’s army also successfully conquered the Danish town of Derby. This was the first of the strongholds of the Danelaw to fall to the expanding Anglo-Saxon kingdom, prior to Edward’s campaign against East Anglia in the same year. Athelflad died in Tamworth in 918 and was buried in Gloucester, which she and Athelred had developed as their capital.
Most of our earliest knowledge about Athelflad comes from a source called the Mercian Register: this is a series of notices that were added to certain version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Chronicle itself is suspiciously silent about Athelflad. It has been suggested that this is because of its West Saxon perspective; Edward the Elder may have not wanted his sister’s authority or role in defending against the Vikings to be recorded, particularly given his own ambitions. Athelflad became a popular figure in the works of later historians, such as William of Malmesbury, who wrote two centuries later. William provides much more detail about Athelflad, but its veracity is hard to ascertain.
Depiction of a figure named ‘Aelfgyva’ on the Bayeux Tapestry. It is unknown who this figure represents, although Alfgifu of Northampton is a possibility. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Alfgifu of Northampton
c. 990–after 1036
Alfgifu of Northampton belonged to a powerful noble family based in Mercia. Her father, Alfhelm, was ealdorman of southern Northumbria but came into conflict with King Athelred the Unready, being killed on the king’s orders in 1006. The family sided with Sven Forkbeard during the Danish invasion of 1013 and Alfgifu was married to Sven’s son Knut to seal the alliance. In 1014, following Sven Forkbeard’s death, Alfgifu and her new-born son Sven fled to Denmark. There, Alfgifu gave birth to a second son, Harold. In 1016, Knut returned to England and was ultimately accepted as king, cementing his power by marrying Athelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy. What this situation meant for Alfgifu is unclear: Knut does not seem to have repudiated their marriage, but a plural marriage would not have been acceptable to the Anglo-Saxon church establishment. It is possible that Alfgifu was regarded as Knut’s wife in Denmark, where she resided, and was conveniently ignored by the Anglo-Saxons.
In 1028, Knut gained control of Norway following the expulsion of Olaf Haraldsson. Following the death of Jarl Hakon Eriksson, Knut’s designated regent, by 1030 and Olaf Haraldsson’s defeat at Stiklestad in the same year, Knut appointed his son Sven to be regent of Norway. Alfgifu accompanied the young king to Norway and seems to have wielded a great deal of authority along with her son, acting as the power behind the throne. Sven and Alfgifu ruled Norway for five years and were not remembered fondly by Norwegian and Icelandic historians. Their reputation was for introducing unfair taxation and giving preferential treatment to Danes. It is likely that Alfgifu attempted to impose a more English style of centralised government on the Norwegians which, following Olaf’s unpopular attempts at centralisation, did not get a warm reception. The two were driven out by the return of Magnus the Good in 1035—the same year that Knut died. By 1036, Sven was also dead and Alfgifu had returned to England to lobby for the succession of her younger son, Harold Harefoot. Harold was accepted as king and, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Alfgifu was granted control of Wessex with Earl Godwin, the father of Harold Godwinsson, as her right hand. After 1036, Alfgifu vanishes from the historical record.
Alfgifu’s life was divided between England and Scandinavia. As a result, each part of her life is dealt with by different sources. Contemporary information about her family and early life comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, with further details coming from later sources, such as William of Malmesbury. Alfgifu also features prominently in the Encomium Emmae Reginae (the Eulogy of Queen Emma) but is portrayed less than favourably. She is depicted as Emma’s duplicitous rival and implicated in the murder of Emma’s son Alfred. Contemporary sources are more silent about Alfgifu’s time in Norway: for details, we must turn to sagas such as Heimskringla. Here again, the portrayal of Alfgifu is less than flattering, depicting her as a tyrant who is unwilling to acknowledge the sanctity of St Olaf.
Emma of Normandy
Emma of Normandy was born into the ruling dynasty of the Duchy of Normandy. As a result, she had Norse heritage, being a direct descendant of Rollo of Normandy. Born in c. 985, she was married to the English king Athelred the Unready in 1002. She was his second wife, the first being Alfgifu of York (not to be confused with Alfgifu of Northampton). 1002 was the year in which Athelred ordered the St Brice’s Day Massacre and marks the beginning of the escalation of Danish aggression which resulted in the invasion of 1013. After marrying Athelred, Emma also went by the name Alfgifu in official English documents. In around 1003, Emma gave birth to a son who was named Edward. In 1013, following Sven Forkbeard’s invasion, Emma and Athelred fled to Normandy with their children before returning after Sven’s death in 1014. After Athelred’s death in 1016, Emma fought to get her son Edward accepted as the king’s successor, opposing the claim of Edmund Ironside, the eldest of Athelred’s sons by Alfgifu of York. Edmund was ultimately successful but died a few months later. Emma maintained Anglo-Saxon control of London, until eventually a marriage was arranged between herself and the incoming King Knut. It is possible that Emma entered into this marriage to ensure the protection of her sons by Athelred, as they were rival claimants for the English throne. This was a wise move, as Knut later executed Eadwig, the last surviving son from Athelred’s first marriage.
A depiction of Knut and his queen in a manuscript from 1031. The woman is labelled as ‘Aelfgyfu’ but is likely to be Emma of Normandy (who was referred to as Alfgifu in Old English documents). The image reflects Knut and Emma’s wish to portray themselves as model Christian rulers. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Emma’s sons, including Edward, were sent abroad to Normandy. Edward remained there until 1041. Emma bore Knut a son named Harthaknut. Emma’s marriage to Knut granted his reign legitimacy and it is clear that the two presented themselves as model Christian rulers, donating generously to religious foundations. According to one source for Emma’s life, the Encomium Emmae Reginae, Emma persuaded Knut to favour her offspring over the children of Alfgifu of Northampton (although in the event Knut was succeeded by Alfgifu’s son Harold). Emma played an influential role during the reigns of her two sons, Harthaknut and Edward the Confessor, until her death in 1052. Besides being a powerful figure in her own right, Emma was hugely important for the course of English history after her death: she brought Normandy and England into a close political relationship that her son Edward developed even further. Having lived for 25 years in Normandy, Edward must have identified far more with his maternal Norman roots than his English ones, which may explain his decision to promise the throne to his cousin, William the Conqueror.
The primary source for Emma’s life is the aforementioned Encomium Emmae Reginae, which was begun in 1040s: before Emma’s death. It provides a great deal of detail about Emma but is also a valuable source of information about Sven Forkbeard and Knut. The document does not make a pretence at being even-handed: its aim is to praise Emma and to denigrate her rivals. Nevertheless, this motivation is easy to identify and work around and it is generally thought that the Encomium contains a lot of valuable information. Besides this, as the queen to two kings and queen mother to two others over a total of 45 years, Emma was frequently referred to in contemporary annals and documentary sources, allowing us to build up a clear picture of her.
Another photograph, like the header image, of the tongue-in-cheek recreation of the Battle of Clontarf at the St Patrick’s Day parade in 2014, the 1000th anniversary of the battle. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Gormflaith ingen Murchada
Of the women on this list, the least is known about Gormflaith ingen Murchada from contemporary sources, despite the fact that she features in post-Viking Age sources from both the Insular and Norse world. Nevertheless, even contemporary references to Gormflaith’s life highlight the importance of dynastic marriages in the shifting political landscape of late-tenth- and eleventh-century Ireland. Herself belonging to the ruling dynasty of Leinster, Gormflaith was married three times in her life to members of three of the most powerful ruling families of Ireland. Two of her husbands would be regarded as High Kings of Ireland.
Gormflaith was born in around 960 and was the daughter of King Murchad of Leinster. In 969, Murchad allied with the ruler of Dublin, Olaf Cuaran, to attack Kells. Gormflaith was married to Olaf at some point in the 970s, at what must have been a very young age. She soon gave birth to a son named Sihtric, who became ruler of Dublin in around 995 with the support of Gormflaith’s brother and Mael Morda. Sihtric later returned the favour, helping to install Mael Morda as king of Leinster. The alliance, forged initially by Gormflaith’s marriage to Olaf, continued until 1014, when Mael Morda was killed fighting alongside his nephew at the Battle of Clontarf. Yet their enemy at this battle was High King Brian Boru—the second of Gormflaith’s husbands. The marriage is likely to have taken place in the 980s, when Brian, as king of Munster, attempted to expand his influence in Leinster. This alliance was less successful, however, as Brian came into conflict with Leinster again in 991, 996 and 999. Following Brian’s death at Clontarf, his son with Gormflaith, Donnchadh, succeeded him as king of Munster. In the subsequent power vacuum, the title of High Kingship was claimed by its previous holder, King Mael Sechnaill of Meath. It seems that Mael Sechnaill also claimed the hand of Gormflaith. This third marriage produced a son named Conchobar.
Little more is known of Gormflaith from her lifetime, but post-Viking Age sources give her a key role in sowing the seeds for the Battle of Clontarf. In Irish versions of the tale, Gormflaith is said to have shamed her brother, Mael Morda, for accepting gifts from her husband, Brian Boru. Despite having a son who is an heir to the kingdom of Munster, Gormflaith is portrayed as having loyalty primarily to Leinster. In the Icelandic Saga of Burnt Njall, conversely, Gormflaith urges her son Sihtric to bring about Brian’s death and is instrumental in manipulating the events that bring about the Battle of Clontarf.
The only contemporary record of Gormflaith’s life comes from the Irish annals, which record her death in 1030 and list her marriages and offspring. Of these marriages, the union with Mael Sechnaill has the least corroborative evidence to support it. Far more detail about Gormflaith’s life is to be found in sources composed after the Viking Age. The most well-known portrayal is in the early twelfth-century text known as Cogadh Gaedhil re Ghallaibh (the War of the Irish with Foreigners), which shows her taunting her brother Mael Morda. However, she is not attributed any specific blame in bringing about the Battle of Clontarf in this account. Subsequent retellings cast her as a far more duplicitous individual, which is the impression given by the Saga of Burnt Njall, which was compiled in the thirteenth century.