It’s the early eleventh century, tensions are high between Danes and Anglo-Saxons, with suspicion and brutal fighting on both sides. Christianity and Paganism have locked horns and the inhabitants of England are caught between the two warring religions. Some still cling to the old ways, hesitant to accept the new, strange religion foisting itself into their lives. Others are quick to abandon the old religion for one that will curry favour with the new powerful Christian elite spreading across the isle. A young English woman caught in the midst of this turbulent time of transition recounts her life and tells the story of the reign of Cnut from a woman’s perspective.
Kelly Evans’Anglo-Saxon novel centres around the story of Aelfgifu of Northampton (990-1040); from her rise in court and eventual marriage to one of England’s most famous early kings, Cnut the Great (995-1035), to her repudiation, and later life with her sons after Cnut’s passing. The book is a fictional account of the struggles she experienced trying to rule in Cnut’s stead, the tensions between the two cultures (Danish and English), and her ongoing rivalry with Queen Emma of Normandy (985-1052).
Aelfgifu’s lived during a difficult time; Christianity was taking hold and becoming the dominant religion in England but old Pagan beliefs still held sway. She had to maintain a balance between the two factions while managing the political interests of Cnut’s Christian and Pagan subjects. She also lived during the time of the infamous St. Brice’s Day Massacre. On November 13, 1002 , Danes were slaughtered at the behest of Aethelred ‘The Unready’ (968-1016) in retaliation for a series of ongoing raids by Danes from 997-1001. At the time of Cnut’s rise to the throne, the events were still fresh in the minds of many Danes living in England and hostilities ran high between the two groups.
Aelfgifu had this situation on her hands, as well as the humiliating experience of being cast aside by Cnut for a political alliance with Emma, since his marriage to a practicing Pagan was frowned upon by high ranking Christian clergy and court officials. Cnut reluctantly married Emma, although it appears he carried on being married to Aelfgifu and that the second marriage was only a political one to appease the Church and make him palatable to the Christian populace.
What do we know about Aelfgifu? Sadly, relatively little is known about her, with most people focusing on her rival, Emma of Normandy. What we do know is that Aelfgifu hailed from an aristocratic Mercian family; and her father had close ties to King Aethelred. She managed to move within court circles and was married to Sweyn Forkbeard’s (960-1014) son Cnut, who went on to be King of England, Denmark and parts of Norway.
I think Evans attempted to also place Emma as a strong female character in contrast to Aelfgifu but I found Emma’s character really taking a backseat to Aelfgifu during the novel. This isn’t a bad thing, there is no need for another strong female character, Aelfgifu carries the day on her own and the story doesn’t suffer for it. Evans does jump from Aelfgifu, Cnut, and Emma’s narratives, but the main story teller remains Aelfgifu. There are several other famous characters that make an appearance in the novel, like the sinister villain, Eadric Streona (†1017), Thorkell the Tall, and Sweyn Forkbeard, helping flesh out the tale, but in the end, it’s Aelfgifu’s story that’s the fascinating one. She proved to be an astute politician and counsellor, trusted by Cnut, and admired by the people of the north. She was so trusted by the king, that he made her regent of Norway from 1030-1035. She saw one of her son’s on the throne, Harold I ‘Harefoot’ (1016-1040), and guided him in managing the realm. She was definitely a force to be reckoned with and an important figure in late Anglo-Saxon politics.
This is Evan’s first book and a great start to what will be a promising career as an author of Anglo-Saxon fiction. She is currently writing her second book of the period, set just before the Norman Conquest. I enjoyed reading from Aelfgifu’s perspective about this pivotal time in England’s history, and if you like early English history , strong female characters, and Vikings, then you will definitely enjoy The Northern Queen.
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