Elfgifu of Northampton (c. 1000–1044)

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Elfgifu of Northampton (c. 1000–1044)

Regent of Norway. Name variations: Aelfgifu, Aelgifu, Eligifu, Alfifa, Aelfgifu of Aelfhelm, Aelfgifu of Northumbria; Aelfgiva of Northampton. Born around 1000 (some sources cite 996) in Northamptonshire, England; died on December 31, 1044, in England; daughter of Earl Elfheim and Wulfrun of Northamptonshire ; mistress and probably wife of Cnut II also known as Canute I the Great (c. 995/998–1035), later king of England (r. 1016–1035), Denmark (r. 1019–1035), and Norway (r. 1028–1035); children: Sven also known as Sweyn (c. 1015–1036), king of Norway (r. 1030–1035); Harald or Harold I Harefoot (c. 1015–1040), king of England (r. 1036–1039 or 1037–1040).

Elfgifu was born into a noble Saxon family of Northamptonshire during a period of great upheaval in English history. Her parents were supporters of King Olaf Haraldson the Stout of Norway, who had invaded England with an army to try to win its crown. Olaf met the young Elfgifu and the two fell in love. Elfgifu became his mistress and reigned with Olaf until another invader, Canute I the Great of Denmark, kidnapped her in 1013, making her his mistress. Elfgifu reigned with Canute over England, Denmark, and eventually Norway, as he conquered that land as well.

Canute's marriage to Elfgifu was after the Danish custom and not one sanctioned within the Christian church; together they had two sons, Harald Harefoot and Sweyn. In July 1017, as a means of securing his claim to the English throne, Canute married Emma of Normandy , daughter of the Saxon royal family and widow of Ethelred the Unready. A precondition for the union was that the sons of their marriage would stand in line for the English throne before Elfgifu's sons or Emma's sons by Ethelred.

But Canute apparently trusted Elfgifu politically much more than Emma; he appointed her regent of Norway around 1030 and sent her and their young son Sweyn (whom he had named Norway's future king) to enforce the laws and collect the taxes in Norway and Denmark. Elfgifu was a far from popular or benevolent ruler; she instigated harsh laws and severe punishments for lawbreakers and those disloyal to herself or Canute.

Elfgifu managed to remain in power until 1035, when word reached Norway that Canute had died. Aware that her power base was gone, Elfgifu's enemies overthrew her government and forced her to flee to England in 1036. Ironically, the leader of the overthrow was the son of her previous lover, Olaf of Norway. Elfgifu did not retire from political life in England; instead, she conducted a successful campaign to popularize her other son, Harald Harefoot, as a contender for the kingship.


Garmonsway, G.N. Canute and His Empire. University College Press, 1964.

Larson, Laurence Marcellus. Canute the Great, c. 995–1035, and the Rise of Danish Imperialism During the Viking Age. Putnam, 1912.

Loyn, H.R. The Vikings in Britain. St. Martin's Press, 1977.

Laura York , freelance writer in medieval and women's history, Riverside, California