Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ælfthryth, Royal Evil Stepmother

Queen Ælfthryth (elf-thrith) is one of the rare Anglo Saxon women who have made their way into history for more than just whose daughter, wife or mother she was. The wicked stepmother in all its sinister meaning, her legacy includes, among other dramatics, the martyrdom of King Edward the Martyr.

Ælfthryth was of royal blood on both sides of her family. She was reputed to be so lovely that it is said that the great King Edgar sent Æthelwald, a trusted ally, to go and see for himself and, if the stories were true, to make an offer for her hand on the behalf of the king. Æthelwald, discovering just how beautiful she was, married her himself. he wrote to King Edgar and told him the woman was a hideous beast. Edgar was no fool, and he sent word that he would come to console Ælfthryth for her affliction. Æthelwald begged his new wife to make herself appear as ugly as possible for the king, but she did the opposite. King Edgar fell madly in love with her and murdered Æthelwald during a hunt. That a marriage with so high a noblewoman helped his own standing was all gravy.

King Edgar had been married before and had children with his first two wives. He and Ælfthryth were married in 964 or 965. Although Edward, the son of his first wife, was older, the king declared his first son by Ælfthryth, as his heir. Alas, Edmund died in 970, leaving a little brother, Ethelred, who was born in 968. In 973 Edgar, no doubt to strengthen his claim to being King of England, arranged to be crowned a second time, and he also had Ælfthryth crowned and anointed as queen, the highest status yet held by the wife of the king.

Two years later Edgar died, leaving two sons, Edward by his first and Ælfthryth's son Ethelred. Edward was much nearer his majority and had the support of the archbishops of Canterbury and York Dunstan and Oswald, and the powerful Æthelwine, Ealdorman of East Anglia, who happened to be the brother of Ælfthryth first, late husband. Though Ethelred had his own strong supporters, Edward was crowned as their father's successor.

In 978 Kind Edward visited his stepmother and brother at Corfe Castle. As he rode into sight, he was attacked and murdered by men believed to be in Ælfthryth's servbice. Ethelred, just a few years old, became King of England, with his mother Ælfthryth in power as regent until he came of age in 984. Ælfthryth, her former allies all dead, retired from court life when her son became king, but wielded influence as the caretaker of the children Ethelred had by his first wife, Ælffigu.

In spite of her legendary murder of her stepson Edward, Ælfthryth was known as a deeply religious woman. She spent many years supporting the cause of monastic reform. She died between 999 and 1001 at the Hampshire village of Wherwell.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Old English Riddles - a thousand years of double entendre

“I am a wonderful help to women
The hope of something good to come
I harm only my slayer
I grow very tall, erect in a bed
I am shaggy down below
The lovely girl grabs my body, rubs my red skin
Holds me hard, claims my head.
That girl will feel our meeting!
I bring tears to her eyes!
What am I?”

(Answer at the foot of the post.)

This is Riddle 23 from the Exeter Book. The word ‘riddle’ derives from the same root as the Old English word ‘-raed’, meaning ‘counsel, explain, teach’. A riddle is typically a short poem describing a familiar object or activity in a cryptic way, and the listener (or reader, after they came to be written down) has to work out what is being described. They can be clever, witty, poetic, beautiful, almost mystical. As this one shows, they can also display a bawdy sense of humour. Seven of the Exeter Book Riddles are of the same form as Riddle 23.

English/British humour seems to be uncommonly fond of the risque double meaning. It’s a staple of seaside postcards, Carry On films, Frankie Howerd scripts, not to mention Shakespeare (“Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit, wilt thou not Juliet?”). In English, it seems, any entendre can be double’d. It’s rather nice to see proof that this hasn’t changed in a thousand years.

The Exeter Book is believed to be the “…one large book in English verse about various subjects” which was bequeathed to the Exeter Cathedral Library by Leofric, first Bishop of Exeter, in 1072. It survives in Exeter Cathedral Library to this day. The date of its composition is not known, though it’s usually ascribed to the second half of the tenth century, say around 960 or so. The Exeter Book contains a remarkable variety of Old English verse, religious and secular, including The Seafarer, The Wanderer, The Husband’s Message, The Wife’s Lament, Widsith and, of course, the Riddles.

To me, the Exeter Book Riddles show early English culture in an attractive light. Clearly these were people who liked jokes as well as elegies, who valued mundane tasks as well as heroes, and who enjoyed intelligent word games but weren’t above a vulgar belly laugh. It’s worth remembering that the Exeter Book was a gift from a bishop to his cathedral library, presumably expected to be read mainly by monks and other clerics. Evidently at least one senior churchman of the time was no prim killjoy.

Do you have a favourite riddle?

Answer: an onion. Whatever were you thinking?