History has seen some incredible, cut-throat politics and lurid scandals, including the reign of Queen Elgiva: a teenage Saxon princess who was caught enjoying a threesome (along with her mother!), in the bed of King Eadwig, on the day of his coronation and at a time when he should have been discussing affairs of state with his noblemen and courtiers.
Elgiva faded from the pages of history just four years later when King Eadwig conveniently died (he was probably murdered) and was replaced by his brother Edgar.
Known as King Edgar the Peaceable (or Peaceful), he went on to rule for 20 years and, according to one historian, enjoyed a reign “singularly devoid of recorded incident.” This is not exactly true, as according to legend there was one very dark secret in Edgar’s life that was to have disastrous consequences for the Kingdom of England!
The King’s Dark Secret
Edgar, in common with most Saxon kings of this era, practiced what we’d now call “serial monogamy.” Kings would only have one wife or mistress/concubine at a time, but they would be discarded – the consanguinity rules (viz that they were too closely related) were a popular way of ending no longer convenient marriages – and sent to a nunnery when the monarch took a fancy to another woman.
So, for example, Edgar had a relationship with a woman called Aethelflaed (Ethel) by whom he had a son Eadweard (Edward). Then he had a relationship with Wulfthryth (Wifrida) by whom he had a daughter Eadgyth (Edith). And then along came Aelfthryth (Elfrida) by whom he had two more sons: Edmund, who died while still an infant, and Aethelraed (Ethelred).
Edgar’s dark secret relates to how he first met and wooed Elfrida. The king had heard that an ealdorman (earl) called Ordgar, in what is now Devon, had a beautiful daughter whose mother was a member of the royal family of Wessex. As he was looking for a queen, Edgar commissioned an East Anglian thegn (thane/nobleman) called Aethelwold to visit her and offer her a royal marriage—if she really was as beautiful as everyone said.
She was as beautiful as everyone said but, concealing his true mission from both her and her parents, Aethelwold wooed and married the girl himself, reporting back to Edgar that Elfrida was a “vulgar and common-looking” and “unworthy of a royal marriage”.
Initially Edgar accepted this explanation, but as he continued to hear reports of her beauty, he decided to visit the happy couple himself. News of the pending royal visit threw Aethelwold into a panic and, while begging Elfrida to make herself as unattractive as possible and wear her plainest clothes, he inadvertently revealed how he had deceived both her and the king.
As all contemporary reports suggest Elfrida was an ambitious woman, the realization she had missed out on becoming queen did not go down at all well. Repaying Aethelwold’s deceit in kind, she agreed to appear dowdy, but she actually went in the opposite direction and was presented to the king wearing the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of hair extensions, spray tan, and a gown that showed plenty of cleavage and was split to the thigh.
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