King Cnut’s Awkward Family Gathering? A Look at the Thorney Abbey Liber Vitae

Cover image: Royal 14 B VI, Membrane 4. An illustration of the rival branches of Cnut’s family, with Harold Harefoot’s line on the left and Harthacnut’s in the middle.

One of the most interesting, if lesser-known, facts about Cnut the Great is that he seems to have had two wives simultaneously. After conquering England, King Cnut (ruled England 1016-35 and Denmark 1018-35) famously married the previous English queen, Emma of Normandy; however, Cnut had a prior union with an English noblewoman named Ælfgifu of Northampton that most likely dated to about 1013. Ælfgifu and Cnut already had at least two children, Swein and Harold Harefoot, by the time Cnut married Emma in 1017. Emma and Cnut went on to have a son named Harthacnut.

Emma’s opinion of her husband’s other wife is, unsurprisingly, not a flattering one. In the Encomium Emmae Reginae, a work Emma commissioned, Ælfgifu is accused of being a “concubine.”1 Modern historians, though, have not taken the Encomium’s bait about Ælfgifu being a concubine. Scholarly consensus is that Ælfgifu and Cnut had a legitimate union. Many academics go even further by pointing out that Ælfgifu does not even appear to have been repudiated or set aside when Emma entered the picture. Emma was anointed queen, whereas Ælfgifu was not, but Ælfgifu was trusted with more authority. When Cnut acquired Norway in 1030, Ælfgifu was appointed to govern it alongside their eldest son, Swein.

After Cnut and Swein’s deaths in 1035, Ælfgifu vigorously promoted the claim of her surviving son, Harold. Harold bested Emma’s son Harthacnut, after a protracted succession crisis, to become England’s next monarch. Harthacnut had to wait until Harold’s death in 1040 to take the English throne. Harthacnut, who must rank among the sorest losers of all time, celebrated his delayed accession by disinterring Harold, posthumously executing him, and throwing his corpse into the Thames.

What a happy, totally-not-dysfunctional family we have here.

It is generally assumed that Cnut kept his two wives apart. For example, between 1030-35, we can be certain that the two wives were safely separated by the North Sea.

However, a medieval document from Thorney Abbey, in the fens of England, has raised questions about whether this was always the case.

The Thorney Abbey Liber Vitae (“Book of Life”) records the names of the institution’s visitors. These names were to be included in the community’s prayers, and such books were common throughout pre-Norman England. Thorney Abbey’s Liber Vitae would not be particularly noteworthy were it not for a list of names that includes Cnut, Emma, Ælfgifu, Harold, and Harthacnut – all recorded together, as though they had visited in one party, alongside other important figures like Archbishop Æthelnoth of Canterbury and numerous earls. The visit is thought to have occurred in the 1020s.2 However, the names themselves were not copied down until about 1100.3 This late recording, as we will see, does give us some reasons to be cautious.

The Thorney Abbey Liber Vitae (folio 10r). Image from Timothy Bolton’s Cnut the Great (plate 8). The royal family’s names can be seen at the top of the left column.

These entries fly in the face of the conventional thought that Cnut must have kept his wives, and possibly the entire factions of his family, apart from one another. If they do indeed represent one large gathering, it would destroy the already dying view that Ælfgifu had been put aside.

But could it truly represent one gathering? Did Cnut wrangle the unhappy sides of his family together and pack them inside the abbey, like a modern father stuffing his children and step-children into the back of the minivan, ready for the worst road trip of his life? Did Ælfgifu and Emma cast icy glances at each other, each viewing her rival as the “other” woman? It’s all too easy to imagine Cnut encouraging everyone to set aside their differences for a few hours, knowing deep down that chaos could break loose at any moment.

To be more serious again, such a unified gathering could affect our understanding of the succession dispute between Harold and Harthacnut that erupted after Cnut’s death. If Thorney Abbey’s Liber Vitae indeed records one visit with nearly4 the entire royal family present, that means Ælfgifu and Harold were in England at least part of the time during Cnut’s reign, which would not have hurt Harold’s succession chances. More importantly, the fact that Emma and Ælfgifu are listed side by side both confirms and challenges traditional views. It confirms that Emma was the more prestigious of the two, carrying the title of queen, but it also means that Ælfgifu was prominent enough to be mentioned immediately next to her.

However, the late date of the manuscript (c.1100, recording people who visited perhaps 80 years prior) means that caution is in order, and the Liber Vitae has prompted questions from academics, a few of which I’ve paraphrased (and admittedly simplified) below:

  • How do we know this represented one visit by the royal family rather than multiple smaller visits?
  • Since Emma of Normandy also went by the English name Ælfgifu, how can we be sure that the Ælfgifu in the book is Ælfgifu of Northampton? What if it’s supposed to mean something like “Emma/Ælfgifu,” referring to one person who went by two different names?
  • Why are Harold and Harthcnut given the title “rex” (king) when they hadn’t yet assumed the throne in the 1020s?

Historians vary significantly in their interpretations of the Thorney Abbey Liber Vitae names and in their attempts to answer these questions. I will cover some of them here:

Elisabeth van Houts briefly mentions the Thorney names in her article “Cnut and William: A Comparison” and seems to take them at face value, representing one massive visit of prominent figures, similar to the one at Assandun in 1020 mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.5

M. K. Lawson, one of Cnut’s modern biographers, thinks that Emma and Ælfgifu are two separate names here. He suggests that Ælfgifu of Northampton is indeed the person being referred to as “Ælfgifu.”6

Another of Cnut’s recent biographers, Timothy Bolton, originally thought that the list described one large visit in 1020 or 1021. He has since conceded that the situation is more ambiguous: “…on reflection we might just as well conclude that multiple visits augmented the main Thorney visit.”7 Bolton is the one who questions why Harold Harefoot is given the title “rex” in 1020 or 1021.8

Pauline Stafford, a leading expert on Emma, is cautious but seems open to the possibility that Ælfgifu of Northampton is being referred to, although she questions whether “Rex Harold” is Harold Harefoot or Cnut’s brother. If it is Harold Harefoot, she wonders if he and Ælfgifu visited after 1037, when Harold was sole king.9

Ryan Lavelle writes that the list “suggests she [Ælfgifu of Northampton] had once visited there with a family group” but is highly skeptical that it means she and Emma were there at once: “it certainly should not be used as evidence that Cnut was present at Thorney with both wives at the same time.”10

Dorothy Whitelock, writing nearly 90 years ago, originated the idea that Emma and Ælfgifu could be referring to the same person here. Her line of thinking has been repeated by Bolton, who writes that it is possible that alterations or additions to the original text could mean that the surviving manuscript is corrupted or that it conflates multiple visits.11

So what is one to make of all these different views?

As for me, I have little trouble accepting that Ælfgifu of Northampton is the one being referred to here. I’m not sure she is obscure enough, or far enough out of place, to assume that the scribe must be recording a garbled reference to Emma. Ælfgifu was trusted by Cnut and is in exactly the right company with Cnut and Harold Harefoot.

Speaking of Harold Harefoot, I also think we can safely say he is the “Rex Harold” in the list. Cnut’s brother Harold, the only proposed alternative, was dead by the earliest date suggested for the royal Thorney names that I’m aware of, and he played a minimal to nonexistent role in English politics.

I’m not surprised that Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut are called “rex,” either, even if their visit(s) took place before their accessions. If the list was copied down around 1100, I would be surprised if a copyist didn’t refer to them in hindsight as kings. Thorney Abbey surely would have been eager to emphasize its connections to as many kings (or those who became kings) as it could claim.

As for whether both wives were there at once, as much as I would like to imagine the awkward scene I described earlier, Lavelle’s point is important: the list should not be used to argue conclusively that they were in the same room together. However, I also see no reason to duplicate visits more than necessary. What are the chances that Thorney Abbey would have been independently visited by three consecutive monarchs (Cnut, Harold, and Harthacnut), for example, especially considering that the latter two only reigned for a few years? I would err on the side of simplicity here. One massive visit in the 1020s or two visits would be sufficient.

Perhaps Cnut, Emma, and Harthacnut visited together in the 1020s and Harold Harefoot and Ælfgifu of Northampton visited together c.1035-40. However, there is still a chance that all these people visited Thorney together, ranked (with the benefit of hindsight) in the Liber Vitae in order of seniority: the kings Cnut, Harold Harefoot, and Harthacnut, the anointed queen Emma, and the royal wife Ælfgifu. We can’t know for sure. But maybe – just maybe – it was the medieval world’s most awkward family gathering.

Notes

1 Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. Alistair Campbell and Simon Keynes (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 41.

2 Timothy Bolton “Ælfgifu of Northampton: Cnut the Great’s Other Woman,” (Nottingham Medieval Studies LI, 2007): 247-68; 262. Pauline Stafford, Queen Emma & Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in the Eleventh Century (Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 233.

3 Bolton “Ælfgifu,” 262. Ryan Lavelle, Cnut: The North Sea King (Allen Lane, 2017), 52. M.K. Lawson, Cnut: England’s Viking King 1016-35 (The History Press, 2011), 123. Dorothy Whitelock “Scandinavian Personal Names in the Liber Vitae of Thorney Abbey,” in Saga Book 12 (Viking Society for Northern Research, 1937-45): 127-53; 129.

4 One notable omission from the royal family is Swein, the eldest son. The ASC records that one of Cnut’s sons by Ælfgifu was sent to Denmark as a hostage in 1023, but doesn’t specify which. Lavelle (p. 50-51) leans toward Swein, as Harold could have been too young, and Swein’s absence from the Liber Vitae roster may be another clue that supports this idea. This idea runs into some chronological difficulties if we accept 1020 or 1021 as the date for the Thorney visit, however. In any case, Swein is notably absent.

5 Elisabeth van Houts, “Cnut and William: A Comparison” in Conquests in Eleventh-Century England: 1016, 1066 (The Boydell Press, 2020): 65-84; 67-68.

6 Lawson, 123-24.

7 Bolton, Cnut the Great (Yale University Press, 2019), 136 note 26.

8 Bolton, Cnut, 136.

9 Stafford, Queen Emma, 233. Note 105 for “Rex Harold.”

10 Lavelle, Cnut, 52. Brackets mine.

11 Bolton, Cnut, 136. Whitelock, 131.

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