The House of Denmark ended prematurely in England following the short reigns of Cnut’s sons, Harold I Harefoot and Harthacnut. Both died in their early 20s. Neither one married, nor did they have any children, which allowed the kingship to revert to the previous dynasty. At least, that’s how the history of the House of Denmark is usually summarized.
However, a largely overlooked 1913 article by W. H. Stevenson in English Historical Review 28 adds an interesting wrinkle to the end of the Danish dynasty in England. Stevenson noted the existence of an “Alboynus” who was the “son of Heroldus, king of England” under the years 1060 and 1062 in the medieval cartulary of an abbey in Conques, France. Alboynus, Stevenson writes, corresponds to the English name Ælfwine, and the source adds that his mother’s name was Alveva – a form of Ælfgifu, another English name. Just as striking, Alboynus/Ælfwine is said to have been born in London. Why is an obscure Englishman in southern France being described as the son of an English king?
The document is written in “a very early twelfth century hand,” according to Stevenson’s article, meaning it is only a couple generations away from Ælfwine’s supposed appearances in 1060 and 1062. To my knowledge, no one has argued that the cartulary itself is suspicious, but there have been plenty of candidates for the “King Heroldus” mentioned in the text. Stevenson argues that Harold Harefoot (reigned 1035-1040) is the best candidate for the English king Heroldus who is said to be Ælfwine’s father. But can we really be so sure?
Harold Harefoot: Scarce Source Material
No other source mentions children of Harold Harefoot, nor do they mention a wife named Ælfgifu, although Harold Harefoot’s reign is poorly documented in general. Aside from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entries from 1035-40 and the near-contemporary Encomium Emmae Reginae (c. early 1040s), there is not much to work with. Normally the witness lists of charters and diplomas can provide insight about a king’s family life, such as by identifying any royal wives and children, but nothing with this information has survived from Harold’s reign.
However, a bishop’s will from the era does provide a hint about the family of Harold Harefoot. The will bequeaths money to a “royal lord” and “my lady.” The “royal lord” is generally assumed to be Harold Harefoot, but “my lady” remains a mystery. Was this an otherwise unknown royal wife who was prominent enough to be known solely as “my lady” during Harold Harefoot’s brief reign?
I think it’s possible. The will is dated to 1038 at the latest, potentially three years into Harold’s rule. This could have been long enough to make a royal wife well known to those in the king’s circle (such as powerful landowners or ecclesiastics). That said, Harold’s influential mother, Ælfgifu of Northampton, is more commonly put forward as a candidate for being “my lady.” Ælfgifu of Northampton was instrumental in securing Harold’s spot on the throne, although Frank Stenton’s famous assertion that she was the “power behind the throne” is far too strong. No unambiguous record of her exists after Harold formally becomes king in 1037. So, while she may be the “my lady” associated with Harold, it’s also possible that Harold was married and that the bishop’s will is the only record we have left of this wife nearly a thousand years later.
Well…almost the only record. If the cartulary from Conques, France is correct, and Harold Harefoot is the “Heroldus” in question, then we can assign this royal wife a name: Ælfgifu. The cartulary may be conflating Ælfwine’s mother Ælfgifu with his more famous grandmother, the aforementioned Ælfgifu of Northampton, although I don’t think this is a given. Royal wives consistently had the name Ælfgifu in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, so much so that historians have sometimes considered it almost a title. For example, Æthelred II (reigned 978-1016) had two wives with that name and so did Cnut (reigned 1016-1035). In at least one case, it was not the wife’s given name; Emma of Normandy, the second wife of both Æthelred and Cnut, adopted it or possibly was assigned it. In this context, would it be too surprising for a spouse of Harold Harefoot to take on the name, perhaps in honor of Ælfgifu of Northampton? I don’t think it’s too far-fetched.
Harold Harefoot vs. Harold Godwinson
So Ælfgifu is the name of Ælfwine’s mother according to the cartulary, but what about his father? How is Stevenson sure that Harold Harefoot is the most likely candidate for being Ælfwine’s father? He notes that some scholars at the time considered Harold II (better known as Harold Godwinson) to be the Harold in question, while others even considered Harald the brother of Cnut to be a possibility.
Stevenson dismissed Harold Godwinson’s candidacy for being “King Heroldus” in two brief sentences: “all that can be said in favour of this is that it is chronologically possible. In 1060 or 1062 Harold, king of England, could only mean Harold Harefoot.” I wish Stevenson had expanded on this. For some reason he treated Harald of Denmark, Cnut’s brother, as a candidate who needed a more thorough debunking. No scribe could reasonably list Harald of Denmark as an English king – but, with hindsight, they certainly could describe Harold Godwinson that way.
Stevenson’s assumption seems to be that the scribe was copying down information preserved intact from 1060 or 1062. Speaking literally, yes, in 1060 or 1062, there had only been one king of England named Harold: Harold Harefoot. But I’m not so sure that the information could have passed from 1060-62 to the scribe’s day completely unblemished by hindsight. If the scribe were writing in the early 1100s, for example, it would be surprising not to refer to Harold Godwinson as a king.
Are there any good reasons to favor one Harold over another at this point? Actually, I think so. There are two factors that make me think Harold Harefoot is the better candidate.
The first is that we know the names of at least two partners and six children of Harold Godwinson, yet there are no matches for Ælfgifu or Ælfwine. This does not mean that Harold Godwinson could not have had a son with someone by a different name, but it would be an outlier. Godwinson did have a sister named Ælfgifu, about whom virtually nothing is known, but she can be ruled out as the Ælfgifu in question. If she is the mother of Ælfwine, describing Godwinson as the man’s father (rather than his uncle) would be nearly as confused as calling Harald of Denmark an English king. In comparison, Harold Harefoot’s reign is poorly recorded in general, but at least we don’t have anything that would be an obvious outlier or error.
My second point is more important: it would not make as much sense for a son of Harold Godwinson to be so far from England in 1060 or 1062. The Godwin family was briefly exiled by Edward the Confessor in 1051, but they quickly returned to the scene and were influential in England through 1066. If Ælfwine were the son of Godwinson, it would be tough to explain why he chose to settle in southern France a full decade after his family returned to England. Were his prospects in England really that poor if he were the son of its most powerful earl?
However, it makes plenty of sense for a son of Harold Harefoot to be away from England in 1060. Harefoot had died in 1040 and was succeeded by Harthacnut (reigned 1040-42), who was so hostile to his predecessor that he had Harefoot’s body exhumed, thrown into a swamp, and tossed into the Thames. Any son of Harefoot had good reason to flee in 1040-42 given Harthacnut’s extreme hostility, and Ælfwine would have been very young at this point. It would make sense for his mother or grandmother to see that he was safely escorted away from England. Entering the church, as we know Ælfwine did, would have been another way to ensure his safety; that way, Ælfwine would have posed no serious threat to Harthacnut, Edward the Confessor, or any subsequent monarchs regarding succession, even though he did have royal blood.
As an added bonus, the detail that Ælfwine was born in London may also be relevant. Godwinson’s base of power was Wessex (although to be fair, it would hardly be surprising for the powerful earl to be in London from time to time). However, Harold Harefoot’s association with the city was strong enough that it was preserved in writing on several occasions, which is significant given the overall dearth of information about his reign. Harefoot gains some of his first support in 1035 from London’s shipmen, he is depicted as ruling from London when Alfred Ætheling is brought before him, and John of Worcester records London as Harefoot’s place of death (the earlier Anglo-Saxon Chronicle disagrees, saying Harefoot died in Oxford). Harefoot was also buried in London – twice. The London connection, while circumstantial, fits snugly if Harold Harefoot is Ælfwine’s father.
Implications for the End of Danish England
As for Ælfwine himself, what is known of him? Unfortunately, not much: Ælfwine, son of King Harold and Ælfgifu, was born in London, became prior of a monastery in Conques in 1060 or 1062, and died sometime after this. That’s almost all we can say about him. Like Edgar the Ætheling, the last member of the House of Wessex’s male line, no one bothered to commit his passing to writing – at least not anything that has survived.
However, Harold Harefoot does appear to be the most likely candidate for being Ælfwine’s father. If this is correct, it means that Cnut the Great’s direct line did not die out in 1042, as is commonly assumed, but sometime after 1062 – a very different interpretation, and one that has some significant implications for anyone studying Harold Harefoot’s reign, the Danish Conquest of England, or the Norman Conquest.
The end of Danish England may not have been as simple as Harthacnut willingly passing the throne back to a rival dynasty before dying. Harthacnut may have handed the throne to Edward the Confessor partly to ensure that the bloodline of his hated rival, Harold Harefoot, did not return to power in England.