According to pre-Conquest tradition from Winchester, today is the feast of Saint Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, also known as Saint Elgiva (d. 944). She was the first wife of Edmund I (r. 939–946), and bore two future kings, Eadwig (r. 955–959) and Edgar (r. 959–975). I’d like to honor her today as much because of her name as anything else. In Anglo-Saxon Ælfgifu means “elf gift.” Admittedly, Anglo-Saxon names were quite often given without special regard for their meaning, but their meanings were at least clear and straightforward to speakers of Anglo-Saxon.
Her mother, Wynnflæd, appears to have been closely connected with Shaftesbury although her identity is not entirely clear. The clue comes from a charter of King Edgar, in which he confirmed the grant of an estate at Uppidelen (Piddletrenthide, Dorset) made by his grandmother, Wynflæd, to Shaftesbury. She may well be the nun or vowess (religiosa femina) of this name in a charter dated 942 and preserved in the abbey’s chartulary. It records that she received and retrieved from King Edmund a handful of estates in Dorset, namely Cheselbourne and Winterbourne Tomson, which somehow ended up in the possession of the community.
Her father and siblings are not known directly from primary sources, so further speculation on Ælfgifu’s background has largely depended on the identity of her mother, whose relatively uncommon name has invited further guesswork. Some historians suggest that she was the Wynflæd who drew up a will, supposedly some time in the mid-10th century, after Ælfgifu’s death. This lady held many estates scattered across Wessex (in Somerset, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire, and Hampshire) and was well connected with the nunneries at Wilton and Shaftesbury, both of which were royal foundations. On that basis, a number of relatives have been proposed for Ælfgifu, including a sister called Æthelflæd, a brother called Eadmær, and a grandmother called Brihtwyn. Much of the issue of this identification hangs on the number of years by which Wynflæd can plausibly have outlived her daughter. In this light, it is significant that on palaeographical grounds, David Dumville has rejected the conventional date of c. 950 for the will, which he considers “speculative and too early.”
The sources do not record the date of Ælfgifu’s marriage to Edmund. The eldest son Eadwig, who had barely reached majority on his accession in 955, may have been born around 940, which gives us only a very rough terminus ante quem for the betrothal. Although as the mother of two future kings, Ælfgifu proved to be an important royal consort, there is no strictly contemporary evidence that she was ever consecrated as queen. In a charter of doubtful authenticity dated 942-946, she attests as the king’s concubine (concubina regis). but later in the century Æthelweard the Chronicler styles her queen (regina).
Much of Ælfgifu’s claim to fame derives from her association with Shaftesbury. Her patronage of the community is suggested by a charter of Æthelred, dated 984, according to which the abbey exchanged with king Edmund the large estate at Tisbury (Wiltshire) for Butticanlea (which is unidentified). Ælfgifu received it from her husband and intended to bequeath it back to the nunnery, but this did not happen (her son Eadwig demanded that Butticanlea was returned to the royal family first). Ælfgifu died before her husband in 944. In the early 12th century, William of Malmesbury wrote that she suffered from an illness during the last few years of her life, but there may have been some confusion with details of Æthelgifu’s life as recorded in a forged foundation charter of the late 11th or 12th century. Her body was buried and enshrined at the nunnery at Shaftesbury.
Ælfgifu was venerated as a saint soon after her burial at Shaftesbury. Æthelweard reports that many miracles had taken place at her tomb up to his day, and these were apparently attracting some local attention. Lantfred of Winchester, who wrote in the 970’s and so can be called the earliest known witness of her cult, tells of a young man from Collingbourne (possibly Collingbourne Kingston, Wiltshire), who in the hope of being cured of blindness traveled to Shaftesbury and kept vigil. What led him there was the reputation of “the venerable St Ælfgifu […] at whose tomb many bodies of sick people receive medication through the omnipotence of God.” Despite the new prominence of Edward the Martyr as a saint interred at Shaftesbury, her cult continued to flourish in later Anglo-Saxon England, as evidenced by her inclusion in a list of saints’ resting places, at least 8 pre-Conquest calendars, and 3 or 4 litanies from Winchester.
Ælfgifu is styled a saint (Sancte Ælfgife) in the D-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (mid-11th century) at the point where it specifies Eadwig’s and Edgar’s royal parentage. The text attributes her healing power both to her own merits and those of her son Edgar. It may have been due to her association that in 979 the supposed body of her murdered grandson Edward the Martyr was exhumed and in a spectacular ceremony, received at the nunnery of Shaftesbury, under the supervision of ealdorman Ælfhere.
Ælfgifu’s fame at Shaftesbury seems to have eclipsed that of its first abbess, king Alfred’s daughter Æthelgifu, so much so perhaps that William of Malmesbury wrote contradictory reports on the abbey’s early history. In the Gesta regum, he correctly identifies the first abbess as Alfred’s daughter, following Asser, although he gives her the name of Ælfgifu (Elfgiva), while in his Gesta pontificum, he credits Edmund’s wife Ælfgifu with the foundation. Either William encountered conflicting information, or he meant to say that Ælfgifu refounded the nunnery. In any event, William would have had access to local traditions at Shaftesbury, since he probably wrote a now lost metrical Life for the community, a fragment of which he included in his Gesta pontificum:
Nam nonnullis passa annis morborum molestiam,
defecatam et excoctam Deo dedit animam.
Functas ergo uitae fato beatas exuuias
infinitis clemens signis illustrabat Deitas.
Inops uisus et auditus si adorant tumulum,
sanitati restituti probant sanctae meritum.
Rectum gressum refert domum qui accessit loripes,
mente captus redit sanus, boni sensus locuples
For some years she suffered from illness,
And gave to God a soul that it had purged and purified
When she died, God brought lustre to her blessed remains
In his clemency with countless miracles.
If a blind man or a deaf worship at her tomb,
They are restored to health and prove the saint’s merits.
He who went there lame comes home firm of step,
The madman returns sane, rich in good sense.
It is minimally possible that William confused the names Æthelgifu (Alfred’s daughter) and Ælfgifu, but the two names would have been much more distinguishable to him than to a modern English speaker. Æthelgifu means “noble gift” in Anglo-Saxon; quite different from “elf gift.”
In Anglo-Saxon times in Dorset, noble households would have feasted primarily on roast meats served with bread and washed down with ale or mead. You can certainly replicate this at home to celebrate Ælfgifu’s feast if you want. Otherwise, you can search this blog for the numerous Dorset recipes I have given. For today I want to suggest something new, using one of my favorite cheeses, Dorsetshire Blue Vinny. Before railways were built from London to Dorset, milk could not be transported to the city before it spoiled. So, Dorset farmers made butter from local milk which fetched premium prices in London. They then used the skimmed milk to make a soft crumbly blue cheese: Blue Vinny. Production of Blue Vinny continued into the 20th century, but died during the Second World War. When I was a boy, my father regaled me of tales of Blue Vinny he used to enjoy in the 1930s when he was a midshipman in the Royal Navy stationed on the South Coast, but lamented that it was no more. I was, therefore, delighted to discover that along with the general revival of interest in British regional foods, Dorset Blue Vinny was being produced again. It is now quite readily available in the UK, and via web groceries internationally. It is a good melting cheese, so melted Blue Vinny on toast would be a fine celebratory dish for Ælfgifu. However, I recommend a heartier dish – Blue Vinny Rarebit – like Welsh Rarebit but with the Dorset cheese rather than Cheddar. I also recommend using a hearty country cottage loaf for the bread slices.
Blue Vinny Rarebit
225g crumbled Blue Vinny
1 tbsp butter
2 tsp flour
4 tbsp milk
4 slices crusty bread
Put the cheese, butter, flour and pepper to taste in a saucepan, add the milk and mix well. Stir continuously over low heat until the cheese has melted and formed a rather thick sauce. Let the sauce cool slightly.
Toast the bread on one side only.
Spread the rarebit over the untoasted side and brown it under a hot grill.