Intertextual Archetypes: The Royal Woman as ‘Wicked Queen’

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


The motif of the ‘wicked queen’ is an inter-cultural literary archetype with ancient precedents: Jezebel’s persecution of Elijah, Herodias seeking the head of John the Baptist, rumours that Livia Drusilla poisoned Augustus, of Theodora’s sexual promiscuity. Such allegations are rarely supported by historical evidence, more often serving political interests (usually after the subject’s death), and demonstrating an inherent social misogyny and discomfort with women exercising power. Jan Ziolkowski (1989, 15–16) identifies this trope, primarily invested in the person of Jezebel, as one that becomes particularly prevalent in Latin hagiography throughout the early medieval period. Thus, for example, powerful women such as Brunhilda of Austrasia (567–575) and the Italian queen-consort Willa (950–963) are termed ‘second Jezebel(s)’ by hagiographers and historians representing the views of opposing political factions.
This is a technique often used by hagiographers writing the lives of England’s pre-Conquest saints. In this context, it most often royal women who found themselves in conflict with a person who would later be designated a saint that are most vulnerable to accusations of being ‘wicked queens’. Æthelgifu, mother-in-law to King Eadwig (955–959), who opposed the authority of St Dunstan is accused of being a ‘second Jezebel’ in accounts of Dunstan’s life. Cwenthryth, the Abbess of Winchcombe who contested land claims with the Archbishop of Canterbury, is accused in the Vita of St Kenelm (c. 819), her brother, of having laid in wait for him ‘as Jezebel did for Elijah’ and effecting his death. In turn, Queen Cynethryth of Mercia is accused of arranging the death of St Æthelberht of East Anglia (779–794) in a manner reminiscent of Herodias, and Queen Ælfthryth is commonly held to be behind the death of her son-in-law St Edward the Martyr (975–978).
It is on this last characterisation, on the woman that William of Malmesbury determined acted ‘with a step-mother’s hatred and a viper’s guile’, that this paper will focus. In so doing, I will discuss three layers of intertextuality (or intertextual ‘contribution’) identifiable in Ælfthryth’s character as a ‘wicked queen’. Firstly, the connections among those texts that preserve and adapt the tradition of Edward’s martyrdom. Here, in each retelling, Ælfthryth develops into a more active antagonist. Secondly, the connections among the English hagiographies that adopt the ‘wicked queen’ motif. Among these, Edward’s hagiography is a comparatively early, which raises the prospect that the story of Edward’s trials influenced those of other English saints. And lastly, the connections back to classical and biblical archetypes of ‘the wicked queen’. In this way, Ælfthryth’s character may serve as a case study for the examination of those intertextual and intercultural elements that converge in the person of the ‘wicked queen’ of pre-Conquest English hagiography.
Period21 Jun 2021
Event titleInternational Society for the Study of Early Medieval England Conference
Event typeConference
LocationAdelaide, AustraliaShow on map