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Wulfthryth [St Wulfthryth] (d. c.1000), abbess of Wilton, was queen of England, the second consort of King Edgar, for a brief period before her appointment as abbess. Details of Wulfthryth's parentage are not known, but she must have been of noble birth like her cousin , with whom she was educated at Wilton. appears to have wanted to marry into their family and Wulfhild was his first choice as a bride; but when she persuaded him she would rather enter a nunnery, he married Wulfthryth. Although there has been some debate about whether Wulfthryth was a full wife or just a concubine, the late eleventh-century hagiographer Goscelin states that she and Edgar were ‘bound by indissoluble vows’ (Wilmart, 31) and the legitimacy of their daughter is implied by the recognition of her as the ‘royal sister’ of Edgar's sons Edward and Æthelred.

Wulfthryth's entrance into a religious house would have provided a pretext for the marriage to be dissolved and must have occurred by 964 when Edgar married Ælfthryth. In addition to the position as abbess of Wilton, it is likely that Wulfthryth received a substantial settlement on her separation from Edgar and that this is represented by the six estates in Wiltshire and the Isle of Wight for which the nuns of Wilton were given confirmation of title by the king in 965 and which are described as having been granted formerly to Wulfthryth. By making the estates corporate rather than personal property, Wulfthryth was hoping to ensure that they would be retained by Wilton after her death; other grants of land from Edgar are also recorded.

Wulfthryth was also able to use her influence at the royal court to protect the interests of Wilton in other ways. According to Goscelin, who in his life of Edith provides some of the main biographical information about Wulfthryth, when Wilton's rights of sanctuary were threatened by royal servants who wanted to remove a thief from the church, she was able to intervene personally with King Æthelred (her stepson) to prevent the violation. On another occasion she was able to secure the release of two Wilton priests who had been imprisoned by the reeve of Wilton. Wulfthryth was also remembered as an edificatrix and is said to have enclosed the nunnery with a stone wall, which would have been in keeping with the aims of the Benedictine reform movement to achieve a stricter separation of monastic and secular life. She used her wealth to build up the relic collection of Wilton. A nail from the crucifixion of Christ was purchased from St Paulinus of Trier with the help of her chaplain Benno, who came from that foundation. She also bought the relics of the Breton saint Iwi which are included in Wilton's entry in the late Saxon list of saints' resting places. But the most important cult which Wulfthryth helped to promote was that of her own daughter Edith, who was translated between 997 and 1000.

The translation is the last datable point in Wulfthryth's life; she died at Wilton on 21 September, but the year is not known. She was buried before the main altar of the abbey church of St Mary at Wilton, where she was evidently regarded as a saint. Goscelin calls her the ‘hidden treasure and light’ of the community and his account reflects the affection and respect with which she seems to have been remembered at Wilton (Wilmart, 278). Unlike Edith, Wulfthryth is recorded as performing miracles during her lifetime and these continued to occur after her death; however, her cult never seems to have become more widely established.

Barbara Yorke

Sources  

A. Wilmart, ‘La légende de Ste Édith en prose et vers par le moine Goscelin’, Analecta Bollandiana, 56 (1938), 5–101, 265–307 · S. J. Ridyard, The royal saints of Anglo-Saxon England, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, 4th ser., 9 (1988) · AS chart., S 766, 767, 799 · S. Millinger, ‘Humility and power: Anglo-Saxon nuns in Anglo-Norman hagiography’, Medieval religious women, ed. J. A. Nichols and L. T. Shank, 1 (1984), 115–29 · B. A. E. Yorke, ‘The legitimacy of St Edith’, Haskins Society Journal, 11 (2003), 97–113