On the steps below St Peter’s parish church in Wolverhampton stands a fine modern sculpture of a woman in medieval garb. She stands proudly on a stone plinth, gazing out over the present-day urban landscape. A plaque on the plinth tells us that she is ‘Lady Wulfrun’ and that the sculpture, by Sir Charles Wheeler, was presented to Wolverhampton in 1974 to mark the centenary of the local Express & Star newspaper.
The people of Wolverhampton regard Wulfrun as the eponymous founder of their city, the name of which is said to derive from Old English Wulfruneheantun (‘Wulfrun’s high settlement’). Little is known of her origins but we know that in the late tenth century she was a major Anglo-Saxon landowner with close links to the royal dynasty of the newly emerging kingdom of England. She is named as the beneficiary of a charter issued in 985 by King Æthelred the Unready in which she received a gift of royal estates in Staffordshire at Heantune (later Wolverhampton) and Trescott. The charter was witnessed by the leading figures in Æthelred’s kingdom, including the archbishops of Canterbury and York. Another charter, dated to 994, confirmed a grant of lands from Wulfrun to the church of Heantune to enable its re-founding as a college of priests. Unfortunately this document has been shown to be a fake, probably created in the eleventh century by the Wolverhampton clergy. It does, however, appear to incorporate older information on estate boundaries and may be based on authentic documents associated with Wulfrun’s ownership of local lands. She is shown holding this charter, represented as an unfurled scroll, in the sculpture beside St Peter’s Church.
Wulfrun’s son Wulfric (known in later times as Wulfric ‘Spot’) became one of the richest landowners of the Late Anglo-Saxon period, holding lands not only in his native Mercia but in Northumbria as well. He received some of his estates as grants or bequests from his mother while others were inherited from his father whose name is unknown. Wulfric died sometime in the first decade of the eleventh century, leaving his lands to his daughter and other relatives. His will is one of the most important documents to come down to us from pre-Conquest England.
The name of Wulfric’s father – Wulfrun’s husband – has long been a subject for speculation. Some historians think a likely candidate is Wulfsige the Black, an important Mercian nobleman, but others think Wulfsige may have been Wulfrun’s father. The little we know of Wulfsige suggests that he was a loyal henchman of Edgar, king of England from 942 to 975, from whom he received substantial estates in Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Some of Wulfsige’s lands were later held by Wulfrun before passing to her son Wulfric. If these people do indeed represent members of the same family, the estates may have simply passed down through three generations from father to daughter to grandson.
Another of Wulfrun’s sons was Ælfhelm who served King Æthelred as ealdorman of Northumbria (based at York) from 993 to 1006. Ælfhelm was eventually murdered on the king’s orders, presumably for an act of treachery, and his two sons were blinded. However, his daughter Ælfgifu survived and, in 1013, she married the Danish prince Cnut. Seventy years earlier, Ælfgifu’s grandmother Wulfrun had herself come into close contact with Danes when she was kidnapped from Tamworth by Viking raiders from Northumbria. Tamworth may have been an important place for Wulfrun’s family, for her son Wulfric Spot bequeathed an estate in the area to his daughter and this could have been an ancestral landholding.
One of the most intriguing theories about Wulfrun proposes that she was a grand-daughter of Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, via Æthelflæd’s daughter Ælfwynn. This would make Wulfrun a great-grand-daughter of Alfred the Great. At first glance, the idea seems to gain slight support from a medieval description of Wulfric Spot being of ‘nearly royal’ blood. However, the little we know about Ælfwynn suggests that she remained unmarried and childless, possibly having been forcibly confined as a nun after her mother’s death in 918.
The chronology of Wulfrun’s life is uncertain. She might have been quite young, perhaps a teenager, when she was abducted from Tamworth by Danish Vikings. Four decades later, when she received lands from King Æthelred in 985, she was perhaps in her fifties. The Wolverhampton charter of 994, although spurious, might be correct in depicting her as still alive in the final decade of the tenth century. The date of her death is unrecorded but she might not have been long deceased when a charter of c.1005 refers to her as having taken ‘her last breath’. What, then, was her true ancestry? Rather than being an otherwise unknown descendant of Alfred the Great it seems more likely that she sprang from one of the senior noble families of central Mercia. Her kin may have obtained much of their wealth from estates bestowed as gifts by grateful kings in reward for loyalty and faithful service. At present, there is not enough data to connect her with Wulfsige the Black or with any other known figure of the tenth century.
Finally, we return to St Peter’s in Wolverhampton and to another monument in the churchyard: a tall sandstone pillar, somewhat weathered but displaying an array of sculptured animals and intricate patterns. Mystery surrounds its provenance and purpose but it has been tentatively associated with Mercian stonecarving of the ninth century, placing it a hundred years before Wulfrun’s time. If it is the shaft of a cross, as some observers believe, its existence would suggest that the St Peter’s site has been a focus of Christian worship since the 800s. In any case, it must have been a familiar sight to Wulfrun after she took ownership of the surrounding lands in 985.
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Notes and References
David Horovitz, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians; the Battle of Tettenhall, 910 AD; and other West Mercian studies (Stafford, 2017)
Anthony and Joyce Perry, Lady Wulfrun’s Hampton: early Wolverhampton and its church (Revised edition: Wolverhampton, 2011)
[I obtained this excellent little booklet at the shop inside St Peter’s Church for a couple of pounds]
Wulfrun’s abduction from Tamworth was reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 943:
Here Anlaf broke down Tamworth and great slaughter fell on either side, and the Danes had the victory and led away great war-booty with them. There Wulfrun was taken in that raid.
[Anlaf (Olaf) is either Anlaf Guthfrithsson or his kinsman Anlaf Sihtricsson, Viking warlords from Dublin who ruled successively as kings of Northumbria.]
Older generations of historians, particularly in Victorian times, liked to make the names of Anglo-Saxon women look more feminine by sticking an ‘a’ on the end. Hence we sometimes see Ethelfleda (for Æthelflæd) and Wulfruna (for Wulfrun).
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