Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

Æthelflæd (from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, c. 1220)

12th June 2018 marks the 1100th anniversary of one of England’s greatest ever women. The daughter of Alfred the Great, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, led the resistance against Danish invasion, alongside her brother, Edward the Elder. And yet, she is virtually unknown to the people of today.

Æthelflæd was born about 870, the eldest child of King Alfred and his wife, Ealhswith. Alfred’s biographer, Asser, says Ealhswith was a member of the Mercian royal house through her mother, Eadburh. Around 886 Æthelflæd was married to Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia and a trusted lieutenant of her father. Æthelred ruled over the English half of the Mercian kingdom, which had been dissected by the Vikings, but submitted to King Alfred’s overlordship. The marriage was a political alliance, intended to strengthen Saxon resistance to the Danes, who were now occupying Northumbria, Yorkshire and East Anglia. The resulting close relationship of Mercia and Wessex was only further strengthened by the renewed Viking attacks of the 890s.

During the early years of their marriage the young couple appear to have settled in London, the city that had been entrusted to Æthelred’s care by Alfred. Æthelflæd seems to have taken after her father – she was a strong, brave woman and is often regarded more as a partner to Æthelred than a meek, obedient wife. The couple jointly presided over provincial courts. The ‘Mercian Register’, a fragment of a Mercian chronicle, included in some versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, records that Æthelflæd was exercising regal powers in the region even before her husband’s death. In his final years Æthelred increasingly suffered from illness, during which time Æthelflæd assumed greater authority. The couple had only one child, a daughter, Ælfwynn. Writing 2 centuries later William of Malmesbury claimed the lack of more children was due to Æthelflæd’s avoidance of marital relations, possibly due to a fear of dying in childbirth. Malmesbury quotes her as saying it was ‘unbecoming a daughter of a king to give way to a delight, which after a time produced such painful consequences’. Æthelred died in 911, though whether this was from wounds received in battle or from illness remains unclear. He was buried at Gloucester.

Charter S 221 dated 901 of Æthelred and Ætheflæd donating land and a golden chalice to Much Wenlock Church

Wessex had already adjusted to a change in ruler when Æthelflæd’s father had died in 899 and had been succeeded by her younger brother, Edward ‘the Elder’. When Æthelred died, Edward was happy to support his sister as sole ruler of Mercia, but he took personal control of the cities of London and Oxford, cities that could be used as bases from which Edward would be able to launch campaigns against the Danes of the Midlands. The siblings seem to have had a trusting relationship for many years; Edward had entrusted his son Æthelstan, often viewed as the first king of England, to Æthelflæd and her husband, to be educated at the Mercian court.

The first woman to rule an Anglo-Saxon kingdom  – albeit as a client of her brother’s more powerful kingdom of Wessex, Æthelflæd was accorded the title the Lady of the Mercians. She proved to be a vital ally to her brother and the siblings worked together to combat the threats of the Danes. In 909, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Edward sent an army, made up of West Saxons and Mercians, into Danish territory in the north. It was probably this army that brought back to Mercia the relics of St Oswald, the 7th century Northumbrian saint. They had been taken from Bardney in Lincolnshire and Æthelflæd had them translated to the new minster at Gloucester, which was renamed St Oswald in his honour.

Æthelflæd continued the policy, started by her father, of building burhs and established a ring of fortified centres around western Mercia. The burhs not only provided protection against the Danes, but served as bases from which to launch attacks on Danish occupied regions. Each burh could provide a refuge for all villagers within a 20-mile radius; it would have a large garrison, depot and its own water supply. During Æthelred’s lifetime, burhs had been established at ‘Bremesburh’, Worcester (between 887 and 899) and Chester (907). Later, on Æthelflæd’s orders, in 913, fortresses were built at several further sites, including Bridgnorth, Tamworth and Stafford, in response to Viking raids into Edward’s territories.

Edward built two further burhs at Buckingham in 914, plugging a defensive gap between Tamworth and Hertford. At the same time, Æthelflæd built one at Warwick and another at Eddisbury; this latter, with a new burh at Runcorn in 915, helped to strengthen her northern defences. While the Danes appeared to be the greatest risk, Æthelflæd did not neglect her defences along the Welsh border, building a burh at Chirbury and one at the now-lost location of ‘Wearburh’. In the same year, Edward fortified Bedford and in 916 he built a burh at Maldon to fortify Essex against seaborne raiding. While this building programme was going on, it also seems highly likely that Æthelflæd rebuilt and strengthened the defences of Gloucester and Hereford.

Statue of Æthelflæd and her nephew, Athelstan, Tamworth

Æthelflæd was no silent partner in Edward’s reconquest of England. Most remarkably, she personally led successful military campaigns against the Welsh, the Norse and the Danes of York. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates that on the feast of St Cyriac the Martyr, 16 June 916, the abbot Egbert and his retainers, were murdered for no known reason. The Mercian abbot had been travelling in the Welsh mountain kingdom of Brycheiniog when he was attacked. Æthelflæd seems to have taken the murder as a personal affront; the abbot was, after all, under her protection. Three days later she invaded Wales; her army ravaged Brycheiniog, burning the little kingdom. Although King Tewdr escaped, Æthelflæd took his wife, Queen Angharad, as a hostage, with 33 others, many of whom were relatives of the Welsh king. Eventually, the king submitted to Æthelflæd, promising to serve her faithfully and to pay compensation. The incident not only demonstrates Æthelflæd’s commitment to her people, but also shows her strength and determination, attributes she was to put to good use against the Danes.

In 917 Æthelflæd turned her attention to those Danes. Danish forces had taken the offensive, raiding English territories. By the end of the year Edward had subdued East Anglia, with all the Scandinavian armies of the region submitting to him. While her brother was raiding in  the East Midlands, Æthelflæd led her forces across the West Midlands. She marched on the Viking stronghold of Derby, personally leading the army on campaign. It would be the first of the Danes’ ‘Five Boroughs’, which made up the Danelaw, to fall. Although she managed to successfully storm the fort, her army suffered heavy casualties, including four of her most trusted and senior thegns (thegns were the army’s commanders and officers). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported; ‘With God’s help Ethelfleda, lady of Mercia, captured the fortress known as Derby with all its assets. Four of her favoured ministers were slain inside the gates’.¹

The Saxon victory was a great shock to the Danes. Their Viking myths told of an invincible woman who would appear at Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse, and make brave warriors cower before her. Æthelflæd was relentless  – in early 918 she and her army moved on to Leicester, while Edward headed for Stamford. Leicester was the centre of a heavily settled Danish colony, and Æthelflæd ravaged the countryside around the settlement. The Danes had no choice but to surrender in the face of her indefatigable forces. However, she was magnanimous in victory, displaying mercy and charity by distributing alms as she progressed into town.

Æthelflæd in the thirteenth century Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings

The inexorable advance of Æthelflæd’s army combined with her compassion for the defeated was to prove to be a clever strategy, demonstrating to those regions still controlled by the Danes that she was prepared to offer compromise if they would only submit to her. The Danes of York, the Viking capital, in particular, began to look at submitting to Æthelflæd as a serious option to avoid continued conflict. Their new king was Ragnall, a Viking pirate from Dublin, who had taken the throne by force; but the Danes knew that Edward and Æthelflæd would never make peace with him. In the summer of 918 the noblemen and magnates of York sent emissaries to Æthelflæd, promising that they would surrender to her.

In May, King Edward had marched his army to Stamford, building a new fort south of the river and accepting the surrender of the local Danes, who submitted to him as their new ruler. It was while he was still at Stamford that Edward received word of his sister, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle made a cold, clinical report:

918 While he was there his sister Æthelflæd died at Tamworth two weeks before midsummer. The king took possession of Tamworth and the whole province of Mercia which she had governed.²

Æthelflæd died suddenly at Tamworth on 12 June 918. She was buried beside her husband, in the east chapel of the cathedral she had founded, St Oswald’s Minister, Gloucester. Although she did not live long enough to see the successful conclusion to the work she and her brother had carried out, her achievements cannot be lightly brushed off. Between 910 and 920 all Danish territories south of Yorkshire had been conquered. Her nephew Athelstan consolidated the kingdom that had been created by the efforts of Edward and Æthelflæd. If Æthelflæd did not live to see the extent of her success, neither did she live to see her daughter, Ælfwynn, nearly thirty and still unmarried, briefly become the nominal ruler of Mercia; only to be ‘deprived of all authority’ six months later and taken to Wessex, from where nothing more is heard of her.

St Oswald’s Priory, Gloucester, where Æthelflæd and her husband are buried

The story of Æthelflæd mainly comes from the Mercian Register, embedded largely in the B, C and D texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. She appears only rarely in the primary text, text A, which focuses on Edward and Wessex. Text A tries to minimise Æthelflæd’s significance, but could not wholly obscure her achievements. She was, after all, the daughter of Alfred the Great, the wife of the ealdorman of Mercia and a prominent woman in her own right, in an era when this was an incredible rarity. It is thought that it was Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, who inspired the 10th century poem, ‘Judith’ who is ‘white and shining’, ‘noble and courageous’. In the poem, Æthelflæd is depicted as the ‘valorous virgin’ who struck off the head of the hostile foe with her gleaming sword and ‘ascribed the glory of all that to the Lord of Hosts’. Recognising her vital role in the creation of England, the 12th century Henry of Huntingdon declared Æthelflæd ‘to have been so powerful that in praise and exaltation of her wonderful gifts, some call her not only lady, but even king’. In a poem he described her as ‘worthy of a man’s name’ and ‘more illustrious than Caesar’, apparently high praise indeed – for a woman.

In the 21st century Æthelflæd’s story is becoming more widely known than it has ever been. She is one of the major influences of my book, Heroines of the Medieval World and appears, appropriately, in the chapter on Warrior Heroines. With her appearance in Bernard Cornwell’s wonderful The Last Kingdom books and television series, and Annie Whitehead’s novel, To Be A Queen, Æthelflæd’s story is finally being brought into the light. On the 1100th anniversary of her death, her incredible achievements are being celebrated in the heart of Mercia, in Gloucester and Tamworth. And not before time; Æthelflæd should be the inspiration for future generations of strong, influential women and stand out as an example of what can be achieved if you are determined enough.

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Footnotes: ¹ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swaton; ² ibid.

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Further Reading: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by James Ingram; Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen, c. 1090–1143 by William of Malmesbury; The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon by Thomas Forester; Alfred the Great by David Sturdy; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson;  History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; The mammoth Book of British kings & Queen by Mike Ashley; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; oxforddnb.com.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly