The real Aelfwynn of Mercia
The fate of Ælfwynn and the Mercian succession is key plot arc in season 5 of The Last Kingdom, but how true is the Netflix show to real history? How much is known about the real woman who shares the name, and could she have succeeded her mother Æthelflæd as a second Lady of the Mercians? Professor Ryan Lavelle considers the evidence…
The fifth season of Netflix’s The Last Kingdom storms in with a host of new characters – and, as an indication of the passage of time as this saga of Saxon England unfolds, grown-up versions of characters last seen as children, including Ælfwynn.
The season welcomes back Æthelflæd (played by Millie Brady) – the ‘Lady of the Mercians’ and daughter of Alfred the Great – whose rule of Mercia as queen-in-all-but-name had played a big part in the last season’s storyline.
She now sees her daughter Ælfwynn (Phia Sabin) forced to grow up in the turbulent politics of the early 10th century. The show introduces big questions: with Æthelflæd’s health failing, what will happen to Mercia? And what of Ælfwynn’s fate?
What do we know of the real Ælfwynn?
Thanks to a lot of recent interest in the historical figure of Æthelflæd, including a statue in Tamworth erected in 2018 to mark the 1,100th anniversary of her death, there is a new awareness of her life and her achievements in reconquering Danish-held territory during and after the lifetime of her husband Æthelred, 'Lord of the Mercians' (d911).
In contrast, all that is said for sure of Ælfwynn is from a ‘Mercian Register’ of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that survives in manuscripts of that famous book. Following the death of her mother, Ælfwynn was “dispossessed of all authority in Mercia and was taken to Wessex three weeks before midwinter”.
After this, we hear only of the achievements of Ælfwynn’s uncle, her mother’s brother, King Edward the Elder (899–924). Edward styled himself, as his father had in his latter years, ‘King of the Anglo-Saxons’ and was probably now aspiring to rule over both Wessex and Mercia as – if not as a unified realm, then as a union of kingdoms.
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There is, perhaps hardly surprisingly, no mention of Ælfwynn at all in the West Saxon version of the Chronicle. The ‘Mercian Register’ provided – again, hardly surprisingly – a Mercian take on the achievements of the two decades in which Æthelflæd was active in Mercia, and the years beyond her death.
The author (or authors) could well have been associated with Æthelflæd, perhaps even Ælfwynn too, and may have written this version of the Chronicle in Mercia after Æthelflæd’s death with a wish to keep alive a flame of Mercian independence.
Who was Ælfwynn’s father?
In the light of such courtly intrigues, fans of The Last Kingdom might not want to hold out for too much avuncular affection from King Edward (Timothy Innes) for his on-screen niece. As the historical Ælfwynn is little more than a name, there is a lot of room for some artistic licence.
Few may be surprised to learn that there is no evidence that the real Ælfwynn’s birth was the result of her mother’s relationship with a Viking, with whom she fell in love after being taken hostage (a story that played out back in the third season of The Last Kingdom). But in the early medieval world, questions of parentage could be asked when it suited some to do so, as with those who opposed Harald Harefoot, the son of Cnut the Great, in the 1030s.
Fans can be satisfied to know that legends did develop around important people, and the real Æthelflæd was certainly important enough for her daughter’s significance to be recognised.
Did Ælfwynn rule as Lady of Mercia?
The Anglo-Norman monk William of Malmesbury recorded that a difficult childbirth led to Æthelflæd having only one child. This could have been William’s sense of storytelling coming into play, but he may also have been justifying what could have been a difficult issue for him to make sense of in the 12th century – that a 10th-century woman of some independent means could accept and even promote her daughter to succeed to her authority in Mercia.
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There is a clue to this potential handover of power in the historical record. Æthelflæd died 12 days before midsummer; if her daughter was only “deprived of all authority” three weeks before Christmas, a point when Mercian authority came into the hands of Edward, this meant that there were a little under six months when he did not rule the old kingdom.
Had a handover of power from mother to daughter taken place? If so, Ælfwynn would have been expected to succeed her mother, or at least expected to be capable of doing so.
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Along with the names of Æthelflæd (and her husband Æthelred), the appearance of an ‘Ælfwyn’ on the witness lists of some early 10th-century Mercian charters is a tantalising clue of her importance during her mother’s lifetime. Ælfwynn, meaning ‘Elf-Joy’ (that the name element Elf was shared with her royal grandfather is probably no coincidence), wasn’t a rare name in Anglo-Saxon England. But it wasn’t that common either, so it is certainly possible that charters recorded her presence at assemblies.
If this daughter of the royal kin was at her parents’ court, unmarried and seen as part of the political establishment, it wouldn’t be surprising if she were considered for succession at the time of her mother’s death.
Even if she couldn’t come into the control of all of Mercia, the fact that months had passed before she was “dispossessed of all authority” – and that there was someone who was willing to record her existence along with the achievements of her mother, while Edward’s version of events said nothing of Ælfwynn – is an interesting indication of her importance.
Historians should always be wary of reading too much into an absence of evidence, but the presentation of Edward smoothly assuming power in Mercia following his sister’s death is certainly intriguing.
How did Ælfwynn die?
What was Ælfwynn’s fate in Wessex? We cannot surely know, but one historian has suggested that in AD 948, long after the reign of Edward the Elder, a charter might just indicate that somewhere there remained an aged royal cousin whose importance couldn’t be entirely suppressed.
At the prompting of his mother, Queen Eadgifu, King Eadred made a grant of land in Kent to a certain Ælfwynn, a “religious woman”.
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The suggestion that this was Ælfwynn, ‘the Second Lady of the Mercians’, is contentious. But the fact that historians can entertain the thought that it might have been her is at least an indication of the respect with which she must have been held.
Ryan Lavelle is Professor of Early Medieval History at the University of Winchester, and historical advisor on the The Last Kingdom. His books include Cnut: The North Sea King (part of the Penguin Monarchs series), which was released in paperback in November 2021