Æthelflæd: the Lady of the Mercians

She was a queen in all but name, but Aethelflaed, the daughter of Alfred the Great, is barely mentioned in contemporary chronicles of the Anglo-Saxon era. Writer Jonny Wilkes wonders whether England owes more to her than to her famous father

Illustration depicting Æthelflæd fighting the Welsh c.916

When Æthelflæd was a baby her father Alfred, destined for greatness, became King of Wessex. At around 16 years old, she was married to the Lord of the Mercians and so placed next to the seat of power of a neighbouring Anglo-Saxon kingdom. In her 20s, she helped to build a string of fortifications and patronise churches; in her 30s, she took up the mantle of ruling in place of her indisposed husband and defeated the Vikings in battle; and in her 40s, on her husband’s death, Æthelflæd was chosen to lead above all male contenders.

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She became known as the Lady of the Mercians. She strengthened the economy, improved education and intensified her campaign to build towns and defences across her kingdom. She restored Mercian lands by force or negotiation and plunged into enemy territory to throw out the invaders once and for all. She was to die at the height of her power before she reached 50. As a wife, patron and warlord, Æthelflæd helped establish a united England, but as a woman, her place in the histories was reduced, undermined, almost forgotten.

Much better known are her father Alfred the Great, and the man to whom she had been an adoptive mother, Athelstan, first King of all England. They ruled at a time dominated by conflict with Danish and Norse Vikings, when England was made up of individual kingdoms. Northumbria and East Anglia had fallen to the Great Heathen Army – a coalition of Norse warriors – while the central region of Mercia had seen its power wane as it was split by conquests. Wessex, to the south, was the last kingdom standing.

Forced to flee

Æthelflæd was born into this world of war and looming invasion probably a year before Alfred came to the throne of Wessex in AD 871. Her childhood has been lost as it was omitted from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (a collection of documents in Old English telling the history of the Anglo-Saxons), so much has to be guessed. Although the eldest of five children, she would not have been brought up to rule, but did receive the same education as her brothers. Æthelflæd would have seen little of her father as he was often on campaign. Yet she may still have picked up details about his ability to lead, his pious style of administration and what life at court was like.

In January AD 878, Alfred was briefly overthrown. A band of Danes launched a surprise attack on Chippenham, where he had celebrated Christmas. He was forced to flee, taking his wife and children with him, and the next three months were spent in the Somerset marshes rallying followers and preparing a retaliatory strike. At the Battle of Edington in May, Alfred reclaimed the throne and his family were able to return from their exile.

After several more unrecorded years, Æthelflæd eventually entered the Chronicles when she was married to Æthelred, ruler of Mercia. Thought to be no older than 16, she was used to seal an alliance between Alfred and the Lord of the Mercians, so called as Æthelred did not hold the title of king. Alfred and his allies were still fighting the Vikings, but when he seized London in AD 886 he became the dominant ruler in England and all those not under Danish rule accepted him as their overlord. Chief among them Æthelred, who was given control of London as a gesture of renewed unity between Wessex and Mercia.

Æthelflæd was involved at court and political matters. Her name appears on charters

Æthelred and his young wife established themselves at Gloucester, and had a daughter named Ælfwynn. While her year of birth is unknown, it was probably soon after they got married. The 12th-century chronicler William of Malmesbury claimed the birth was so difficult that it almost killed Æthelflæd and she vowed to abstain from further sexual relations. Whether this is true or not, Ælfwynn would be their only child.

Typically, Æthelred is depicted as an unpleasant and unloving older husband, married for convenience to the naïve Æthelflæd. Such an image has been perpetuated by modern retellings, including in Bernard Cornwell’s acclaimed novel series The Saxon Stories, but even if true, it only tells part of the tale. The pair were married for 25 years and there is evidence to suggest there was trust between them and that Æthelflæd was involved at court and in political matters. Her name appeared on charters alongside her husband’s.

The Lady of the Mercians through the ages

Our main contemporary source of information about Æthelflæd is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which did not consider her birth and childhood worthy of inclusion. As it was created in Wessex (in the time of Alfred), the writers may have intended to undermine her role in Mercia while exaggerating the achievements of her brother, Edward the Elder. A different version with a fuller, if hardly complete, account of Æthelflæd’s reign exists, called the Mercian Register.

Despite what one historian has called this “conspiracy of silence”, Æthelflæd came to be highly regarded by later chroniclers, sometimes more than her father Alfred the Great. Henry of Huntingdon, a 12th-century English historian, compared her to a man saying, “A queen by title, but in deeds a king,” adding “Heroes before the Mercian heroine quail’d, Caesar himself to win such glory fail’d.”

Some historical eras have sought to popularise female rulers of England’s past, leading to a revival in interest for Æthelflæd. This included the Elizabethan period (although they preferred Boudicca for having red hair like Elizabeth I) and the Victorian era, when she emerged under the name Elthelfleda. Recently she appeared in Bernard Cornwell’s series of novels The Saxon Stories, adapted into the television series The Last Kingdom.

It is a fictionalised version, however, with her story filled with kidnapping, and falling in love with another man. With so much of the real Æthelflæd lost to history, such embellishment can hardly be surprising.

At the time, Alfred was reforming defences in Wessex by building a network of burhs, or fortified settlements. These could either be repaired existing fortifications, including Roman towns or Iron Age hillforts, or new communities. Æthelred and Æthelflæd followed his example, beginning with Worcester in AD 890. They were dedicated patrons of the church too, endowing monasteries and abbeys with large sums of money. Worcester’s bishop, Wærferth, was referred to as a ‘friend’ of the rulers of Mercia and a charter asked the monks there to sing psalms and say masses to their health.

Æthelred was called upon again as a capable military leader when the Danes returned and renewed their attacks. Æthelflæd, in her 20s, remained behind. If this kept her on the wings, however, events at the end of the ninth century pushed Æthelflæd to centre stage. Alfred died in AD 899, putting her brother Edward on the throne of Wessex, who sent his seven-year-old son Athelstan to Mercia to be educated. It fell to Æthelflæd to raise the boy destined to unite the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and it seems that she instilled in him her deep piety.

Within a few years, Æthelred was stricken by an illness that often left him incapacitated, meaning Æthelflæd ruled on her own. She showed herself to be a strong, assertive figurehead, and, perhaps more surprisingly, in possession of a ruthless military mind. When a group of Norwegians asked for permission to settle around Chester, she agreed. Maybe she was naïve, or maybe she hoped to use negotiation rather than war and fulfil the name sometimes given to Anglo- Saxon women –‘peace weavers’.

Alfred the Great and Æthelflæd, 13th century.
Illuminations of Alfred the Great and Æthelflæd, 13th century. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

But when she heard that the Vikings, led by Ingimund, planned to capture the town in AD 906, she did not shy away from bloodshed. She persuaded Ingimund’s allies to swap sides and masterminded a battle strategy. Chester was filled with troops, waiting for a small force outside the open gates to draw the Vikings in and trap them. Amid the fighting that ensued, the people of Chester dropped hot beer and even threw down beehives on their foes. It was a decisive victory for Æthelflæd.

More victories were to come. In AD 909, she was involved in planning a daring raid of Mercian and West Saxon forces into the Danelaw (areas held by the Vikings), succeeding in retrieving the bones of St Oswald from Lincolnshire. The seventh-century king of Northumbria had given the land for Lindisfarne Priory – site of the first Viking attack in AD 793 – so this raid was heralded as a great religious crusade.

The bones were brought to Gloucester and interred at the priory, renamed St Oswald’s, built by Æthelflæd early in her marriage. When the Danes retaliated with their own raids the following year, the Mercians and West Saxons crushed them at the Battle of Tettenhall (near Wolverhampton), killing thousands, according to the Chronicles.

Chosen above all men

Such was the respect for Æthelflæd that, when Æthelred died around AD 911, she was chosen by the nobles of Mercia to rule in her own right. It was common for women in her position to retreat from public life, but Æthelflæd had stepped out of her husband’s shadow long ago. She offered Mercia continuity, stability and strength – rather than submission to Wessex – and that she never married again suggests she was unwilling to be subservient to another man again. Æthelflæd was therefore named ‘Myrcna hlædige’, or Lady of the Mercians.

Jorvik had been the heart of Viking Northumbria ... yet was prepared to submit to Æthelflæd

One of her first acts was to hand over control of London and Oxford to her brother Edward the Elder, possibly to ensure his recognition of her authority. Anyone who saw that as a weakness when it came to her territory would have been mistaken. Æthelflæd ramped up the building or restoring of burhs near the Danelaw, including at Stafford, Warwick, Runcorn and Mercia’s former capital of Tamworth. She established nine fortresses in five years. As Edward was similarly enhancing defences in Wessex, sister and brother were able to work together to go on the offensive.

England’s greatest royal dynasty?

How Æthelflæd and her family shaped England

Alfred the Great

On becoming King of Wessex in AD 871, Alfred spent years fighting the Danes that had invaded the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. After a decisive victory at the Battle of Edington in AD 878, he had his defeated foe Guthrum baptised. He went on to be accepted as king by all those not under Viking rule. He improved defences, made reforms and promoted education, and is the only English monarch honoured with the epithet ‘the Great’.

Edward the Elder

Alfred’s son has been described as a king neglected in the histories. With his sister Æthelflæd, he made significant territorial gains against the Vikings, and this would intensify after her death. He took control of Mercia by deposing his niece, Ælfwynn, and laid foundations for a united English kingdom.

Athelstan

King of Wessex and Mercia after his father Edward the Elder’s death in AD 924, he faced resistance, yet conquered the Viking stronghold York to be first ruler of all of England. Centralising government and imposing legal reform, he led with unshakeable piety. He made England a player in European politics by arranging key marriages.

While Æthelflæd would not have led men into battle, it does appear that she marched with the Mercian armies and she seemed to have been an active force in strategy. When an abbot in her household, Ecgberht, was killed in Wales in AD 916, she raised an army within three days and marched into Wales in retaliation. Her men burned the crannog of a local king and took his wife hostage. But her sights were chiefly set on ridding the land of the Vikings to the east. In AD 917, with Edward’s support, Æthelflæd launched her most aggressive campaign yet, to recapture the Five Boroughs, the major cities of the Danelaw.

Derby fell first, but only after especially fierce fighting, and then Leicester surrendered without a fight – a sign of how Æthelflæd was regarded by her enemies and how she was happyto pursue diplomatic solutions. (When Edward took Nottingham and Stamford the following year, four of the boroughs were again under Anglo- Saxon control.)

Lindisfarne Priory, Northumberland
Lindisfarne was founded by St Oswald in AD 635; retrieving his bones from Viking territory was a major coup for Æthelflæd. (photo by Getty Images)

Unbeaten and brimming with confidence, Æthelflæd looked far beyond her borders to one last great stronghold. York, under the name of Jorvik, had been the heart of Viking Northumbria since being invaded by the Great Heathen Army more than 50 years before, yet, like Leicester, the town was prepared to submit peacefully to Æthelflæd. It should have been her most remarkable triumph but, on 12 June AD 918, as she made her way there, Æthelflæd died. Her body was taken back to Gloucester so she could be buried next to her husband at the priory they had built.

Despite a woman never ruling an Anglo- Saxon kingdom before her, Æthelflæd had been offered the throne, secured her position, expanded her reach, and came close to crushing her enemies. And then she was succeeded without opposition by another woman, her daughter Ælfwynn. But York’s offer of submission was not repeated. Ælfwynn ruled for just a few months before being deposed by her uncle, Edward.

Æthelflæd’s achievements couldnot be undone, though. Later chroniclers would praise her reign even more than her father’s, and when Athelstan, whom she had raised, captured York in AD 927, her campaign against the Vikings was completed. Alfred the Great and Athelstan have rightly been described as the founding fathers of England – but Æthelflæd is certainly its founding mother.

Jonny Wilkes is a writer for History Revealed magazine.

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This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine