Æthelflæd: iron lady of Mercia

Alex Burghart pays tribute to Æthelflæd, a remarkable woman who turned a cornered Anglo-Saxon kingdom into a powerhouse that defeated the Welsh and the Vikings

A statue of Æthelflæd which stands in the grounds of Tamworth Castle in Staffordshire. (Photo by Chris Gibson/Alamy Stock Photo)

This article was first published in the August 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Anglo-Saxon history is full of forgotten heroes. This year marks the 1,100th anniversary of the accession of one of the most forgotten and, in some ways, one of the most remarkable. In 911, Æthelflæd, daughter of King Alfred the Great (871–99), succeeded her husband, Æthelred, as ruler of the Midland realm of Mercia. In doing so she became one of the only Anglo-Saxon women to rule in her own right, and a key player in the period that would shape the formation of England.

Rarely has British politics been so turbulent as it was in the late ninth and early tenth centuries. In 866 a huge Danish force had landed in eastern England and started, systematically, to occupy regions and kill kings. By 877 roughly all the territories to the east of Watling Street (the A2) – the kingdoms of Essex and East Anglia, East Mercia (the east Midlands), Lindsey (Lincolnshire) and Northumbria – lay in Danish hands. Nor were they the only hostile power. From early in the ninth century Norse Vikings (from Norway and no friends to the Danes) had established bases in Ireland and were using them as springboards to launch forays on mainland Britain, attacking and sometimes allying themselves with the Welsh kingdoms. Anglo-Saxon England appeared to be on the brink of becoming Anglo-Scandinavian England.

It was under these pressures – and others from the Welsh kingdoms to the west – that, in about 879, Æthelred, the new leader of the remaining Mercians, chose to submit to King Alfred of Wessex. Asser, Alfred’s biographer, says that Æthelred agreed “that in every respect he would be obedient to the royal will”, and it seems that he was as good as his word. In our sources, Æthelred is never called ‘king’ only ‘ealdorman’ or ‘lord’ – there was to be one king: Alfred, and it is his name alone which appears on the royal charters and coins of the time.

So seriously did Alfred take this new alliance that he gave his eldest daughter, Æthelflæd, to Æthelred in marriage. Exactly when this happened is not known – Asser says that they were married when she reached the appropriate age, suggesting that she was still too young at the time of the alliance – but it may be that it took place in 886 when, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “King Alfred occupied London and… entrusted the borough to the control of Ealdorman Æthelred”.

If so, Æthelflæd’s dowry was the largest ever given by an English father – the city of London. For the following 25 years, Æthelflæd appears alongside her husband in the sources – a clear indication of her status as the embodiment of this extraordinary alliance. During that time, they began the fortification of Mercian settlements, established their royal town as Gloucester, and captured the relics of the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon saint, Oswald, from the Vikings. And then, in 911, when Æthelred died after a rule of 32 years, Æthelflæd took over from him, the clerical scribes calling her ‘Lady of Mercians’.

How then did a woman working in such a militarised age ascend the Mercians’ greasy political pole? Ultimately, she was the devil the local aristocrats knew – a new king from Wessex might change things, might put their interests at risk. Their decision to support her is a sign that this daughter of a West Saxon king had come to be seen as one of them.

Another factor seems to have lain in her husband’s health. A later Irish source describes how Æthelred was very ill for some time (perhaps from as early as 902). If Æthelred spent a long time out of action, it is easy to see how his consort could have been regarded as the obvious successor – in effect she had already been doing the job for some time.

And what a job she continued to do. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that she built no fewer than nine forts or ‘burhs’, including those at Bridgnorth (912), Stafford and Tamworth (913), Eddisbury and Warwick (914), and Chirbury and Runcorn (915), building a protective network to defend Mercia against both the Danes and the Welsh. It was this infrastructure that allowed people and goods to be quickly protected against raiding armies and served as muster points for local armed forces that could be hurriedly summoned to launch counterattacks.

The next year (916) Æthelflæd went on the offensive – apparently in response to the murder of an English abbot – and sent a army to destroy Brecenanmere in Powys and capture one of the Welsh queens. Then in 917 her forces recaptured Derby from the Danes by force (“and there were slain four of her thegns who were most dear to her, within the gates”). At the same time her brother, King Edward (899–924) who had succeeded Alfred, had retaken much of the East Midlands, Essex and East Anglia from the Danish forces posted there. The result was that the surviving Danish armies started to buckle under the pressure. In 918 the army of Leicester peacefully submitted to her and then, shortly after, that of York. These were altogether extraordinary events. How was it that the battle-hardened Danish armies of the Midlands and north were willing to subject themselves to a woman’s rule? In part it was for fear of the Norse from Ireland, in part it was perhaps because they thought they could make better terms with Æthelflæd than with her brother, King Edward. But it is also possible that, by siding with Æthelflæd, the Danes were trying to show the Mercians that they no longer needed the West Saxons and so were hoping to split the alliance.

Whatever the intention, soon after (“12 days before midsummer” as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has it), Æthelflæd died at Tamworth – the ancient seat of the Mercian kings – and her daughter, Ælfwynn, was proclaimed as her successor. It is clear that King Edward now feared that the Mercians were drifting apart – within six months he had marched in Mercia and, “three weeks before Christmas”, “the daughter of Æthelred, lord of the Mercians, was deprived of all authority in Mercia and taken into Wessex”. The age of Mercian autonomy was at an end.

Even if the legend of Æthelflæd has failed to survive in the popular imagination, for several centuries it excited the medieval imagination. An early Irish writer waxed lyrical about how she and her husband defeated an army of Norsemen at Chester by first covering them in beer and then loosing the city’s bee population upon them. One chronicler remarks on her cleverness, another on how “her fame spread abroad in all directions”. The 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury went further, calling her “a most powerful man-like woman” (high praise indeed), and his contemporary, Henry of Huntingdon, though not a fantastically reliable source, wrote:

“Some have thought and said that if she had not been suddenly snatched away by death, she would have surpassed the most valiant of men.”

This raises a fascinating counter-factual poser indeed – what if Æthelflæd had not been “snatched away by death”? To turn the early tenth century on its head, what if Edward, not Æthelflæd, had died in 918? Would there not have been plenty of aristocrats in Wessex willing to throw in their lot with the daughter of King Alfred and the de facto ruler of much of the Midlands and north? If so, it is likely the unification of England would have taken place, not under King Æthelstan in 927, but under a woman, Æthelflæd. And it may have been that her daughter, Ælfwynn, would have succeeded her, not merely as ‘Lady of the Mercians’ but as Queen of England.

In some ways this would have been fitting. The weave of British history is particularly rich with women rulers. Indeed it is a peculiar fact that from Boudica in the first century AD to Thatcher in the 20th, Britain has seen more female leaders of renown than any other European region.

Alex Burghart is writing a history of Mercia. He used to teach at King’s College London where he worked on the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, www.pase.ac.uk

Æthelflæd to Ælfwynn: a woman’s place is on the throne

When Æthelflæd died in 918 she was succeeded as ruler of the Mercians by Ælfwynn, her daughter. It is difficult to overstate how unusual Ælfwynn’s succession was. In any era, for one woman to succeed another is rare but in the early medieval period it was completely unheard of. It is the first example of female-to-female succession in Europe, and the last in Britain before the 16th century when Lady Jane Grey (queen for nine days in 1553) was followed first by Mary (1553–58) and then Elizabeth I (1558–1603). Why, then, did the Mercian bigwigs allow it? Ultimately, they were confronted with the same choice that they had faced in 911 (when they accepted Æthelflæd): either be ruled by a king from a different kingdom who would bring in his own men and ideas, or accept the leadership of a woman who they knew.

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On this occasion, however, they did not achieve success. Only six months later, King Edward marched into Mercia and led Ælfwynn back into Wessex, never to be seen again. How well the Mercians took to this is not known, but a later historian, William of Malmesbury, recorded that when Edward died on 17 July 924 he had, only days before, had to quash a combined uprising of Mercian and Welsh forces in Chester.