Æthelflæd: The woman who crushed the Vikings

Janina Ramirez reveals how Æthelflæd – wife, mother, diplomat and, above all, warrior-queen – left an indelible mark on Anglo-Saxon England in the 10th century

A statue of Æthelflæd – erected in Tamworth to mark the 1,000th anniversary of her fortifying the town. (Photo by Chris Gibson/Alamy Stock Photo

This article was first published in the June 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

There are only a handful of warrior women from the past who have captured imaginations for centuries. The most famous are Boudicca, her chariot complete with spiked wheels, and the armoured teenager, Joan of Arc. These were the exceptions – women in a man’s world who men followed into battle.

But there is one warrior woman who is less celebrated. This year, exactly 11 centuries ago, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, died and was buried in Gloucester. She was exceptional for many reasons. She is one of the few known women who not only held a role within the household as mother and lady – and within the court, as daughter and wife to kings – but also wielded power on the battlefield.

What’s more, she is the only queen in English history to have passed her reign directly to her daughter. She is a medieval marvel, but she has been overshadowed by the men who surrounded her in life – her father, Alfred the Great; her husband, Æthelred of Mercia (a kingdom in what is now central England); and her ultimate successor, her nephew, Æthelstan, ‘the king of the whole of Britain’. Yet Michael Wood has argued that “without her England might never have happened”.

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