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 Anglo-Saxon queen Æthelflæd

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

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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”.

In the 12th century, the historian Henry of Huntingdon declared Æthelflæd to be “so powerful that in praise and exaltation of her wonderful gifts, some call her not only lady, but even king”. He praised her as “worthy of a man’s name” and “more illustrious than Caesar”. So why do we not know more about the Lady of the Mercians, and is it finally her time to shine?

A world of turmoil

It is difficult to know when Æthelflæd was born. Her parents were married in AD 868 and she is thought to have been their first-born child. The time at which she came screaming into the world was one of turmoil. Just three years earlier, a Great Viking Army had launched a massive assault on East Anglia – one that led the monk and wordsmith Alcuin of York to write: “Never before has appeared such a terror in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race.”

Over more than a decade, a coalition of Norse warriors took land in all the major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms – except Wessex, which had so far managed to defy them. The Vikings’ purpose was to conquer the kingdoms completely, yet the battle of Edington in 878 stemmed the tide and a tentative alliance was drawn up, splitting the country in two between English-ruled territory and lands administered by the Danes (the Danelaw). It was on to this tumultuous stage that Æthelflæd stepped.

There is little information on her childhood, and she first appears in the historical record as a fully grown adult. By this time she is married to Æthelred of Mercia. She is mentioned in Alfred’s will, where he leaves her an estate plus 100 pounds, while her husband is bequeathed a precious sword.

As a wife, however, Æthelflæd’s story is all too familiar in terms of royal dynastic marriages. Daughter of the king of Wessex and his wife (a Mercian noble, possibly royal, woman), Æthelflæd was a precious commodity. Her marriage to the much older Æthelred, who had served Alfred as a loyal lieutenant, bound together the English-speaking kingdoms of Wessex and the newly reclaimed Mercia. Theirs was an entirely political union, designed to strengthen the two kingdoms against Danish and Norwegian incursions in the north. She could have faded from the records at this point, content to support her husband within the court and bear him many offspring.

Yet Æthelflæd wasn’t about to be overshadowed by her husband. Instead, records report that she was signing diplomatic documents and presiding over provincial courts in place of Æthelred. As he became increasingly ill she assumed more of his responsibilities, including arranging diplomatic agreements and refurbishing many of the towns. Concerned by the relocation of Viking settlers from the Irish coast to the north-west, Æthelflæd made two plans: on the one hand, she offered land for the Vikings to settle in the Wirral, and on the other instructed that the ancient Roman city of Chester be refortified in case they decided to press southwards into Mercia.

Æthelflæd went on to secure some of the most significant victories in battle of the early 10th century

Her caution was rewarded when in that same year, 907, the Wirral Vikings attacked Chester but failed to breach its walls. Æthelflæd’s reputation as a canny ruler extended, not only through the English-speaking world, but over the waters, reaching the ears of her Viking foes. She was developing a name as a keen diplomat, an engaged ruler and a military strategist.

Divine favour

While Æthelred’s health deteriorated, Æthelflæd took more responsibility for the military activities of Mercia. She understood the importance of aligning herself with other powerful rulers and supported her brother, Edward, in his reconquest of Mercian territories in the Danelaw.

When Æthelred died in 911, his wife was declared ‘Lady of the Mercians’ and took over control of the kingdom. In Wessex, the role of royal women was one of subservience: Æthelflæd’s mother had only ever held the title of ‘wife of the king’ and signed no charters with her husband. Æthelflæd took advantage of a tradition that granted women in Mercia greater rights.

To secure power in Anglo-Saxon England, you first needed the support of ‘ealdormen’ (high-ranking royal officials). It is telling that, rather than hand the kingdom to a male heir or succumb to Wessex, the ealdormen of Mercia chose Æthelflæd as their leader.

Their choice was wise, since she secured some of the greatest victories in battle of the early 10th century. In 917 her troops reconquered the Viking city of Derby, a critical victory as this had been one of the ‘Five Boroughs of the Danelaw’. The next year she secured Leicester, and from there made her way towards the prestigious Viking-held city of York. As the Danes were ready to offer her their submission, she died (possibly of dysentery) on 12 June 918 and was taken to be buried with her husband at St Oswald’s Priory in Gloucester.

Securing the fealty of the Danes of York would have been Æthelflæd’s ultimate achievement. Instead, it was the battle of Tettenhall (in modern-day Wolverhampton) eight years earlier in 910 that secured her image as victorious warrior queen. Back then, in retaliation for Æthelflæd and Edward’s successful campaigns in the Danelaw, Viking troops had laid waste to large parts of Mercia, carrying off plunder and destroying the land. A joint Anglo-Saxon army headed them off at Tettenhall and massacred them there. Three Viking kings were reported to have been killed, and as a result, the image of Æthelflæd, warrior queen, bearing three royal swords was born.

As well as being a formidable warrior, Æthelflæd was also a shrewd ruler who set about extending the work of her father, Alfred, by strengthening his fortifications at Tamworth, Stafford and Warwick. Many of these cities owe their existence to her efforts.

Like her father, she believed that the recently rejuvenated Anglo-Saxon kingdoms depended on the church and its divine favour to secure their reputation as worthy opponents to the Danish pagans. She invested in church buildings throughout Mercia, particularly in Gloucester, which she transformed from a derelict backwater to a vibrant town. She brought extra prestige to her newly founded church there by securing a most precious relic: the body of the kingly Saint Oswald. His relics had languished in Viking-held Bardney in Lincolnshire, but Æthelflæd managed to return them to Mercia. Their arrival was accompanied by lavish ceremonies, and the Mercian Register credits Æthelflæd with returning this holy royal saint to English-held land.

Pleasure and pain

There is a wealth of evidence to support the contention that Mercia was a force to be reckoned with in the Anglo-Saxon period. Although difficult to date precisely, the Staffordshire Hoard (which in 2009 became the largest cache of Anglo-Saxon gold ever discovered) is testament to Mercian hegemony in the eighth century. The power of bishoprics, like that at Lichfield, is attested to in the remarkable Gospel Book that survives from there and in the carved angel discovered in 2003: just a fragment of what would have been a lush and vibrant environment. While other kingdoms were ravaged by Viking incursions in the ninth century, parts of Mercia, like Worcester, remained strong and affluent.

Æthelflæd, like her father, sought to strengthen the prestige of her kingdom by investing extensively in urban renewal, education (through the monasteries) and in the arts. She was also aware that her legacy would be protected by those who came after her. She ensured her daughter, Ælfwynn, would succeed her, but also fostered her brother’s son, who would become the great unifier of England, King Æthelstan.

Æthelflæd was not content to be simply a bearer of heirs. She gave her husband one daughter, but William of Malmesbury suggests she shied away from “marital obligations” because of the risks she knew it posed her life. He records that she declined to have sex after bearing a daughter because it was “unbecoming of the daughter of a king to give way to a delight which, after a time, produced such painful consequences”.

A celebrated reputation

Why do we not know more about Æthelflæd? For a start, it could be that her own brother had her largely written out of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle so as not to promote separatism between Wessex and Mercia. However, she maintained a celebrated reputation – particularly, and surprisingly, under the Normans – with chroniclers going out of their way to laud her military achievements.

Yet, in the end, it was Boudicca who would come to captivate as ‘warrior woman’ under Elizabeth I, possibly because of their legendary shared red hair. Æthelflæd’s name languished over the following centuries, but was revived in 1913 with a statue in Tamworth erected to commemorate her achievements. Even so, she would constantly pale next to the name of her father, Alfred the Great, who English historians continued to celebrate as scourge of the Danes and saviour of England.

It is only now, as we approach her 1,100-year anniversary, that Æthelflæd can take centre stage. Gloucester History Festival, of which I am president, has arranged talks, exhibitions and events to raise awareness of her place in England’s history. A new biography by Tom Holland is imminent, and she will hopefully attract media attention over the coming year. But it is an unfortunate characteristic of historical studies that so many important individuals have been left unexamined, because they have not fitted into the cast of ‘great white men’.

The tide is turning. Æthelflæd is as important now as she was more than a millennium ago. She is a rallying point to all those searching for strong female role models. She was a product of her age, constrained by her time, yet she achieved so much. It is now that she should be remembered as mother, diplomat, warrior and queen. Now she should be celebrated in the words of William of Malmesbury, as a “woman of enlarged soul”.

Dr Janina Ramirez lectures in art history at Oxford University, is a BBC documentary maker and president of Gloucester History Festival. Her new book, Riddle of the Runes: A Viking Mystery, will be published by OUP on 1 July

LISTEN AGAIN: To listen to BBC Radio 3’s episode of Anglo-Saxon Portraits on Æthelflæd, go to: bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pzrhp

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COLLECTOR’S EDITION: Read more on Æthelflæd in our special edition, The Story of the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. Order a copy for £9.99 at buysubscriptions.com/saxons