Hidden historical heroines – Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

Æthelflæd

Æthelflæd (868 – 918) was the eldest daughter of the beloved Saxon King Alfred the Great and was chronicled in the historical record as Myrcna hlæfdige, or ‘Lady of the Mercians’.

 

Born to Alfred, King of Wessex and his queen, Ealhswith of the House of Mercia, Æthelflæd (meaning “noble beauty”) knew only strife and warfare. The Danes (or Vikings, if you prefer) had been harrying the Saxon shores in an attempt at conquest for generations, but during the reign of Alfred their ferocity had increased under the leadership of a warrior called Guthrum. Alfred could not stand against them, and took to paying them a tithe in order to stay out of Wessex. Although ostensibly there was peace, Guthrum attacked the royal household at Chippenham at Christmas 878. Alfred and his young family had to flee on foot through the woods, struggling to make it to a stronghold island fortress in the Somerset marshes, known as Athelney.

 

Here Alfred came up with a bold plan, a vision for the future that the young Æthelflæd absorbed at her father’s knee. Alfred knew that to be strong, the Anglo-Saxons also had to be united – metaphysically as well as physically – under the same religion (Christianity) and adhering to the same canon of law. The crumbling Roman fortifications needed to be rebuilt and there needed to be a system where they could be manned year-round without neglecting the harvest, which so often happened in wartime, leading to famine. As other kingdoms fell under Danish rule, still Wessex remained defiant, and the Saxon ealdormen began to flock to Alfred’s banner and make his vision of a united country their own.

 

Alfred eventually triumphed over Guthrum, but it was a hard-won peace. Although Guthrum converted to Christianity and vowed not to enter Wessex again, Alfred had to give up swathes of Anglo-Saxon territory, mainly East Anglia and the eastern half of Mercia, to create a new Danish kingdom (hereafter known as the Danelaw). The territory also included the Mercian city of London. Alfred’s capital was in Winchester, which is where Æthelflæd grew into her teens during this short period of uneasy peace.

 

It was likely that Alfred knew all along it was only to be a short peace. For the six years afforded to him he worked to codify the laws of the country, formed a fine navy, rebuilt towns and cities that the Danes had sacked, and created a clear administrative system to control taxation and promote trade. He began to style himself as “King of the Anglo-Saxons” as opposed to merely King of Wessex.

 

The Ealdorman of Mercia was one Æthelred, who hated the Danes even more than most for the destruction they had wrought on his kingdom. He traveled to the court at Winchester to learn more about Alfred’s intentions for fortifying the Saxon kingdoms and there became impressed with the pre-teen princess, every inch her impressive father’s daughter, who spoke to him knowledgeably about defying the Danes.

 

Æthelred returned to Mercia and wrestled control of most of the western half back from the Danes (the historical record is tantalisingly unclear as to how exactly he managed this feat). In 884 he sent for Æthelflæd, now around sixteen, with the promise to not only make her his consort, but his co-ruler in Mercia, an almost unprecedented position for a woman, even the daughter of the great Alfred. Alfred himself was thrilled, seeing the union of Wessex and Mercia through marriage as another step towards his dream of a fully unified “Britannia”.

 

Viking conquests

Alfred wasn’t the only one to recognise the importance of this alliance. As Æthelflæd and her party made their way to Mercia for the marriage, the Danes attacked. Cool as anything, Æthelflæd commandeered a nearby ditch and used it as a military trench, defeating the enemy. In triumph she arrived at her new kingdom and was married.

 

Wessex and Mercia – or Æthelflæd and Æthelred – proved to be a dream team. In 885 a fresh band of Vikings appeared in Kent. The duplicitous Guthrum came to their aid and a furious Alfred joined together with his daughter and son-in-law to put Guthrum down. When they did, London and its territories was returned to the kingdom of Mercia. The uneasy peace with Guthrum and the Danelaw resumed.

 

Æthelflæd knew well what to do with the gift of a period of peace. Like her father before her she focused on securing and fostering trade and security, moving from one city to the next, rebuilding and fortifying, making Mercia a power to be wary of. In 888 she gave birth to her only child, a daughter, Ælfwynn, a difficult birth that left Æthelflæd unable to conceive again. Ælfwynn was doted upon, kept close to her mother and brought up to be a military leader. Æthelflæd was given wardship of her brother’s son and heir, Æthelstan – the future king – and Ælfwynn was favoured with the same treatment and education as her illustrious cousin. Ælfwynn, however, never left her mother’s side to marry, and some historians assume this was because Æthelflæd’s long-term plan was for Mercia to be assimilated into Wessex, and so did not want for there to be a ‘Mercian’ heir.

 

Æthelflæd and Æthelred continued to wage battle against the Danes, focusing on the midlands and into the north, whilst Alfred and his heir – Æthelflæd’s brother Edward – did the same in the south. Alfred died in 899, and Edward continued the fight. Having grown up closely with his sister, theirs was a natural alliance, and one that Æthelflæd needed more than ever, as in 902 her husband Æthelred was struck down by a strange, wasting disease.He was bed-ridden for the rest of his life, useless as a ruler, especially in this time of war.

 

Vikings chased out of Ireland tried to settle in Chester, but they were not peaceful. Æthelflæd led her army to Chester, where she barricaded the city against the Danes, orchestrating a defense that involved large stones being dropped from the battlements. The canny Danes of course just approached the walls with shields held defensively above their heads. Æthelflæd’s answer to this was to drop beehives instead, coating the Danes and their shields with sticky honey and associated colonies of furious bees. Chester was saved and continued to prosper.

 

By the time Æthelred succumbed to his strange illness in 911, Æthelflæd had long considered to be the ruler of Mercia in all but name. After she became widowed, she took on the portmanteau Lady of the Mercians, as opposed to Queen, wary not to offend any sensibilities and jeapordise her already socially precarious position. But in truth Æthelflæd was highly respected and beloved. She was respected even by the Danes; chroniclers record how many Vikings surrendered to her without a fight. She proved herself not only a skilled military leader, but also a talented tactician. The Annals of Ulster, for example, state that her military success was ‘through her own cleverness’.

 

Statue of Æthelflæd and her nephewIn 917 it finally seemed as if the matter of the Danes in Britannia would finally be decided. Æthelflæd – along with a alliance of kings (Anglo-Saxon, Welsh and Scottish – showing that even the Celts and Picts respected her) attacked the Danes in the city of Derby. It was a resounding victory, one so complete that the Danes of Leicester and York (great Viking strongholds) had absolutely no recourse but to surrender.

 

With dreadful timing, Æthelflæd died only days before the Danes would have surrendered York to her, recognising her as their overlord. No record remains to tell us what the lady died of; perhaps it was of battle wounds, but then again, Æthelflæd was around 50 years old, which was considered quite elderly at the time. She was mourned throughout the land and by all its people, even the Danes, who recognised her as a more than worthy adversary. She was buried in Gloucester, a city she had reconstructed from its Roman ruins, and laid out the core street plan, which is still that in existence today. She was succeeded as ‘Lady of the Mercians’ by her daughter, Ælfwynn, until her brother Edward came to assimilate Mercia into Wessex. It is likely that Ælfwynn lived out the rest of her life in a convent.

 

Æthelflæd was remembered as the ‘perfect’ leader; a formidable warrior, tempered by her gender to be kind and fair, brought up by her famous father to be intelligent and forward thinking. For all that she was careful to never be known as ‘queen’ in her lifetime, she comes down to us in history as exactly that. In the words of the Annals of Ulster, she was Famosissima Regina Saxonium, the “most famous Queen of the Saxons”.

Irish oral history and folklore about Aethelflaed! Fascinating paper.

Paper by: Dr. Kim Klimek, Assistant Professor, Metropolitan State University of Denver

 

Aethelflaed: History and Legend

Abstract

There are few mentions of Aethelflaed of Mercia in modern secondary scholarship, and only tantalizing information on her in the primary sources.[1] Most secondary sources outlined the basics of Aethelflaed’s place in history –admittedly a small part in the unification of England from Alfred to Aethelstan. Despite this, I always suspected there was more to Aethelflaed’s story than we could get to; another forgotten memory destroyed by the vagaries of time and the chronicler’s pen. And then, during a lecture on Alfred’s kingdom in my Medieval English History course, a student excitedly raised his hand as I spoke about Edward’s role in the destruction of Aethelflaed’s realm in Mercia. A native of Ireland, he said he’d heard stories about Aethelflaed from his grandmother, stories that dwelt on English perfidy against rightful rulers. I asked him to write the story down for me, as best he could recall. His tale outlined Aethelflaed and her daughter as the rightful rulers of Mercia, rulers who had close connections and warm relations with Irish kings. This remained true until Aethelflaed’s death, when Edward claimed Mercia as his own and killed his niece, Alfwynn. The story ended with Aethelflaed and Alfwynn being invited to live with the Tuatha de Danaan in their barrows under the earth, as rightful queens and beautiful women, where they then became responsible for deceitful tricks against any English on Irish soil, or against any English sympathizers. I was taken aback by two ideas: one, I could get oral histories from the Middle Ages, and two, I now had a small morsel of proof that Aethelflaed had been more than “Lady of the Mercians” and that her story had lived long past her small part in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Unfortunately, I could not get the story corroborated with the student’s grandmother, as she had died a few months prior. But this oral history led me to read the primary sources with new eyes — Aethelflaed’s history, written by her native Mercians, her neighbors the Irish and the Welsh, and by her Wessex conquerors and kin.

Aethelflaed, Queen and Lady of the Mercians, ruled the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia from 911-918. With both a dead husband and father and Danish invasions into Anglo-Saxon territory increasing, Aethelflaed not only held her territory but expanded it. She was a warrior queen whose Mercian army followed west to the Welsh and north to the Danes. She lost two battles and won at least three. Writers extolled her for her bravery and her cunning. Trying to piece together Aethelflaed’s reign in Mercia, we find bits and pieces of her in charters, annals, poems, and stories. Aethelflaed should be an Anglo-Saxon icon; however, she is barely a footnote in mainstream contemporary Anglo-Saxon sources. Interestingly, Aethelflaed is also not paired in an obligatory fashion to any of the men in her life in the primary sources. She is not Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred, sister of Edward, wife of Aethelred. She is Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians. Even most modern historians always link Aethelflaed to her male relatives. She is, however, consistently paired with men in the majority of the modern secondary sources. For example, F. T. Wainwright’s first sentence places Aethelflaed in context to the men in her life: “Aethelflaed was the daughter of Alfred the Great, sister of Edward the Elder, the wife of Ealdorman Aethelred of the Mercians and herself ruler of the Mercians for seven years after her husband’s death.” [2] More modern scholars attempt to place Aethelflaed in her context, but the men still take center stage. Helen Jewell does not mention Aethelflaed at all in her 2007 monograph on women in early medieval Europe and has only a short paragraph describing Aethelflaed’s biography in her book on 1997 medieval English women – and she writes twice as much on her husband Aethelred.[3] Most modern historians center their brief discussions on Aethelflaed as a military leader. Pauline Stafford calls her one of the greatest warrior queens of the age.[4] Christine Fell’s Women in Anglo-Saxon England devotes four pages to Aethelflaed.[5] David Jones writes that Aethelflaed “vowed a life of chastity after nearly dying in childbirth” and applied her energies to military pursuits, echoing William of Malmesbury.[6]  The more scholarly Battle Cries and Lullabies repeats the idea about Aethelflaed’s chastity but presents a more nuanced view of her military campaigns.[7] These descriptions of Aethelflaed are so common to be unremarkable – why would not we see Aethelflaed as an extension of her father Alfred’s military campaigns? Yet, in many of the primary sources, though brief, the mentions of Lady Aethelflaed seem to offer us much more than merely a daughter of a mighty military king.

The detail on Aethelflaed is tantalizingly brief; not enough material has been gathered on her for a modern monograph or even a full-length article. But her reign was important enough to warrant inclusion in at least four major annals and chronicles. Fell reminds us that we must remember the West Saxon bias of much of the Chronicle and consider that suppression of women’s achievements could be more about their place of birth than their sex.[8] It could be, she posits, a desire that “Mercian achievement should not be seen to outshine West Saxon” that caused Aethelflaed’s relegation to the background.[9]  A. Campbell suggests that Aethelflaed and Aethelred’s removal from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle might have been because Edward was intent on looking forward and “may well have found it [Aethelflaed’s deeds] irritating.”[10]

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is our most important source for the Anglo-Saxon period and that also holds true in searching for Aethelflaed. There are other chronicles that mention Aethelflaed in passing: Asser’s Life of Alfred the Great, Aethelweard’s Chronicle, the Annales Cambriae, and the Irish chronicle The Three Fragments contain information important for the study of Aethelflaed.[11] Sources outside the traditional Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, like the Mercian Register, the Charters, and the Irish Annals, show how Aethelflaed’s story has become part of a subversive history – the history of the conquered or almost conquered – pitted against the canonical history written for the conquerors. These subversive sources use her reign and the subsequent absorption of Mercia into Wessex as part of a wider narrative that undermines the ideology of Wessex conquest. Viewing all these sources shows us how her rule as Queen of Mercia functioned as complement to her father and brother’s consolidation of England against the Danes and as a corruption against that consolidation.

Canonical History: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser’s Life of Alfred

One of the most important sources we can examine is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a complicated text compiled from seven manuscripts and two fragments, and a unique source of information about England from the ninth to twelfth centuries.[12] The Main, or Canonical, Chronicle is cited as versions A, B, C, and D.[13] Written exclusively in a monastic setting, this source is perfectly placed to show how monks viewed the role of women in their world. The Chronicle is an annalistic history. A monk jotted important notes about a specific year within the text. Occasionally, dates would be written in advance, and a monk would have to fit details into a small space. Other years would be less busy, with only a death or a comet for mention. There is very little of the narrative style that gives us so much detail. The Chronicle may read like a mere listing of achievements, but it is far more than that – each entry has significance and meaning. We should read the stories concerned primarily with women with this in mind – that the chronicler chose to craft each entry with forethought and energy. As monks, the chroniclers had a calling far more important than that of author. Their lives were dedicated to God, not to history. Yet their brief reports are accounts of significant activities surrounding the monastic environment. These were events noteworthy enough to rouse the monk from prayers and into the scriptorium. While the chronicle may lack attempts at characterization or narrative, the fact of an event’s inclusion shows us that the monk felt it a thing worthy of memory.

Asser wrote the Life of Alfred late in 893. Concerned with portraying his patron as a great king, particularly to newly conquered areas, there is little negative information about Alfred. Because the work ends abruptly in 893, before Aethelflaed’s rule in Mercia, Asser’s work provides us with only a few details of the girl before she became the ruling woman.[14]

Aethelflaed was the first child of King Alfred the Great of Wessex and his Mercian wife, Ealhswith. Asser leads us to believe that, because she and her sister Aethelgifu were born before her father’s educational program was complete, neither of them benefited from his interest in education. He tells us that Alfred’s two sons, Edward and Aethelweard, and his youngest daughter Aelfthryth were brought up with tutors and that they were “devoted and intelligent students of the liberal arts.”  Perhaps Aethelflaed was too old to profit from Alfred’s new program. Still, as the eldest daughter of Alfred, she was important to her father and in 882/3 he married her off in a politically expedient move.

To secure power over the neighboring kingdom of Mercia, Alfred married his daughter to a powerful local ealdorman, Aethelred, at the previous Mercian king’s death. Alfred then acknowledged Aethelred and Aethelflaed as Lord and Lady of Mercia. Her marriage strengthened the relationship between Mercia and Wessex, one that Alfred well understood, as the son-in-law of one Mercian ealdorman, the brother-in-law of a second, and through the marriage of his daughter, father-in-law of a third. This tie between Wessex and Mercia would remain strong throughout Alfred and Aethelflaed’s lives. Aethelflaed’s husband received a woman with strong ties to Wessex, as the daughter of one king and sister to another, and to Mercia, through her mother and aunt, one a royal lady and the other a queen. He sought “not merely a West Saxon alliance but also a strengthening of his Mercian claims through female Mercian royal blood.” [15] Alfred also granted to Aethelred a sword at his death, a gift that Simon Keynes marks as a “sign of his special position as effective ruler of Mercia.”[16]

Subversive History: Mercian Register

The story of Aethelflaed appears mainly in the Mercian Register, inserted subsequently into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The oldest manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, cited as A, does not use the Mercian Register.[17] The Register was, however, added to manuscripts B and C “without any attempt to dovetail its annals into those of the Chronicle.”[18] The register forms then a discreet part of the Chronicle. As B and C have no entries for the years 915 to 934, the Mercian Register fills a gap within those manuscripts.[19] The D and E forms of the Chronicle also use the Mercian Register, but here the register is inserted into the regular annals.[20] The E version is closely tied to the D form and has interpolations of the Mercian Register. The Mercian Register gives us the fullest account of Aethelflaed’s life and of the Mercian conquest at her death. It disappears from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as abruptly as it appears. The last entry is in 927 when Athelstan succeeded to the kingdom of Northumbria and accepted the oaths of other kings on the island. The majority of the entries of any significant length concern Aethelflaed – she is in eight of the twenty notes. Two of the remaining twenty concern celestial events, one details a saint’s translation, five happened after her death, and the remainder concern Aethelflaed’s immediate family – her father’s death, her brother’s accession, her husband’s death, and her daughter’s removal.

At Alfred’s death around 900, his son Edward succeeded to a divided and invaded land and faced a contested inheritance in the form of his cousin Aethelwold and his Danish allies. He needed support from his father’s allies, and he found such support through his sister Aethelflaed and her husband. In 903, Aethelwold and his army “harried all over Mercia” and the Mercians joined Edward against Aethelwold and the Danes.[21] Battle broke out again in 910 and the Mercians had a great victory at Tettenhall, killing many Danish men. Notwithstanding it being a Mercian victory, the battle is mentioned in versions C, D, and E and in the Mercian Register in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Shortly after the battle at Tettenhall, Aethelred died, perhaps as a result of wounds he received during the battle.[22]

With Aethelred’s death, Aethelflaed would seem able for the first time to act as independent leader. F. T. Wainwright suggests that Aethelred was in poor health for much of his reign, stating that he “could do no more than offer advice from a sickbed.”[23] His sources for Aethelred’s continuing illness are the Irish Three Fragments, where Aethelred is “in a disease” from at least 902,[24] and a mention from Henry of Huntingdon, who wrote that Aethelred was “long infirm” before his death.[25] Wainwright states that we can believe these sources since Aethelred sent his army to battle alone in 909 and 910 and was not involved in the building of Bremesbyrig with Aethelflaed in 910 and therefore must not have been in any condition to command or direct Mercian efforts. This makes Aethelflaed ruler of Mercia as early as 902.

Nevertheless, it is in 910 when Aethelflaed began her concentrated building program without her husband’s assistance that we truly see her as leader of Mercia. When viewing Aethelflaed’s building processes, we must look to her father for instruction. Her construction of boroughs (or burhs) continued a process her father had begun during his reign. Alfred’s building campaign was a system of defense meant to protect his territory from Danish incursions. Wainwright links this building program to part of a national system, conceived by Alfred and continued by Aethelflaed and her brother. Based on a reading of the tenth-century document “Burghal Hidage,” Alfred’s burhs were designed to be permanent settlements of people and fortresses for his semi-permanent garrisons. Richard Abels writes that “the defensive system that Alfred sponsored, and its extension to Mercia under Ealdorman Aethelred and the “Lady Aethelflaed”, enabled his kingdom to survive.” [26] The burghal system of Wessex “became a tool for conquest and territorial consolidation after his death. Each stage of the conquest of the Danelaw by Edward the Elder, Ealdorman Aethelred and the Lady Aethelflaed was marked by the construction and manning of burhs.” [27] In fact, a Mercian charter talks of the building up of Worcester by both Aethelred and Aethelflaed “for the protection of all the people.” [28] The building of burhs, particularly for defense, shows us Aethelflaed’s military and social stratagems. She might not have held the formal title of queen for the Wessex monastic chroniclers, but she behaved like one.

Early in her rule, the burhs of Gloucester, Hereford, and Worcester were built. Aethelweard writes that the Danes had built fortifications in Gloucester in 877, so re-building this city as Mercian may have been of importance to Aethelflaed and her husband.[29] Of the eleven towns built during Aethelflaed’s reign, five were on the border with Wales. Although poorer in resources, the Welsh border was still a significant area that needed protection. Welsh leaders had taken oaths of loyalty to Aethelred, which probably extended to Aethelflaed upon his death. However, in 916, a Mercian abbot was killed while in Welsh territory. Three days later, Aethelflaed sent an army into Wales where she destroyed Brecenanmere and took thirty-four hostages, including a Welsh king’s wife.[30] Aethelflaed thus proved that she was not to be discounted in the military arena. She continued to fortify towns and assist her brother in repelling the Danish forces for the next two years. Her remaining seven burhs were situated along Danish borders. Some, like those of Tamworth and Stafford, were even in Danish-held lands. Aethelflaed and her Mercian army focused on repelling the Danes to the north and west of Mercia. Wainwright suggests that Aethelflaed fought not only against the Danes, but also against the Irish-Norwegians who invaded Northumbria in 914. She fortified two burhs in 914/915, Eddisbury and Runcorn – both of which were further north than those burhs in central Mercia that were directed against the Danes. According to the Three Fragments, Aethelflaed directed these fortresses against the Irish-Norwegian leader Ragnald, whom she met in battle in 918 where “her fame spread abroad in every direction.”[31] Wainwright suggests that Aethelflaed was the active leader against the Norwegians and that Edward was forced to step into this role once she died in 918.[32]

One of her more important conquests for Edward was Derby, which continued to hold a Danish garrison. The Mercian Register tells us that Aethelflaed “obtained the borough which is called Derby, with all that belongs to it” while Edward fought due south and east and occupied Towcester and Huntingdon.[33] Their armies were not conjoined, but their building policies leave little doubt that brother and sister prepared and executed their plans in conjunction with the other. Wainwright calls their “close and constant cooperation” a coordinated strategy that “deserves to be called brilliant.”[34]

New towns were a part of Alfred’s defensive scheme against the Danes and we can assume the same for the towns built by his daughter and son. While Aethelflaed concentrated on building burhs in the northwest portion of Mercia, Edward built fortifications in the east, only moving north after his sister’s death. We can see, then, that Aethelflaed’s building continued her father’s protective stance. Aethelflaed acted as a military commander when she built burhs in her territory. We cannot doubt that the creation of burhs impressed Alfred’s, and Aethelflaed’s royal power upon their subjects, both old and new.  The building processes might also have been her way of solidifying her own power over Mercia and of signaling this power to her enemies, her subjects, and perhaps even her brother.

The sources tell us little about the relationship, personal or otherwise, between Aethelflaed and her brother Edward. In fact, we do not sense any tension between the siblings until after Aethelflaed’s death. With her death, the cooperation between Mercia and Wessex was at an end and Edward needed no more pretext to Mercian freedom. In 918, the Mercian Register reports that she “died twelve days before midsummer in Tamworth, in the eighth year in which with lawful authority she was holding dominion over the Mercians.”[35] Version A tells us that Edward “occupied the borough of Tamworth, and all the nation in the land of the Mercians which had been subject to Aethelflaed submitted to him.”[36] The Mercian Register completes our description of Edward’s capture of Mercia from Aethelflaed’s daughter, Alfwynn, who was “deprived of all authority in Mercia and taken into Wessex.”[37] We can surmise that Aethelflaed meant her daughter to succeed her, as the Mercian Register confers upon her “authority” in Mercia. And, since Edward needed to “occupy” Tamworth in order to subject the Mercians to his authority, Alfwynn must have actually held some authority there. All these events happened directly after Aethelflaed’s death in Tamworth, indicating a sudden regime change.

Aethelflaed was obviously of importance to the Mercians and to the men who wrote these telling annals. Since we also have versions of these events from sources far later than during her life, we can see that it was easy to tell the same story without having Aethelflaed in evidence. During the same period, in the Canonical Chronicle, she is mentioned by name only at her death, in version A. The Mercian army, as commanded by Aethelflaed, is mentioned three times in the versions A, C, and D. The Mercian monks could also have written this story without its main actor, but they chose to include her and her most significant events, both before and after her husband’s death. For monks whose allegiances and family ties most probably lay within the district of Mercia, Edward’s abrupt invasion of Tamworth and his removal of Alfwynn must have struck these writers as close to the military advancements he had made on London and Oxford, two former Mercian cities. The canonical tale here is of Edward finishing his father’s consolidation of England under one king. To the Mercians, it may well have felt like a new invasion.

Subversive History: Charters

We can also gauge Aethelflaed’s importance by looking at another type of historical source: the Anglo-Saxon charter. She does not appear in these written records until she attests to her first charter, S 221, in 901. [38] In it, she and Aethelred appear as “rulers of Mercia” and they exchange land with a church and grant a gold chalice to an abbess. She appears with Aethelred in one other charter (S 223) and on her own in two charters (S 224 and S 225). Interestingly, the reliability of all five charters in which Aethelred appears alone has been questioned. Only one of Aethelflaed’s charters has received such a charge. In total, Aethelflaed appears in four of nine charters for the period between Ceolwulf II and Edward the Elder (874-924). This is more frequent than any previous Mercian queen, most of whom only appear once. Prior to Aethelflaed, Mercian queens appear in three of forty-nine charters. Of 604 charters of the West Saxons and Wessex, only one queen, Frithugyth, Aethelweard’s wife, appears as a co-benefactor (S 253). Out of the total 1163 Anglo-Saxon charters, queens appear as co-sponsors only twelve times. This gives Aethelflaed one-third, and Mercian women over half, of all the representations in 400 years.

The charters represent Aethelflaed’s actions: she works in concert with her husband before his death and she acts alone in her widowhood. Much of the belief in Aethelred’s and Aethelflaed’s submission to Alfred and Edward comes from their lack of royal titles and coinage. While there is a lack of royal title, both the kings of Wessex treated Aethelred and Aethelflaed as allies. In three Wessex charters, S 367, S 367a, and S 371, Edward acts “with Aethelred and Aethelflaed of Mercia.”  Edward’s charters all concern requests made by a duke Aethelfrith – the land in question existed in border areas between Mercia and Wessex. Edward may have been acting in concert with the Mercian rulers to stave off any accusations of impropriety in oft-disputed territory. Mercia was the weaker territory, but it nonetheless avoided external invasion, at least during Aethelflaed’s lifetime.

Subversive History: Irish Annals

The Annals of Ulster, the most prominent of Irish Chronicles, lists Aethelflaed only at her death: “918. Ethelfled, a very famous queen of the Saxons, dies.” These annals often list the deaths of queens and prominent women; from 439 to 1047, twenty-three women’s deaths are mentioned.[39] Of those twenty-three women, only three are mentioned without their concomitant men: the Saint Brigid, an Abbess of Cell Dara, and Aethelflaed. Aethelflaed is not mentioned in the Annals of Tigernach or the Annals of Inisfallen, despite those two chronicles taking much of their information from the Annals of Ulster. These two works only mention women without their male relatives in two instances: Brigid and Abbesses.

Wainwright suggests that Aethelflaed fought not only against the Danes, but also against the Irish-Norwegians who invaded Northumbria in 914. His evidence was the Fragmentary Annals and the Three Fragments. According to the Three Fragments, Aethelflaed directed these fortresses against the Irish-Norwegian leader Ragnald, whom she met in battle in 918 where “her fame spread abroad in every direction.”  But it is in the Fragmentary Annals where we receive our most tantalizing view of Aethelflaed. These annals were probably written prior to 1040 and the relative brevity of years (covering the years 573 to 914) is matched only by their verbosity and storytelling. Using earlier annals like Ulster as a source, the chronicler also included bardic tales and the delightful flights of fancy of the medieval historian who includes conversations and details to bring his annals to life. Fragmentary Annal 429 begins in 907 and abruptly ends in 914. The annal concerns the Norwegians in Britain and their encounters with Aethelflaed, Queen of the Saxons. Like other sources, Aethelflaed’s agency is direct and active: at signs that the Danes were amassing in Chester, “The Queen then gathered a large army about her from the adjoining regions, and filled the city of Chester with her troops.”[40] We are told that the Queen “holds authority over all the Saxons” and she specifically requests Irish help in defeating the Danes at Chester. She actively commands the battle and ends the seizure of the city: “The pagans were slaughtered by the Queen like that, so that her fame spread in all directions. Aethelflaed, through her own cleverness, made peace with the men of Alba and with the Britons, so that whenever the same race should come to attack her, they would rise to help her. If it were against them that they came, she would take arms with them. While this continued, the men of Alba and Britain overcame the settlements of the Norwegians and destroyed and sacked them.” Thus ends the Fragmentary Annal, with Aethelflaed making peace with the Irish and Welsh and commanding the island of Britain against the Scandinavian invaders.

No mention is made of Edward or Alfred. Little mention is made of her husband, Aethelred, except his illness and death. The strong warrior who consolidates England is a woman. And while she is a Saxon, she rules the entire south without a distinction made between Wessex and Mercia. Edward was forced to step into his sister’s role as defender against the Danes on the northern border once she died in 918. This can be evidenced by the two burhs Edward built in 919 directly north of Aethelflaed’s. It is not terribly unusual that the Irish sources would not write about Anglo-Saxon history – with Viking invasions and settlements of their own, and various kings battling for supremacy, Irish history was itself enough for the chronicles. None of the annals mention Alfred’s rule. The Annals of Ulster mention Aethelstan’s death and very few other Anglo-Saxon rulers.

If the Anglo-Saxons make so few entrances into Irish history, can these two mentions of Aethelflaed truly be subversive? The battle scenes in the Fragmentary Annals are detailed and complex (boiling cauldrons, beehives, and tunneling) and the peace treaty is outlined with a complete speech from the Queen’s messenger. The Annals all detail Colum Cille’s conversion of the pagans in the North of England. The Viking invasions had brought the British Isles into closer proximity than they had been in years. For two annals to detail Aethelflaed as an important queen seems significant. In the histories, Brigid is the only other woman who receives so much from the chroniclers. In the Irish ballads and legends, the poets often portray strong, often dangerous, and always beautiful women – and their men fare no differently. In the Fragmentary Annals, I believe we see a combination view of Aethelflaed. She met the requirement of Irish hero: she was a strong, dangerous, warrior able to throw off a foreign yoke – a yoke familiar to all the Irish writers.

Conclusion

Ian Walker suggests that the Mercian nobles accepted Aethelflaed as ruler as a way to keep Mercia independent from Wessex. The nobles did not seek Edward’s protection, and Edward did not advance into Mercia at Aethelred’s death. Instead, they chose to maintain Mercia and its traditions by supporting their Lady and her daughter, the latter of whom could later be married to an ealdorman, who in turn would rule them as king. Aethelflaed remained a widow in the seven years between her husband’s death and her own, thereby smoothing the way for her daughter’s accession and maintaining her own power. Whether this was her choice, the Mercian noblemen’s choice, or her brother’s, we do not know. We do know that Edward did not challenge her supremacy in Mercia, although he did gain control over London and Oxford, traditionally Mercian cities.

We may believe that the Wessex writers had more than a passing interest in removing Mercian players from the scene. And in reading those annals from outside of Wessex control, we do see Aethelflaed as a strong queen and leader of the Mercian forces. Aethelflaed is remembered, even in the tersest of contemporary sources, as the Mercian leader and a builder of military garrisons. But when we look at Aethelflaed in a larger context, outside of the canonical history written in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, we find a woman as strong as her father and brother, a woman whose territory ceased to be a kingdom after her death. Further work with Irish and Welsh oral histories may bring more new light to Aethelflaed and other lesser-known figures, figures who became sites of resistance and subversion against the stronger story of English hegemony. Perhaps Mercia needed to fall, for the larger story of Anglo-Saxon England to be complete. But in the Mercian Register and in the Irish Annals, I believe we see the hegemony of Wessex questioned, through the rule of a strong, and nearly forgotten, queen.

[1] Richard Coates, “Aethelflaed’s Fortification of Weardburh” in “Notes and Queries,” March 1998 60 (1), pgs. 8-12, where Coates is attempting to identify to places to the title Weardburh, with Aethelflaed hardly mentioned; Pauline Stafford has written more extensively on Aethelflaed in her works on tenth-century England. See Queens, Concubines and Dowagers, and Unification and Conquest: A Political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries, and Gender Family and the Legitimation of Power: England from the ninth to early twelfth century, among others.

[2] William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the Kings of England, trans. J. A. Giles (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1847; reprint, 1968), 123.

[3] Jewell, Women in Medieval England, 39, Jewell, Women in Dark Age and Early Medieval Europe.

[4] Pauline Stafford, Queens, Concubines, and Dowagers: The King’s Wife in the Early Middle Ages (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998).

[5] Fell and Cecily Clark, Women in Anglo-Saxon England and the Impact of 1066, 91-93.

[6] David Jones, Women Warriors: A History (Dulles, Virginia: Brassey’s, 1997; reprint, 2000), 57. While this is a popular history with many errors (for example, Jones has Aethelflaed fighting with Alfred in 912, long after his death), his evidence directly points to the sources he consulted.

[7] Linda Grant De Pauw, Battle Cries and Lullabies: Women in War from Prehistory to the Present (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1998), 83.

[8] Fell and Cecily Clark, Women in Anglo-Saxon England and the Impact of 1066, 12.

[9] Fell and Cecily Clark, Women in Anglo-Saxon England and the Impact of 1066, 12.

[10] Aethelweard, The Chronicle of Æthelweard, xxix.

[11] Aethelweard, The Chronicle of Æthelweard, ed. A. Campbell (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1962), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources, trans. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (New York: Penguin, 1983), Annals of Ireland: Three Fragments, trans. Duald Mac Firbis and John O’donovan (Dublin: Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society, University Press, 1860), Annales Cambriae, trans. John Williams Ab Ithel (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1860).

[12] Dorothy Whitelock, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1961), xi.

[13] Whitelock, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 61.

[14] Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources, trans. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (New York: Penguin, 1983).

[15] Pauline Stafford, “Political Women in Mercia, Eighth to Early Tenth Centuries,” in Michelle Brown and Carol Ann Farr, Mercia: An Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in Europe (London: Leicester University Press, 2001), 45.

[16] Asser, Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources, 323, n. 391.

[17] Whitelock, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, xi. Whitelock has a good introduction to the Chronicle which outlines each version and its peculiarities.

[18] Whitelock, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, xiv.

[19] Whitelock, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, xiv.

[20] Whitelock, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, xiv.

[21] Whitelock, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 59-60.

[22] Walker, Mercia and the Making of England, 94.

[23] Damico and Olsen, New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, 46.

[24] Annals of Ireland: Three Fragments, 227.

[25] Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, trans. Diana Greenway (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 167.

[26] Abels, Alfred the Great: War, Kingship, and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England, 199.

[27] Abels, Alfred the Great: War, Kingship, and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England, 217-218.

[28] Della Hooke, The Anglo-Saxon Landscape: The Kingdom of the Hwicce (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), 104.

[29] Aethelweard, The Chronicle of Æthelweard, 42.

[30] Whitelock, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 64. Brecenanmere has been identified as Langorse Lake, near Brecon.

[31] Annals of Ireland: Three Fragments, 247.

[32] Damico and Olsen, New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, 52.

[33] Whitelock, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 64.

[34] Damico and Olsen, New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, 49.

[35] Whitelock, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 67.

[36] Whitelock, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 67.

[37] Whitelock, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 67.

[38] Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters: An Annotated List and Bibliography. http://www.esawyer.org.uk/about/index.html Accessed June 14, 2013.

[39] The Annals of Ulster to 1311, http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T100001A/index.html. Accessed June 14, 2013.

[40] FA 429. http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T100001A/index.html. Accessed June 14, 2013.

2018 #Aethelflaed festival in Gloucester – you are invited!

To commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the death of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians a week long festival will be held in Gloucester, culminating on June 12 2018 with the unveiling of a new monument to this most important and influential woman.

Marketing Gloucester will be coordinating events with the other Citys, Towns and Burghs which have strong historical connections with Aethelflaed. We will be looking for contributions from (among others) Hereford, Bridgnorth (912); Tamworth (913); Stafford (913); Eddisbury (914); Warwick (914); Chirbury (915); Runcorn (915). Leicester, Chester.

If you wish to be involved, we will be planning lectures, Theatre, Art, procession and a renewed archaelogical forensic examination of remains from St Oswalds Priory.  Please contact emily@marketinggloucester.co.uk if you wish to be involved

Oxford DNB Biography

Oxford DNB Biography, copyright acknowledged and credited
 
Æthelflæd [Ethelfleda] (d. 918), ruler of the Mercians, was the daughter and first-born child of Alfred (d. 899), king of the West Saxons and later of the Anglo-Saxons, and his wife, Ealhswith (d. 902), daughter of Æthelred, ealdorman of the ‘Gaini’, and Eadburh who, according to Alfred’s biographer Asser, was a member of the Mercian royal house. Æthelflæd was born probably in the early 870s. By the time Asser had begun writing his life of Alfred in 893, and perhaps as early as 887, she had married the Mercian ealdorman and ruler Æthelred, who was certainly older, perhaps much older, than her. In the two or three years after the disappearance from the scene of Ceolwulf II in 879, Æthelred had come to rule over the English half of the Mercian kingdom that had been dismembered by the vikings, submitting to Alfred’s overlordship. His marriage to Æthelflæd cemented a close bond, which renewed viking attacks in the 890s only strengthened. After Æthelred fell ill at some time in the decade 899–909 the sources accord leadership of the Mercians to Edward the Elder or to his sister Æthelflæd. The West Saxon version of the Anglo-Saxon Chroniclerecords Edward sending a Mercian army against the vikings in 909 and 910. In the latter year Æthelflæd is credited with the building of a fortification at ‘Bremesburh’ (the location of which is now unknown), by the so-called Mercian register (embedded in texts B, C, and D of the chronicle). It may be this chronicle that is referred to by an early twelfth-century Durham catalogue as ‘Elfledes Boc’ (perhaps ‘Æthelflæd’s book’). She also seems to have had a particular association with Gloucester. The royal hall just outside the town at Kingsholm was used for a great council in 896, the mint was striking coins in the name of Alfred at the end of the ninth century, and the street pattern is strikingly similar to that of some of Alfred’s burhs in Wessex. Æthelflæd was responsible for the foundation of a new minster at Gloucester, originally dedicated to St Peter (and not to be confused with the old minster of St Peter, on the site of the modern cathedral). The church was a variation on an insular theme: a rectangular structure with a western apse, an unusual feature in England that must have owed something to Carolingian architecture.

On Æthelred’s death in 911, Æthelflæd was accepted as ruler by the Mercians: thereafter, the Mercian register describes her as Myrcna hlœfdige, ‘Lady of the Mercians’, the precise equivalent of Æthelred’s habitual title of Myrcna hlaford, ‘Lord of the Mercians’. Æthelflæd’s direct replacement of her husband seems to have encouraged her brother Edward to attempt to establish his family’s control of Mercia. He had already sent his son Æthelstan to be brought up by his sister and her husband. On the latter’s death he assumed direct jurisdiction over London and Oxford, two towns which Alfred had earlier put under Æthelred’s control and which were vital to the make-up of the kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons.

As the Mercian register makes clear, Æthelflæd shared in her brother’s effort to reconquer the Danelaw. The first attack came in 909, when the Anglo-Saxon Chroniclerecords that Edward sent a combined army of West Saxons and Mercians into the territory of the northern Danish army. It must have been this force that brought back to English Mercia the relics of the seventh-century Northumbrian royal saint Oswald from their resting-place at Bardney in Lincolnshire. Æthelflæd had them translated to her new minster at Gloucester, which afterwards took that saint’s name. The essential precursor to systematic reconquest was the extension into Mercia of the system of fortified sites—burhs—which Alfred had begun to construct in Wessex. These served the dual purpose of consolidating the defence of English territory and providing bases for attacks on viking-occupied areas. Sometimes two were built in one location, to dominate both banks of a river. While Æthelred was still alive, in addition to ‘Bremesburh’, Worcester (between 887 and 899) and Chester (907) had been fortified. Thereafter, brother and sister seem to have co-ordinated their construction programme. In 1912, at Bridgnorth and perhaps at the unlocated ‘Scergeat’, Æthelflæd had burhs built to prevent crossings of the Severn, which viking armies had accomplished twice in living memory. Edward constructed two at Hertford to defend the southern part of Mercia which he controlled and, having moved into Essex, one at Witham. In 913 Æthelflæd responded to viking raids into Edward’s territory by fortifying Tamworth and Stafford. The gap between Tamworth and Hertford was plugged in 914, when Edward had two burhs built at Buckingham, and Æthelflæd one at Warwick, while she also strengthened her northern defences with a burh at Eddisbury and, in 915, those of the Wirral with one at Runcorn. The burh at Chirbury, and perhaps that at the unlocated ‘Weardburh’, shored up the frontier with Wales in the same year, and Edward fortified Bedford, having received the submission of its viking army. In 916 he protected Essex from seaborne attack with a burh at Maldon. Æthelflæd must also have rebuilt the defences of Gloucester and Hereford during this period.

This activity provided the bases for the successes of 917. In that year, after Edward had ordered the occupation and fortification of Towcester, three separate viking forces attacked English territory, but were rolled back. Before the end of the year, all the Scandinavian armies of East Anglia had submitted to Edward and offered him their allegiance. In the meantime Æthelflæd sent an army that attacked and captured Derby and the area of which it was the centre, the first of the viking ‘Five Boroughs’ of the north-east midlands to fall. She lost ‘four of her thegns, who were dear to her’ there (ASC, s.a. 912, recte 917). In the following year, a co-ordinated campaign to capture the remaining four viking strongholds took Edward to Stamford, while Æthelflæd entered Leicester without opposition. She died, however, at Tamworth on 12 June 918, not sharing with her brother the completion of the reconquest of the southern Danelaw.

In the period of these campaigns, Æthelflæd also had other concerns that she seems to have tackled independently from Edward. There may be a kernel of truth behind the report of the Irish ‘fragmentary annals’—a late source, heavily embroidered with legendary accretions—that she led a combined army against the viking Ragnall (d. 920/21) at the second battle of Corbridge in 918: she may at least have sent a Mercian force to bolster that of Ragnall’s northern opponents. She may even, as the ‘fragmentary annals’ go on to suggest, have made an agreement with the Picts and the Scots for co-ordinated action against recently arrived Norse aggressors in Northumbria. Her prominence in the north is indicated by the Mercian register, which states that in 918 the men of York offered her their submission and allegiance. She can therefore be seen as laying the foundations for Edward’s (temporary) pacification of the north in 920. Relations with the Welsh are harder to fathom, the only recorded event being an expedition in 916 which captured the wife of the king of Brycheiniog as punishment for the murder of the Mercian abbot Ecgberht and his companions.

Æthelflæd was buried alongside her husband in the east porticus of her minster at Gloucester. Following her death, Edward initially allowed her daughter Ælfwynn, who must have been nearly thirty but was still unmarried, to hold a nominal rulership over the Mercians. After six months, however, she was ‘deprived of all authority in Mercia’ and carried off to Wessex (ASC, s.a. 919, texts B, C, D). At about the same time, the West Saxon version of the chronicle reports that all the people of Mercia, Danes and English, submitted to Edward. This act may have been premeditated: Edward’s dispatch of his eldest son, Æthelstan, to be brought up among the Mercian aristocracy suggests as much. The bringing together of two (or, with the Danes, three) peoples under one rule did not amount to the creation of a single state, at least initially, but it does seem to have provoked some resentment among the Mercians, which lay behind a rebellion at Chester in 924. It is not known whether Æthelflæd herself approved of her brother’s moves towards single rulership. In this context it is notable that her career emerges largely from the Mercian register, while the West Saxon version of the chronicle (text A), written within a few years, minimizes her significance. The latter text does not, however, obscure Æthelflæd’s achievement, by dint of her high birth, her marriage, the political situation, and, it seems sure, her own ability, of a distinctively prominent role for a woman of her era. It made an impression on later generations. Writing c.1130, Henry of Huntingdon declared her ‘to have been so powerful that in praise and exaltation of her wonderful gifts, some call her not only lady, or queen, but even king’ and follows this with a poem describing her as ‘worthy of a man’s name’ and ‘more illustrious than Caesar’ (Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon, 309). Behind this twelfth-century rhetorical gloss lies recognition of the vital role that Æthelflæd played in the creation of the English kingdom.

Marios Costambeys

Sources  

F. T. Wainwright, ‘Æthelflæd, lady of the Mercians’, Scandinavian England (1975), 305–24 · F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd edn (1971) · ASC, s.a. 910, 912–18 [texts B, C, D] · ASC, s.a. 918 [texts A, E] · AS chart., S 221, 223–5, 367, 1280 · S. Keynes, ‘King Alfred and the Mercians’, Kings, currency and alliances: history and coinage of southern England in the ninth century, ed. M. A. S. Blackburn and D. N. Dumville (1998), 1–46 · J. N. Radner, ed., The fragmentary annals of Ireland (1978) · Henry, archdeacon of Huntingdon,Historia Anglorum, ed. D. E. Greenway, OMT (1996) · C. M. Heighway, ‘Anglo-Saxon Gloucester to AD 1000’, Studies in late Anglo-Saxon settlement, ed. M. L. Faull (1984), 105–26 · P. R. Szarmach, ‘Æðelflæd of Mercia, mise en page’, Words and works: studies in medieval English language and literature in honour of Fred C. Robinson, ed. P. S. Baker and N. Howe (1998), 105–26

Places connected with Aethelflaed

Below is a list of places that had some significance during Aethelflaeds life and places on which she had influence with links to references highlighted in blue.

Gloucester

Capital City of Mercia and Aethelflaed and Aethelred, the city was rebuilt from the Roman ruins to a plan devised and implemented by Aethelflaed.  Buildings founded by her include St Peters Priory, now the site of Gloucester Cathedral and St. Oswalds Priory, the burial place for Aethelflaed and Ethelred. 

Winchester

Home to the young Aethelflaed for some of her teenage years, and capital of King Alfred the Great’s Kingdom of Wessex

Tettenhall

The battle of Tettenhall is claimed by at least one source to have been directed and won by Aethelflaed

Upon succeeding her husband Aethelflaed began to plan and build a series of fortresses in English Mercia, ten of which can be identified:

Bridgnorth (912);

Tamworth (913);

Stafford (913);

Eddisbury (914);

Warwick(914);With Danish invaders threatening, Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, orders the building of a ‘burh’ or an earthen rampart to protect the small hill top settlement of Warwick.

Chirbury (915);

Runcorn (915).

Three other fortresses, at Bremesburh ( probably Bromsgrove or possibly Bromyard), Scergeat and Weardbyrig (Wednesford?), have yet to be located.