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

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