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”.

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

Æthelflæd in Brief

 Lady of the Mercians

Æthelflæd was the was the eldest child of a great king, Alfred of Wessex. She jointly ruled Mercia with her husband, leading the battle against the Danes in the Midlands and the North and working to unite England.  After her husband’s death in 911, she became the sole ruler of Mercia and became known as ‘The Lady of the Mercians’.

She personally led expeditions against the Vikings. The threat that the Danes would take over all of Mercia and Wessex was very real and, without her input, all could have been lost. The military alliance between Æthelflæd and her brother King Edward was an outstanding success.

Like her father, she proved to be an objective and discerning leader, raising fortifications, refortifying crumbling Roman strongholds and building a number of fortified towns along the border. The association of Æthelflæd and her brother Edward saw the Saxon forces push further into Danish-held territory, until little of Mercia remained under Viking control. 

She was not only a great warrior but also a clever tactician and negotiator. Formidable and warrior-like but just and fair, she won the admiration and respect of the people of Wessex and Mercia. Both English and Danes mourned her death.

Æthelflæd Picture Gallery

 

All info from this site > http://historysheroes.e2bn.org/hero/whowerethey/4292