Anyone questioned on the street today will have heard something about King Alfred the Great; even if they can only recall that he reputedly burned cakes, fought the Danes or established the English legal system, they will at least be able to make an immediate connection with Anglo Saxon England. His name has become synonymous with judicious rule, academia and piety. Ask that same person on the street for information about Æthelflæd however and you are bound to draw a blank; although a prime mover in the war against the Danes, reinstating Roman defences and founding several great abbeys, there was just one flaw in this heroic figure … she was a woman.
The Anglo Saxon world, recorded by monks with little interest or knowledge of women, was written in terms of male activity. If mentioned at all, even the activities of female rulers were often dealt with in a few lines and given little significance. Consequently, the modern historian has to dig deep and read between the scanty, musty lines of script to discover the often potent dynastic role that some women played.
Æthelflæd was born c. AD869; her childhood necessarily brief, she was eight years old when her father emerged from the marshes at Aethelney to fight at Edington and approximately fifteen when her marriage to Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia took place. The union cemented an alliance between the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia allowing the Anglo Saxons to stand firm against the Danes and begin to take back the parts of Mercia under Dane control. Some sources report that, after the protracted and difficult birth of her daughter Ælfwynn, Æthelflæd refused to engage in sexual relations with Æthelred in order to avoid any further pregnancies, preferring to concentrate on military matters. The accuracy of this tale is difficult to judge now but one has only to consider the percentage of Anglo Saxon women who died in childbirth to appreciate that it would not have been an unwise decision. It is probable that the story arose when she and Æthelred failed to produce any further children, something that could easily have been the consequence of the difficult labour.
Together with Alfred, Æthelred and Æthelflæd went into immediate action to win back lands that had been lost to the Danes. The recapture of London, which had been a part of Mercia for two hundred years before being taken by the Danes was, a massive success for Alfred and his adherents. In a noble gesture that gained Alfred the favour of all Mercia he returned the city to Æthelred in 886. With London in their pocket a positive change took place in the outlook of the English and the alliance strengthened both the Anglo Saxon resolve and their effectiveness in battle.
Although Æthelred and Æthelflæd never seem to have taken the formal titles of ‘king and queen’ there is little doubt that theirs was a joint rule and by 900 they were actively moving against the Danes in Mercia by erecting a number of burhs along the border. Sources do not state the nature of the debilitating illness that affected Æthelred in 888 but, during his sickness, Æthelflæd continued to rule singlehanded until her husband’s demise in 911. Raising fortifications and refortifing crumbling Roman strongholds Æthelflæd proved herself to be an objective and discerning leader. At his death in 899 Alfred’s crown was passed on to Æthelflæd’s brother, Edward and Wessex and Mercia continued in their united front against the Danes.
When, after a protracted period of ill health, Æthelred died in 911 Æthelflæd, unlike many widows who remarried or retired to a nunnery, continued to rule alone but her official title remains indistinct. Her role as leader of the Mercian’s though is undisputable; five sources name her as ‘Queen’, five as ‘Lady of the Mercians’’, two as ‘governor’ and one as ‘monarch’. Æthelflæd, it seems, was as a determined and effective a ruler as her father had been; she was well known and respected both as a monarch and as a campaigner. The Annales Cambriae (Welsh annals) allow that she was ‘very famous’ (918.15) while the fragmentary Annals of Ulster state that her military success was ‘through her own cleverness’ (180.459).
Æthelflæd lost little time in taking action against the Danes and the chroniclers, albeit briefly, did allow her some credit for her achievements. Among other activities Æthelflæd is recorded as having built a fort at Bridgenorth in 912 and then in 913 two fortresses, one at Stafford and another at Tamworth. Between 916 and 920 Æthelflæd seems to have been especially active; she invaded Wales and took Brecknock in 916, The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records that Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, three days after the murder of Abbot Ecgberht and his companions, ‘sent an army into Wales and broke down Brecon mere (Brecenanmere or Llangors Lake) and there took the wife of the king as one of thirty four’. (ASC. The Abingdon Manuscript (c) 916).
During this period the Saxon frontier was encroaching further and further upon the Danish lands and, Æthelflæd, working in close association with Edward who was warring in the south, next took Derby where she lost some of her most efficient and dearly loved thegns. The Abingdon Manuscript records ‘Here, before Lammas, God helping, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, took possession of the stronghold which is called Derby, together with all that belonged to it; also four of her thegns, who were dear to her, were killed there inside the gates.’ (ASC. Abingdon manuscript 917 p.101)
The parts of Mercia under Danish control was now under pressure from both fronts for, while Æthelflæd was engaged in taking Derby, Edward was busy suppressing Colchester. By this time only Nottingham, Leicester, Stamford and Lincoln remained in Danish hands and around the year AD 918 Æthelflæd peaceably took control of the town of Leicester. There are little details to explain the lack of bloodshed on this occasion but one could quite reasonably assume that her reputation for military success preceded her and that the Danes judged discretion to be the better part of valour.
In 918, shortly after the defeat of Leicester, Æthelflæd died at Tamworth, the event is mentioned briefly in the chronicles but the manner of her death must remain a mystery. The Winchester Manuscript records ‘And then when he (Edward) was settled in the seat there (Stamford), his sister Æthelflæd at Tamworth, died twelve days before midsummer;’ The Annales Cambriae state quite simply ‘Aelfled regina obiit’ (Queen Æthelflæd died) while the Annals of Ulster comment that ‘Ethelfled, a very famous queen of the Saxons, dies.’
The military alliance between Edward and Æthelflæd culminated in spectacular military success, the threat from the Danes was perilous and, without her, Wessex and all England could have been lost. The romantic picture of brother and sister fighting side by side for their country is a pleasing one and Edward’s respect for his sister may have been immense. His son, later king Athelstan, was brought up in Æthelflæd’s court where he learned leadership, military strategy and conduct. As heir to the throne the nobles of Edward’s court would have been clamouring for the honour of instructing the future monarch and yet that honour went to the king’s widowed sister, the Lady of the Mercians. This allegiance between siblings may have stemmed from respect and affection but the possibility should not be ruled out that Edward’s motives could have been slightly more duplicitous. Æthelflæd’s power and force of arms was considerable and it may have been easier to work with her rather than to risk her working against him. Keen to maintain his authority over Mercia, Edward needed to prevent the possibility of any resurgence of Mercian independence and his sister’s death, although regrettable, may have provided him with the opportunity to do so.
On Æthelflæd’s death the rule of Mercia passed to her daughter Ælfwyn but, according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, after just one year (although some historians believe it could have been a matter of weeks) ‘the daughter of Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, was deprived of dominion over the Mercians, and carried into Wessex, three weeks before mid-winter; she was called Ælfwynn.’ Paul Hill, in his book The Age of Athelstan sees Ælfwynn’s abduction to be ‘in keeping with the style of his (Edward’s) leadership and the necessity to quickly sort out what was surely a crisis.’ (p.98) With Æthelflæd out of the picture the abduction of Ælfwynn was crucial to Edward’s intention to turn the allegiance of the Mercians to the royal line of the West Saxons.
The sources from the period are reasonably detailed of Alfred, Edward and Athelstan (Alfred of course commissioned the monk Asser to document his life history) yet the references to Æthelflæd are few and comparatively brief. Her contemporary chroniclers must have deemed her unworthy of interest or, as Paul Hill believes, ‘Æthelflæd was a fellow Anglo-Saxon in this era of reconquest, there was always a danger that the ghost of Mercian independence would haunt Wessex at a time when unity was crucial’ (p.87). It is a great injustice that, due to her gender, one of England’s most valiant defenders should be all but forgotten while the less worthy are remembered. She led her armies against Danish and Norwegian invaders, sent a retaliatory raid against a Welsh kingdom and successfully besieged and captured the Viking stronghold at Derby. During her reign she implemented the defence of Chester, refortified or built ten burhs to defend Mercia against the Vikings and headed a coalition of the Mercian, Northumbrian, Welsh, Scots and Pictish kingdoms in their opposition to the Danish invaders.
Few historians have dedicated study to her, most notably F. T Wainwright in his essay The Lady of the Mercians provides as much historical detail as possible and, more recently, Jane Wolfe has dealt well with the sketchy records to produce an objective modern perspective of Æthelflæd. In the hands of a few bad novelists Æthelflæd has been portrayed as a tragic, saintly figure with over much emphasis upon her womanhood. In the twelfth century, long after her death, Henry of Huntingdon was to remember Æthelflæd in this poem translated from Latin in 1727 by Francis Peck, in his book the History of Stafford.
O potent Elfleda! Maid, men’s terror!
You did conquer nature’s self; worthy
The name of man! More beauteous nature’s form of
A woman; but your valour shall secure
Man’s higher name. For name you only need
Not sex to change; unconquerable queen,
King rather, who such trophies have obtained!
O virgin and virago both farewell!
No Ceasar yet such triumph hath deserved
As you, than any, all, the Ceasars more renown’d!
A fitting epitaph you may think for a hero, although the author was unable to overcome the fact that Æthelflæd were a only a woman, free himself of gendered ideals or concentrate upon her real worth as a person of considerable military talent.
Copyright © Jarnopp 2007
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Murray, John Alfred the Great: the man who made England (Justin Pollard 2005)
Stansbury, Donald Roy Webster The Lady Who Fought the Vikings (Imogen Books: 1993)
Stansbury, Donald Roy Webster The Lady of the Mercians, Builder of English Towns
Anglo-Saxon England (Sir Frank Stenton: The Oxford History of England Vol. 2)
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles ed. by Michael Swanton (London: Pheonix Press, 2002)
Whitelock, Dorothy The Beginnings of English Society Pelican history of England :2 (Penguin Books, 1952)