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9 June 2020

Tuesday Talk with my guest Annie Whitehead and Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians



On 12th June, 918, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, died at Tamworth. This very fact alone is remarkable. For most of her life, this ancient capital of Mercia had been in ‘Viking’ hands and only the southwestern portion of Mercia was still ‘free’. Only a few years earlier it would have been inconceivable that an English ruler would once again be in control of Tamworth.

Æthelflæd as depicted
in the cartulary
of Abingdon Abbey
Æthelflæd was never a queen, though she ruled a kingdom in all but name. It is often bewailed that little in modern times has been written of her, but the truth is that for all her fame, there is scarcely any information about her life. Whilst the post-Conquest chroniclers waxed lyrical about her, the only information contained in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the annal known as the Mercian Register, which focuses on her life and covers the years 902–918. 

Those years are significant, because they cover the period between her husband falling ill, and her own death, and so they mark the period of her ‘reign.’

Since the flight of her uncle Burgred from invading Danes in 874, and the death of his rival to the throne, Ceolwulf II a few years later, Mercia had no longer been ruled by kings. From that period until 911 Mercia was ruled by a man named Æthelred, whose origins are obscure but who was clearly a capable military leader, working alongside Alfred the Great to remove the Danes from occupied London in 886. At around the same time, Alfred sealed this alliance by marrying his daughter, Æthelflæd, to the leader of Mercia. 

In the early days of their marriage, Æthelred was an active leader and there is little mention of his wife. He is recorded as being a joint sponsor with Alfred when Hasteinn the Dane was baptised as part of a truce arrangement in 893, and a near contemporary chronicler recorded his presence alongside Alfred’s son, Edward, at a siege on Thorney Isle after the battle of Farnham in the same year. Danish armies were also engaged at Buttington by the forces of Æthelred of Mercia and the ealdormen of Wiltshire and Somerset. But after 902, Æthelred ceases to be mentioned by name and if we turn to other sources it seems clear that he fell ill around this time.

An Irish annal, known as the Three Fragments, recorded that he was incapacitated in some way but still able to give strategic commands to his wife, stating that in 907 when Chester was occupied by the enemy, messengers were sent to Æthelred who was ‘in a disease and on the point of death’ and that, following his suggestions, his wife successfully restored Chester, wresting it from the enemy’s control. 

I’ve never been convinced by the picture of Æthelflæd as a ‘warrior woman’ but by 902 her brother Edward was king in Wessex and he clearly felt able to trust her to lead the Mercians when her husband fell ill. The Mercian Register records no campaigns of any kind in the years 902–911 which could be attributed to her but it does outline her later campaign of building fortified towns, a strategy which was planned to work in tandem with Edward’s own building works.


Edward the Elder
MS Royal 14b vi
Between them, brother and sister pushed back the invaders, retaking the strategically important Five Boroughs of the Danelaw (Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Stamford and Lincoln) and in 917 it was Æthelflæd’s forces which took Derby, where four thegns who were ‘dear to her’ were killed within the gates, and this description of them shows how much she valued the men who fought in her name. 

If we can believe the Irish Annals, Æthelflæd was also conducting a campaign against the Norse who came from Dublin. In the year of her death, she was petitioned by the men of York who came seeking her aid and pledged allegiance to her, so clearly even if she didn’t ride into battle herself, she commanded an army thought capable of assisting such petitioners. 

In an age where women rarely ruled in their own right - indeed there is only one lady named in the regnal lists, and she was not queen for very long, or very successfully - the achievements and the status of Æthelflæd really stand out as being exceptional.

Æthelflæd's statue at Tamworth Castle
© Annie Whitehead
But I want to make another point about this lady, which is often missed among the discussions about whether or not she wielded a sword or if she has been neglected by history and historians, and indeed whether her activity was deliberately suppressed by the English chroniclers.

Her brother raised no objection to her rule, either while her husband was ill, or after his death. He clearly loved, respected and admired her. He took Mercia under his direct control after she died, but not immediately. And here’s where the interesting point can be made.

Æthelflæd had a daughter, Ælfwynn, who remained unmarried and was with her mother on campaign in 915. We know this because she witnessed a charter in that year at Weardbyrig, an unidentified place but a location of one of the new burhs. Assuming that she was conceived before her father fell ill, she would have been of marriageable age by that date, and clearly she was old enough to be with her mother, perhaps learning the ‘trade’ of leadership. Was Ælfwynn still single because it was assumed that she would take over from her mother? Whether it was planned or not, this is precisely what happened and the Mercian Register complained that six months later she was ‘deprived of all authority’ by her uncle, Edward.

So yes, she did rule after her mother, however briefly, which means that the Mercian elite were in favour of her leadership. And it also means that a woman succeeded a woman as leader of a kingdom, something which would not happen again in England for 615 years. And this, to me, is perhaps the most significant part of the whole story.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for having me over to talk about Æthelflæd, Helen!

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  2. Such a well informed article, getting so much fact into a short space. Aethleflaed is my heroine and your books, both fact and fictional, have really brought her to life for me. Thank you Annie and to Helen for hosting you.

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  3. My pleasure Annie - and I agree Richard!

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