The Viking Great Heathen Army had devastated the Anglo-Saxon world. Four Anglo-Saxon Kings were dead or exiled, and the Vikings were masters of the Danelaw, which spanned vast swathes of East and North England. The land of Mercia was partitioned down the middle, with fractious Viking jarls ruling the from the fortresses of the Five Boroughs. And the Lord of the Mercians, Æthelred, was incapacitated: struck down by some terrible illness, whilst his shattered lands were in the hands of the invaders. Enter Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia – an educated and shrewd political operator, Æthelred’s wife ably stepped into the shoes vacated by the stricken ealdorman.
Aethelflaed steered the Mercian rump state through the choppiest of waters, dispensing justice, signing laws and even leading armies in the field. After her husband’s death, Aethelflaed remained as head of the Mercian state in her own right: becoming the only female ruler of any Anglo-Saxon polity, and leading the reconquest of Viking Mercia for her people. The daughter of Alfred the Great, Aethelflaed remains a poorly understood figure – but her life is a fascinating contrast against the backdrop of West Saxon women who were ghettoized from public life. This is the tale of the Anglo-Saxon’s only Queen.
Birthed In Fire
Æthelflæd’s story begins amid the tumult of the concerted invasion of the Great Heathen Army. We’ve examined it in depth in our previous historical blogs – but to summarize it here. In 865 CE, a large force of Scandinavian warriors landed on the shores of England, not to raid for mere loot but to take the biggest prize of all: the permanent conquest of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. Over a bitter 14 years, the Vikings rampaged across the Anglo-Saxon world, conquering three of the four large Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia), and briefly occupying the Kingdom of Wessex. But under the leadership of a brilliant young King named Alfred, the West Saxons fought a guerilla war against the Viking invaders and expelled them. Alfred would force their leader Guthrum to submit to him, in return for a permanent partition of England between the restored Kingdom of Wessex and the Scandinavians (or ‘Danes’) – known as the Danelaw.
King Alfred of Wessex was Aethelflaed’s father. She was the first child born to Alfred and his wife Ealhswith in 870 CE – Alfred was not yet King, but he was a distinguished war leader, leading the armies of his elder brother who was King before him. As with many Anglo-Saxon names, her name is a compound of two words: æðel, meaning ‘noble’, and flæd – a word of uncertain meaning. Her name is translated by scholars variously as ‘overflowing with nobility’ or ‘noble beauty’. Aethelflaed’s mother Ealhswith was the daughter of an Ealdorman of Mercia, and also probably a descendent of the Mercian Kings of old. Thus, in Aethelflaed the dynastic union of Wessex and Mercia was embodied. In more settled times, this would have been a major diplomatic coup for Alfred, and might well have opened the door to a permanent union between the two states – were it not for the fact that she was a girl.
West Saxon Sexism
In the wealthy agrarian Kingdom of Wessex, even high-status women were held in much lower esteem than their menfolk. Women rarely participated in politics or war, and they were expected first and foremost to be managers of the domestic sphere, where they could wield more subtle forms of power. For example, we only know even the name of Aethelflaed’s grandmother Osburh (wife of old King Æthelwulf of Wessex) because King Alfred’s biographer Asser mentions her in passing as “a most religious woman, noble in character and noble by birth”. The wives of the Kings of Wessex were not even referred to as queens in contemporary documents, if they feature at all. In contrast, Mercian and Northumbrian noble women often took a much more active role in politics: the names of noble women appear in official documents, where they witnessed charters and dispensed justice. This is not to say that the northern Kingdoms were not sexist – all Anglo-Saxon societies were deeply misogynistic, often motivated by the dominant religious ideology of the day. But there is no doubt that noble women were afforded more freedoms and respect in Mercia and Northumbria.
In this context, it is surprising that King Alfred chose to break with West Saxon tradition, and gave her an education equal to that of his subsequent sons. We know that Alfred’s court was unusually literate: the Welsh monk Asser puts a famous quote into Alfred’s mouth in his biography of the King: “Therefore a man never attains virtue and excellence through his power; rather he attains power and authority through his virtue… Study wisdom, therefore, and when you have learned it, do not neglect it, for I say to you without hesitation that you can attain authority through wisdom“. Aethelflaed’s younger brother Edward, future King of England, was given a personal tutor, and elsewhere it is mentioned that Aethelflaed’s education was the same as that of her brothers – so we can imagine Aethelflaed receiving teaching in the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) under the close eye of her father’s churchmen. However, we can guess that Alfred was present for little of her early childhood, being constantly on campaign against the Great Heathen Army.
Aetheflaed in Exile
The West Saxon royal family were celebrating the Christmas of 878 CE at Alfred’s estates in Chippenham, when Guthrum’s Vikings mounted their surprise assault on Wessex. Although we cannot be certain of the aftermath, later accounts describe how Alfred was caught totally unawares and without a fyrd to defend him – hurriedly gathering Ealhswith, six-year-old Aethelflaed and the two-year-old Edward and fleeing into the marshes. But Alfred did not submit: for the following six months, the West Saxon King led a campaign against Guthrum from whatever makeshift strongholds he could defend, finally bringing the Vikings to terms at the Battle of Edington. Although it is unlikely that Alfred would have taken his family on campaign with him, this chaotic period would inevitably have had a great impact on the young Aethelflaed.
Mercia, Mercia, Mercia
Aethelflaed next appears in the historical record about a decade later, around the age of sixteen and a grown woman according to the customs of the Anglo-Saxons – when she was married to Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians. The intervening decade had seen the calcification of the Danelaw: now, the Vikings were well-entrenched in Northumbria, East Anglia and the eastern half of the former Mercian Kingdom. The western half of Mercia had remained nominally independent under a Mercian named Ceolwulf, but it was clearly a shadow of its former self: only fifty years before, Mercia had been the pre-eminent Kingdom in England, exercising overlordship over almost all of the other Kingdoms. Without the Viking conquests and the destruction of Mercia, English history would look very different. King Ceolwulf disappeared from the historical record around 879 CE, whether to death or defeat we know not – but his successor was an energetic ealdorman named Æthelred. Without much prospect of dislodging the well entrenched Vikings in the former-Mercian Five Boroughs, Æthelred attempted to expand Mercian domination westward into North Wales – but he met with disaster at the Battle of the Conwy. Following this defeat, the remaining South Welsh Kingdoms which were still nominally under Mercian control switched their allegiance to King Alfred of Wessex.
Reading the writing on the wall, Æthelred accepted that there was no prospect for an independent Kingdom of Mercia, and so he submitted to the overlordship of King Alfred around 883 CE. It may be that Aethelflaed’s hand in marriage could well have been part of the formal submission performed by Æthelred and the Mercians – but we shouldn’t think of this as the creation of a new alliance. Mercia and Wessex were already entangled by the marriage of King Alfred and Ealhswith two decades earlier, and they had been co-operating militarily throughout the war with the Vikings. Rather, the marriage of Aethelflaed and Æthelred should be seen as strengthening that alliance, and as a very clear statement of intent from the Anglo-Saxons against the Vikings. Despite the decade that separated them in age, the two would make a formidable pairing that would see Mercia reconquer its lost territories and restore its glory – albeit under the permanent overlordship of Wessex.
A Marriage of Convenience
The south-west of Mercia (modern-day Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Shropshire) had escaped the Viking invasions comparatively unscathed compared to the eastern parts of Mercia (especially the Five Boroughs, which were wholly lost). Thus, Aethelflaed and Æthelred based themselves in this area, building a fortified capitol at Worcester. Learned Mercian scholars were a key part of church and lay administration in both Mercia and Wessex, and the Mercians began a healthy intellectual exchange with the West Saxons during Aethelflaed’s time. In the military realm, the West Saxon burh system was extended northward into Mercia, uniting the two territories militarily as well as politically. Though in this period Aethelflaed remained clearly subservient to her husband in most spheres, her name does appear jointly with Æthelred’s in some documents – for example, a grant of land and a golden chalice to the shrine of St. Mildburg at Much Wenlock. This follows the broader Mercian tradition of visible and respected queenship, which, as we have noted, was conspicuously absent in Wessex. The Mercian city of London, then a relatively unimportant trading settlement on the Thames which had suffered repeated changes of hands during the Viking war, was occupied by King Alfred who began to rebuild the city – Æthelred and the Mercians were restored to control of the city a few years later, and it began to grow steadily.
Around this time, the Mercian couple had a daughter, named Ælfwynn – though it appears the birth was unusually difficult, and she would be their only child. Some chroniclers assert that after Ælfwynn’s birth, Aethelflaed abstained from further sexual activity for the rest of her life, although this may merely be a post-hoc explanation for the lack of further children, obstetric medicine and an understanding of the causes of infertility being centuries off. But if Aethelflaed did abstain from sex, it doesn’t appear to have affected the bond between she and Æthelred – perhaps we can better understand their union as a marriage of convenience between two extremely savvy political operators rather than a love-match.
Losing a Father, Gaining a King
Æthelred and his father-in-law King Alfred fought off a fresh invasion of Vikings under the legendary Viking adventurer Hastein in 892-6 CE, which had threatened to destabilize the fragile Danelaw and reignite major hostilities between Dane and Anglo-Saxon. But this was to be one of the last campaigns the King would fight. Alfred died comparatively young, aged only about 50, 899 CE – and he was succeeded by his eldest son Edward. The new King had grown up with his elder sister Aethelflaed, and the two clearly shared a close personal bond in adulthood. However, Edward’s accession would not be smooth – the siblings’ cousin Æthelwold refused to accept Edward’s claim, and contested the succession.
Æthelwold’s Revolt, as the brief conflict has become known, saw Aethelflaed and Æthelred throw their weight unsurprisingly behind Edward, and the West Saxon supporters of Æthelwold were bolstered by support from the Viking states in North and East England. Mercia was raided heavily by the Danes, who withdrew when confronted with the joint armies of the English, who were now thoroughly used to co-ordinated action. Though the Danes managed to catch a Kentish contingent alone at the Battle of the Holme in 902 CE, the resulting battle was grievious for both sides, with both the King of the East Anglian Danes and Æthelwold falling in the melee. At a stroke, this secured King Edward on the throne, and it heavily set back the East Anglian Vikings, meaning that Mercia again had breathing room to regroup, rebuild and prepare.
A New Century Dawns
So at the opening of the 10th century, Aethelflaed and Æthelred had secured themselves a burgeoning and stabilized Kingdom. Around his accession to the throne, Edward sent his son Æthelstan – another future King, and the first to claim the title of King of England – to foster at his sister’s court in Mercia. There, the boy was given a first class education by the monks of Mercia, and Aethelflaed passed on the tradition of her own upbringing by educating young Ælfwynn alongside her cousin. The Mercian kingdom was now reasonably safe, and would never again be seriously threatened by the Vikings: after the disaster at the Holme, the Vikings seemed to be more occupied with internal squabbles, and the Mercians had time to strengthen their hold on the north of Mercia, fortifying the town of Chester in preparation for further expansion into the Danelaw. As well, the Mercian rulers had managed to co-opt lucrative land cessions from Bishop Werferth of Worcester, beginning the secularization of rule in the region. Everything was beginning to look up.
The Lady Emerges?
Now in her early 30s, Aethelflaed had benefited from the kind of education usually reserved only for the wealthiest male aristocrats, and had gained much firsthand knowledge of government at the hand of her husband. She was clearly popular, capable and effective – even able to rule competently in her own right. Which might explain the unusual records we begin to discover from about 902 CE onward. We must caveat all of the following with the usual complaints about the paucity of sources in the Anglo-Saxon era, but the continuity of Mercian records (due to the monks and theologians at Gloucester we mentioned earlier) give us more insight than we might otherwise have had. Many historians theorize that Æthelred became ill or otherwise incapable of rule in the early 10th century – and that rule instead fell to his more-than-capable wife Aethelflaed. Textual evidence for this is frustratingly incomplete, and it relies upon reading documents in the light of her later rule in her own right after Æthelred’s death in 911 CE – but there are some concrete points where records indicate this to be the case.
For example, a contemporary Irish source known as the Three Fragments records that in 907 CE some Norse Vikings expelled from Dublin petitioned the Mercians to settle in their lands, and that Aethelflaed granted permission in the name of her incapacitated husband. These Vikings, however, did not settle for long, and instead launched a raid on Chester. The Irish annals tell of Lady Aethelflaed personally leading the defense of the city: advising on the disposition of troops, planning a cavalry ambush and conducting diplomacy to get the Irish amongst the Vikings to defect. Many of them did so, and though the Vikings did not call off their attack, the people of Chester and the defecting Irish put up a spirited defense, pouring scalding hot beer from the walls on the attackers below, and eventually driving them off. If this happened as described (boiling beer notwithstanding), then this would have been a seminal moment in Aethelflaed’s life, and marks one of the vanishingly few times in the entire Middle Ages when contemporary records unambiguously describe a woman commanding military forces. Other sources uniformly ascribe the fortification of Chester around this time exclusively to Aethelflaed, and there is archaeological evidence from the town of its remodelling along the lines of a West Saxon burhand its subsequent flourishing.
King Edward captured the putative remains of Saint Oswald in a joint West Saxon-Mercian raid into Viking Northumbria, and the remains were interred in a new minster in Worcester built in 909 CE, dedicated by Aethelflaed. Although, as we’ve seen, Aethelflaed’s name was always more common amongst ecclesiastical grants and charters, there appears to be a distinct change in the scope of her remit, and her entrance into male-dominated politics in the early 10th century. The following year, the Vikings launched reprisal attacks into Mercia, and Edward and Aethelflaed launched a joint military campaign to repel them: Aethelflaed travelled with the army, likely actively participating in the execution of the campaign. These events, taken together, portray Aethelflaed as a growing power, possibly already governing in the weakened Æthelred’s name.
Losing a Lord, Gaining a Lady
The health of Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, steadily worsened – and in 911 CE, it failed completely. He was buried at the Priory of St. Oswald, founded by his wife two years before. With no male heir, any other Anglo-Saxon state might have faced a lengthy and destructive succession crisis – but the sources do not record a single challenger to the right of Aethelflaed, Myrcna hlædige, ‘Lady of the Mercians’, to rule in her own right. She had proved herself totally equal to both Æthelred, and the challenges the Mercians faced. This is the only case of a woman acceding to the premiership of any Anglo-Saxon polity. Many historians put the event, and its exceptional smoothness, down to the likelihood that by the time of Æthelred’s death, Aethelflaed was already de facto head of the Mercian state. Shortly after the time of Æthelred’s death, King Edward received – or took back – the city of London from the Mercians; some historians see this as a deal done between the two rulers to recognise Aethelflaed’s legitimacy to rule. She would rule alone for seven years, and would even hand her title on to her daughter Ælfwynn.
Aethelflaed wasted no time in asserting her lordship over her territory. She expanded her brother’s burghal building projects, and historians chart a different approach to the West Saxon model. Where the West Saxon burhs were purely military garrisons, Aethelflaed’s burhs were more planned towns, laid out in a Roman-style grid pattern, with land grants given to burghers in order to rapidly populate them. Two charters from the period of Aethelflaed’s rule have survived intact to the modern day: both are land grants to her favoured ministers, and both bear her name alone, an indisputable mark of lordship.
She also planned, launched and led military campaigns at the head of the Mercian fyrd: for example, in 916 CE, a monk named Ecgberht was murdered whilst undertaking a diplomatic mission in Wales, and Aethelflaed led a punitive expedition into Welsh territory in reprisal. At the same time, she ably shut down Viking incursions into English land. Her nephew, Æthelstan was a perennial soldier upon her campaigns, first participating in and then commanding her armies, and was seen as more a Mercian prince than the heir to the throne of England. Aethelflaed’s steadfast defense and able management of Mercia was the rock from which her brother King Edward could undertake his ambition: to reverse the Viking conquests and end the Danelaw for good.
An End to the Danelaw?
The pivotal year of 917 CE saw the Mercians and West Saxons undertaking the grandest joint campaign yet launched: King Edward and Aethelflaed worked in tandem to strike at the Vikings on two fronts: Edward driving into East Anglia, and Aethelflaed into the Viking-occupied Five Boroughs. The city of Derby fell to her siege, and though the records recount how she lost many members of her court who were personally dear to her, this was arguably her greatest military feat: in an era before siege warfare had been perfected, defenders enjoyed enormous military advantages. Meanwhile, Edward had toppled the Danish Kingdom of East Anglia, incorporating it into the English/West Saxon fold.
Next year, the Viking jarls in Leicester surrendered to her without giving battle, and the remaining holdouts in the Five Boroughs submitted to her soon after. Thanks to the prodigious military skills of the two siblings, the Viking dominoes were falling fast. The Viking leaders of the Kingdom of Jórvík – the last surviving Viking polity in England – folded, making clear their desire to submit to Aethelflaed in the spring of 918 CE, likely in return for her aid in preserving their independence against the Kings of Dublin. Aethelflaed was on the verge of completing a spectacular military campaign, rolling up the Viking domination of East and Northern England in but two years of campaigning.
The Lady Passes
Sadly, she was not to see the completion of this work. At the age of only 48, Aethelflaed died on 12 June 918 CE, possibly of a stroke, at Tamworth in her adopted homeland of Mercia. Her funereal procession made a 75-mile journey to Gloucester, where she was interred next to her husband, in the Priory of St. Oswald which they had founded less than a decade before. This choice of burial place was laden with significance: if she and her husband had been buried in the West Saxon royal tombs at Winchester alongside her family, that might have demonstrated Mercia’s subservience to the West Saxons – but burial alongside the old Kings of Mercia at Repton might have been a provocative declaration of independence. Burial at Gloucester, on the West Saxon border, alongside the relics won in battle by the blood of both Mercians and West Saxons, was a noble compromise.
A Revolutionary Post-Script
But Aethelflaed’s remarkable story does not end with her death: her exceptional rule sent ripples out into Mercian history, and we must examine the unfinished postscript of Mercian independence that her life left. She was succeeded not by some faceless West Saxon ealdorman, but by her daughter, Ælfwynn, who is recorded as ruling as the second Myrcna hlædige, ‘Lady of the Mercians’. The succession of Ælfwynn is the only example of a succession being passed from a woman to a woman, of any Anglo-Saxon state, and one of a tiny handful of female-to-female successions across the whole Medieval period. But Ælfwynn’s rule was doomed to be short. One might wonder how one could follow an act like Aethelflaed, and it appears that she had not inherited the universal popularity of her mother. We can speculate why this might be: she appears as witness to only one (possibly two) charters before her accession, and so was likely far less well-known than Aethelflaed, and may have had much less direct governmental experience. As well, we have only fragmentary sources which detail the period after Aethelflaed’s death, and so we are left guessing. Regardless, the sources we do have tell us that Ælfwynn’s reign was only about six months long, and she was removed from her position and sent to Wessex by her uncle King Edward. After this, we know nothing more of her – it seems likely that she would have taken holy orders and lived a quiet life of contemplation.
Though her rule did not apparently have widespread support, the Mercians may well have been far more jealous of their independence than the easy removal of Ælfwynn portrayed in the heavily pro-Wessex Anglo-Saxon Chronicle might lead us to believe. Other sources, like the Mercian Register, describe the event as “heavy with resentment”, and shortly after the imposition of direct West Saxon rule, the Mercians and Welsh joined forces to launch a revolt at Aethelflaed’s newly-fortified Chester. Dealing with the revolt would be King Edward’s last act, and he would die at Farndon, just south of Chester, in 924 CE. His eldest son, Æthelstan, acceded to the throne, and we hear no more of Mercian bids for independence – perhaps this heavily Mercian-ized West Saxon prince was able to quiet the fears of his adopted kinsmen. The Viking Kings of York never extended to King Edward the same offer of submission that they had made to Aethelflaed just before her death, and the conflict over the last remaining Viking polity in England would drag on for several more decades, until the final reconquest of York by King Edward’s younger son, King Eadred, in 954 CE.
A Remarkable Lady
So – what are we to make of the truly unique life of Aethelflaed, daughter of King Alfred, husband to Æthelred, Lord of Mercia, and Lady of the Mercians in her own right? If we are to believe the West Saxon sources, she was King Edward’s sister: they give her absolutely no independent weight whatsoever, in accordance with both their pro-West Saxon bias, and their cultural sexism. But other sources reveal a far more interesting character: a woman given a lifeline of education by a loving father, a patient intellect who drank in the lessons of statecraft during her marriage, a shrewd and effective politician who used diplomacy to achieve her aims without bloodshed more than once, a calculating military leader who displayed tactical brilliance in an age of ravens, and a walker of the tightrope to preserve and foster Mercian identity between West Saxon hegemony and the unforgiving swords of the Vikings.
Historians have hitherto had a tendency to view West Saxon supremacy as inevitable, but Aethelflaed’s rule shows the opposite: under her strong leadership and cultural independence, the Mercian state operated as a subordinate to Wessex in name only – the rebellions after the end of her reign remain shrouded in mystery, and a different succession after her rule might have resulted in a much more pluralist English emerging from the ashes of the Viking wars. She is arguably one of the most fascinating figures in Medieval history, and she is beginning to become recognised as she should: in 2018, the town of Tamworth re-enacted her funeral procession before a crowd of 10,000, and unveiled a magnificent 6-metre-tall statue of her. For larger-than-life statuary is the only way to do justice to the impact of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians.