Æthelflæd, was born at a time when women, even noble women, were considered insignificant, destined only to be remembered as a footnote in the stories of men. But, that was not to be Æthelflæd’s fate. As the Lady of the Mercians she not only held her territories against the invading Vikings but extended them, and would come to change the face of England. Æthelflæd died at the height of her power, and is the only female ruler in British history to be succeeded by her daughter. Despite her success Æthelflæd’s story is not well known, which is something this article seeks to change by sharing the story of this amazing woman with a new audience.
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The precise date and location of Æthelflæd’s birth is unknown, but most agree it was between late 686 (the year of her parents’ marriage) and 870, in Chippenham. She was the eldest of the five surviving children born to Alfred the Great and his wife Ealhswith. Her name unlike so many of the time was an original, and not taken from an ancestor, its meaning is debated; Micheal Wood suggests it meant noble beauty, ‘Æthel’ meaning noble, and ‘flæd’ meaning beauty, Joanna Arman, however, suggests the meaning of ‘flæd’ could also have meant “…something like ‘flood’, or something flowing over, so her name might actual mean something like ‘overflowing with nobility.” It was said that King Alfred, regretted not receiving a formal education in his youth, and so made sure his children, including Æthelflæd received a good education.
The Vikings were an ever present threat that would continue throughout Æthelflæd life. As a child, she would have been aware her father and other male relatives could be called away to war at any time and might not come back. Indeed, Margaret C. Jones writes that, “The Vikings were the bogeymen of their time.” In 878, Alfred and his court, including Æthelflæd were residing at the royal residence in Chippenham, either to celebrate Christmas or so Alfred could placate lords who wished to overthrow him, when they were attacked by a large Viking force called a led by Guthrum. As she was whisked away by guards to safety in the nearby woods, Æthelflæd must have been terrified. After the attack, Alfred was forced into exile, and although the sources do not say he was accompanied by his family, they almost certainly would have accompanied him, had they remained behind they would have faced an unpleasant and possibly short future. They remained in exile until 878 when Alfred won the Battle of Edington, and successfully besieged Chippenham forcing the Danes to surrender, thus retaking his kingdom.
Now that he had his kingdom back, Alfred recalled his family from where they were hiding in Somerset and set to work rebuilding his kingdom. This included the building of defensive burhs and forming strong alliances with powerful lords, including Æthelred, an ealdorman of Mercia who was to become Æthelflæd’s husband. Despite ensuring their daughter received a good education, it was expected that she would either enter the church or be used to make advantageous marriage, which in Anglo-Saxon society was integral to gaining and holding on to power. These marriages were so important that one of the West Saxon words for wife was ‘frithuwebbe’ which meant peace weaver. This was to be Æthelflæd’s destiny. In 868, when Æthelflæd was around 15 or 16, it was decided she was ready to marry, and the groom Alfred chose was Æthelred, an ealdorman of Mercia. Where the couple married is unknown, but they would have done so surrounded by the whole Wessex. Alfred gifted the newly recaptured London to his son in law. For Æthelflæd, marriage marked the end of her childhood and her life in Wessex, a few days after the wedding she travelled to join her husband in Merica, thus beginning her life as the Lady of the Mercians.
At the time of her marriage, Æthelflæd was aged between 15 and 16 and thought to be around ten years younger than her husband. Whilst some might have been intimidated my their new surroundings and more experienced husband, Æthelflæd was as not, Margaret C. Jones writes,
“Æthelflæd already knew her role in this marriage. It would not be a subordinate one. Her place was beside her husband, shouldering with him the burdens of state. This, rather than bearing sons or founding and ruling a convent, like other royal women of her day, would be Æthelflæd’s legacy to Mercia.”
Æthelred seems to have accepted his new bride’s co-rule and the two remained married for 25 years, it produced only one child, a daughter named Ælfwynn. Under their rule Worcester was fortified and many gifts were made to the church including the building of a new minster in Gloucester.
From around the 900s Æthelred’s health had begun to decline and Æthelflæd began to take on more solo leadership decisions. One such example is given in the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, which recount Æthelflæd’s c.907 defence of Merica, against Viking forces led by Ingimund. The story goes that having left Ireland and asked Æthelflæd for some land “…on which he would build barns and dwellings, for he was tired of war at that time.” Æthelflæd gave him lands near Chester, and for a while all seemed well. Soon, Ingimund grew dissatisfied and began to plot in secret with the chieftains of the Norwegian and Danes, who agreed that they should take “…the good lands…” Despite the meeting having been held in secret, Æthelflæd heard of Ingimund’s plot and “…gathered a large army about her from the adjoining regions, and filled the city of Chester with her troops.” When the Vikings attacked Aethelflead’s forces were ready:
“What the Saxons did was to put the ale and water they found in the town into the towns cauldrons, and to boil it and throw it over the people who were under the hurdles, so that their skin peeled off them. The Norwegians response to that was to spread hides on top of the hurdles. The Saxons then scattered all the beehives there were in the town on top of the besiegers, which prevented them from moving their feet and hands because of the number of bees stinging them. After that they gave up the city, and left it.” – The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland.
Æthelflæd proved her worth as a leader and military commander earning her the respect of the Mercians.
As Alfred planned the marriage ensured that even after his death in 898, and the accession of Edward the Elder the alliance between Wessex and Merica remained strong. The two joined forces in 910 to defeat the Vikings at the Battle of Tettenhall, where three Viking leaders were killed shifting the balance of power to the Anglo-Saxons. However, just a year after their success at the Tettenhall, Æthelred died in 911, leaving Æthelflæd to rule alone.
With Æthelred dead, rather than enter a nunnery or review to one of her estates, Æthelflæd was acknowledged as the Lady of Mercia. This meant she was no longer a consort, but a queen, a unique position for an Anglo-Saxon woman and it shows how respected and accepted she was by the people of Mercia. As ruler, Edward the Elder was in a difficult position. On the one hand, having his sister as an ally would make their alliance strong, on the other, he was concerned she would become too independent. In the end, he offered his approval providing Æthelflæd accepted that Mercia remain subject to the final jurisdiction of Wessex, and furthermore, she had to cede London and Oxford back to him. Both of which she did. With their alliance sealed Edward and Æthelflæd’s attacks on the Vikings become more coordinated and aggressive. Rather than just shoring up their defences in case of a Viking attack, they began building upon the network of fortified burhs created by their father, Alfred. Whilst Aethefleaed focused on the North and West, Edward focused on East Anglia, Essex, and East Midlands, driving the Vikings out of central England.
Æthelflæd’s first burhs were built at Chester and Bremesburh (on what is now the Welsh border). Æthelflæd’s strategy in strengthening these locations first, was to allow Mercian forces to perfect the techniques of building fortifications before gradually moving the construction closer to the Viking strongholds. It was a sound and successful plan. So, by the time the Vikings saw what was happening, Mercian garrisons were too strong for their ‘blitzkrieg’ tactics to work. The last successful Viking raid was in 913, when they sacked Banbury. In response Æthelflæd fortified Buckingham, and built two forts either side of the river Ouse. The show of force worked, and the Viking armies of Northampton and Bedford submitted to Æthelflæd’s army at Buckingham. By now, Æthelflæd’s string of forts now formed a nearly straight southeast line from Chester to Hertford, the only were in the midlands between Tamworth and Buckingham and the mouth of the Mersey River. Æthelflæd closed the Mersey gap with two burhs, in 914 she built Eddisbury and, in 915 Runcorn, whilst also fortifying Warwick.
It was not just a building program that brought Edward and Æthelflæd success, successful alliances played a part. In 917, Æthelflæd signed a treaty with two Scottish kings, both of whom were named Constantine, ensuring their alliance against the Danish forces in York. The Danes, not wanting to fight Athelflaed’s forces targeted the Scottish forces at the Second Battle of Corbridge, it would prove a costly victory as they had halved their troops to achieve it. In July 917, Edward was fighting in the east, Æthelflæd marched her troops into Derby and quickly secured it, the siblings delivered a crushing blow to the Danes.In 918, the Danes in Stamford submitted to Edward without a fight, and the those in Leicester submitted to Æthelflæd without bloodshed. York arranges to submit to Æthelflæd, but before they can do so she dies.
Æthelflæd died in Tamworth, on the 12th of June, 918. Her death seemed to come as a shock, possibly from a sudden onset illness, although the constant campaigning must have taken its toll. She was buried in Saint Oswald’s Priory in Gloucester next to her husband. Sadly the priory and Aetheflaed’s gave have not survived.
After Æthelflæd’s death the Mercian witangemot that had named Æthelflæd lady of Mercia bestowed the same title on her twenty-year-old daughter Ælfwynn. This was the only time a daughter has succeeded her mother and the next female to female succession was not until 1558 when Elizabeth I succeeded her half sister Mary I. Ælfwynn’s reign was only to be brief and in 191, her uncle, King Edward, summoned her to court and officially annexed Mercia. No one would claim either title, lord or lady of Mercia, again.
Æthelflæd’s story is one of defied expectations. She was expected to marry and produce heirs, instead she co-ruled at the side of Æthelred. Taking over leadership and their forces, when her husband was incapacitated. After Æthelred’s death, she was expected to retire to either a nunnery or one of her estates, instead she forged an alliance with her brother and became invaluable in his fight against the Vikings. Commanding forces, Æthelflæd not only held her territories she expanded them and became so feared that Viking forces surrendered rather than face her in battle. Even after her death she was defying expectations by being the only ruler to pass her throne to her daughter. For all she achieved she deserves to be remembered and hailed as a role model for women who want to smash the expectations played on them because of their gender.