Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia: Britain’s Forgotten Warrior Queen
Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia: Britain’s Forgotten Warrior Queen

Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia: Britain’s Forgotten Warrior Queen

Natasha sheldon - June 7, 2018

Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia was a Queen in all but name. The daughter of King Alfred of Wessex and the wife of Lord Aethelred of Mercia, she bucked the trend for women in tenth century Britain by being a ruler in her own right. Aethelflaed elevated Mercia from a junior partner to Wessex with her political and military acumen. She secured Mercia’s borders, founded towns and made it wealthy. In 918AD, she succeeded where her father had failed by driving back the Saxon’s Viking enemies, reclaiming lost lands and bringing the Danelaw to its knees.

On her husband’s death, Aethelflaed was acclaimed ruler of Mercia in her own right at a time when women had at best a subordinate status. Without her, the united, Anglo Saxon kingdom of England would probably never have existed. It was not until the time of Elizabeth I that the British Isles had a female ruler to match Aethelflaed. Yet this remarkable woman remains a footnote in British history because her brother, King Edward of Wessex airbrushed her from the Anglo Saxon chronicles after her untimely death in 918AD. So who was Aethelflaed, Britain’s forgotten warrior Queen? And how did she help forge England?

Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia: Britain’s Forgotten Warrior Queen
Alfred the Great. Google Images.

Aethelflaed of Wessex

The tumultuous times Aethelflaed grew up in helped form her character, for the Wessex of her childhood was a perilous place to grow up in for any child- even a Princess. Aethelflaed was born around 868-870AD, the eldest child of Alfred, King of Wessex and his wife, Eahlswith. In 865AD, the Great Heathen Army invaded the British Isles. Initially, it landed in East Anglia, moving north to attack and take over York. Soon, the north of England and much of the east was under the control of the Danes. Then, in 871 AD, they turned their attention to Wessex.

Initially, Alfred paid the Danes to leave Wessex alone, and the Vikings moved on elsewhere, conquering Mercia in 874. However, in 877, Viking forces under the leadership of Guthrum once again turned towards Wessex. They invaded from the south and eats, culminating in a surprise attack on the King’s court in Chippenham. In the dead of winter, Alfred, his family, and a few followers fled and were forced to hide in the Athelney marshes in Somerset. From there, Alfred launched a guerrilla campaign to regain his Kingdom.

Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia: Britain’s Forgotten Warrior Queen
The Baptism of Guthrum and his leaders. Google Images.

In spring 878, Alfred and his forces regrouped and challenged Guthrum once again, this time at Edington in Wiltshire. Alfred was victorious. However, he knew he had won one battle, not the war and the best he could hope for was a chance to secure Wessex. So, he came to terms with Guthrum. Under the Peace of Wedmore, the Viking leader agreed to withdraw to lands currently held by the Danes and become a Christians. With the Vikings gone; Alfred concentrated strengthening his borders with a line of fortified towns or burhs.

These years of threat and warfare were Aethelflaed’s formative years. She would have experienced the terror of being attacked, the discomfort of exile and the uncertain years that followed as she watched her father try to secure Wessex by holding an ever-present threat at bay. Aethelflaed was also aware of Alfred’s ultimate dream of a united, Saxon England, which he never saw fulfilled. Aethelflaed’s was by all accounts intelligent and shrewd by nature. The events of her early life, however, would have shaped the focus of those talents in the year’s to come.

In 886AD, in an attempt to secure a more lasting peace for the remaining independent Saxon Kingdoms, King Alfred oversaw an agreement that formally divided England into two. Danes and Saxons alike agreed that all the lands south of a line that ran roughly between London and Chester were allotted to the Saxons. However, the areas north of this line, excluding eastern Northumbria remained in Danish hands. These lands came to be known as the Dane Law. In this very same year, Aethelflaed left Wessex to begin her own, new life, as the wife of Aethelred of Mercia.

Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia: Britain’s Forgotten Warrior Queen
St Oswald’s Priory, Gloucester was built by Aethelred and Aethelflaed in 900AD. It was the place of their eventual burial. Photograph: Philip Halling. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Share-alike license 2.0

Aethelflaed, the Politician

Aethelflaed’s marriage was her first political act- albeit one over which she probably had no control. Her marriage was a strategic match, one designed to solidify the bonds between Wessex and the neighboring kingdom of Mercia. Since 882AD, Aethelred, an ally of King Alfred’s, had ruled Mercia. Aethelred had liberated his kingdom from Viking rule with the help of Wessex. In return for this help, Aethelred signed a pact with Alfred that acknowledged Wessex’s supremacy. The seal on that pact was the marriage to Aethelflaed.

So, in 886AD Aethelred became Aethelflaed’s husband. He was much older than his bride who could not have been more than eighteen. By the standards of the day, the security offered by her marriage was the most Aethelflaed could hope to contribute to her new Kingdom. Saxon women occupied a very much subordinate role, and even if her new husband had been a king rather than a Lord, Aethelflaed would not have been referred to as “Queen’. Her mother had only ever been known as ‘The wife of the king.’ Most people would have expected the Wessex princess to keep to the background and bear her husband heirs.

Around 888AD, Aetheflaed fulfilled this duty by bearing a daughter, Aelfwynn. However, shortly afterward, Aethelred’s health began to fail, and his wife involved herself in the running of the country rather more than was usual for a woman. Aethelflaed started to stand in for Aethelred, presiding over courts and signing diplomatic treaties. She began to build a reputation for efficiency and justice. She also very astutely identified herself entirely with Mercia’s interests. She also courted the church, financing projects such as St Oswald’s Priory in Gloucester and the building of Chester Cathedral. The Mercians quickly realized that she was no Wessex pawn. They began to trust her.

Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia: Britain’s Forgotten Warrior Queen
Fourteenth-century image of Edward of Wessex, Aethelflaed’s brother. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

In 911, Aethelred died, and the ealdormen of Mercia swore allegiance to her. Aethelflaed now became ‘Lady of Mercia” a title that designated her Mercia’s sole ruler. A group of senior noblemen ceding power to a woman was unprecedented. In part, it was a response to Aethelflaed’s abilities and the confidence the nobles had in her leadership. It was, however, also a pragmatic move to preserve Mercian independence. For to reject Aethelflaed simply because she was a woman would have created a power vacuum and made Mercia vulnerable to attack- from Danes and Saxons alike.

Any dispute over the succession to the Mercian ‘throne’ would have signaled weakness. The Vikings, who had already invaded and subdued Mercia once may have been tempted to try again. However, the threat to Mercia did not just come from the Norsemen. In 899AD, King Alfred had died and his son, Edward had taken over as King. There was every chance that as Alfred’s successor and Aethelflaed’s brother Edward would have taken the opportunity to take over Mercia himself.

Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia: Britain’s Forgotten Warrior Queen
Statue of Æthelflæd at Leicester’s Guildhall. Picture by Katie Chan. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Aethelflaed, the Military Strategist

By the early tenth century, trouble with the Danes was once again on the horizon. Now, Aethelflaed came into her own. Aethelflaed’s ability as a military leader was something that her brother Edward found irksome. After Aethelflaed’s death, he made sure that the Anglo Saxon Chronicles downplayed the achievements of his sister and Mercia and emphasized his own. However, there is another source for Aethelflaed’s triumphs: “The Mercian Register” or ” The Annals of Aethelflaed.”Its text is fragmented, but its validity is confirmed by the fact that parts of it were incorporated into the Chronicles.

The Register makes it clear that Aetheflaed and Edward were at worst partners in their war against the Danes. However, Aethelflaed’s foresight in making preparations against Danish attacks also suggests a lead role. The situation had begun to escalate even before Aethelred’s death. Viking settlers expelled from Ireland tried to occupy land just outside Mercian Chester. Aethelflaed appeared to appease the Norsemen, giving them new land around the Wirral. However, she was actually stalling them while she made preparations. She was right. The Vikings attacked Chester in 907 AD but failed to breach the city’s walls due to Aethelflaed’s preparations.

The Lady of Mercia now began to strengthen her kingdom. She refortified Chester, Tamworth, Stafford, and Bridgnorth along the Mercian borders. Ten new fortified towns were also constructed, including the town of Warwick. Aethelflaed knew a further attack was just a matter of time. At the same time, she began to renew alliances, particularly with her brother in Wessex. Together, the combined forces of Aethelflaed and Edward started the re-conquest of old Mercian territories held within the Dane law. In 910AD, Aethelflaed finally made her name in battle when she led Mercian forces at The Battle of Tettenhall. The Danish troops were massacred, and three Viking Kings killed during the fight. Aethelflaed the warrior was born.

Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia: Britain’s Forgotten Warrior Queen
Top of the Aethelflaed Monument, Tamworth depicting Aethelflaed and her nephew, Athelstan, the “King of the whole of Britain.” Google Images.

Aethelflaed went militarily from strength to strength. In 917AD, her troops regained the town of Derby, the capital of one of the Five Boroughs of the Dane law. This started the collapse of the southern Danish kingdoms. The following year, she liberated the ancient city of Leicester, and her army began to drive the Danes back further north. York was now under threat of being reclaimed by the Saxons. Terrified of losing their final stronghold, the Danes were just about to submit and come to terms when Aethelflaed fell ill. She died, possibly of dysentery in Tamworth on June 12, 918 and was buried next to her husband in St Oswald’s priory, Gloucester.

The Mercian nobility tried to stave off Wessex’s domination by elevating Aethelflaed’s daughter, Aelfwynn as their new Lady. However, Aelfwynn was no Aethelflaed. However, by the following year, Edward had usurped his niece and absorbed Mercia into Wessex. By incorporating his sister’s kingdom, into his own, Edward now acquired influence over most of England, laying the foundations for his son, King Athelstan to be proclaimed as the first “King of the whole of Britain.”

 

Where Do we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

The Woman who crushed the Vikings, Janina Ramirez, BBC History Magazine, June 2018.

Aethelflæd, Lady Of The Mercians, David Crowther, The History of England, 2011

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, Ben Johnson, Historic UK.

Aethelflaed, Encyclopedia Britannica Inc, February 13, 2017

The Woman who founded Warwick to stifle Vikings, Chris Upton, Business Live, August 8, 2014

Alfred the Great (849 AD – 899 AD), BBC History, 2014

The Battle of Edington, David Ross, Britain Express.

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