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 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.
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.