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 âThe 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.
In 911, Aethelred died, and the ealdormen of Mercia swore allegiance to her. Aethelflaed now became âLady 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 âthrone’ 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.