Æthelflæd (from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, ca 1220).
|Lady of the Mercians|
|Reign||911 - 918 AD|
|Died||12 June 918
|Burial||St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester|
|House||House of Wessex (by birth)
House of Mercia (by marriage)
|Father||Alfred the Great|
Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, (d. 12 June 918) ruled Mercia from 911 to her death in 918. She was the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and his wife Ealhswith. Æthelflæd was born at the height of the Viking invasions of England. Her father married her to Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians. After his death in 911, she ruled as Lady of the Mercians.
Mercia was the dominant kingdom in southern England in the eighth century, and maintained its position until it suffered a decisive defeat by Wessex at the Battle of Ellandun in 825. Thereafter the two kingdoms became allies, which was to be an important factor in English resistance to the Vikings.
In 865 the Viking Great Heathen Army landed in East Anglia, and used it as a starting point for an invasion. The East Anglians were forced to buy peace, and the following year the Vikings invaded Northumbria, where they appointed a puppet king in 867. They then moved on Mercia, where they spent the winter of 867–868. King Burgred of Mercia was joined by King Æthelred of Wessex and his brother, the future King Alfred, for a combined attack on the Vikings, but they refused an engagement and in the end the Mercians bought peace with them. The following year, the Vikings conquered East Anglia. In 874 they expelled King Burgred, and Ceolwulf became the last King of Mercia with their support. In 877 the Vikings partitioned Mercia, taking the eastern regions for themselves and allowing Ceolwulf to keep the western ones. He was described by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as "a foolish king's thegn" who was a puppet of the Vikings, but the historian Ann Williams regards this view as partial and distorted: he was accepted as a true king by the Mercians and by King Alfred.
Ceolwulf is not recorded after 879. The family background of his successor, Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, is unknown. He is first seen in 881, when, according to the historian of medieval Wales, Thomas Charles-Edwards, he led an unsuccessful Mercian invasion of the north Welsh Kingdom of Gwynedd. Around this time, Æthelred became the ruler of the English western half of Mercia. In 883 he made a grant with the consent of King Alfred, thus acknowledging Alfred's lordship. In 886 Alfred occupied the Mercian town of London, which had been in Viking hands. He then received the submission of all English not under Viking control, and handed control of London over to Æthelred. In the 890s, Æthelred and Edward fought off renewed Viking attacks.
The most important source for history in this period is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but Æthelflæd is almost ignored in the standard West Saxon version in what F. T. Wainwright calls "a conspiracy of silence". He argues that Alfred's son, King Edward the Elder, was anxious not to encourage Mercian separatist feeling, and did not wish to publicise his sister's accomplishments in case she became a symbol of Mercian claims. However, brief details of her actions were preserved in a pro-Mercian version of the Chronicle known as the Mercian Register or the Annals of Æthelflæd, and although it is lost, elements of it were incorporated in several surviving versions of the Chronicle. The Register covers the years 902 to 924, and focuses on Æthelflæd's actions; Edward is hardly mentioned and her husband only twice, on his death and as father of their daughter. Information about her career is also preserved in the semi-legandary Irish chronicle known as the Three Fragments. The late tenth-century chronicler, Æthelweard, who used a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which has not survived, described Æthelred as King of Mercia, but he ignored Æthelflæd. She has received more attention from historians than any other secular woman in Anglo-Saxon England.
Æthelflæd was around born 870,[a] the oldest child of King Alfred the Great and his Mercian queen, Ealhswith, who was a daughter of Æthelred Mucel, ealdorman of the Gaini, one of the tribes of Mercia. Ealhswith's mother, Eadburh, was a member of the Mercian royal house, probably a descendant of King Coenwulf (796–821). Æthelflæd was thus half–Mercian, and the alliance between Wessex and Mercia was sealed by her marriage to Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians. She was first recorded as Æthelred's wife in a charter of 887, when he granted two estates to the see of Worcester "with the permission and sign-manual of King Alfred", and the attestors included "Æthelflæd conjux" However, the marriage may have taken earlier, perhaps when he submitted to Alfred following the recovery of London in 886. Æthelred was much older than Æthelflæd, and they had one known child, a daughter called Ælfwynn. Æthelstan, the eldest son of Edward the Elder and future king of England, was brought up in their court, and in the view of Martin Ryan, certainly joined their campaigns against the Vikings.
Æthelflæd and Æthelred
Compared with the rest of England, a large part of English Mercia - Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire - was unusually stable in the Viking age. It did not suffer major attacks and it did not come under major pressure from Wessex. Worcester was able to preserve considerable intellectual and liturgical continuity, and together with Gloucester it became the centre of a Mercian revival under Æthelred and Æthelflæd, which extended into the more unstable areas of Staffordshire and Cheshire. Charters show the Mercian leaders supporting the revival by their generosity to monastic communities. In 883 Æthelred granted privileges to Berkeley Abbey, and in the 890s he and Æthelflæd issued a charter in favour of the church of Worcester. This was the only occasion in Alfred's lifetime when husband and wife are known to have acted jointly; generally Æthelred acted on his own, usually acknowledging the permission of King Alfred. Æthelflæd witnessed charters of Æthelred in 888, 889 and 896. After Alfred's death, in 901, Æthelflæd and Æthelred gave land and a golden chalice weighing thirty mancuses to the shrine of Saint Mildburg at Much Wenlock church. 
At the end of the ninth century, Æthelred and Æthelflæd fortified Worcester with the permission of King Alfred and at the request of Bishop Werferth, described in the charter as "their friend". They granted the church of Worcester a half share of the rights of lordship, covering land rents and the proceeds of justice, and in return the cathedral community agreed in perpetuity to dedicate a psalm to them three times a day, and a mass and thirty psalms every Saturday. As the rights of lordship had previously belonged to the church, this represented the beginning of transfer of control over the city from episcopal to secular control. In 904 Bishop Werferth granted a lease of land in the city to Æthelred and Æthelflæd, to be held for the duration of their lives and that of their daughter Ælfwynn. The land was valuable, including most of the city's usable river frontage, and shows that the Mercian rulers intended to dominate and profit from the city.
Æthelred's health seems to have declined at some stage after Alfred died in 899, and Æthelflæd then became the effective ruler of Mercia. In the view of Maggie Bailey, this probably occurred by 902.[b] According to the Irish annals called the Three Fragments, the Norse Vikings were expelled from Dublin, and they then made an unsuccessful attack on Wales. When this failed they applied to Æthelflæd, her husband being ill, for permission to settle near Chester. She agreed, and for some time they were peaceful. They then joined with the Danes in an attack on Chester, but this failed because Æthelflæd had fortified the town, and she and her husband persuaded the Irish among the attackers to change sides. Other sources confirm that the Norse were driven out of Dublin in 902, and that Æthelflæd fortified Chester in 907. She re-founded Chester as a burh, and she is believed to have restored its Roman defences by running walls from the north-west and south-east corners of the fort to the River Dee.
In 909 Edward sent a West Saxon and Mercian force to raid northern Danish territory, where it raided for five weeks. The remains of the royal Northumbrian saint Oswald were seized and taken from his resting place in Bardney Abbey in Lincolnshire to Gloucester. In the late ninth century the Gloucester had become a burh (fortified settlement) with a street plan similar to Winchester, and Æthelred and Æthelflæd had repaired its ancient Roman defences. In 896 a meeting of the Mercian witan was held in the royal hall at Kingsholm, just outside the town. They also built a new minster, which was small, but embellished on a grand scale with rich sculpture. It was initially dedicated to St Peter, but when Oswald's remains were brought to Gloucester, Æthelflæd had them translated to the new minster, which was renamed St Oswald's Priory in his honour. The relics gave the church great prestige as Oswald had been one of the most important founding saints of Anglo-Saxon Christianity as well as a ruling monarch, and the decision to translate his relics to Gloucester shows the importance of the town to Æthelred and Æthelflæd, who were buried in St Oswald's Simon Keynes describes the town as "the main seat of their power", and Carolyn Heighway believes that the foundation of the church was probably a family and dynastic enterprise, encouraged by Alfred and actively supported by Edward and Bishop Werferth. Heighway and Michael Hare comment:
- In the age when English scholarship and religion reached their lowest ebb, Mercia and in particular the lower Severn valley seem to have maintained traditional standards of learning. It is in this context that the establishment of a new minster at Gloucester by Æthelred and Æthelflæd is to be seen.
Saintly relics were believed to give supernatural legitimacy to rulers' authority, and Æthelflæd was probably also responsible for the foundation or refoundation of Chester Minster, and the transfer to it of the remains of the seventh-century Mercian princess Saint Werburgh from Hanbury in Staffordshire. She may also have translated the relics of the martyred Northumbrian prince Ealhmund from Derby to Shrewsbury,
In 910 the Danes retaliated against the English attack of the previous year by invading Mercia, raiding as far as the Bridgnorth in Shropshire. On their way back they were caught by an English army in Staffordshire and their army was destroyed at the Battle of Tettenhall, opening the way for the recovery of the Danish midlands and East Anglia over the next decade.
Lady of the Mercians
On her husband's death in 911, Æthelflæd became Myrcna hlædige, "Lady of the Mercians". Ian Walker describes her succession as the only case of a female ruler of a kingdom in Anglo-Saxon history, and "one of the most unique events in early medieval history". In Wessex, royal women were not allowed to play any political role, and Alfred's wife was not granted the title of queen, and was never a witness to charters. But Mercia was different. Alfred's sister Æthelswith had been had been the wife of King Burgred of Mercia, and she had witnessed charters as queen, and had made grants jointly with her husband and in her own name. Æthelflæd inherited a Mercian tradition of acceptance of queenly importance, and was able to play a key role in the history of the early tenth century as Lady of the Mercians which would not have been possible in Wessex.
When Æthelred died, Edward took control of two Mercian towns and their hinterland which Alfred had put under Mercian control, London and Oxford. Ian Walker suggests that Æthelflæd accepted this loss of territory in return for recognition by her brother of her position in Mercia. Alfred had constructed a network of fortified burhs in Wessex, and Edward and Æthelflæd now embarked on a programme of extending them to consolidate their defences and provide bases for attacks on the Vikings. According to Frank Stenton she led Mercian armies on expeditions which she planned, and he commented: "It was through reliance on her guardianship of Mercia that her brother was enabled to begin the forward movement against the southern Danes which is the outstanding feature of his reign."
Æthelflæd had already fortified an unknown location called Bremesburh in 910, and in 912 she built defences at Bridgnorth to cover a crossing of the River Severn. In 913 she built forts at Tamworth to guard against the Danes in Leicester, and in Stafford to cover access from the Trent Valley. In 914 a Mercian army drawn from Gloucester and Hereford repelled a Viking invasion from Brittany, and Eddisbury hill fort was repaired to protect against invasion from Northumbria or Cheshire, while Warwick was fortified as additional protection against the Leicester Danes. In 915 Chirbury was fortified to guard a route from Wales, and Runcorn on the River Mersey. Defences were built before 914 at Hereford and probably Shrewsbury, and two other fortresses, at Scergeat and Weardbyrig, have not been located.
In 917 three different Viking armies staged unsuccessful invasions of English territory. Æthelflæd sent an army which captured Derby and the territory around it, the first of the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw to fall to the English. She lost "four of her thegns who were dear to her". Tim Clarkson, who describes Æthelflæd as "renowned as a competent war-leader", regards the victory at Derby as "her greatest triumph". At the end of the year, the East Anglian Danes submitted to Edward. In early 918, Æthelflæd gained possession of Leicester without opposition, and most of the local Danish army submitted to her. A few months later, the leading men of the region around York promised to pledge their loyalty to Æthelflæd, probably in order to secure her support against Norse raiders from Ireland, but she died on 12 June 918, before she could take advantage of the offer. No similar offer is known to have been made to Edward.
According to the Fragmentary Annals, in 918 Æthelflæd led the combined army of Scots and Northumbrian English which fought the Norse Viking leader Ragnall at the Battle of Corbridge. Historians consider this unlikely, but she may have sent a contingent to the battle. Both sides claimed victory, but Ragnall was able to establish himself as ruler of Northumbria. The Fragmentary Annals also stated that she formed a defensive alliance with the Scots and the Strathclyde British, a claim accepted by Clarkson.
Little is known of Æthelflæd's relations with the Welsh, and the only recorded event took place in 916, when she sent an expedition to avenge the murder of the Mercian abbot Ecgberht and his companions; her men destroyed the royal crannog of Brycheiniog on Llangorse Lake, and captured the queen and thirty-three of her companions. However, according to a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which was strongly sympathetic to Edward the Elder, after Æthelflæd's death "the kings among the Welsh, Hywel and Clydog and Idwal, and all the Welsh people sought to have [Edward] as their lord". Hywel Dda was king of Dyfed in south-west Wales, Clydog ap Cadell probably king of Powys in the north-east, and Idwal ab Anarawd king of Gwynedd in the north-west. Gwent in south-east Wales was already under West Saxon lordship, but in the view of Charles-Edwards this passage shows that the other Welsh kingdoms were under Mercian lordship until Edward took direct power over Mercia.
No coins were issued with the name of Æthelred or Æthelflæd on them, but in the 910s coins were minted in West Mercian towns with unusual ornamental designs on the reverse, and this may have reflected Æthelflæd's desire to distinguish coins issued under her control from those of her brother.
Death and aftermath
Æthelflæd died at Tamworth on 12 June 918, and her body was carried seventy-five miles to Gloucester, where she was buried with her husband in their foundation, St Oswald's Priory. According to the Mercian Register, Æthelflæd was buried in the east porticus. A separate building which is suitable for a royal mausoleum has been found by archaeological investigation at the east end of the church, and this may have been St Oswald's burial place. A situation next to the saint would have been a prestigious location for Æthelred and Æthelflæd to be buried. According to William of Malmesbury, the burial places were found in the south porticus during building works in the early twelfth century. He may have been misinformed about the position, but it is also possible that the tombs were moved from their prestigious position next to the saint when the couple became less known over time, or when tenth-century kings acted to minimise the honour paid to their Mercian predecessors.
The choice of burial place was symbolically important, and Victoria Thompson argues that if Æthelflæd had chosen Edward's royal mausoleum in Winchester as the burial place for her husband and herself, that would have emphasised Mercia's subordinate status, whereas a traditional Mercian royal burial place such as Repton would have been a provocative declaration of independence; Gloucester, near the border with Wessex, was a compromise between the two. However, Martin Ryan sees the foundation as "something like a royal mausoleum, intended to replace the one at Repton (Derbyshire) that had been destroyed by the Vikings".
Æthelflæd died six months too early to see the defeat of the last armies of the Danish midlands. She was succeeded as Lady of the Mercians by her daughter, Ælfwynn, but in early December Edward deposed her and took Mercia under his personal control. Many Mercians disliked the subordination of their ancient kingdom to Wessex, and Wainwright describes the Mercian annalist's description of the deposition of Ælfwyn as "heavy with resentment". Edward died in 924 at Farndon in Cheshire a few days after putting down a rebellion by Mercians and Welshmen at Chester.
In the view of Wainwright:
- [Æthelflæd] played a vital role in England in the first quarter of the tenth century. The success of Edward's campaigns against the Danes depended to a great extent upon her cooperation. In the midlands and the north she came to dominate the political scene. And the way in which she used her influence helped to make possible the unification of England under kings of the West Saxon royal house. But her reputation has suffered from bad publicity, or rather from a conspiracy of silence among her West Saxon contemporaries.
Wainwright sees Æthelflæd as willingly accepting a subordinate role in a partnership with her brother; and accepting his plan of unification under his rule; he probably sent his oldest son Æthelstan to be brought up in Mercia in order to make him more acceptable to the Mercians as king, and Æthelflæd does not appear to have tried to find a husband for her daughter, who must have been nearly thirty by 918. Keynes argues that that a new polity was created when Æthelred submitted to Alfred in the 880s, the 'kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons', and that this continued when Edward inherited the throne. Keynes points out that all coins were issued in Edward's name, and while the Mercian rulers were able to issue some charters on their own authority, others acknowledged Edward's lordship. In 903 a Mercian ealdorman "petitioned King Edward, and also Æthelred and Æthelflæd, who then held rulership and power over the race of the Mercians under the aforesaid king". In Keynes's view: "The conclusion seems inescapable that the Alfredian polity of the kingship 'of the Anglo-Saxons' persisted in the first quarter of the tenth century, and that the Mercians were thus under Edward's rule from the beginning of his reign." Ryan considers that the Mercian rulers "had a considerable but ultimately subordinate share of royal authority".
To the West Saxon version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ætheflæd was merely King Edward's sister, whereas for the Mercian Register she was Lady of the Mercians. However, Irish and Welsh annals described her as a queen, and the Annals of Ulster, which ignore the deaths of Alfred and Edward, described her as famosissima regina Saxonum (renowned Saxon queen). Two centuries later Henry of Huntingdon paid her his own tribute:
- Heroic Elflede! great in martial fame,
- A man in valour, woman though in name:
- Thee warlike hosts, thee, nature too obey'd,
- Conqu'ror o'er both, though born by sex a maid.
- Chang'd be thy name, such honour triumphs bring.
- A queen by title, but in deeds a king.
- Heroes before the Mercian heroine quail'd:
- Caesar himself to win such glory fail'd. [c]
Some historians also see Æthelflæd as a regal figure. David Dumville and Alex Woolf describe Æthelred and Æthelflæd as the king queen of Mercia, and Pauline Stafford describes Æthelflæd as "the last Mercian queen", referred to in charters in such terms as "by the gift of Christ's mercy ruling the government of the Mercians". Stafford argues that Æthelred and Æthelflæd exercised most or all of the powers of a monarch after Alfred's death, but it would have been a provocative act to formally claim regality, especially after Æthelwold's rebellion. Stafford sees her as a "warrior queen". "Like a latter-day Elizabeth I she became a wonder to later ages." According to Charles Insley:
- The assumption that Mercia was in some sort of limbo in this period, subordinate to Wessex and waiting to be incorporated into "England" cannot be sustained...Æthelred's death in 911 changed little, for his formidable wife carried on as sole ruler of Mercia until her death in 918. Only then did Mercia's independent existence come to an end.
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- Marios Costambeys dates Æthelflæd's birth to the early 870s, but Maggie Bailey argues that as she was her parents' first child and they married in 868, she was probably born in 869–70
- In the view of Ian Walker, it is more likely that Æthelred was incapacited by wounds received at the Battle of Tettenhall in 910.
- Henry of Huntingdon's poem, translated, "freely" according to Paul Szarmach, by Thomas Forester in The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon, London 1853, reprinted New York 1968, p. 168.
- Keynes & Lapidge 1983, pp. 11–12.
- Stenton 1971, pp. 246–248.
- Williams 1991b; Williams 1991c.
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- Keynes 1998, pp. 27–28; Bailey 2001, pp. 112–13.
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- Baker & Holt 2004, p. 133; Thompson 2004, pp. 18–19.
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