For Women’s History Month we take a look at the career of the determined ruler of Mercia, Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who battled Vikings, built forts and founded towns.
What does the name Athelflaed mean?
Her Old English name means ‘Noble Beauty’. It is sometimes also written as Aethelflaeda, Ethelflada or Ethelfled.
Her name and fame had faded into obscurity but in recent years she has been rediscovered by both historians- such as Tim Clarkson- and by popular culture. She now has her own Ladybird book, has featured in TV historian Janina Ramirez’s children’s adventure story ‘Way of the Waves’ and has enjoyed a dramatic re-imagining in in the ‘Last Kingdom’ TV series, played by Millie Brady. She has also featured in creative local Place Branding for the Tamworth area.
You may have read our previous blog on early Anglo-Saxon England. Our present story is set roughly 1,100 years ago, nearly two centuries after we left off from the previous blog. Much has changed. The Anglo-Saxons are now Christians, building fine churches and monasteries, enriched with beautiful ornaments. Towns, especially prosperous trading ports or ‘wics’ like Lundewic (The Strand area, London), Ipswich and Hamwic/Southampton, have grown up. The wealth of these places has attracted the attention of freebooting traders, raiders and settlers from Scandinavia- better known as the Vikings.
No longer content with mere coastal raids, The Vikings form larger armies and begin to pick off one Anglo-Saxon kingdom after another until fought to a standstill and brought to terms by Alfred, ‘the Great’, King of Wessex. He rules southern and western England south of the Thames. To hold on to what is left and to enable a re-conquest, Alfred begins building a network of fortified places called ‘burhs’, such as Cricklade in Wiltshire. These provide defence in depth; give a refuge for local people and protect installations like coin mints.
Alfred also uses diplomacy for these ends and looks to dynastic marriages for his children…enter Aethelflaed, Alfred’s daughter and oldest child.
Alfred marries her to Aethelraed/ Ethelred, ruler of Mercia. (Don’t confuse her husband with the better-known ‘Ethelred the Unready’: that hapless ruler is a couple of generations on!).
Once a powerful independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom extending across much of the Midlands and formerly even holding London, Mercia is now reduced by Viking conquest to a ‘rump’ of its western territories, roughly extending from Gloucester to Chester. This is debated territory between Welsh raiders, the Vikings and Saxons. It is in the interests of Both Alfred’s Wessex dynasty and Ethelred the Lord of Mercia to cooperate to hold onto what remains.
Aethelflaed’s marriage fits with the role of Anglo-Saxon noblewomen as ‘peace-weavers’: bringing together dynasties and peoples that might otherwise be hostile to one another in a sort of marriage diplomacy. (The Old English term also plays on what was regarded as a female textile craft). In this Aethelflaed is conventional for her time, but much else about her story quickly becomes very unconventional.
Sifting the sources
We know about her career largely from a Mercian version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an account of events written by monks. The ‘official Wessex’ version of the Chronicle makes very little mention of her- preferring for political reasons to focus on the deeds of her father Alfred and her brother, King Edward. Some historians have also suggested the monks there were more traditional and wanted to play down the role of a powerful woman.
There is also evidence about her life from charters and –at a geographical remove- an Irish chronicle.
Founder of churches, forts and towns
Aethelflaed has one child with Ethelred, then declares her wish to be ‘celibate’- to have no more children. Was this for medical as well as religious reasons? It seems likely that she is making her own decision about controlling her fertility and health. She is also possibly crafting an image of herself as a ‘chaste’ Christian woman (and therefore ‘good’ in the eyes of the church).
Aethelflaed co-witnesses charters- grants of land or foundations of churches and helps her husband govern. As well as establishing churches, her contribution includes establishing fortified burhs in Mercia, perhaps influenced by her father’s plans in Wessex, but serving particular Mercian defensive needs.
When Ethelred falls ill she governs for him but her political life goes far beyond this. When he dies, she rules for many years by herself as ‘Lady of the Mercians’- exceptional for a woman in Anglo-Saxon times.
The place names of some of the earthwork forts she orders to be built can no longer be securely located ‘on the ground’ and may have been more temporary, but others, pushing eastward or northward into territory fought over with the Vikings, will become flourishing towns such as Tamworth , Warwick and Runcorn. In other places she commands the repair of ancient Roman defences such as at Chester.
Negotiator and leader of armies
According to an Irish chronicle she negotiates with Vikings coming from Dublin, settling them on the Wirral peninsular.
She may not have fought in the front ranks of her army ‘sword in hand’, but the sources tell us that she directs armies in the field in battles against the Vikings and also into Wales to avenge the murder of a senior clergyman.
She also helps to foster her nephew, the future King Athelstan when his father re-marries. It is likely that he learns his early lessons in statecraft and military matters during his time in Aethelflaed’s Mercia.
When she dies in 918 AD, aged around 50, she is buried in the south Mercian heartland of Gloucester, at St Oswald’s Priory, which she has previously supported and prepared for herself.
For a few months, her daughter Aelfwynn (her wonderful name name means ‘elf-joy’ or ‘elf-friend’ in Old English) rules as a second Lady of the Mercians. However, this succession is quickly replaced by the direct rule of her Uncle King Edward of Wessex.
What happened? Was this an agreed transfer of power or annexation? It seems likely that Edward either did not trust Aethelflaed’s daughter to manage affairs so well in this critical frontier area- or was suspicious of Mercian separatism. Aethelflaed leaves not only a legacy of towns and churches founded. Her work helps to defend Anglo-Saxon territory and culture. Finally her ‘fosterling’ Athelstan goes on to be arguably the first king of a united England.
Today the memory of Aethelflaed is a source of local pride, especially in the places that she founded and defended more than 1,100 years ago, where she is remembered in memorials and pageants.
Historic England’s role in protecting sites
Some of the most historically significant earthworks, ruins or buried remains of the historic places mentioned in this blog are protected by Scheduling and you can find out more about them by searching the National Heritage List for England. You can also discover more about ‘burh’ sites by searching local and national records through the Heritage Gateway.