Here we look at the career of the determined ruler of Mercia, Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who battled Vikings, built forts and founded towns.
This piece is part of a series on women leaders, alongside The Empress Matilda and Margaret of Anjou.
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 historians such as Tim Clarkson and popular culture.
Athelflaed now has her own Ladybird book, featured in TV historian Janina Ramirez’s children’s adventure story ‘Way of the Waves’ and has enjoyed a dramatic re-imagining in the ‘Last Kingdom’ TV series, played by Millie Brady. She has also been featured in creative local Place Branding for the Tamworth area.
Our story is set roughly 1,100 years ago. 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 in London), Ipswich and Hamwic/Southampton, have grown up.
These places’ wealth 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 they fought to a standstill and were brought to terms by Alfred, ‘the Great’, King of Wessex.
Alfred 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 Aethelflaed’s 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 an Irish chronicle at a geographical remove.
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 deciding to control 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,
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 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 AD 918, 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 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 is arguably the first king of a united England.
Today the memory of Aethelflaed is a source of local pride, especially in the places 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 historical places mentioned in this blog are protected by Scheduling. 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.
Love this!! Love Aethelflaed. Because I’ve avidly watched Netflix The Lost Kingdom series! Thanks for sharing. 🙂
Would love to know what happened to Aelfwynn! Aethelflaed – as a child – is one of the main characters in my novel about Alfred, Warrior King; and I also wrote a story about her which appeared in an anthology about significant women in British history, Daughters of Time. I’m fascinated by her. Enjoyed this article!
We are so glad you enjoyed the article! Sadly we can’t be sure of what happened to Aelfwynn. She is no longer mentioned in the sources after she is removed from power. However at least one later medieval chronicler and some modern historians speculate that she may have been put into a nunnery- either as lay resident or taking holy orders. This may have been seen as being a ‘respectable’ way of life for a noblewoman of the time and would have prevented her from marrying and founding a rival dynasty to the house of Wessex.
Surely she would take religious vows as ‘ holy orders’ would indicate she became a priest?
Dear Robin, I do believe Dr Janina Ramirez would love to be engaged in this conversation and take it further with you and commentators. She was my online lecturer on Illuminating Medieval Art via histcourses, such a passionate and enthusiastic medievalist and TV presenter.
Amazing lady who many people have never heard of. Achieved more than our last 4 governments put together.
This article caught my eye due to the beautiful photo of the sculpture in Runcorn – I recognised it from walks along the Mersey promenade but never knew the history behind it. Thank you for a very interesting article that touches on some of the history of my town; I’m inspired to try and learn some more about its history.
Love reading about the vital roles women played at a time of great change. These shadowy figures are brought gloriously to life more so by historic dramas such as ‘ Vikings ‘ and the ‘Last Kingdom’. This has sparked a whole new interest during Lockdown of the birthing pains post Roman Era of this country that became England before the Norman Conquest was even a thought of.
Very sorry to see that you’re still using the old photo of the Viking stone on the nasty rough wooden wedge. If you look carefully you can see that the angle of the wedge is wrong: the Vikings’ feet aren’t level. There is a better photo in the archive, with the stone on the new wedge that I made more than 25 years ago!
I wondered why it was on a tilt myself. But as a person who has visited many many different cemeteries in the past 10 years. i found that headstones rarely seat themselves geometrically. It is a shame Barry above cant change it himself. Esp as he has made a new wedge “25” plus years ago. Come on guys change it just for us…..Amanda
Great article, pity this is being air brushed out of history, to me the importance of knowing your true history keeps the present in check, but remember the vikings were not defeated but settled became part of who and what we are today along with anglosaxon, roman departure created a wave of confusion and power grabs, relivent today as then, this is why history regardless to what people try to rewrite can and shouldn’t be rewriten, alfed was a great leader relised diplomacy was the only tool left, with all the counties falling to norse raiders, is daughter following his legacy, leaders today take a look talking compromising allways better there lies why history realy does matter
I live in Bebington on the Wirral, site of a huge battle called Brunanburh 937ad.
The vikings where defeated and chased back to Ireland, from then on we became English.
A great article, thanks! Having written (in fiction and nonfiction) and given talks about her life, I’m always pleased to see the few known details about her life presented accurately.