Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

Here 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.

A medieval depiction of a crowned female ruler seated on a throne carrying a sceptre.
J08CYY Aethelflaed as depicted in the cartulary of Abingdon Abbey © Art Collection 4 / Alamy Stock Photo

Aetheflaed’s England

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.

Artists reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon monastery by Jill Atherton Ⓒ Historic England Archive, image reference IC211/002.

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.

Reconstruction art showing an Anglo-Saxon man and woman looking over a wooden palisade,  which has been cut away to depict the Viking raiders outside burning a settlement.
Reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon ‘burh’ fort under attack from Vikings, by Peter Dunn, ©Historic England Archive, image reference IC074/037.

The ‘peaceweaver’

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.

The Vikings are coming! But the Saxons are no longer unprepared. Depiction of Viking warriors on a grave marker from Lindisfarne ©Historic England Archive, image reference PLB_J880193.

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.

A page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Source: Historic England Archive image reference HT00472.

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.

A modern plaque with a depiction of Aethelflaed as a crowned, carrying a sword and wearing armour.
A plaque commemorating the founding of Warwick by Aetheflaed in 914 AD © Kevin George / Alamy Stock Photo.

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.

Photograph showing a modern re-enactment of a battle with the Vikings.
Re-enactors portraying a Viking-Age battle © Historic England Archive

Aethelflaeds’s legacy

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.

Detail of a statue of Athelflaed at Tamworth, Staffordshire © Ms Kaz Diller. Source: Historic England Archive. Image reference IOE01/00958/34.

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.

A civic dignitary taking part in pageant with costumed re-enactors depicting Athelflaed and a Saxon warrior.
Aethelflaed portrayed at a St Georges’s Day pageant, Tamworth Castle grounds Ⓒ Philip Pinfold / Alamy Stock Photo.

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.

Further reading

6 responses to Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

  1. artculturetourism says:

    Love this!! Love Aethelflaed. Because I’ve avidly watched Netflix The Lost Kingdom series! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  2. Sue Purkiss says:

    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.

  3. Michaela says:

    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.

  4. Sharon McBride says:

    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.

  5. Barry Knight says:

    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!

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