Æthelflæd: The Anglo-Saxon Iron Lady Who Showed the Vikings No Fear
The UK now has a female prime minister and Elizabeth II has been queen for more than six decades, but few would associate Anglo-Saxon England with powerful women. Nearly 1,100 years ago, however, Æthelflæd, “Lady of the Mercians”, died in Tamworth – as one of the most powerful political figures in tenth-century Britain.
Although she has faded from English history, and is often seen as a bit-part player in the story of the making of England, Æthelflæd was in fact a hugely important figure before her death in 918, aged around 50. Indeed, the uncontested succession of her daughter, Ælfwynn, as Mercia’s leader was a move of successful female powerplay not matched until the coronation of Elizabeth I after the death of her half-sister Mary in 1558. So, while Bernard Cornwell’s novels and the BBC series The Last Kingdom are cavalier with the historical facts, perhaps they are right to give Æthelflæd a major role.
Æthelflæd as depicted in the cartulary of Abingdon Abbey ( Public Domain )
Æthelflæd was born in the early 870s. Her father, Alfred “the Great” had become King of the West Saxons in 871, while her mother, Eahlswith, may have been from Mercian royal kindred. At the time, Anglo-Saxon “England” was made up of a series of smaller kingdoms, including Wessex in the south, Mercia in the Midlands and Northumbria in the far north. All faced encroachment by Viking forces that were growing in strength and ambition, as outlined in Charles Insley’s article The Strange End of the Mercian Kingdom and Mercia and the Making of England by Ian Walker.
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Famous statue of King Alfred the Great on Broadway in Winchester. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Æthelflæd spent most of her life in the Kingdom of Mercia married to its de facto ruler, Æthelred. Mercia had seen some dark days by the time of her marriage. In the eighth and early ninth centuries, the Mercian kings had had good cause to consider themselves the most powerful rulers in southern Britain. But by the 870s, the kingdom had suffered dramatically from the Viking assaults which had swept across England.
One king, Burgred, had fled to Rome, and his successor, Ceolwulf II, was seen as a mere puppet by the West-Saxon compiler of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and disappeared between 878 and 883. Soon, the East Midlands were ruled by Scandinavians – what became known as the “Danelaw” – and so the kingdom ruled by Æthelflæd and Æthelred was by then just the western rump of the old Mercia.
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Nevertheless, Æthelflæd and Æthelred together engaged in massive rebuilding projects at Gloucester, Worcester, Stafford and Chester, overseeing the refounding of churches, new relic collections and saints’ cults. Famously, in 909, the relics of the seventh-century saint, Oswald were moved from Bardney, deep in Scandinavian-controlled Lincolnshire, to a new church at Gloucester. Perhaps appropriately, for a couple facing the Vikings, Æthelflæd and her husband had a great attachment to the saint, a warrior king and Christian martyr. Æthelred was buried alongside Oswald in 911, and Æthelflæd joined him seven years later.
Remains of St Oswalds Priory, Gloucester, burial place of Æthelflæd and Æthelred ( Public Domain )
Powerplay and Politics
At the time, Athelred and Æthelflæd did not call themselves king or queen, nor do the official documents or coins refer to them as such. Instead, they used the title “Lord/Lady of the Mercians”, because Alfred had extended his authority over Mercia and styled himself “King of the Anglo-Saxons”.
But they acted like rulers. Æthelflæd, with her husband and her brother Edward the Elder, King of the Anglo-Saxons, launched a series of military campaigns in the early tenth century. These brought all of England south of the Humber and Mersey river under Anglo-Saxon control and rolled up the Scandinavian lordships which had been established in the East Midlands and East Anglia.
These advances were backed up by an energetic programme of fortification, with burhs (fortified towns) built in places such as Bridgnorth, Runcorn, Chester and Manchester.
Statue in Tamworth of Æthelflæd with her nephew Æthelstan, erected in 1913 to commemorate the millennium of her fortification of the town. (Humphrey Bolton/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
But while she called herself a “lady”, outsiders, especially the Welsh and Irish, saw Æthelflæd as a “queen” and she surely wasn’t just her husband’s subservient wife. As Alfred the Great’s daughter, the role Mercia and the Mercians would play in the kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons was at stake.