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Medieval miniature of Æthelflæd in genealogical roll of the kings of England 13th century.(Public Domain)/ Æthelflæd as depicted in the cartulary of Abingdon Abbey

Æthelflæd, The Medieval Queen Who Took on the Vikings to Save Her Kingdom


While her name is a mouthful, and quite a convoluted one at that, Æthelflæd of Mercia's role in early medieval England is rather straightforward. More importantly, the part she played in the conquest of the Danelaw (the Viking dominated region of England) is imperative to the historical tale of Britain. The eldest daughter of Alfred the Great—one of only three British rulers given such a profound epithet—Æthelflæd was not merely the daughter and wife of two astoundingly capable kings; she was as valued and looked upon as the legitimate queen following the death of her father and husband. This is the only instance of female ascension in the history of royals in Anglo-Saxon England.

Æthelflæd as depicted in the cartulary of Abingdon Abbey

Æthelflæd as depicted in the cartulary of Abingdon Abbey ( Public Domain )

A Key Political Role Amongst English Rulers

Æthelflæd grew up in a world divided. Born to an Anglo-Saxon king, the Vikings were at the height of their conquering spree in England and she married into a family constantly battling the Vikings who wanted their territory. By the time of her birth, the Great Heathen Army had already come to East Anglia and conquered them, as well as Northumbria. Her father fought against the Vikings when Ivar the Boneless led the northerners into Mercia, aiding Æthelflæd's future husband Æthelred. During these numerous skirmishes, her father—Alfred the Great—rose to become king of Wessex. By 883, Æthelred ruled Mercia under Alfred the Great's command.

Her marriage was in fact a strategic political move by her father to ensure the English kingdoms who survived the Viking invasions remained loyal to one another, in the hopes of eventually ridding their lands of the northern presence.

Famous statue of King Alfred the Great on Broadway in Winchester.

Famous statue of King Alfred the Great on Broadway in Winchester. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Though a woman, Æthelflæd had a significant role in the protection of the English from the Vikings. In the 9 th and 10 th centuries, when Æthelflæd lived and ruled, modern day England was broken down into various smaller, independent kingdoms which, themselves, were divided into tribes. Among the most prominently valued by historians are East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, Wessex and Gwynedd, among others. This period was also a time of furious Viking invasions, the Viking period having begun with the pillaging of Lindisfarne in 793 and continuing throughout the 11th century. Thus, Æthelflæd lived around the mid-point of these Viking invasions.

Lady of the Mercians

She and her brother were tasked by Alfred the Great with ensuring the continuous building of fortified structures called ‘burhs’. The idea behind these burhs was to create a strategic network of defenses against the Vikings that the English could easily reach and move between. These burhs were both reused Iron Age or Roman fortifications and brand new structures commissioned by either Alfred or his children. Æthelflæd herself is attributed with directly instigating the burhs at such locations as Tamworth and Stafford, the former significant from Roman times onward, while the latter was founded by a Mercian prince in the 8 th century. Stafford in particular holds interest to scholars of Æthelflæd, "Lady of the Mercians", as she commandeered it after both her father and husband died, securing the city as a prime military base.

Medieval miniature of Æthelflæd in Genealogical roll of the kings of England. 14th century

Medieval miniature of Æthelflæd in Genealogical roll of the kings of England. 14 th century ( Public Domain )

This new role as "Lady of the Mercians" was in essence an acknowledgement of her queenship following the death of her husband, allowed due to Mercian traditions, not her native Wessex ones. Not only was the Lady gaining territory in her own name rather than her and her husband's, Æthelflæd also led many of her Mercian armies into battle, aiding her brother's attempts to displace the southern Danes by splitting the focus of the Vikings armies.

The Strengths of a Saxon Queen

That Æthelflæd succeeded in defeating various Viking armies is a feat in and of itself for a medieval woman. That she did so without a husband, without her father or brother's aid, and with the full support of her Mercian people speaks volumes of the impact Æthelflæd had on the lives and events of 10th century Mercia and Wessex. It is a testament both to her upbringing and her individual intellect and pride. Tamworth and Stafford remain two valued locations in modern day England, and thus stand as monuments to the woman who procured them as powerful military command centers against the Viking invaders. Though Æthelflæd graced no coinage in her time, her actions graced her native and wedded kingdoms in aiding in the safety of her people.

Remains of St Oswalds Priory, Gloucester, burial place of Æthelflæd and Æthelred

Remains of St Oswalds Priory, Gloucester, burial place of Æthelflæd and Æthelred ( Public Domain )

Top image: Medieval miniature of Æthelflæd in genealogical roll of the kings of England 13th century.( Public Domain )/ Æthelflæd as depicted in the cartulary of Abingdon Abbey ( Public Domain ).

By Ryan Stone

References

Blackburn, M.A.S. and D.N. Dumville. 1998. Kings, Currency and Alliances: History and Coinage of Southern England in the Ninth Century. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Costambeys, Marios. 2004. " Æthelflæd (d. 918), ruler of the Mercians ." In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fleming, Robin. 2010. Britain after Rome: The Fall and the Rise, 400 to 1070. London: Penguin Books.

Keynes, Simon. (trans.) 1984. Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred & Other Contemporary Sources . UK: Penguin Classics.

Hadley, Dawn. 2006. The Vikings in England . Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Reuter, Timothy. 1999. The New Cambridge Medieval History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stafford, Pauline. 2007. "'The Annals of Æthelflæd': Annals, History and Politics in Early Tenth-Century England." In Myth, Rulership, Church and Charters . Aldershot: Ashgate.

Woolf, Alex. 2001. From Pictland to Alba: 789-1070 . Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Comments

I’m very happy that the legacy of queens is finally being acknowledged. Not s long ago, all we heard about were kings (some great, some not so great). It’s about time the strong women of history are known.

Athelflead, wasn't British, she was English, she wasn't married to a King, but to an Earl of Mercia. What she did, had nothing to do with Britain as a Whole, only the future Unification of England as a whole. Calling her British, is like calling Britain the Island a Country, it is not, it is simply an Island where three distinguishable individual Nations/Countries are situated. England is England, the largest of the Countries situated on the Island of Britain. Athelflead was English, born in the English Kingdom of Wessex, of English Ancestry and Origin, not British since the idea of British as a whole was invented after 1707 and the act of political Union between England and Scotland!!

The author wrote, "England was broken down into various smaller, independent kingdoms which, themselves, were divided into tribes. Among the most prominently valued by historians are East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, Wessex and Gwynedd, among others."

However, Gwynedd is in Wales and not England. The Welsh are not Anglo-Saxons. They are not even today English.

That was not my reason for commenting, I know the history of England my own country, my comment was aimed at the dubious point of Athelfead being British, when she was not, she was West Saxon, situated in England, not Britain, or Britain, only as far as being situated on the Island. As for the Welsh not being English, I know that. the above article is about a figure of English History, not Welsh, although she did campaign against the Welsh as well as the Norse.

One major problem with "historians" is that they often conflate history. One example is to read the history of England in the united States. It usually begins with the Beaker peoples, the goes on to the Celts, and the Roman invasion, etc. The only problem is that none of these peoples were English. The English had not yet arrived on the Island of Britannia. It gets worse when the history of Ireland it studied here. There is no distinction between the English and the Normans. Now we get to America, though the different peoples from the various "nations" of England and the British Islands are distinct, each with their own customs and views of life, most Americans are taught that they were all English as if there is some sort of homogenization of the peoples. That is not how America was settled and hence though most of America's culture is from the British Isles, nevertheless, the different regions reflect those cultural and value differences that were inherited from the British Isles. In other words, the peoples of America are different according to their British origins and continued history. In many ways they are growing apart and not together.

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