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 ( 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.
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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.
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.
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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.