Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, Struck Fear in Viking Hearts
Aethelflaed, also known as the Lady of the Mercians, was an Anglo-Saxon ruler of Mercia who lived between the 9th and 10th centuries AD. When Aethelflaed was still a child, the Vikings controlled a large part of England. Their territory, known as the Danelaw, was located in the northern and eastern parts of England, and three of the four major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria) had fallen to the Vikings….but things would change.
Although this was the political situation in England when Aethelflaed was growing up, by the time of her death the Vikings were slowly being pushed back, and Aethelflaed played an important role in the Anglo-Saxon fight against the invaders.
Æthelflæd -Lady of the Mercians. (Tim Ellis/CC BY NC 2.0)
Product of a Political Alliance
Aethelflaed was born in 870 AD, and was the eldest child of Alfred (later given the epithet ‘the Great’) and his wife Ealhswith of Mercia. At that time, Alfred had married Ealhswith three years earlier, and the marriage is likely to have been politically motivated. Alfred was the son of Aethelwulf, King of Wessex, and Ealhswith was the daughter of Aethelred Mucel, a Mercian nobleman.
The marriage of Alfred and Ealhswith was meant to cement the defensive alliance between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, which was formed in response to the conquest of Northumbria by the Vikings in the same year.
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At the time of Aethelflaed’s birth, Wessex was ruled by Aethelred I, Alfred’s brother. After Aethelred’s death in 871 AD, Alfred became the new king, as his two nephews were too young to rule. During his reign, Alfred fought against the Vikings with mixed success. For instance, in the same year that he became king, Alfred fought against the Vikings at the Battle of Wilton. Although Alfred was defeated, he managed to keep the Vikings away from Wessex for the next five years by paying them off.
But the Vikings returned in 876 AD and captured Chippenham in a surprise attack in January 878 AD. Alfred was forced to flee, but continued to resist, harassing the invaders from a fort in the marshes of Somerset. Seven weeks after Easter that year, Alfred secretly assembled an army, attacked the Vikings, and scored a decisive victory against them at the Battle of Edington.
The Viking leader, Guthrum, was forced to accept peace terms, and was baptized as a Christian, with Alfred acting as godfather. The Vikings were allowed to settle in East Anglia, and their territory became known as the Danelaw, as it was governed by the laws of the Danes.
Was Aethelflaed’s Marriage as for Political Reasons?
The next decade and a half of Alfred’s rule was relatively peaceful. At some point of time between 885 and 887 AD, Aethelflaed married Aethelred, the ruler of English Mercia, i.e. the south and west parts of the kingdom, whose title was ‘Lord of the Mercians’. At that time Aethelflaed would have been between 15 and 17 years old. Although Aethelred’s exact age is unclear, it is speculated that he was much older than his wife.
Some historians are of the opinion that the marriage took place in 886 AD, shortly after Alfred captured London. If so, the marriage would have been politically motivated, as it brought London (given to Aethelred, since it was technically Mercian territory) and English Mercia under Alfred’s control. Aethelflaed and Aethelred had a daughter, Aelfwynn, who was their first and only child, early in their marriage.
What Aethelflaed may have looked like. (History's HEROES? )
In the years that followed, Aethelflaed did not play a huge role in English politics, as it was her husband who handled the affairs of state. For instance, in 892 AD, when two divisions of Vikings arrived from Denmark, one landing in Appledore, and the other in Milton (both situated in Kent), the Mercians took part in the defense of England under the leadership of Aethelred. This is not to say, however, that Aethelflaed was idle during this period. For example, in 889 AD, Worcester, which was under Mercian rule, was fortified as a ‘burh’ (essentially a fort), most likely on the orders of Aethelflaed and Aethelred.
During the relatively peaceful period between 879 and 886 AD, Alfred was building burhs at key locations in his kingdom. As the Vikings lacked siege engines, these fortifications served to defend the kingdom from future raids and attacks. Later on, the burhs would aid in the reconquest of England. Aethelflaed would have been familiar with her father’s policy of building burhs, and was probably responsible for bringing it to her new home in Mercia.
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Aethelflaed Takes on the Vikings
At the beginning of the 10th century AD, perhaps as early as 902 AD, Aethelred fell seriously ill, and was unable to govern Mercia. Therefore, Aethelflaed took over the governmental reins. In 902 AD, a group of Vikings, led by Inngimund, were expelled from Dublin and arrived in Mercia. Aethelflaed allowed them to settle in the Wirral, a peninsula not far from Chester.
Three years later, however, Inngimund and his Vikings attacked Chester, but were not able to overcome the defenders. According to one story, the people of Chester poured hot beer on the Vikings from the settlement walls. Additionally, when the attackers defended themselves with shields, the defenders countered by hurling beehives at them. Two years later, Aethelflaed had Chester fortified.
This extended the territory of the Mercians to the north, and allowed them to control the lower Dee. Furthermore, Chester became a base from where Aethelflaed could carry out raids against the Vikings of Northumbria.
Arguably the most famous raid Aethelflaed undertook against the Northumbrian Vikings was the one conducted in 909 AD. The Mercians joined forces with the West Saxons and succeeded in capturing the remains of Saint Oswald, a 7th century king of Northumbria. The king had been laid to rest in Bardney Abbey, in Lincolnshire. After the raid, however, his remains were transferred to Gloucester (which was part of English Mercia), and interred in Saint Oswald’s Priory.
St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester, near to Gloucester, Gloucestershire, Great Britain. (Philip Halling/CC BY SA 2.0)
The priory was founded by Aethelflaed and Aethelred around the late 880s AD, and was possibly dedicated to Saint Peter initially. Since Oswald was a major Anglo-Saxon saint, the raid brought great prestige to Gloucester and the Mercians. In the following year, the Mercians and the West Saxons joined forces once more to inflict a devastating defeat on the Northumbrian Vikings at the Battle of Tettenhall.
Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia
In 911 AD, Aethelred died, and Aethelflaed became the sole ruler of Mercia, adopting the title Lady of Mercia. It seems that there was no real serious opposition to Aethelflaed being the sole ruler of the kingdom, despite her being a woman. As noted before, Aethelred and Aethelflaed had only one daughter, and the former did not have any known close male relatives.
Additionally, the earlier Mercian royal dynasties seemed to have either died out or were collaborating with the Vikings. Furthermore, the political situation in England at that time was precarious, and the Mercians needed stability in their kingdom, as well as good relations with Wessex. As Aethelflaed was part Mercian (from her mother’s side), and the sister of Edward of Wessex, Alfred’s successor, she was the perfect person to rule Mercia. Lastly, during Aethelred’s illness, Aethelflaed was running the kingdom and had proved to the Mercians that she was a capable ruler.
Plaque honoring Aethelflaed in Warwick, England. (Elliott Brown/CC BY SA 2.0)
Mercian Military campaigns Under the Power Lady
One of the first moves that Aethelflaed made as ruler of Mercia was to hand over the area between London and Oxford (the two settlements included) to Edward. This area was the border between Mercia and the Danelaw.
The surrender of this territory, which was probably meant to be temporary, served a number of important purposes. Firstly, it gave the West Saxons a land border from which they could attack the Vikings. Secondly, the Mercian troops posted on the border could be freed from their responsibility of defending the area. Thirdly, the Mercians, now with more troops on their hands, could go on the offensive in the Midlands.
Aethelflaed’s military campaigns enabled the Mercians to regain territory that was lost to the Vikings. In 912 AD, Scargeat and Bridgnorth were captured, while in 913 AD, Tamworth, the historical capital of Mercia, and Stafford, were captured. In addition to reclaiming lost territory, Aethelflaed also fortified these settlements to ensure that they could defend themselves in the event of a Viking attack.
The military reforms paid off. In 914 AD, the Vikings invaded Mercian territory around Hereford while the main Mercian army was on campaign further up north. The invaders faced an army consisting of men from Hereford, Gloucester, and other nearby burhs, and were defeated.
The walled defence round a burh. Alfred's capital, Winchester. Saxon and medieval work on Roman foundations. (Peter Trimming/CC BY SA 2.0)
Apart from the Vikings, Aethelflaed also went to war with the Welsh, though it was a small conflict. In 916 AD, a Mercian army was sent against Tewdr, King of Brycheiniog (in south Wales). This was a punitive expedition, as the king had murdered a Mercian abbot and his companions.
The Mercian army destroyed the royal crannog and captured the queen and the court. Tewdr survived the attack, but submitted to Aethelflaed soon after. It is estimated that Aethelflaed was the overlord of at least three Welsh kingdoms.
In the following year, Aethelflaed captured the old Roman fort at Derventio, near Derby. This victory was followed by the capture of Derby itself, which was a major Viking settlement. This marked the beginning of the end for the southern Danelaw. In 918 AD, Aethelflaed won a great victory without the loss of life on either side.
In that year, the Vikings of Leicester, finding themselves isolated and surrounded by the Mercians, surrendered to Aethelflaed. Around the same time, she entered into negotiations with the Vikings of York. The ruler of York at that time was Ragnall, a pagan from Norway who was unpopular with the Christians of the settlement. In summer that year, the Christians of York promised to submit to Aethelflaed.
Aethelflaed Demise and Edward’s Rise in Power
It is likely that in return, Aethelflaed promised to help them remove Ragnall. Unfortunately, these negotiations ultimately resulted in nothing, as Aethelflaed fell ill, and died at Tamworth on June 12, 918, two weeks before she was due to visit York. She was buried in Saint Oswald’s Priory in Gloucester, where her husband was also buried.
Aethelflaed (Æthelflæd) as depicted in the cartulary of Abingdon Abbey. (Public Domain)
Aelfwynn, Aethelflaed’s daughter, became the new Lady of Mercia following her mother’s death. She had been Aethelflaed’s co-ruler for some time. Unfortunately, the new ruler of Mercia only reigned for several months.
Edward, Aelfwynn’s uncle, was worried that Mercia might declare its independence. Being a new ruler, Aelfwynn was probably not as formidable as her mother, and Edward seized this opportunity to claim Mercia for himself, remove Aelfwynn from the throne, and declare himself King of Mercia. By bringing Mercia under his control, most of England was now under Edward’s rule. It is not entirely clear what happened to Aelfwynn. Since Aelfwynn is not known to have married, she is presumed to have lived the rest of her life in a convent.
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Edward not only seized Mercia from Aethelflaed’s successor, but may have also been responsible for erasing his sister’s memory from history. The main written source of information for that period is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was first compiled towards the end of Alfred’s reign. In the West Saxon version of this piece of work (which is also the most commonly used one), Aethelflaed is merely referred to as Edward’s sister, thereby almost wiping her out from the historical records.
Fortunately, another version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains something called the Mercian Register. Although this text is now lost, fragments of it are preserved in the pro-Mercian version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is from this version that we have today the little details regarding the life and deeds of Aethelflaed.
Medieval miniature of Aethelflaed in Genealogical roll of the kings of England. 14th century. (Public Domain)
The Lady of Mercia is also mentioned in some Irish and Welsh records. As these were written in territory beyond Edward’s control, their authors could write more freely about Aethelflaed. Be that as it may, we have today only brief details about Aethelflaed’s life, which mainly concern her military campaigns against the Vikings. Other important details about her reign, such as the way she governed and her character as a ruler, is perhaps lost to history.
Top image: Representative image of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians. Source: Nejron Photo /Adobe Stock
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