June 12th 2018 marks eleven hundred years since the death of one of the most remarkable women that England has ever produced. Few have heard of Ӕthelflӕd (and fewer can spell her name) yet she was a warrior queen, absolutely the equal of Boudicca or Elizabeth I.
Ӕthelflӕd was Alfred the Great’s eldest child, and she seems to have inherited all of his intelligence and good sense. She was married to Ӕthelred, Alfred’s lieutenant in the Midland kingdom of Mercia, and when he died prematurely she was chosen as leader. She was never officially a queen – Mercia had lost its independence in the conflict with the Vikings – but she had the same status, the unchallenged leader of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom who led her people into battle against the Vikings.
Ӕthelflӕd was the daughter of Alfred and Ealhswith, a Mercian princess. She was born about 870 AD, a really low point in English history. The Vikings had been around every summer for decades, attacking coastal sites like Lindisfarne and taking plunder home, but in the 860s they started a new tactic known as ‘overwintering’. This meant that instead of going home for the winter, they sailed up a river, built a camp and stayed put. There are famous historically-known camps at Nottingham, York, Cambridge, Repton, Torksey and Thetford, and archaeology and metal-detecting have found traces of all of these.
This was a real change in Viking activity. They seem to have been aiming at conquest, political control and land-taking, rather than simple raiding, and so they became a huge threat to the English kingdoms. Alfred became king of Wessex shortly after Ӕthelflӕd’s birth, but by the time she was about eight, he was in hiding in the Somerset marshes. The story is that he was on the run, given shelter by a woman who didn’t recognise him and asked him to keep an eye on her cakes (probably bread rolls). He was so pre-occupied with thinking about how to defeat the Vikings that the cakes burned – and he was scolded by the woman who had no idea he was king.
The other kingdoms – Northumbria in the north, Mercia in the Midlands, and East Anglia – were occupied by the Vikings. The situation looked hopeless.
Alfred famously began guerilla-style raids against the Vikings. Eventually he gathered enough people around him to build up an army, and was able to defeat the Vikings and get some measure of peace back to the country. A treaty was agreed some time between 878 and 890, which drew a boundary between the Anglo-Saxon lands and the ‘Danelaw’.
By this time, like any good princess, Ӕthelflӕd had got married, but not to a prince or king. She had married Ealdorman Ӕthelred, who was in charge of London, newly liberated from Viking rule. Quite soon Alfred promoted Ӕthelred, to take charge of the Mercian council and the Mercian armies.
The title of ‘king’ was a potent one, and Alfred seems to have realised that he ought to keep it to himself. By putting an ealdorman in charge, Alfred is showing that he’s the top dog – it’s not a separate kingdom any more. This new arrangement isn’t always clear, though, and Ӕthelred issues charters as if he was a king. Mercian sources fudge it, calling him ‘Lord of the Mercians’, and some Welsh sources describe him as a king. No coins are yet known in the name of Ӕthelred.
Ӕthelred’s position was therefore a bit precarious, and being married to someone like Ӕthelflӕd was essential to keep stability. We don’t know Ӕthelred’s background – whether he was from Wessex, or from Mercia, or why he was chosen by Alfred. And he had imposed on the Mercians by their historic enemy, the king of Wessex. So we might expect him to be a bit unpopular, and in need of some backup.
The couple start off quite conventionally – Ӕthelred spends his time fighting the Vikings, and Ӕthelflӕd stays at home and has a baby daughter. But Ӕthelred then becomes ill. We aren’t sure what happens – maybe a battle wound, maybe something else – but at some point between 902 and 910 Ӕthelflӕd takes over. By this point Alfred had died, and Ӕthelflӕd’s younger brother Edward was king – we know him as Edward the Elder.
The campaign against the Vikings was still at its height, and Ӕthelflӕd organised the Mercian side of things. She travelled with her army, and apparently had a good eye for land, being able to predict where the Danes would be and where would be the best places to attack. She sent her troops into battle in the final great defeat of the Viking army, when (with Edward’s Wessex army) she surprised them at Tettenhall near Wolverhampton in 910. Apparently many thousands of Danes were killed, including all their leaders, and this was the turning point in the war against the great combined Viking army. Again, it’s surprising how little we remember the Battle of Tettenhall, even though it’s one of the great decisive battles of English history.
Ӕthelred then died, in 911. This made Ӕthelflӕd’s position more difficult, because it was not obvious who would take over. In England, there was no tradition of women becoming regents when their husbands (although this did happen in France). In Mercia, queens could issue charters, but in Wessex, apparently the wife of a king didn’t even get the title of Queen. And of course Edward was the official king – so who would now rule Mercia was probably up to him.
Edward doesn’t appear to have interfered, and he was probably waiting to see how Ӕthelflӕd got on. She couldn’t govern without the loyalty of her military retinue, and as we don’t hear much of her for a couple of years, she was presumably building up her strength at home.
She next emerges into history as a builder of fortified towns, or ‘boroughs’. Between 913 and 915, towns like Bridgnorth, Tamworth, Stafford, Warwick and Runcorn all had major defences built. Several of these have been excavated, and all were strategically significant, many on major rivers on which the Vikings could use their ships. The ‘borough system’, where towns are fortified and men detailed to guard them in rota, had been invented by Alfred – but Ӕthelflӕd hugely expanded it in her kingdom.
916 was an interesting year for Ӕthelflӕd. She took a break from fighting the Vikings, and switched to annoying the Welsh. Her ally in north Wales, the king of Gwynedd, died in 916, leaving her a bit weaker on her western boundary. So she sent a force against the kingdom of Brecon – in south Wales – presumably hoping to keep the new northern Welsh king on side, under the principle that his enemy’s enemy is his friend. This is significant because both Brecon and Mercia were under the overlordship of Wessex. By attacking another dependent kingdom, Ӕthelflӕd clearly felt that she could safely assert her independence!
It seems that Edward and Ӕthelflӕd in fact had a good relationship, working separately but for the same ends. In 917 she switched from defence to offence, and began to attack the Viking towns – first she captured Derby, and then threatened Leicester, but the Danish town here surrendered without a fight.
The Danish rulers of York then sent a message to Ӕthelflӕd that they would accept her as their ruler, but sadly she died on 12th June in Tamworth, on her way north to York. No similar offer was made to Edward, and in fact the Viking kingdom of York continued for decades until the death of Erik Bloodaxe in 954.
Ӕthelflӕd was about 48 when she died, in the prime of her life and at the height of her powers. The death of a powerful ruler is always a problem, and although Edward was in the middle of fighting with his own army in the east midlands, he immediately went to Mercia to ensure that his authority there wasn’t questioned. In fact, the most extraordinary thing had happened – after the success of one Lady of the Mercians, the leading men there had chosen another one, Ӕthelflӕd’s daughter Ælfwynn, who was now aged about 30.
There is then silence until about six months later. Presumably Ælfwynn had been trying to build up power in Mercia, and had not had the same success as her mother. For some reason Edward ‘deprived her of control’, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and by Christmas 918 she was in exile in Wessex. There was no resistance in Mercia to the loss of their ruler, and so this really ends the story of Mercia as an independent kingdom.
It has been pointed out that the transfer of power from one woman to another is not seen again until Tudor times six hundred years later, with Queens Mary and Elizabeth (and Lady Jane Grey before, if you insist). At this point legitimacy and royal succession was the important thing, whereas in the tenth century the crucial attribute was the ability to command in battle. And in Tudor times there were no male heirs, whereas in Anglo-Saxon Mercia there were plenty of able men around.
William of Malmesbury, writing two hundred years later, probably summed it up when he said that she was “a woman of enlarged soul” and that she “protected men at home and intimidated them abroad”. Let’s remember Ӕthelflӕd (and Ælfwynn) and celebrate their achievements as women before their time.