Ӕthelflӕd, Lady of the Mercians and defeater of the Great Viking Army

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.

Penny of Alfred the Great's first coinage, c. 871-875 (PUBLIC-A00281)
Penny of Alfred the Great’s first coinage, c. 871-875 (PUBLIC-A00281).

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.

Ingots of copper alloy, gold and silver from the Torksey area (YORYM-420D6D, DENO-938F91 and DENO-705A57). The Vikings used bullion, such as these ingots, as well as coins.
Ingots of copper alloy, gold and silver from the Torksey area (YORYM-420D6D, DENO-938F91 and DENO-705A57). The Vikings used bullion, such as these ingots, as well as coins.

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.

Coins of Burgred (LON-61D165) and Ceolwulf (BUC-08EE42), kings of Mercia.
Coins of Burgred (LON-61D165) and Ceolwulf (BUC-08EE42), kings of Mercia. Burgred was the last of the Anglo-Saxon Mercian kings, ruling from 852-874. He was married to Alfred’s sister Ӕthelswith; marriage links were frequent between rival kingdoms. When the Viking army invaded Mercia, they sent Burgred into exile (he went to Rome) and put Ceolwulf on the throne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle calls Ceolwulf ‘an unwise king’s thegn’ and implies that he was a collaborator with the Vikings. BUC-08EE42 is the only single find of a coin of Ceolwulf on the PAS database and, very unusually, is a halfpenny rather than a penny. The Watlington Hoard (SUR-4A4231) contains coins of both Alfred and Ceolwulf and has recently changed our ideas of their relationship.

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’.

The boundaries of the Danelaw agreed between Alfred and Guthrum. From E. W. Dowe's Atlas of European History, published 1910 (Wikimedia Commons)
The boundaries of the Danelaw agreed between Alfred and Guthrum. From E. W. Dowe’s Atlas of European History, published 1910 (Wikimedia Commons).

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.

Coin of Edward the Elder, from a small hoard found in Norfolk (NMS-88D191).
Penny of Edward the Elder, from a small hoard found in Norfolk (NMS-88D191).

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.

The 'Athelswith' finger-ring, found at Abercorn in West Yorkshire in 1870 and now in the British Museum (AF.458).
The ‘Athelswith’ finger-ring, found at Aberford in West Yorkshire in 1870 and now in the British Museum (AF.458). On the back of the bezel it bears the inscription + EAÐELSVIÐ REGNA (Queen Athelswith). It is almost certain that it was a gift or mark of office from Ӕthelflӕd’s aunt Ӕthelswith, the previous queen of Mercia and sister of Alfred the Great. Ӕthelflӕd may have issued similar rings, but she does not appear to have issued coins.

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.

Curious object showing a helmeted Viking holding a drinking horn (LEIC-EEF651)
Curious object showing a helmeted Viking holding a drinking horn (LEIC-EEF651). It was found near Loughborough, Leicestershire, and may be a prick spur, with a parallel known from Germany.

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.

Powerful Anglo-Saxon Women

Today is International Women’s Day, and this year is the centenary of the first women voting in a UK general election. So I’d like to look today at a few objects that show us the power of Anglo-Saxon women, and where this power came from.

We get hints of this power from written history, but these stunning archaeological finds are the best proof that women, for a short moment in the Anglo-Saxon world, were almost as powerful and important as men.

In the early days of Anglo-Saxon Christianity – the 7th century AD – women were right in the forefront. Many Anglo-Saxon abbeys had a woman in charge. There was Aethelthryth at Ely, Hilda at Whitby, Mildrith at Thanet, Aethelburh at Barking, and Cyneburh at Castor near Peterborough. These women are really major figures in Anglo-Saxon history, but tend nowadays to be forgotten.

The Trumpington Cross (CAM-A04EF7)
The Trumpington Cross (CAM-A04EF7)

This is the Trumpington Cross, found by archaeologists in 2011 while excavating in advance of housing development on the outskirts of Cambridge. It was found on the chest of a young woman in her mid to late teens, who had been buried on a narrow bed. The grave also contained gold-and-garnet linked pins, a ‘chatelaine’ (a chain hanging from the waist with tools and trinkets) and an iron knife. It has a PAS record (CAM-A04EF7) because it was a Treasure case, and it has now been acquired by the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge.

You’ll immediately notice that the Trumpington Cross has lugs rather than a pin or a loop, so it’s not a brooch or a pendant. It seems likely that it was sewn on to a garment, and at just 35mm across it’s quite small.

The Trumpington Cross joins a select group of cross pendants mostly associated with women. Until the start of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, just four were known, all from discoveries in the 19th century: the Wilton and Ixworth crosses, the cross from the Desborough necklace, and St Cuthbert’s cross.

The first to be found was the cross of St Cuthbert, and this is the only one associated with a man. It was found in 1827 when St Cuthbert’s coffin in Durham Cathedral was opened, hidden deep in the robes clothing the body. It is made from gold with inlaid garnets, and although of exceptional workmanship was broken and crudely repaired before burial. I’ll come back to this one in a moment.

The Wilton Cross
The Wilton Cross, set with a coin of Heraclius (610-641). Width: 44mm.

The Wilton Cross was the second to be found. There is little known of its circumstances of discovery, but it is now in the British Museum (1859,0512.1). A report in Volume 3 of Norfolk Archaeology for 1852 (p. 375-6) says that it was found at Wilton near Methwold in Norfolk, by some boys digging for gravel, and that it was bought by Mr W. Eagle of Lakenheath; this purchase was probably the source of the erroneous findspot of Lakenheath in the British Museum accession register. It has generally been felt that the correct findspot is Hockwold-cum-Wilton, about five miles from Methwold.

The Ixworth Cross was the next to be found, in Suffolk in1856, and it is now in the Ashmolean Museum (AN1909.453).  It was found during gravel-digging, probably in Stanton, but it was bought by a dealer in nearby Ixworth soon afterwards, and so became known as the Ixworth Cross. It came from a grave apparently very like that at Trumpington, containing the ironwork of a similar bed, and also the gold plate of a disc brooch. Brooches at this time were worn only by women, so this confirms that the pendant was also almost certainly the possession of a high-ranking woman.

The Desborough necklace, with the pendant cross at the centre.
The Desborough necklace, with the pendant cross at the centre.

The next cross to be found was rather different in nature, as it was apparently part of a prestigious short necklace. It was found in 1876 at Desborough in Northamptonshire, in a grave in a large cemetery. It was apparently the only find in the grave, and no record was kept of how the beads and pendants were arranged on the necklace. It is obvious that there is a second major pendant on the necklace, the large oval gem, and it may be that (as at Winfarthing, see below) the woman in the grave was in fact wearing two separate necklaces. The Desborough necklace is now in the British Museum (1876,0504.1).

There then followed a century or so with no more finds, until the advent of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. One of the earliest PAS records was the Holderness Cross (YORYM214), found in the 1960s in East Yorkshire. This was an accidental find, and how it got into the ground is unknown. It has now been joined by the Newball Cross (LIN-75FD54) which, although it has the corrugated loop characteristic of 7th-century pendants, lacks the garnets of the other examples.

The Holderness Cross (YORYM214) and the Newball Cross (LIN-75FD54)
The Holderness Cross (YORYM214) and the Newball Cross (LIN-75FD54) at the same scale.

So we have a group of crosses, made from gold and garnets, found in high-status graves, all but one associated with women, and all dating from the mid to late seventh century. To put this in context, at this point in history showy male jewellery is virtually absent from graves – and has been since the ‘princely’ burials of Prittlewell, Taplow and Sutton Hoo, all buried between about 590 and 625 AD. Weapons might still be encrusted with gold and garnets (as in the Staffordshire Hoard) but men themselves seem to have been rather more abstemious. So who might these women have been, and why were they ostentatiously wearing symbols of the new religion, Christianity?

Christianity had come to Anglo-Saxon England with the missionary St Augustine, who left Rome in 596 and so probably arrived in 597. The story of its adoption throughout the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms is told by Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, finished in 731 AD. There were ups and downs – the Kentish kings were the first to convert and among the first to revert to paganism – but in the end Christian missionaries were finally sent to the last pagan kingdom, the Isle of Wight, after its conquest by the West Saxons in 686 AD.

By the time Bede finished his book, the newly Christian kings had endowed abbeys up and down the land. A quick count reveals references to at least three dozen monasteries, the most famous being Whitby, Ripon, Jarrow, Monkwearmouth, Lindisfarne,  Tynemouth, Hartlepool, Beverley, Lichfield, Ely, Peterborough, Malmesbury, Barking and Canterbury.

The evocative site of the abbey of Reculver, founded in 669. The towers were built in the 12th century and are still used as a seamark.
The evocative site of the abbey of Reculver, founded in 669. The towers were built in the 12th century and are still used as a seamark. The site is cared for by English Heritage, and is freely open to visit.

These abbeys were like mini-kingdoms, but powerhouses of religious rather than secular might. They were endowed with huge estates to provide an income, and gave an alternative to ruling or fighting for the aristocrats or minor royalty who ran them. Although copied from successful examples in Europe, they were entirely new, experimental institutions in England.

When flicking through the index to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History to compile this list of abbeys, I was struck by the number of named abbesses as well. In addition to the quick list I gave you above, Bede includes Ebba of Coldingham, Hildilith of Barking, Seaxburh of Ely, Frigyth of Hackness, Heiu of Hartlepool, Heriburg of Watton (in East Yorkshire) and more.  So there are a substantial number of women running these major institutions, controlling a large chunk of the economy of Anglo-Saxon England.

Looking around more widely, other women begin to appear. Conversion narratives often include queens as persuaders of kings; stories of miracles often include queens and princesses who seem to have been visiting or living at abbeys. And archaeological finds very occasionally bring a specific woman into focus. Queen Balthild, who ruled France from 657 to 663, has been better known in her native England since the finding of her seal matrix in Norfolk in 1998 (PAS-8709C3).

Gold seal matrix inscribed BALDEhILDIS, probably of Queen Balthild of France (PAS-8709C3)
Gold seal matrix inscribed BALDEhILDIS, probably of Queen Balthild of France (PAS-8709C3). Width 12mm.

So why – and how – did women wield this power, and why was it then lost? From the archaeological evidence, it seems entirely new, and connected to experimenting with Christianity.

It always takes a while for new ideas and organisations to shake down and get fixed in national and cultural life, and until this happens a variety of approaches can be tried out. Although Christianity was well established in the rest of the former Roman empire, it was a new idea in England and other currently ‘barbarian’ lands, and it wasn’t obvious how it would be handled.

It seems to have become obvious to someone (or several people in different kingdoms) that the new monasteries might be a useful place to put spare princesses while their brothers were fighting each other in the endless wars between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. If they were headed and run by women, this wouldn’t be a problem, as it would be perfectly in order to have women in charge of other women, and would remove any temptation from men.

But of course there are always unintended consequences, and it wouldn’t have been long before the Christian idea of doing good works to ensure a place in heaven resulted in huge endowments being settled on the new abbeys as a visible sign of piety. So the newly Christian Anglo-Saxons found themselves with women in charge of vast resources – and therefore power. The gold-and-garnet crosses are perhaps the clearest archaeological evidence for this power.

Two gold pendants from a grave at Winfarthing, Norfolk (NMS-E95041)
Two gold pendants from a grave at Winfarthing, Norfolk (NMS-E95041)

Another extraordinary recent find has been the jewellery from a grave at Winfarthing, in south Norfolk. There are two circular pendants in this grave, one large and one small, both clearly based on cross shapes. They were not on the same necklace; the larger pendant was found lower down on the chest, but the smaller pendant was on another shorter necklace with two gold beads and two pendants made from coins of Sigebert III, a Frankish king who ruled from 634 to 656 AD. The PAS record for the group is NMS-E95041.

It is always hard to know if the women in graves like those at Trumpington, Winfarthing and Ixworth (or Stanton) wielded secular or religious power. A rich grave (CAM-B4681Drecently found in a cemetery at Westfield Farm, Ely has been suggested as part of the religious community there, but there is no convenient abbey near every grave. Maybe our graves contained one of the women listed above, maybe one of their friends or relatives – but whoever they were, their grave-goods were a reflection of their power and status. It’s possible that the beds, and the crosses, had a very specific meaning.

There are other examples of a new force in cultural or political life that is at the start open to men and women, but when women get a foothold and the new area looks promising, women are removed. Football is a famous example. In the early days there were as many women’s teams as men’s, and the women’s game steadily became more popular than the men’s. In 1920 there was a crowd of 53,000 to watch a Preston factory team take on St Helens Ladies. The following year the FA barred women from playing.

As in football, the status of women in Anglo-Saxon England didn’t last. By the time Simeon of Durham was writing, just after the Norman Conquest, women weren’t allowed to enter the shrine of St Cuthbert. They were very definitely second-class citizens, even if of royal rank.

I did promise that I’d come back to St Cuthbert. The presence of a stunningly beautiful and well-made gold and garnet cross in his grave has always sat uneasily with both his gender and with his fame as an ascetic. This was a man who refused to wear lovely clothes, and who got closer to God by standing neck-deep in seawater. Yet the cross has clearly been worn, and is repaired. It has been suggested that it is an offering tucked into the coffin when it was re-packed in 698, and wasn’t Cuthbert’s at all.

But it is also possible that early Anglo-Saxon clerics, like priests in many other cultures, weren’t seen as quite fully male. We have hints that this may have been the case in pagan Anglo-Saxon England from Bede’s story of Coifi, the Northumbrian chief priest who wasn’t allowed to do the normal male things like carrying weapons or riding stallions.

Against this, it has to be said that no other possible priest or cleric has been found in a grave with what appears to be women’s jewellery. It is still a puzzle, and the only way to sort it out might be to carry out more excavations at Anglo-Saxon monasteries.

Until then, let’s enjoy International Women’s Day by remembering some of these remarkable women. They are still known today, as St Audrey, St Hilda, St Mildred, St Ethelburga, St Abb (of St Abb’s Head), St Kyneburga, St Hildelith and St Sexburga – but like many other great women of the past, they should be celebrated more.

PS. If you would like to know more about Anglo-Saxon women, Sutton Hoo’s Historia Festival is running talks throughout the year on this topic.