In Women’s History Month 2020 I started a mini-Trailblazers series where we looked at Empress Theodora, Marie Curie, Christine de Pizan and Ida B Wells, and this year I’ll be continuing this series exploring more kick-ass women!
So, to get things started, we’re going to find out about Æthelflæd. She was daughter of Alfred the Great and would go on to become Lady of the Mercians ruling Mercia independently from 911 until her death in 918.
Æthelflæd was the oldest child of King Alfred of Wessex and his wife Ealhswith, we don’t have an exact birth year but it was likely to have been the late 860s/early 870s. She was alive during a time of great unrest, when the Vikings were a dominant force taking many parts of the country by violent conquest. It’s important to note England wasn’t a unified country at this point, it was separate kingdoms like Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia. During her childhood her father briefly lost his throne to the Viking Guthrum and the family fled into exile living in marshlands. This would have been a difficult time for Æthelflæd where the fate of herself, her family and Wessex hung in the balance. Thankfully Alfred reclaimed his throne, but this episode would have increased Æthelflæd’s understanding of politics and warfare, knowledge she would put to good use later on.
It was imperative noblewomen made politically sound marriages and Æthelflæd was no different, marrying Lord Æthelred of Mercia in roughly 886. Mercia were getting overwhelmed with Vikings and allied themselves with Wessex with Alfred becoming Æthelred’s overlord. The marriage between Æthelred and Æthelflæd cemented this alliance. They were to be married for around 25 years and had one daughter Ælfwynn.
During her marriage Æthelflæd “played an active role in the economic, diplomatic and political activities of her kingdom” and this did not end when as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 911 “Æthelred, lord of the Merican died”. Where historically a woman may have joined a nunnery and retired from public life, it was at this point when Æthelflæd really came into her own. She began to rule Mercia in her own right as an independent female leader, known as Lady of the Mercians.
During her reign she achieved a lot, including creating more burhs which were a type of fortified settlement and battling the Vikings in Wales and Northumbria. Some of these events are recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle…
912: “Æthelflæd, lady of the Mercians, on the holy eve of the Invention of the Cross, came to Scergeat and built the borough there, and in the same year, that at Bridgnorth”
913: “By the Grace of God, Æthelflæd, lady of the Mercians, went with all the Mercians to Tamworth, and built the borough there in early summer and after, before Lammas, built that at Stafford. The year after that, the other was built at Eddisbury in early summer, and the same year, late in autumn, that at Warwick”
916: “Abbot Ecgbriht, innocent, was killed before midsummer, on June 16th, with his companions – the same day that was St Ciricus the martyr’s. Three nights later, Æthelflæd’s troops into Wales stormed in Brecenan mere, and took the king’s wife, as one of some thirty-four others”
917: “Æthelflæd, lady of the Mercians, with God’s help, before Lammas obtained the borough that is called Derby, with all that belonged to it. There also were killed four of her thanes, who were dear to her, inside the gates.”
These excerpts provide a snapshot of the kind of work Æthelflæd was doing in Mercia, fortifying her lands for the purpose of defense and attacking the Danelaw (land occupied by Danes). Wessex and Mercia remained close allies with similar goals, with her brother Edward having been king of Wessex since their father’s death in 899. Edward had even sent his son Æthelstan to be raised in Æthelflæd and her husband’s court. The Wessex and Mercians appear to have coordinated their building programs and jointly attacked the Danelaw.
Sadly, for Æthelflæd she never got to see the fruition of some of her efforts.
After her success at Derby in 917 which was “the first of the Viking ‘Five Boroughs’ of the north-east midlands to fall” she was continuing her efforts but died suddenly in 918 as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle…
“She took the borough of Leicester under her rule, peacefully, early in the year, and the greatest part of the force that belonged to it became subject to her. The people of York had also promised her – some gave pledges, and some fastened it with oaths – that they would be under her rule. But very soon after they had agreed to this she died, twelve nights before midsummer, in Tamworth, in the eighth year she was with rightful lordship holding Mercian rule. Her body lies in Colchester, in the east chapel of St. Peter’s Church”
Æthelflæd’s daughter retained power as the next Lady of the Mercians but not for long as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says in 919 “the daughter of Æthelred, lord of the Mercians, was deprived of all power in Mercia, and taken into Wessex”. Edward took control of Mercia, which was likely to have been a long-term ambition of his, as we can see from the fact he sent one of his sons to be raised there.
There was never another Lady of the Mercians, but I don’t think that can be seen as evidence that Æthelflæd wasn’t a trailblazer. After all she ruled the kingdom of Mercia independently for 7 years, proving a woman could rule. She lived in a very patriarchal time, and it’s amazing how much she achieved as an independent female leader. Although it would be another few centuries before there was another Queen Regnant (Mary I), Æthelflæd showed what was possible, the inkling that a woman could do more than just be in the domestic sphere leaked subconsciously into England’s consciousness.
What do you think of Æthelflæd? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!
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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles: The Authentic Voices of England, from the time of Julius Caesar t o the coronation of Henry II. Translated and collated by Anne Savage.
England’s Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York by Elizabeth Norton
ODNB: Æthelflæd [Ethelfleda] by Marios Costambeys
Aethelflaed: The Lady of the Mercians by Tim Clarkson
The Warrior Queen: The Life and Legend of Aethelflaed by Joanna Arman
British Library: Æthelflæd https://www.bl.uk/people/aethelflaed
British Library: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscript B https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/anglo-saxon-chronicle-manuscript-b
Rex Factor S3.03 Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians