Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Queen Ælfflæd: A Bride Worth Killing Over

By Kim Rendfeld

Today we know little about Ælfflæd, except that kings wanted to her to marry their sons.

She was the daughter of deposed Mercian King Ceolwulf, who claimed to descend from the legendary Penda’s brother. Apparently, that pedigree made her a desirable bride.

Ælfflæd’s birth and death dates are unknown. Not a surprise consider the dearth of information about 9th century Mercia. She lived in turbulent times. In a span of 54 years, there were 10 kings. The realm faced danger from Viking raids and power struggles within.

Her uncle Cenwulf succeeded Offa’s son, Ecgfrith, who died in December 796, maybe not of natural causes. Offa had a reputation for ruthlessness, but Cenwulf was no Mr. Nice Guy. Early in his reign, he suppressed a rebellion in Kent and had its leader blinded and his hands chopped off. He released his crippled rival to Winchcombe, an abbey and center of power. His daughter, Cwenthryth, was abbess of Winchcombe and Minster in Thanet in Kent. (Rumors of Cwenthryth ordering the murder of her brother, later revered as a martyr, are likely apocryphal.)

Cenwulf died without male heirs in 821, passing the throne to Ælfflæd’s father, Ceolwulf. If she was at court as a child, it was not for long. Although anointed in 822, Ceolwulf was deposed only a year later, and we don’t know why.

Coins from Ceolwulf's reign (The Portable
Antiquities Scheme/The Trustees of
the British Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0,
via Wikimedia Commons}

His successors fared no better. Beornwulf, perhaps a descendant of rival family to Offa, died in 826, at the hands of East Angles. Then Ludeca died the next year, also in battle against the East Angles.

Wiglaf ascended to the throne in 827. He was deposed by Wessex King Ecgberht in 829 but resumed his reign in 830. After that scare, Wiglaf might have realized he needed some help if he didn’t want to wind up like the last two rulers. Beornwulf, Ludeca, and Wiglaf might have been regional rulers—they could seize the throne but couldn’t secure the support of all Mercian factions. Wiglaf needed an alliance, and marriage between noble families was one way to forge that. His son Wigmund was the eligible bachelor and the father looked to Ælfflæd.

Why Ælfflæd, the daughter of a deposed king? For one thing, she might have been wealthy and controlled a lot of land. She was the sole heiress for her father and, after Cwenthryth passed, her uncle. Perhaps, Mercians still held a high regard for her ancestors, and she had friends through the kingdom.

History is silent on whether Ælfflæd immediately supported the union and her family’s return of power or required persuasion. It’s not too much of a stretch to think she welcomed the offer. Medieval women were expected to manage assets and wield influence in Church and secular politics. I suspect Ælfflæd, much like another woman with the same name, was quite capable.

We don’t know how well Wigmund and Ælfflæd got along. They had a son, Wigstan. Whether they had another son, Ceolwulf, is uncertain. If there was a second child named after his maternal grandfather, that says a lot about Ælfflæd and her importance.

You might have noticed part of the father’s name often appears in the names of his children, both sons and daughters. Ælfflæd seems to be an exception. There’s no way to know for certain, but it is possible she had been named for Saint Ælfflæd, an influential abbess of Whitby who had died in the previous century. Ceolwulf’s parents might have wanted to remind the people of another king, either Ælfflæd’s father or an 8th century saint who was king of Northumbria.

Wiglaf ruled for another 10 years, a long time in this period. Exactly who succeed him and when is in dispute, but here’s what I suspect. The crown passed to Wigmund, who ruled another nine years until his death.

Crypt at Repton (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

According to legend, Wigmund’s son Wigstan preferred the religious life to ruling the kingdom and appointed his mother regent. If Ceolwulf was his brother, why didn’t the crown pass to him? Was Ceolwulf too young?

Wigstan’s kinsman Beorhtfrith wanted to wed the widowed Ælfflæd. Politically, this would have made sense. The marriage would reconcile two noble families who had been at odds. (Given the similarity of names Beorhtwulf and Beornwulf, it is likely the two were related.) It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Ælfflæd still young enough to bear children.

But Wigstan forbid the marriage—or persuaded his mom to refuse the offer—because of consanguinity. Beorhtfrith and a servant murdered Wigstan on June 1, 849. Interred with his father at Repton, Wigstan would later be canonized as a martyr.

We know Beornwulf, Beorhtfrith’s father, was the next king. What happened to Ælfflæd is unclear. She might have retired to Winchcombe and become its abbess. History is silent on Ælfflæd’s grief. Nor does it tell us if she prayed for Beorhtwulf’s downfall.

Beorhtwulf’s reign lasted only three years. Burgred succeeded him after a Mercian defeat at the hands of the Vikings. Then Burgred himself was ousted by Vikings in late 873 or early 874.

Ceolwulf II succeeded him. Perhaps an older man when he became king, he’s been called a puppet of Vikings, but because of his royal descent, he was acceptable to Mercians. The Vikings and the people of Wessex accepted him as the ruler of Mercia. We don’t know if Ælfflæd was alive to witness this. But if she were around, and if this Ceolwulf was his son, perhaps she felt some triumph to see royal power back in her family’s hands.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, including:
“Cenwulf” by M.K. Lawson
“Cwenthryth” by S.E. Kelly
"Beornwulf" by S.E. Kelly
"Wiglaf" by S.E. Kelly
"Wigstan [St Wigstan]" by David Rollason
"Berhtwulf [Beorhtwulf]" by S.E. Kelly
"Burgred [Burhred]" by S.E. Kelly

A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Ages Britain: England, Scotland, and Wales, C. 500-c. 1050 by Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth, D.P. Kirby

The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley

Kim Rendfeld has written two novels set in 8th century Europe. In The Cross and the Dragon, a Frankish noblewoman must contend with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband (available on Amazon). In The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, a Saxon peasant will fight for her children after losing everything else (available on Amazon). Her short story “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” about Guinevere’s decision to marry Arthur, is set in early medieval Britain and available on Amazon.

Connect with Kim at on her website, her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at, on Facebook at, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld.


  1. My what a tangled web these Anglo-Saxons wove!

    1. Particularly in Mercia and especially at this period with potentially three rival dynasties all taking turns (not too politely!) with the kingship!


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