Friday, June 12, 2020

Æthelflæd: Lady, or Queen?

By Annie Whitehead

On 12 June, 918, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, died at Tamworth. Her body was taken for burial at Gloucester, to be laid alongside her husband who had died seven years earlier.

Her profile has been raised in recent years with, among other things, her fictional portrayal in the Bernard Cornwell novels/television series and, in 2018, conferences, festivals and re-enactment events to celebrate the 1100th anniversary of her death. A new statue was erected at Tamworth.

The New Statue - Image by Annatoone via Wiki Commons - Link here

We know the basic facts of her life which are that she was the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, and was married to the lord of Mercia around the time that the Mercians aided Alfred when he freed occupied London from the Danish invaders. This would suggest that Æthelflæd’s marriage took place in around 886, when she was probably sixteen or seventeen. Since he is named as fighting alongside Alfred, and was clearly a warrior deemed capable of leading Mercia during such turbulent times, it is likely that her husband was a good deal older than her.

His name was Æthelred and in all the extant charters his title is given as lord of the Mercians, not king. The last two kings of Mercia, Burgred and Ceolwulf II, came from rival branches of the royal family. Burgred, who was married to Alfred’s sister, fled overseas when the ‘Vikings’ invaded Repton in Mercia. Ceolwulf II, whom the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dismissed as a ‘foolish king’s thegn’ was, in fact, considered a legitimate king who minted coins jointly with Alfred and issued charters in his own name. His date and place of death are not known for certain, nor is it clear where Æthelred came from and nothing is known of his lineage.

Æthelred was clearly considered a worthy husband for the daughter of the king of Wessex and he proved himself an invaluable ally, fighting alongside not only Alfred but also Alfred’s son, Edward.

In 902 though, his name disappeared from the records. His death was recorded as having occurred in 911, and most historians agree that he was incapacitated in some way for nearly a decade.

Very few even near-contemporary chroniclers mention Æthelflæd by name, most often referring to her - if at all - as Edward’s sister. We do, however, have a portion of an annal incorporated into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and referred to as the Mercian Register. It isn’t very long, but it chronicles the years 902-918 and it focuses on the programme of burh-building, where fortified towns were built in the campaign to push the invaders back and as part of the strategy of retaking areas overrun by the ‘Vikings’. This building campaign was not random, either, but saw Æthelflæd and her brother working strategically to aid one another and provide mutual support and back up.

The Mercian Register. British Library - Link here

The Mercian Register mentions three specific incidents which are not related to the burh-building, however, although not until near the end of her life. The first is that Æthelflæd sent an army into Wales to avenge the death of an abbot, the second is the taking by her forces of Derby, in which she lost four men who were ‘dear to her’ and the third is that when she died, her daughter was considered the rightful heir to Mercia but was ‘deprived of all authority’ by Edward of Wessex.

So it seems that Æthelflæd did far more than oversee building projects and she was accepted as a leader of an erstwhile kingdom as was, briefly, her daughter [1]  but even so, while it begins in the critical year of 902, the Mercian Register gives no hint that Æthelflæd was in charge of Mercia during her husband’s illness, most of the activity seemingly occurring after his death.

Fortunately, we have another source which, although not considered hugely reliable, does fill in some gaps for us. It is an Irish annal, known as the Three Fragments, and it explains how, when the ‘Vikings’ overran Chester, a message was sent to Æthelred, whom it refers to as the king, and who was in disease and at the point of death. He, apparently, gave instruction to his wife who then successfully restored Chester, driving out the enemy.

Image from the Abingdon Cartulary

It may not be true, but it does seem to corroborate the idea that Æthelred was ill, but still able to command. And it does put some flesh on the bones of the stark statement in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that in 907 ‘Chester was restored.’ And, a point to consider is that at other times the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is happy to name Æthelred when he was involved in various campaigns and battles, but it doesn’t give a name here. Perhaps we can safely assume then, that Æthelflæd was indeed acting in her husband’s stead.

After her husband’s death, Edward took Oxford and London under the direct control of Wessex but left the rest of Mercia under his sister’s command. I’ve discussed elsewhere [2] his possible motives for this and for his annexation of Mercia following his sister’s death but, whilst there are political implications, it’s hard not to conclude that he saw personal strengths in his sister.

14th century depiction of Edward

Leaving aside the later Anglo-Norman chroniclers’ depictions of her as a warrior queen who could be compared to Caesar, what we have are very ‘bare bones’ accounts of her life and deeds but it’s more than enough. We know that she cared deeply about Mercia, ruled in her husband’s stead while he was ill, and worked in tandem with her brother after Æthelred’s death, building fortresses and pushing back the invaders.

What we cannot settle is the debate over her title. She was Lady, not Queen. And yet that word implies so much more than nobility, especially if her daughter was then deprived of ‘all authority’. Indeed, Æthelflæd's own mother, wife of Alfred the Great, was remembered as 'Lady of all the English', so the title carried some implication of nobility of the highest order. Many might argue that Æthelflæd's status, and that of her husband, was downplayed by the main, Wessex-based, chroniclers but it seems unlikely to me that Æthelred was considered a king, even by the Mercians and he was never styled so in the charters he issued. It has been suggested that he was in fact the son of King Burgred, who married Alfred’s sister, but if so why was he not called king, as his father had been? Barbara Yorke [3] has suggested that he was descended from the ealdorman Æthelmund of the Hwicce (a sub-kingdom of Mercia) who was named in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as being killed in 802 fighting at Kempsford.

So whether by bias or reality, Æthelflæd was a Lady. But she certainly acted like a queen and if we once again turn to sources not English, then we see how other nations viewed her. The Three Fragments referred to her as queen of the Saxons and the Annales Cambriae, the Welsh annals, erroneously give the date of her death as 917 but the entry is succinct: 'Queen Aethelflaed died.'

Today, in Tamworth and elsewhere, she will be remembered, not for her title, but for her deeds.

Tamworth Statue erected in 1913. Author's photo


[1] England would have to wait for more than another 600 years before a woman succeeded a woman to the throne.

[2] In my nonfiction books, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom and Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England

[3] Æthelflæd 1100 Conference Tamworth, June 2018


Annie Whitehead studied History under the eminent Medievalist Ann Williams. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an editor for EHFA.  She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, one of which was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society (HNS) Indie Book of the year 2016, and a full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines, including winning the New Writer Magazine Prose Competition. She was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017. She has recently been a judge for that same competition, and for the HNS Short Story Competition. Annie’s new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, is published by Pen & Sword Books.

For more information, visit Annie's Website or her Author Page. Also connect with Annie through her Blog and Twitter (@AnnieWHistory) 

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