Æthelflæd was one of the most remarkable figures of the Anglo-Saxon period who played a crucial role in the creation of the nation of England. The daughter of Alfred the Great, consort and then ruler in Mercia, she worked with her brother, Edward the Elder, to defeat the Vikings and brought up Athelstan, who would finish the job of unifying the Anglo-Saxon people under one nation.
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Æthelflæd was born in about 870, the eldest child of Alfred the Great and his consort, Ealhswith. She was born at a time when England did not yet exist as a unified nation but there were a series of smaller Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Æthelflæd was born in Wessex, which covered the south and south-west of England, with her father becoming king in 871. This was a good place to be for a Saxon at this time as all the other kingdoms were falling to Viking invasion. Indeed, in 878, Wessex almost fell as well when the Vikings ambushed the royal court, forcing Alfred to take refuge in the Somerset levels along with Æthelflæd and the rest of his family. Thankfully, Alfred emerged to defeated the country in the Battle of Edington and agreed to a division of the country with, the Vikings ruling the east and north (the Danelaw) and the Saxons taking the south and west.
Æthelflæd benefited from her father’s policies of rebuilding the country, with a focus on creating fortified market towns (burhs) to avert future Viking raids and a focus on education. Æthelflæd received the same education as her brother, Edward – initially led by her mother but subsequently benefiting from her father headhunting scholars from across Britain and Europe. However, she first emerges as a notable figure in 886 when she was married to Æthelred, Lord of Mercia, in London. Mercia was an old kingdom in the English midlands which was partially conquered by the Vikings in the 870s. Alfred seems to have been acknowledged as the dominant figure by the Saxon part of Mercia and hoped that this marriage would ensure Mercia continued to aid Wessex in its fight against the Vikings (and encourage the unification of the two peoples). Æthelflæd was thus to fulfil the traditional female role of a peace-weaver, symbolising an alliance and ensuring its continuation.
We do not know what Æthelflæd and Æthelred thought of each other, though it is likely that there was a large age gap, with Æthelred being maybe 20 years older (unlike in the show Last Kingdom, where they are both young). In Wessex, consorts had a notoriously diminished role, barely even being recorded in the chronicles, whereas Mercia had a tradition of strong female queenship. Combined with her status as Alfred’s daughter, this allowed Æthelflæd a powerful role within Mercia and there seems to have been an element of dual role, with her witnessing numerous charters alongside her husband.
When Alfred died in 899, his eldest son, Edward the Elder, became king, and he worked closely with Æthelflæd and Æthelred to continue Alfred’s working in building burhs and expanding the scope of Saxon rule. The Battle of Tettenhall in 910 saw a joint Wessex/Mercian force defeat a Danish army, resulting in the death of 3 Danish rulers, crucially changing the balance of power. It may have been Æthelflæd commanding this army, as while Edward was campaigning in another part of the country, Æthelred seems to have been in ill health and died the following year. Remarkably, rather than retiring to a nunnery or her estates (as was often the case for widowed consorts), Æthelflæd instead was recognised as Lady of the Mercians, the new ruler of Mercia.
This arrangement seems to have been acceptable to Edward, with brother and sister now working closely together in a co-ordinated and aggressive series of campaigns against the Vikings. Æthelflæd focussed on the west of England while Edward pushed into East Anglia and the East Midlands, with both building burhs and using these as springboards for further expansion. The Vikings had several armies with different leaders and struggled to deal with two highly effective and co-ordinated forces. From 917-18, Edward captured Essex, Northampton, Hungtingdon and Cambridge while Æthelflæd started the assault of the Five Boroughs (five Viking strongholds in the midlands). She captured Derby in brutal fighting and then received the submission of Leicester, while Edward took Stamford. The city of York then offered its submission to Æthelflæd but before she had the chance to accept it, she died on 12 June 918 (about 48 years old), and was taken to be buried at Gloucester.
After Æthelflæd died, the Mercian lords recognised her daughter, Ælfwynn, as the new Lady of the Mercians – the only mother to daughter succession in English history and the first of only two occasions when ruled passed from one woman to another. However, this situation was not to last long. Later in the year, Edward established control over Mercia, subsuming it into his own kingdom, and Ælfwynn was removed to a nunnery in Wessex.
Unlike most consorts, Æthelflæd was fully engaged in military affairs and was remarkably successful. She established herself as the only clear example of an Anglo-Saxon female ruler (942 years before Mary I) and there is no evidence that her position was ever challenged within Mercia. Along with her brother, Edward, she oversaw a remarkable period of Saxon expansion against the Vikings, largely focussing on areas in or around Mercia. In 907, Norse Vikings expelled from Dublin attempted to capture Chester but Æthelflæd’s defences held out and the Vikings were defeated (apparently partly due to being attacked by bees). Her dominance in the west was such that, after one of her abbots was killed in a raid, she sent an army into Wales and took numerous prisoners, including the king’s wife. She may well have been present (if not in charge) of Saxon forces at the Battle of Tettenhall in 910, where an army of Danish Vikings from the Danelaw suffered a devastating defeat in which 3 kings and many jarls were killed, leading to the power vacuum that Æthelflæd and Edward were then able to exploit. Particularly from 911, she continued her father’s tactic of building burhs – fortified market towns that could a) defend against Viking attack and b) act as a springboard for a campaign of expansion into Viking territory. This campaign came in 917, with Æthelflæd capturing Derby amidst brutal fighting, leading to the peaceful submission of Leicester in 918. This was followed by an offer of submission from York, the highly prosperous capital of Northumbria, which would have been a remarkable coup for Æthelflæd.
Sadly, Æthelflæd died in 918 just before she could receive the submission of York and it was not fully subdued by the West Saxons until the 950s. It is unlikely that Æthelflæd actually did any hand-to-hand combat herself, though she would most likely have been present at battles and commanding her army on horseback.
Æthelflæd was clearly an inspirational and highly effective leader who oversaw various successes against the Vikings as well as establishing herself as an unchallenged leader of Mercia. Her military record is one of the most impressive of the Anglo-Saxon period but perhaps lacks a major headline achievement (such as taking York) to make it a maximum score.
Score = 18/20
We do not have any evidence of scandalous behaviour for Æthelflæd. William of Malmesbury even claims that, after the birth of her daughter, she adopted a policy of chastity. While many historians have doubted this claim, there is certainly no juicy opposite claim so suggest scandalous deeds so unfortunately her score here has to be 0/20.
The burhs that she created were not just military outposts but also functioning towns. Gloucester functioned as a royal capital in Mercia, where Æthelflæd and her husband dedicate a new minster, while Chester saw the foundation of a royal mint and its later prosperity was in part due to her effective town planning. This was a period of prosperity and stability for Mercia after decades of decline and Viking raids. Æthelflæd was at the forefront of this recovery, not just in defeating the Vikings but in more ‘noble’ pursuits as well. She made various generous donations to monastic communities (including the acquisition of relics) and helped Mercia remain a renowned centre for learning within England. Her legacy is, arguably, the creation of England – it is highly unlikely that her brother could have recaptured eastern England from the Vikings without his sister protecting (and indeed expanding on) the west. Their shared campaign was part of the process started by Alfred and finished by Athelstan to create a nation state of England covering all the Anglo-Saxon people on the island – indeed, Athelstan was fostered by Æthelflæd, meaning that it was just as much her legacy as her brother’s.
Æthelflæd was not just a military figure, and she brought peace and prosperity to much of Mercia while playing an important part in the creation of the English nation. This is an impressive legacy, though equally we do not have a lot of specific evidence of things that she did (e.g. buildings, the arts, reforms) and there was an awful lot of fighting going on that would have put pressures on the people.
Score = 11/20
This is a bit tricky to define as it depends on what we are counting. She was technically only a consort from 886 to 911 (i.e. her husband’s death), a period of 25 years. She was Lady of the Mercians from 911 to 918 (7 years). We decided that we are reviewing the whole period of consortship/rule, which means 886 (when she married) to 918 (her own death), a period of 32 years, which converts to a score of 16/20 (11th overall for the consorts).
Æthelflæd had one child (Ælfwynn), which converts to a score of 7.5/20 (joint 32nd).
So, does she have that certain something? The answer would seem to be a very easy ‘yes’ – her achievements in becoming ruler of Mercia (as a woman), achieving major victories against the Vikings AND playing an important role in the creation of England are all remarkable. However, arguably she was not really a consort for some of this (911-18) and even before then she was consort of Mercia rather than England. That said, technically Alfred the Great and Edward the Elder were kings of Wessex rather than England, and we included them in our first series – she was a consort and she was part of the royal family that created England.
Our Verdict = Yes, she has the Rex Factor!
Let us know what you think – does Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians deserve the Rex Factor? Should she be eligible for the consort series?
- Anglo Saxon Chronicle
- Annals of Ireland (Three Fragments)
- Estelle Gittins – “Æthelflæd: an Anglo-Saxon ‘Queen’ and Viking Nemesis” at https://www.tcd.ie/library/manuscripts/blog/2018/06/aethelflaed-an-anglo-saxon-queen-and-viking-nemesis/
- Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England
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- Henrietta Leyser, Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England, 450-1500
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- Pauline Stafford, ‘‘The Annals of Aethelflaed’: Annals, History and Politics in Early Tenth-Century England’ in Myth, Rulership, Church and Charters by Julia Barrow and Andrew Wareham (Eds.)
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- Tim Clarkson, Æthelflæd: The Lady of the Mercians