Æthelflæd of Damerham did not get much time to make an impression as Queen Consort of England, but she does tell us something about the status of women in the law in Anglo-Saxon times.
Listen to her podcast episode here or read on to find out more.
We don’t know exactly when Æthelflæd of Damerham was born but as she married in about 944, this was probably in the early 920s. Her mother is not known, but her father was Ælfgar, Ealdorman of Essex, who was a very senior and wealthy man without sons. As such, Æthelflæd and her sister, Ælfflæd, were their father’s heiresses, with Æthelflæd the eldest. This made Æthelflæd a highly attractive bride and in 944 she married King Edmund I. Edmund’s wife had died earlier that year, leaving two infant sons, but Edmund was still only 23 and had the potential to be another great king following on from his three illustrious predecessors. With Æthelflæd’s sister marrying a man called Byrhtnoth, who would ultimately succeed their father as Ealdorman of Essex and become one of the most senior nobles in the land, the foundations had been laid for Æthelflæd to be an important and influential consort.
Tragically, the marriage would prove short-lived, as just two years later Edmund was killed by a notorious thief called Leofa, whom he was attempting to eject from a royal gathering. Æthelflæd was thus a widow, and having not yet produced any children with Edmund (nor seeming to have had any role in the upbringing of his sons by his previous wife), she had no real role to play at court and largely disappears from the record, with Edmund being succeeded by his brother (due to the youth of his sons).
However, she was still a wealthy woman and her father’s heiress, so while the historical record paid her little heed, the same was not true of her contemporaries. She married a second time to a man called Athelstan Rota (‘the red’). Athelstan and Byrhtnoth became powerful figures under Edmund’s first son, Eadwig, in the 950s and then his brother, Edgar the Peaceable. Although we know very little about them, Æthelflæd and her sister thus remained notable people in Anglo-Saxon society. We don’t know when exactly she died, but Æthelflæd made a will in about 975, so it was probably in or soon after then. Her will indicates that she died an extremely wealthy woman, making requests to various religious communities as well as to her sister and brother-in-law (her second husband, Athelstan, having predeceased her).
We thus know almost nothing of her queenship, but this did not prevent Æthelflæd being a wealthy woman with long-lasting connections at the centre of power. Indeed, her experience tells us a lot about the opportunities and limitations for women of high birth at this time. Women could acquire property and dispose of it as they saw fit – it did not automatically fall under the ownership of their husband, nor was this a Downton Abbey style scenario where the lack of sons meant a distant male relative could claim everything ahead of a daughter. Thus Æthelflæd and her sister were not only able to be heirs to their father but also to make their own wills in which they decided what should be done with their property. On the other hand, this enhanced status also made them more vulnerable to being pawns of the power brokers at court – it may well be that they were in part named as their father’s heirs in order to secure the prestigious marriages (or to avoid royal interference in their landholdings). It is thus questionable to what extent they were wealthy and influential women because they were the heirs of their father or whether they were effectively the vessels of their father’s wealth which their husbands then inherited through them. They were women of great wealth and status with the ability to dispose of their properties as they saw fit, but how powerful and influential they were in Anglo-Saxon society we will never know.
It is possible that she and her husband were part of the civil conflict between Eadwig and his brother Edgar the Peaceable in the 950s, but there is no evidence for this whatsoever or of any other such activities.
Score = 0.5/20
Again, other than wildling speculating on things she might have got involved in we have nothing to go on here.
Score = 0/20
Again, her short time as consort just had no details for us to draw any conclusions, be they positive or negative.
Score = 0/20
Well she definitely was a consort, so she gets some kind of score! We don’t know the exact date in 944 when she became consort, but tenure ended when Edmund was murdered on 26 May 946, so we’ll assume a nice round figure of 2 years. This is converted into a score of 3/20.
Æthelflæd and Edmund were only married for two years and did not produce any children, giving her a score of 0.
That gives her a score overall of 3.5, but does she have that certain something, that lasting legacy, the star quality that we call…
No, unfortunately. There is simply not enough information to go on for her to be considered for the Rex Factor.
Let us know what you think – does Æthelflæd of Damerham have the Rex Factor?
- Alison Hudson, “Women in Anglo-Saxon England”at https://www.bl.uk/anglo-saxons/articles/women-in-anglo-saxon-england
- Ann Williams, “Edgar [called Edgar Pacificus]” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- Elizabeth Norton, England’s Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York
- Geoffrey Hindley, A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons
- Henrietta Leyser, Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England, 450-1500
- Ian Walker, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom
- Justin Pollard, Alfred the Great
- MA Meyer, “Women and the Tenth Century English Monastic Reform” in Revue Benedictine (1977, Nos. 1-2)
- Pauline Stafford, “The King’s Wife in Wessex 800-1066” in Past & Present (91, May, 1981, pp. 3-27)
- Pauline Stafford – “Women and the Norman Conquest” in Transations of the Royal Historical Society (Vol. 4, 1994, pp. 221-49)
- Pauline Stafford, Queen Emma & Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh-Century England
- Sheila Sharp, “The West Saxon Tradition of Dynastic Marriage” in N. J. Higham and D. H. Hill (eds.), Edward the Elder, 899-924
- William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum