Ӕlfwynn of Mercia

An Anglo-Saxon woman, possibly a nun

An Anglo-Saxon woman, possibly a nun

Very little is known about this granddaughter of King Alfred the Great. Her mother Ӕthelflaed ruled the Kingdom of Mercia and when she died, she may have wished her daughter to succeed her. But Ӕlfwynn’s uncle had other ideas.

Ӕlfwynn was the daughter of Ealdorman Ӕthelred of Mercia and Aethelflaed, eldest daughter of Alfred the Great. The best guess on the birth of Ӕlfwynn is c. 888 as her parents probably married sometime between 882 and 887. The chronicler William of Malmesbury states that Ӕthelflaed had no more children either because the birth of Ӕlfwynn was difficult or she didn’t like the pain of the delivery. Ӕthelflaed’s brother Edward had a son named Ӕthelstan. Either on the advice of Edward or their father Alfred, Ӕthelstan was sent to Mercia to be educated by Ӕthelflaed. We can imagine that Ӕlfwynn took part in the same studies as her cousin. Ӕthelflaed may have personally supervised their education, appointed a bishop as tutor or organized several tutors in her household.

Ӕlfwynn‘s father did not seek the crown of Mercia. For many years he spent time on campaign with King Alfred and his brother-in-law Edward, fighting Vikings and trying to consolidate the many kingdoms of England. By 902, Ӕthelred was in bad health and Ӕlfwynn’s mother was the actual ruler of Mercia. She was to work together with her brother Edward in building forts and fighting Viking invaders.

The first written evidence of Ӕlfwynn’s existence is a charter dated c. 904 recording the lease of land by her parents and herself in and around Worcester from the Bishop and monks of Worcester Cathedral. Ӕlfwynn did not actually witness this charter herself but she may have been a witness to two other charters regarding land in c. 903 and 915.

British Kingdoms, c. 800

British Kingdoms, c. 800

Ӕlfwynn’s mother died suddenly on June 12, 918 at Tamworth after a decisive victory over the Vikings. Ӕthelflaed may have wanted her daughter to succeed her and the Mercian Witan (royal council) may have supported her. Ӕlfwynn’s uncle Edward promptly occupied Tamworth, received the submission of the Mercians taking command of their levies. He completed his sister’s fortification at Thelwall and repaired the Roman fortifications at Manchester while allowing Ӕlfwynn to continue to exercise authority in her mother’s place. But this arrangement lasted less than a year.

Ӕlfwynn may have lacked broad support from the nobles. Edward and his sons would have been more attractive rulers and warriors to the Mercians. For whatever reason, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that Ӕlfwynn “was deprived of all authority in Mercia and taken into Wessex, three weeks before Christmas”, presumably in December of 918. A Danish King had recently taken over York and this could be the reason Edward wanted complete control of Mercia.

Whether or not Ӕlfwynn or the Mercians agreed with Edward’s actions regarding his niece, the independence of Mercia was effectively over. There has been some speculation that Edward may have wanted Ӕlfwynn to marry his son Ӕthelstan but the church would have been against such close relatives marrying. There is no more recorded evidence of Ӕlfwynn after this. It doesn’t appear that she married and had children who tried to claim the throne of Mercia or Wessex. It is most likely she was sent to a nunnery. There is one tantalizing charter in 948 that mentions an Ӕlfwynn. Could it be her?

Charter dated 948 mentioning an Ӕlfwynn

Further reading: “The Anglo-Saxon Kings” by Timothy Venning, “British Kings and Queens” by Mike Ashley, “The Formation of England 550-1042” by H.P.R. Finberg, “Athelstan: The First King of England” by Sarah Foot

13 responses

  1. Pingback: Anglo-Saxon History | Angelfolc

  2. I think that Dancing Beastie is, to use the common phrase, “really onto something”.

    In an earlier post this year, you remarked that the consorts of Kings in England were usually not called Queens after Queen Eadburh’s name was tarnished.

    This, I believe, gives a very inaccurate impression of the political state of affairs in the divers English kingdoms, particularly the laws of inheritance. Although Wessex was for much of its history dominated by a single family in which the crown was typically handed from father to son, that was very much not the case in Mercia.

    Let’s look at the last several generations of rulers of Mercia before Edward the Elder seized the Mercian throne from his niece:

    Ælfwynn, daughter of:
    Æthelflæd, (d. 12 June 918) ruled Mercia from 911 to her death in 918, daughter of:
    Ealhswith, wife of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, and daughter of:
    Eadburh, daughter of:
    Ælfleda

    Do we see a pattern yet?

    If one looks at the earlier Mercian “Kings”, what’s notable is how rarely a king is recorded as a son of an earlier king: usually there is no evident genetic relationship between one king and the next.

    Where information has survived, one often sees a continuation of the the mother-to-daughter inheritance pattern, with men becoming “king” only by marriage.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to find that some of the reputed “sons” of a previous Mercian “king” were actually sons-in-law.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Geoffrey, that is an interesting theory, but you say “the consorts of Kings in England were usually not called Queens after Queen Eadburh’s name was tarnished”. That really only pertained to Wessex, there were queens in the other kingdoms. The Mecian kings of this era are a bit of a mystery, especially since we only have the ASC, which was written in Wessex to go by. Have you heard about the coin recently (sort of) found with Alfred on one side and the king of Mercia (Burgred?) on the other?

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    • One of the reasons for my fascination with this period is a disputed genealogy of my favourite fascinating 11th century character, Alan Rufus, that makes him a matrilineal descendant of the Queens of Mercia. This I guess would have made his eldest sister Adele a candidate for Mercian Queen had Mercia still existed as a separate realm.

      Alan’s father Eudon (999-1079), who remarkably received a citation in the Norman French “Song of Roland”, was a matrilineal first cousin of Edward the Confessor and thus would have had a claim to the English throne, had it been hereditary.

      Eudon’s eldest sister, Adela, was the foundation Abbess of St George’s in Rennes, and thus with Alan’s rise in importance his family contributed to the cult of St George in England.

      Following Alan’s death, his family urged Abbot Baldwin (King Edward’s former physician) to rebury him inside the Church at Bury St Edmunds. Apart from being a patron of the abbey, what his essential connection with the East Anglian saint-king was, is anyone’s guess.

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  3. Fascinating. One of the most surprising aspects of Anglo-Saxon history, to a historian of the later medieval period, is the high status of women. It is well documented that Anglo-Saxonwomen (at least those of noble birth) were well educated and indeed often more literate than their male relatives. Thus we find women as figures of considerable practical power, both in the religious sphere (founding and heading up nunneries) and on a secular stage. Perhaps it was only when there was a military crisis that women rulers were seen as less useful than men, as you suggest was the case for Aelfwynn.

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    • Exactly dancingbeastie. However that wasn’t the case with Aelfwynn’s mother. She actually led troops! The written records just aren’t there but we can imagine women had a larger role. Thanks for reading!

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      • Really?! Another fascinating snippet – I didn’t know that there were any female war leaders in this period. (One reason that history is endlessly interesting: there is always so much more to learn. 🙂 ) Thank you!

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      • Yes, Æthelflæd, “Lady of the Mercians” (really, their Queen Regnant) (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Æthelflæd) was her brother Edward’s vital military ally: she made a huge contribution to the unification of England. She was a great builder of fortresses and a formidable military tactician. Had she lived long enough to receive the homage of York, it’s conceivable that she may have become the reigning monarch of England ahead of her brother.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I love Ethelfleada, she is my heroine, but I think there were educated women in the later Middle Ages too, as well as wome who established nunneries and the such.
      Tudor women also earn my admiration, because of how clever some of them were. Katheryn Parr, Elizabeth I etc.

      Medieval and early Modern European women in general are under-appreciated and subject to too many misconceptions in my opinion.
      We have this weird fixation on ‘Viking’ and ‘Celtic’ women because of popular media- but much of that is legend. There is actual evidence for any other women from sometimes unexpected quarters.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As always a really informative and interesting post that makes me want to go away and find out more. I love the image as well.

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