Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia

O potent Elfleda! Maid, men’s terror!
You did conquer nature’s self; worthy
The name of man! More beauteous nature’s form of
A woman; but your valour shall secure
Man’s higher name. For name you only need
Not sex to change; unconquerable queen,
King rather, who such trophies have obtained!
O virgin and virago farewell!
No Ceasar yet such triumph hath deserved
As you, than any, all, the Ceasars more renown’d!
Francis Peck

Of all the medieval women I have researched and written about, Aethelflaed is by far my favorite. She was the daughter of Alfred the Great and was instrumental in carrying out his vision for a united Britain.

Aethelflaed was born in 868, the eldest child of King Alfred of England and his wife Ealhswith. Ealhswith was related to the house of Mercia through her mother, Eadburh so Aethelflaed had a Mercian pedigree in addition to her West Anglo-Saxon heritage. Mercia was one of the kingdoms of England that’s roughly in the middle of the island between Wales and East Anglia. Aethelflaed grew up in the care of her mother with her younger brother Edward at the royal palace of Chippenham while her father was away governing and fighting the Vikings. Alfred had many battles fighting the Vikings. In 876 he had special troubles with a Danish fighter named Guthrum. He lost a battle and had to make peace with Guthrum and probably pay off the Danes to get them to withdraw from Wessex.

British Kingdoms, c. 800

At Christmas in 878, Guthrum attacked the royal palace at Chippenham and Alfred and his family had to flee to safety in the woods. Some historians have conjectured there may have been someone who was disgruntled with Alfred for negotiating with the Vikings and collaborated with Guthrum in this attack. Alfred fled with the family and a few men to the marshes of Somerset and they lived on the island of Athelney for four months. He spent his time here in contemplation and meditation on what his plan of action would be against the Vikings and how to secure his kingdom. He came up with a plan to integrate all the Anglo-Saxon and Danish kingdoms, unite them under Christianity, codify all the laws and re-enforce the entire kingdom by building fortifications and manning them year round, having half the men on duty and the other half taking care of the harvest at home. He probably told Aethelflaed all about his plans because her policies later matched her fathers. The plan started with building a fort on Athelney and Aethelflaed probably helped.

In May of 878, Alfred left Athelney to fight Guthrum and his Vikings at the Battle of Eddington. He defeated Guthrum and negotiated peace. Guthrum agreed to be baptized a Christian, become the adopted son of Alfred and agreed to leave Wessex. For the next six years, Aethelflaed observed her father as he united the kingdom. He pursued educating his people, codified the laws, assembled a navy, built, rebuilt and fortified towns. He began administering the collection of taxes and allocation of expenditures, promoting trade and protecting and cultivating the church. Alfred decided to establish the Wessex capital at Winchester and his family resided there.

Alfred the Great. Image in the public domain

Mercia had suffered under the Vikings for many years. The eastern part was dominated by the Vikings with fortified towns and armies. To the west were the Welsh who were constantly at odds with the Mercians. Somehow, by 878, Ealdorman Aethelred of Mercia managed to free western Mercia from the Vikings. He may have collaborated with Alfred to do this but history is so murky we will never really know for sure. Aethelred heard about Alfred’s program of fortify, build and rebuild towns in defense of the Vikings and went to Alfred’s court. There he met Aethelflaed and talked with her about her father’s plans. Aethelred knew immediately Aethelflaed had invaluable knowledge and wanted to offer her a position as his co-ruler so he could use her expertise to fight the Vikings. That’s how impressed he was with her poise and intelligence at eleven years old.

Aethelflaed and Aethelred of Mercia were married in 884 when she was sixteen and traveled to Mercia with her husband forming a strong alliance between Wessex and Mercia. The Vikings had withdrawn to the continent in 880 and stayed away until 885. They came and attacked at Rochester in Kent and Guthrum came to their aid, breaking his treaty with Alfred. Alfred called upon Aethelred and Aethelflaed to help defeat Guthrum and his friends. Together they took London from the Vikings. Alfred gave London and all territory to the west of London to the Mercians, greatly increasing the size of the kingdom. They negotiated a treaty with Guthrum establishing an English kingdom and a Danish kingdom and opened the way for trade and peace.

During this time of peace, Aethelflaed and her husband began the same program Alfred had started, beginning to build cities. There is a memorandum for a meeting that occurred in London in 888 stating that Alfred, Aethelflaed, Aethelred and two bishops met to discuss rebuilding London and advance trade, security, and prosperity. She then moved on to Oxford to rebuild, then Hereford and then Worcester. She and her husband decided to fortify Gloucester and they made this the capital of Mercia. A Mercian council was held there in 896 and a mint was built and began turning out coins by 899. They built a palace outside the city walls and lived there. In 901, they began fortifying Shrewsbury. Aethelflaed had a daughter c. 888 named Aelfwyn. Aethelflaed’s brother Edward had sent his son Aethelstan to her to get a first class education and Aelfwyn probably received the same schooling.

Viking warriors landing and attacking

By 902, Aethelred was very ill with a debilitating disease that kept him bedridden for the rest of his life. Aethelflaed became the ruler of Mercia in all but name. The Irish had driven the Vikings out of Ireland and they came to Chester to ask for land. Aethelflaed granted them land in the area with the promise they would be peaceful. Of course, they couldn’t keep that promise and Aethelflaed had to take an army and fight them. She won and the Vikings began to settle in the area and integrate with the Mercians. She then began building Chester according to the usual plans.

Her brother Edward had united Wessex and Mercia with East Anglia. The Welsh had made peace with the Mercians too and now all these kingdoms were united. Then in 909 Edward started harassing the Northumbrians, angering them so much they began to attack Mercia. Aethelflaed worked to fortify more cities to help protect the kingdom. Her plans started with Bremesburh, Scergeat, Bridgnorth, Tamworth, Stafford, Eddisbury, Warwick, Chirbury, Weardburh (Whitchurch) and Runcorn. In the midst of all this work, Aethelred died in 911. The Mercian Witan (council) named Aethelflaed ruler immediately showing their complete trust in her.

From 911 until her death in 918, she commanded an army in the field three times. The first battle was in Chester where she subdued the Vikings there. Her second campaign was in 915 when a Viking force landed in Bristol Channel and attacked her allies in Wales. She successfully fought them and forced them to leave. Her third campaign was against a Welsh king who killed a Mercian abbot. She won again.

In 917, Aethelflaed saw an opportunity to defeat the Vikings and negotiate for a lasting peace. She attacked the city of Derby with an alliance of Welsh kings, the Kings of Strathclyde and Bernicia and the Scottish King Constantine. They had a tremendous victory. Their victory was so complete the Vikings of Leicester and then the great Viking stronghold of York acknowledged the inevitable and surrendered to her. This was a great and marvelous moment in history.

Then the worst thing happened. Aethelflaed died at Tamworth on June 12, 918. All the work she had put into settling the kingdom in a peaceful and thoughtful way came to an end. With her brother stirring up trouble in Northumbria, things began to deteriorate. Although we don’t know for sure, the Mercian Witan trusted Aethelflaed and her daughter and they may have named Aelfwyn as her successor. Three weeks before Christmas 919, Aelfwyn’s uncle, King Edward came and deprived Aelfwyn of all her authority and took her back to Wessex. The Mercians recognized Edward as their King and Aelfwyn joined a nunnery and lived out her life there.

Aethelflaed’s body was taken to Gloucester and she was buried next to Aethelred, her husband. She was named the “Lady of the Mercians” by the Anglo-Saxon chronicle. The Annals of Ulster noted her death without mentioning her brother’s or her father’s. They called her “a most famous queen of the Saxons”.

Further reading: “The Lady Who Fought the Vikings” by Don Stansbury