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,l-  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.

For many years, Ӕlfwynn‘s father 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 and took 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 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

The real Aelfwynn of Mercia

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