Sunday, 15 July 2018

The Annals of Æthelflæd


The Mercian Register
There is no biography of Æthelflæd. For such a remarkable warrior queen, who achieved significant success in the reconquest of Danish Mercia, it is a wonder that not a single contemporary account has survived. Yet, the history of the Lady of the Mercians can be reconstructed from a fragmented text, the original seemingly lost, as a series of simple entries integrated into some versions of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. 

The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’  is a collection of annals written in Old English between the 9th and 12th centuries. The Chronicle covers the first millennium, including the foundation stories of the Anglo-Saxon settlements, with additions up to the 12th century.

The oldest version, known as the 'A' text was produced at Winchester during the 9th century, unsurprisingly with the main focus on the West Saxon kings and events in Wessex. Copies passed to other ecclesiastical houses where they were copied and continued. The 'B' text was written in the late 10th century and was certainly at Abingdon Abbey by the mid-11th century where it formed the basis of another copy known as the 'C' text. Another version was produced at Worcester, the 'D' text, whose source appears to have been a northern version of the Chronicle.

Æthelflædian entries found in the 'B', 'C' and 'D' texts focusing on the years spanning 902 to 924, beginning with the death of Ealhswith, the widow of King Alfred and Æthelflæd’s mother, and ending with the accession of Æthelstan ‘chosen king by the Mercians’ were termed 'The Mercian Register', or 'Annals of Æthelflæd' by the historian Charles Plummer.

Bridgnorth Castle, built on the site of a Æthelflædian burh (Wikipedia Commons)

From the 'B', 'C' and 'D' texts it is therefore possible to reconstruct the Mercian Register:

902 - Here Ealhswith passed away
907 - Here Chester restored
909 - Here the body of Oswald was brought from Bardney to the Mercians
910 - In this year the English (i.e. the Mercians and West-Saxons) and the Danes fought at Tettenhall. The English gained the victory
910 - Æthelflæd built the burh at Bremesburh
911 – Æthelred, lord of the Mercians, departed
912 - Here Æthelflæd came to 'Scergeat' and built the burh
912 - Æthelflæd built the burh at Bridgnorth
913 - Æthelflæd went with all the Mercians to Tamworth and built the burh there, afterwards before Lammas built the fortress at Stafford
914 - In the next year in the early summer Æthelflæd built the burh at Eddisbury
914 – Late in harvest time Æthelflæd built the burh at Warwick
915 – After mid-winter Æthelflæd built the burh at Chirbury
915 - Æthelflæd built the burh at Weardbyrig
915 – Æthelflæd built before midwinter the burh at Runcorn
916 - Æthelflæd and and the fyrd broke down Brecenanmere and seized the wife of the king, one of thirty-four people seized
917 - Æthelflæd gained control before Lammas of the burh called Derby with all that belonged to it. Four of her thegns were also slain there within the gates
918 - Æthelflæd gained control of the burh at Leicester peacefully
918 - The people of York promised, some by pledge, some by oaths, that they were willing to be under her direction.
918 - Æthelflæd departed in Tamworth. Her body lay within Gloucester in the east porticus of St Peter's church
919 - Here Ælfwynn was also deprived of any power over the Mercians and led away to the West Saxons three weeks before midwinter.
921 - Here Edward built the burh at the mouth of the Clwyd.
924 - Here Edward departed at Farndon among the Mercians. Very soon (16 days) after Ælfweard departed at Oxford. Their bodies lay at Winchester.
924 - Æthelstan was chosen by the Mercians as king. He was consecrated at Kingston

In contrast, Æthelflæd's history is entirely absent from the 'A' text of Wessex which simply records her death; “[Edward's] sister Æthelflæd at Tamworth departed twelve days before midsummer; and then he rode and took the stronghold of Tamworth, and all the nation of the land of Mercia that was earlier subject to Æthelflæd turned to him......”



Notes & References:
Wainwright argues the date of Ælfwynn's depostion should be late 918; he sees this as a rare anomaly in the normally reliable chronology of the Mercian Register. See: F T Wainwright, appendix to North West Mercia, in HPR Finberg, ed., Scandinavian England. Collected Papers by F. T. Wainwright, Phillimore, 1975, pp.127-129.

F T Wainwright, The Chronology of the ' Mercian Register', The English Historical Review, Volume LX, Issue CCXXXVIII, 1945, pp.385–392.

Pauline Stafford, ‘The Annals of Æthelflæd’: Annals, History and Politics in Early Tenth-Century England, in Myth, Rulership, Church and Charters, Essays in Honour of Nicholas Brooks, edited by Julia Barrow and Andrew Wareham, Ashgate Publishng, 2008, pp.101-116.

Michael Swanton (trans. & ed.) The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, Dent, 1997.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscripts, Medieval manuscripts blog, British Library.



 * * *




Saturday, 30 June 2018

Ælfwynn: Second & Last Lady of the Mercians

As the sun sets in June for the last time in 2018 it is time to close this chapter on the 1100th anniversary of the death of Ӕthelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians and the subsequent fate of the Anglo Saxon kingdom.

The Second Lady
Following the sudden death of Ӕthelflaed on 12th June 918 the Winchester [A] manuscript of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle records that her brother King Edward of Wessex took the stronghold of Tamworth1 and “all the nation of the land of Mercia which was earlier subject to  Ӕthelflaed turned to him” along with the kings of Wales Hywel, Clydog and Idwal” and “all the race of the Welsh, sought him as their lord”. Edward then went to Nottingham and captured the stronghold there and “all the people of the land of Mercia, both English and Danish, turned to him”. Edward now held dominion over all the lands and people south of the Humber.2

The Winchester manuscript, perhaps unsurprisingly considering its Wessex bias, fails to mention the succession of Ӕthelflaed's daughter, the first and only Anglo Saxon succession from mother to daughter. The Abingdon [C] manuscript records for year 919; “Here also the daughter of Ӕthelred, lord of the Mercians, was deprived of all control in Mercia, and was led into Wessex three weeks before Christmas; she was called  Ælfwynn.”3

This act led to the condemnation of Edward by later chroniclers; he may have acted so promptly to prevent Mercia breaking away into an independent state. Perhaps he had other motives? The chronology of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle becomes confused between the various manuscripts; one account claims the submission of the Mercians to Edward occurred before  Ælfwynn was removed and led into Wessex.

In truth, we know very little of Ælfwynn, grand-daughter of King Alfred the Great, the date of her birth is not recorded. It is thought she was born early in her parents’ marriage, probably between 882 and 887. She was the only child of their union and the 12th century historian William of Malmesbury suggested the birth of Ælfwynn nearly killed her mother and soon after she took a vow of sexual abstinence. We don't know William's sources, however, alternatively it has been suggested that Ӕthelflaed had no further children to avoid producing a male Mercian heir that could threaten the alliance with Wessex; it would seem the two kingdoms were destined to unite after her death.4

This view may have some merit as the eldest son of King Edward of Wessex, Ӕthelstan, was fostered in the Mercian court under the tutelage of Bishop Waeferth at Worcester, trusted friend of Ӕthelflaed and also her father Alfred before her. This remarkable woman's influence on the young Wessex prince was immense; with incredible military success he would go on to become the first monarch of all England.

Ælfwynn first appears as a witness to three charters in 903, then appears on another recording a lease of land in 904, presumably she was by then old enough to act as a witness, probably at least in her teens. From the sparse information we have there is no record of a marriage or any children; Ӕthelflaed's genealogical line was to end with her daughter, the second and last Lady of the Mercians, and unification of the realm with Wessex would be inevitable.


The Return of the Vikings
Shorty before her death Ӕthelflaed secured a promise of submission from the Vikings at York, but on her departure they would not be obligated to the new ruler of Mercia. Yet the main threat now was the Norwegian Vikings from Ireland, which had seen Ӕthelflaed construct burhs on the northern borders of English Mercia, such as Runcorn to guard the river Mersey and restrict their passage into northern Britain on way for York.

In the year of Ӕthelflaed's death, the Viking warlord Ragnall defeated a combined force of Scots, Britons and English at the battle of Corbridge. Following his victory in the north he declared himself King of York the following year. The chroniclers do not record any Mercian involvement in the conflict with Ragnall during the later half of 918 following Ӕthelflaed's death when we would have expected the Lady of the Mercians to lead her armies with Edward against them. Did the Mercians consent to the deposition of Ælfwynn because she did not prove a capable leader and consolidate her mother's gains, such as the loss of York?5

By 919 Edward had taken control of the Mercian army, constructing additional burhs at Manchester and Thelwell on the northern Mercian border along the Mersey frontier, consolidating these positions with further fortifications at Bakewell and Nottingham pushing into Danish Mercia. Following Edward's northern campaign the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (again the chronology is confused between manuscripts) records that all of the north, the Scots, the Strathclyde Britons, the Northumbians and Ragnall's Vikings at York submitted to him, choosing him as 'father and lord'.6

In 924 Edward travelled to northern Mercia to put down a Mercian-Welsh uprising at Chester. The construction of the fortification at Cledemutha (Rhuddlan) three years earlier indicates relations with the north Welsh was far from amicable. It has been suggested that this rebellion was in response to the division of the Mercian kingdom into Shires; it certainly seems too late to be a response to the deposition of Ælfwynn, yet, as we have seen, the chronology of the Chronicle manuscripts does become confused in recording these events.7

The Abingdon [C] manuscript tells us that Edward died at Farndon, on the river Dee, just south of Chester on the Mercian border, in 924; just sixteen days later his son Ӕlfweard died at Oxford, and Ӕthelstan, their own son, was proclaimed as king by the Mercians.8

But what became of  Ælfwynn who simply disappears from the historical record six months after her mother's death?  William of Malmesbury was of the opinion that she was forced to become a nun and spent the rest of her days at a West Saxon Abbey. Alternatively she may have lived out her last days in the Royal court; a 'royal' woman of this name is cited in a charter of 948.





Notes & References:
1. David Horovitz, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians; the battle of Tettenhall 910AD; and other West Mercian studies, (Self Published), 2017. Florence (John) of Worcester records that Edward 'reduced' Tamworth to submission; Horovitz adds that the term is usually used to describe 'destruction'.
2. Michael Swanton, trans. & ed., The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, JM Dent, 1996.
There are nine surviving manuscripts of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, all thought to derive from a common original, started in the reign of King Alfred the Great, distributed and then continued at other monasteries. The oldest manuscript is known as  the Winchester, or A text. This version of the Chronicle does not include the Mercian Register and concentrates on the achievements of the kings of Wessex. The Mercian Register was added to manuscripts B and C, forming a discreet, but significant, part of the Chronicle filling a gap in these versions of the Chronicle for the years 915 to 934. The Register also appears in manuscripts D and E (placing further emphasise on its absence from the A text of Wessex) focusing on events between 909-919, the major achievements of Æthelflæd's reign leading up to the reconquest of Mercia at the time of her death.
3. HPR Finberg, ed., Scandinavian England. Collected Papers by F. T. Wainwright. Phillimore, 1975. Wainwright argues the date should be 918; he sees this as a rare anomaly in the normally reliable chronology of the Mercian Register.
4. Joanna Arman, The Warrior Queen: The Life and Legend of Aethelflaed, Daughter of Alfred the Great, Amberley, 2017.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Nicholas Higham, The Origins of Cheshire, Manchester University Press, 1993.
8. Swanton, op cit.



* * *


Tuesday, 12 June 2018

The Lost Tomb of Æthelflæd

"AD 918. This year Ethelfleda, lady of the Mercians, with the help of God, before Laminas, conquered the town called Derby, with all that thereto belonged; and there were also slain four of her thanes, that were most dear to her, within the gates.
But very shortly after they had become so, she died at Tamworth, twelve days before midsummer, the eighth year of her having rule and right lordship over the Mercians; and her body lies at Gloucester, within the east porch of St. Peter's church." - ASC


Buried with the Saints

12th June 918 Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, died at Tamworth. There is no hint of an illness or wound from a battle injury in the Chronicles, her death appears to have been unexpected at the very peak of her military power; earlier that year she had taken Derby from the Vikings and just a few months too soon to see the reconquest of the southern Danelaw completed by her brother Edward the Elder.

Her body was taken 75 miles to Gloucester to be interred alongside her husband Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians at St Oswald's Priory in Gloucester. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle her body lies “within the east porticus of St. Peter's church”.


One might have expected Æthelflæd, the daughter of King Alfred the Great, to have been buried in a mausoleum in the family home at Winchester but this may have been seen as admission to her subordination to the kings of Wessex. Repton, traditional burial place of the Mercian kings, was out of the question following an earlier desecration by the Vikings. It seems very apt that the Mercian Lord and Lady should lie at St Oswald's Priory which they established in the last decade of the 9th century.

Gloucester was a strategic place in the kingdom of Mercia, controlling the crossing to Wales and routes up the Severn with a strong Roman past. It had been the site of a Royal hall at Kingsholm and a mint there struck coins in the name of King Alfred. But significantly, situated in south-west Mercia, Gloucester had largely escaped the attention of Viking raiding parties but for an army that overwintered there in 877.

An abbey had been founded at Gloucester in the late 7th century by Osric, ruler of the Hwicce and dedicated to St Peter. Yet, by the late 9th century Gloucester had the appearance of a ruinous walled Roman town, the old buildings used as quarries for other building projects. The Old Minster, St Peter's Abbey, was then likely to have been the only stone building inside the walled enclosure. The old Roman walls were still standing on three sides with the river and Roman quayside on the fourth, western side.

Æthelflæd and Æthelred founded a new minster, constructed from recycled Roman stones and dedicated to St Peter, within the refortified town (burh) at Gloucester in the late 9th century. On the arrival of the relics of St Oswald, Northumbrian king and martyr, in 909 the minster was rededicated to the Saint. The former priory stands in a ruinous state today, a victim of the English Civil War. By then it was little more than a parish church that had fallen from prominence many years before.

We have no record of the fate of the tombs of Æthelflæd and Æthelred and they may not have survived into modern times. However, in the 1970s an archaeological investigation at St Oswald's discovered a 10th century fragment of a highly decorated carved cover from the tomb of someone extremely important, perhaps that of a Royal Mercian? Decorative parallels have been found in the embroidery of the stole of St Cuthbert, which was commissioned by Ælfflæd, wife of Edward the Elder. A similar design was introduced to the saint's coffin by Æthelstan, fostered in the Mercian court of Æthelflæd and Æthelred.

Æthelflæd's grave cover?
Gloucester Museum
Further archaeological investigations at the east end of the church has identified a building suitable for a royal mausoleum where St Oswald's relics may have been interred in 909 after the Mercian raid into the Danelaw, probably arranged if not led by Æthelflæd and Æthelred, which recovered the bones of the saint. Burial next to the saint would be extremely prestigious for the Mercian rulers.

William of Malmesbury reported that the tombs of Æthelflæd and Æthelred were discovered in the south porticus during building works at St Oswald's in the 12th century. However, the normally reliable historian seems to have confused his cardinal points. The 'east porticus' referred to in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle would usually be the chancel but at St Oswald's there is another eastern building; the first church had a sunken crypt adjacent to the east end. This crypt may have been constructed to the same plan as the 8th century crypt at Repton, a direct copy of the earlier Royal Mercian mausoleum at St Wystan's church.


* * *


Monday, 11 June 2018

The Battle of Tettenhall

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the Battle of Tettenhall (sometimes called the Battle of Wednesfield or Wōdnesfeld) as taking place near Tettenhall, Staffordshire, on 5 August 910 AD. A combined force of Mercians and West Saxons slaughtered a raiding army of Northumbrian Vikings somewhere near Wolverhampton.

Saints and Saxons
In 909 Edward the Elder of Wessex and Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, sent a combined West Saxon and Mercian host against the Northumbrian Danes who controlled much of northern England. The Anglo-Saxon army harried the Danes for five weeks, who at the end of which were forced to accept the terms of the King of Wessex.

In the same year the bones of the Northumbrian royal saint Oswald were seized from Bardney Abbey in Lincolnshire in what seems to be an unrelated raid into Danish territory; the noble rulers of English Mercia, Æthelred and Æthelflæd, are thought to be responsible. Æthelflæd, The Lady of the Mercians, in particular was responsible to relocating saints' relics into her fortified towns (burhs), such as St Bertelin at Stafford and Runcorn and established St Werburgh's relics at Chester.

Oswald was the Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria from 633 to 642. Bede tells us that he asserted his authority over all the peoples of southern England. Oswald died at Maserfelth, on 5th August 642 AD, commonly thought to be near Oswestry, in present-day Shropshire (later part of Æthelflæd's Mercia), at the hands of the last pagan king of Mercia, Penda. If the identification of the battle site with Oswestry is correct, and it is far from certain, Oswald was deep into Mercian territory. Penda is well known for regicide; five kings fell to his sword. In this case he ordered Oswald's head and forearms be hacked off and fixed on stakes at the battle site. The pagan warlord must have had good reason for mutilating Oswald's corpse, in what bears indications of some kind of pagan sacrificial tradition of desecration of the royal corpse.

St Oswald monument, Oswestry
A year after the conflict at Maserfelth Oswald's brother Oswiu journeyed to the battle site and collected Oswald's head and forearms. The head went to Lindisfarne priory and was interred with St Cuthbert, finally resting at Durham Cathedral where it remains to this day. An uncorrupted arm went to Bamburgh and Peterborough claimed another. Some years later, between 675 – 697, Osthryth (Oswald's niece) collected his remains, presumably just the torso and legs that remained, from the battlefield and brought them to Bardney Abbey in Lindsey (modern Lincolnshire).

In 909 Oswald's remains (in part) were rescued by a Mercian force and translated to the Mercian church of St Peter's at Gloucester, rededicated as St Oswald's Priory established by Æthelred and Æthelflæd.

Slaughter at Woden's Field
In the following year the Northumbrian Danes retaliated by invading English (western) Mercia. With King Edward in Kent, the Vikings raided as far as the Bristol Avon. Turning for home the Vikings crossed the Severn and harried along the western bank until they reached Bridgnorth. They then struck into the Midlands but by now an English army under King Edward was in pursuit. Somewhere in Staffordshire, just north of Wolverhampton they were ambushed by a force of Mercians, with the West Saxons coming up behind. The combined Anglo-Saxon forces annihilated the Viking raiding army, which must have been a sizeable force as three kings are named among the casualties. And the date of the slaughter; 5th August, the feast day of St Oswald.

The location of Tettenhall


The Chronicle of Æthelweard (d.998) records the battle:

“After a year the barbarians broke the peace with King Edward, and Æthelred, who then ruled the Northumbrian and Mercian areas. The fields of the Mercians were ravaged on all sides by the throng we spoke about, and deeply, as far as the streams of the Avon, where the boundary of the West Saxons and Mercians begins. Then they were transported across the river Severn into the west country, and there they ravaged great ravagings. But when rejoicing in rich spoil they returned towards home, they were still engaged in crossing to the east side of the river of the river Severn over a pons, to give the Latin spelling, which is called [C]antbricge by the common people. Suddenly squadrons of both Mercians and West Saxons, having formed battle-order, moved against the opposing force. They joined battle without protracted delay on the field of Wednesfield; the English enjoyed the blessing of victory; the army of the Danes fled, overcome by armed force. These events are recounted as done on the fifth day of the month of August. There fell three of their kings in that same 'storm' (or 'battle' would be the right thing to say), that is Healfdene and Eywysl, and Inwaer also hastened to the hall of the infernal one, and so did senior chiefs of theirs, both jarls and other noblemen.”

The Anglo-Saxon victory was a turning point in the recovery of the Danelaw from which the Northumbrian Danes never recovered and subsequently are not recorded venturing south of the River Humber again leaving Edward and his Mercian allies to concentrate on conquering the southern Danelaw in East Anglia and the Five Boroughs of east Mercia.

In 911, the year after the battle of Tettenhall, Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, died. He was succeeded by his widow Æthelflæd who from that moment on was known as the “Lady of the Mercians.



* * *




Sunday, 10 June 2018

Æthelflæd Funeral Procession

A re-enactment of an Anglo Saxon funeral procession was held in Gloucester yesterday (Saturday 9th June) to mark the 1,100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians and eldest daughter of Alfred the Great.

The funeral re-enactment is part of a weekend of events called Æthelflæd 1100 recalling the story of Aethelflaed who led the Mercians in the 10th century fight against the Vikings to recover territory lost to the Danelaw. Following the death of her husband Æthelred, Lord of Mercia, in 911 she ruled Mercia alone for seven years until her death.

Following her death at Tamworth on 12th June 918 she is said to have been buried at St Oswald's Priory in Gloucester, alongside Æthelred.

The palanquin containing the body of Æthelflæd (played by actress Samantha Swinford) arrived at Gloucester Docks by Viking longboat at 12pm.

It was carried by pall-bearers dressed as black monks through the city to at a specially prepared Anglo Saxon encampment at St Oswald's Priory, where the Rev Canon Nikki Arthy delivered a memorial speech in honour of the Last Mercian Queen.

It is estimated that around 10,000 people turned out to see Æthelflæd carried through Gloucester city centre.




>> Gloucester funeral procession honours Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians
BBC News Gloucestershire 10 June 2018



* * * 


Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Æthelflæd 1100

AD 918 - This year Ethelfleda, lady of the Mercians, with the help of God, before Laminas, conquered the town called Derby, with all that thereto belonged; and there were also slain four of her thanes, that were most dear to her, within the gates.

But very shortly after they had become so, she died at Tamworth, twelve days before midsummer, the eighth year of her having rule and right lordship over the Mercians; and her body lies at Gloucester, within the east porch of St. Peter's church. - [ASC]



The Death of the Last Mercian Queen
2018 marks the 1100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflæd the last Queen of the Mercians.

On 12th June 918 Æthelflæd, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’ took her last breath at Tamworth, the capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, before being finally laid to rest in St Oswald’s Priory at Gloucester, alongside her husband Aethelred, Lord of the Mercians.

'Æthelflæd' at Tamworth

The Mercian Register records nine burhs built by Æthelflæd in three years (912 - 915) in the war against the Vikings to recover Mercian territory lost to the Danelaw agreement: Scergeat, Bridgnorth, Tamworth, Stafford, Eddisbury, Warwick, Chirbury, Weardbyrig and Runcorn. Æthelflæd also re-fortified Chester and Gloucester.

In 917 Æthelflæd's Mercians took Derby but lost four thegns in the battle. The following year she gained control of the burh at Leicester, peacefully. Later in 918 the people of the Viking capital of York pledged allegiance to Æthelflæd. Following the fall of York Mercia was all but recovered by the Anglo-Saxons.

The next entry in the Mercian Register states Æthelflæd died at Tamworth.

Whether she was struck down by a sudden illness or suffered a wound in the battle of 917 that would ultimately lead to her death from the injuries we shall never know for certain.

Her body was taken to Gloucester where it was interred “within the east porticus of St Peter's church” (St. Oswald's Priory), next to her husband Aethelred, Lord of the Mercians (d.911).

To celebrate 1100 years of  Æthelflæd's passing there will be events held at both Tamworth and Gloucester, key locations in her history.


Gloucester will be celebrating this occasion with a series of living history, archaeological and musical events, including:

Friday 8 June to Sunday 10 June - Living History at St Oswald’s Priory
Saturday 9 June – Saxon Funeral Procession (12pm from Gloucester Docks)
Sunday 10 June – Blackfriars Talks:
  • Aethelflaed And Gloucester: The Golden Minster - Carolyn Heighway And Michael Hare
  • Women Warlords and Warrior Queens - Janina Ramirez
  • Aethelflaed: England's Founding Mother - Tom Holland
See: Gloucester's Warrior Queen




Tamworth will be holding a serious of special events in July, including:

Thursday 12 July - lecture on Aethelflaed - Michael Wood
Friday 13 July - Aethelflaed in Stafford – Martin Carver

A new six-metre tall statue of the Anglo-Saxon legend “Lady Aethelflaed” constructed by artist and sculptor Luke Perry is now in position on the roundabout outside Tamworth Railway Station.

See: Visit Tamworth


A County Town Forgets
Martin Carver claims that Æthelflæd was the founder of Stafford, the county town of Staffordshire, when she constructed a burh here in 913.



But all we have here at Stafford is a white plaque outside the Shire Hall in celebration of 1100 years of Stafford in 2013......and no celebrations are planned in the County town for 12 June in commemoration of her death.




* * * 


Sunday, 3 June 2018

Æthelflæd: The Last Mercian Queen

Child of the Viking Wars
Æthelflæd was born around 870 AD, the first child of the famous Anglo-Saxon King Alfred the Great, then a young prince (ætheling) at the peak of the Viking invasions of England. Having ravaged East Anglia, Northumbria and Mercia the Vikings now turned their attention to Wessex, the last remaining independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

Alfred is one of only two English monarchs to be given the epithet “the Great” and the first King to style himself  the “King of the Anglo-Saxons”. The life of Alfred and his family was dominated by the Viking wars of the late 9th and early 10th centuries.

Æthelflæd at Tamworth Castle

At the time of Æthelflæd's birth the forces of Wessex were commanded by Alfred's older brother, King Æthelred and Alfred himself. Alfred is recorded as fighting beside Æthelred in 868 in an unsuccessful attempt to stop Ivar the Boneless and his Great Heathen Army invading the adjoining Kingdom of Mercia.

Wessex seemingly had a special relationship with Mercia. Alfred's wife Ealhswith was said to be at least of noble birth, if not a Mercian princess; her mother Eadburh was a descendant of Coenwulf of King Mercia who ruled the kingdom after Offa. Ealhswith's father was Æthelred Mucel, Ealdorman of the Gaini, one of the old tribes of Mercia, thought to have been based at Gainsborough in the West Lindsey district of Lincolnshire. The marriage of Alfred and Ealhswith at Gainsborough in 868 was likely connected in some way with an alliance between Wessex and Mercia. This alliance was to continue with Æthelflæd's marriage to Æthelred, Lord of Mercia.

Just two years later the Vikings arrived in Wessex at the end of 870 with nine engagements fought in the following year. In 871 AD, Alfred defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Ashdown in Berkshire. The following year, Alfred took the throne after the death of his brother Æthelred and reigned until his own death in 899. Throughout his life Alfred was troubled by health problems; it is thought that he likely suffered from Crohn's disease.

Alfred was a great believer in education and argued for teaching in 'English' rather than Latin. He commissioned the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, a record of the history of the Anglo-Saxons. Many copies were made of the oldest oldest manuscript, the Winchester (or 'A' text) Chronicle, commenced in the 9th century, and distributed to monasteries were it was maintained and updated. Nine manuscript versions survive.

The Danelaw

However, despite the success of Alfred's Anglo-Saxon forces at Ashdown, the Vikings continued to devastate Wessex and Alfred was forced to withdraw to the Somerset marshes. It is likely his family, including the young Princess Æthelflæd, went with him. From Somerset Alfred continued to launch surprise attacks against the Vikings.

In 878 Alfred gathered his forces and defeated the Vikings in the Battle of Edington. Alfred made peace with Guthrum, the Viking king, who received baptism. In 886 AD, in an effort to bring peace to the  land, Alfred negotiated a treaty with the Vikings in which England was divided “between the Rivers Thames and Tees”, with the north and the east declared to be territory of the Danish Vikings, a territory which would later be termed as the “Danelaw”.

Alfred had recovered Wessex by constructing burhs at strategic points in the kingdom. The burh, or burg, (plural = 'byrig') was a fortified settlement, today recognised as an important stage in the evolution of the medieval English borough; even today the regular street layouts and boundaries of some ancient burhs can be found preserved in modern urban boroughs.

Many burhs were constructed on former Iron Age hillforts or Roman fortifications, often linked by Roman roads. New settlements were constructed in naturally defended positions, such as in the crook of a river, defended on three sides by water. The largest examples were at Warwick, Wallingford and Alfred's Winchester, with perhaps the best-preserved examples found at Wallingford and Wareham where substantial banks and ditches are still visible. However many defy positive identification.

If the primary function of the burh was defence its secondary role was as a local administrative and commercial centre, with the burhs at Bridgnorth, Buckingham, Chester, Hertford, Tamworth, Maldon, Stafford and Warwick achieving municipal status in the Middle Ages.

After his death in 899, Alfred's policy of burh construction to re-establish Wessex as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom was adopted by his children Edward the Elder and Æthelflæd in the recovery of the territory surrendered to the Vikings in the Danelaw; Æthelflæd is credited with the construction of ten Mercian burhs.

Biography of a Warrior Queen
We know much of the “Life of King Alfred” from a biography wrote in 893 by a Welsh monk by the name of Asser. Yet there is no biography of his daughter, Æthelflæd, the remarkable woman who led the reconquest of Mercia, clearly influenced and inspired by her father's fightback against the Vikings against all the odds.

A charter of 887 records Æthelflæd as the wife of Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, the marriage probably took place a few years earlier. Æthelflæd and Æthelred had one child, a daughter called Ælfwynn. It is claimed that after the pains of childbirth Æthelflæd was then celibate. Æthelflæd fostered Æthelstan, the son of her brother, Edward the Elder, and heir to the throne, destined to become the first king of All England.

After the death of the last Mercian king Ceolwulf II in 879, Æthelred ruled the western half of the kingdom; eastern Mercia was by now under control of the Vikings. In 888, 889 and 896 Æthelflæd witnessed charters of Æthelred. In 901 Æthelflæd and Æthelred are recorded as presenting land and a golden chalice to the shrine of Saint Mildburg at Much Wenlock church in Shropshire. Æthelred's descent is unknown, but it is suggested his roots lie in the Gloucester area.

Detail on Æthelflæd is extremely brief, in historical terms it can be argued that she played a minor role in the unification of England between the reigns of Alfred and Aethelstan. The lack of information of her achievements portrays West Saxon bias of much of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (A text) which at this time was concentrating on Edward the Elder and Wessex.

There are glimpses of Æthelflæd in Asser’s Life of Alfred the Great, Aethelweard’s Chronicle, the Annales Cambriae, and the Irish chronicles, yet, the story of Æthelflæd's battles against the Vikings and burh constructions is to be found in the so-called Mercian Register.

As stated above, the oldest manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is known as  the Winchester, or A text. This version of the Chronicle does not use the Mercian Register and concentrates on the achievements of the kings of Wessex, as stated. The Mercian Register was added to manuscripts B and C, forming a discreet, but significant, part of the Chronicle filling a gap in these versions of the Chronicle for the years 915 to 934. The Register also appears in manuscripts D and E, placing further emphasise on its absence from the A text of Wessex.

The Mercian Register covers the years 902 to 924, focusing on events between 909-919, the major achievements of Æthelflæd's reign leading up to the reconquest of Mercia at the time of her death. Æthelflæd appears in eight out of twenty entries which begin with the death of her mother Ealhswith in 902, continues with the death of her father Alfred, the accession of her brother Edward the Elder, the death of her husband Æthelred Lord of the Mercians, and the removal of her daughter Ælfwynn. The last entry is in 924 when Æthelstan, her foster son, is chosen by the Mercians as king. Then, in the blink of an eye, the Register disappears from the Chronicle as swiftly as it appeared.

St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester

Æthelflæd is depicted in a monument in front of Tamworth castle, erected in 1918 in celebration of a thousand years since her death at the Royal palace of the Mercians. Æthelflæd is shown with one arm around a young boy, presumed to be Æthelstan; in the other hand she grips the hilt of a sword, emphasising the two elements of her reign; family and war.

Æthelflæd was half-Mercian through her mother Ealhswith and was beloved by the Mercians who claimed her as one of their own; on the death of her husband Æthelred Lord of the Mercians, the year following the famous Anglo-Saxon victory over the Vikings at Tettenhall in 910, she was proclaimed Myrcna hlædige, “Lady of the Mercians” and ruled the realm alone in the face of Viking adversity until her death in 918.

Following her death at Tamworth on 12 June Æthelflæd was taken to Gloucester to be interred with her late husband Æthelred in St Oswald's Priory.



* * *