Wednesday 10 July 2013

Æthelflæd: The Making of a County Town

"913. Here God helping, Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercians, went with all the Mercians to Tamworth and then built the stronghold there early in the summer, and afterwards, before Lammas, that at Stafford.”1

July 2013 marks the 1,100 anniversary since Æthelflæd the Lady of the Mercians, daughter of King Alfred the Great, built fortifications at Stafford during the summer of 913 AD as a crucial part of the campaign for the recovery of England from the Danes.

The Norsemen Cometh
The Viking Age began dramatically in England on 8 June 793 when raiders  in longships from across the North Sea attacked and destroyed the abbey on the island of Lindisfarne. The sheer shock and awe of the devastation of Northumbria's Holy Island caused feelings of anxiety and terror throughout the Christian west and is now often taken as the beginning of the Viking Age. The Northumbrian scholar, Alcuin of York claimed, "Never before has such an atrocity been seen”.

Waves of Danish assaults on the coastlines of the British Isles continued until the autumn of 865 AD when the Great Heathen Army of Ivar Ragnarsson (The Boneless) invaded East Anglia and over-wintered there after they demanded and received tribute in exchange for a temporary peace. The Danes now seemed intent on settlement. The following year the Danes moved north and took York from the Northumbrians, renaming the city 'Jorvik'. The following year, 867, the Danes held out against a failed attempt by the Northumbrians to retake the city. Three years later they ventured into Wessex and put King Æthelred and Alfred to flight at Reading. By 875 the Danes had ventured deep inside of Alfred’s Kingdom of Wessex and settled in Dorset.

In 884 Alfred made a treaty with the Danish leader Guthrum, which established the boundaries of the Danelaw; an area of England which effectively permitted Danish self-rule and the laws of the "Danes" held sway over "West Saxon law" and "Mercian law".

The term has been extended by historians for the 'Danelaw' to be a geographical area of northern and eastern England comprising some 15 shires from Yorkshire to Essex, including the east Midlands, north of a demarcation line running roughly from London to Chester. However, the Treaty provided opportunity for Alfred to consolidate his power in Wessex with his son and daughter Edward the Elder and Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians.

The Lady of the Mercians
In a series of campaigns in the 910s, Edward the Elder and Æthelflæd conquered Danish territories in the Midlands and East Anglia. Æthelflæd is documented in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle as being responsible for constructing several burhs along the boundary territory of the Danelaw.

The Old English word burh meaning a fortified and walled enclosure containing several households, could be anything from a large stockade to a fortified town, and has since developed further into the larger administrative areas known as Boroughs.

Wikimedia Commons 
The Five Boroughs of the Danelaw were the main towns of Danish Mercia in the East Midlands. These were Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford. They began as the fortified burhs of five Danish armies who settled the area and ruled as a Danish 'Jarldom'. With the exception of Stamford they later become county towns, administrative centres of their respective Shires.

These five fortified towns became particularly important in the reconquest of the Danelaw by the English under Æthelflæd of Mercia and Edward the Elder of Wessex during 916 and 917. The area was subsequently ruled by the Earls of Mercia. Æthelflæd recoverd two of the Five Boroughs (Derby and Leicester). These attacks were probably launched from the burhs in the West Midlands established by the Lady of the Mercians; Bromesberrow, Stafford, Tamworth, Warwick, and Runcorn.

Æthelflæd first appears n the Anglo Saxon Chronicle in 909:2 

“Here the Mercians and West Saxons fought against the raiding-army near Tettenhall on 6 August and had the victory. And the same year Æthelflæd built Bremesburh.3

After harrying through Mercia, the raiding-army crossed the Severn into the west country. On crossing back over the Severn bridge at Bridgnorth the Danes were attacked by Mercians and West Saxons who gained a great victory at Woden's Field (Wednesfield, just three miles to the east of Tettenhall) killing three Viking kings, including Eowils and Healfdan, who with other jarls and noblemen were 'hastened to the hall of the infernal one.'4

This decisive battle reads like a total massacre of the Danes, with their chiefs and kings being slaughtered in a great Mercian victory led by Æthelred and his wife Æthelflæda with troops of Edward the Elder. It opened the way for the expansion of Wessex into the Danish east Mercia & East Anglia; the Northumbrian Danes effectively subdued, never to recover, ultimately paving the way for Edward's son Æthelstan to become the first ever King of all England after recovering York in 927. The English Viking Age came to a close in 1066 when Harald Hardrada landed with an army with ambitions of taking York and the English crown with it. He was defeated and killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

A year after Tettenhall Æthelred, leader of the Mercians, was dead. Hereafter, Æthelflæd is referred to as 'The Lady of the Mercans', seemingly a title accorded only after the ealdorman's death.5 Æthelflæd is recorded as building a stronghold at Scergeat 6 and Bridgnorth in 912. The following year she “went with all the Mercians to Tamworth and then built the stronghold there early in the summer, and afterwards, before Lammas, that at Stafford.”

In 914 Æthelflæd constructed the strongholds at Eddisbury and Warwick. The following year constructed the fortifications at Chirbury (Shropshre), Weardbyrg (possibly Warburton on the south bank of the Mersey) and completed Runcorn before mid-winter. In 916 “Æthelflæd sent an army into Wales and broke down Brecon Mere”. The next year, the Chronicle records that Æthelflæd took possession of the stronghold of Derby. By 918 Æthelflæd had made further in-roads into the The Five Boroughs and took control the stronghold of Leicester and ejected the raiding-parties there.

It seems York was her next target, as the Chronicle records the people there had pledged their allegiance to the Lady of the Mercians, but 12 days before mid-summer she suddenly died at Tamworth, “the eighth year of her rightful Lordship over Mercia.” It appears her daughter, Ælfwynn, took control of Mercia for a short period after her death; three weeks before Christmas she was led into Wessex and all but disappears from the historical record. A Charter (S 535) of 948 records a grant of 6 hides at Wickhambreux, Kent, by King Eadred to “Ælfwyn, a religious woman”, which, if the same person as seems likely, may indicate that she had entered holy orders.
The Æthelflæd Monument at Tamworth.
The 'Lady of the Mercians' with her nephew Æthelstan
The young Æthelstan spent much of his time at the Mercian court of his aunt and uncle, Æthelflæd and Æthelred; the young prince no doubt gained much military experience during the Mercian campaigns recovering the Danelaw. In 925 Æthelstan gave a charter of privileges to St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester, where Æthelred and Æthelflæd, The Lady of the Mercians were buried in the east side-chapel of St Peter's Church.

The role Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, played in the recovery of England from the Danes should not be underestimated; she was a true warrior queen.

See also: King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons (Michael Wood TV Series)

© Edward Watson 2013


Notes & References
1. Michael Swanton, trans & ed, The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, Dent 1997. (Abingdon ms C)
2. Ibid. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle (Worcester ms D). The Abingdon ms C gives the year as 910.
3. Ibid. p.95. Possibly Bromesberrow, near Ledbury.
4. Ibid. fn p.95.
5. Ibid. p.96.
6. Ibid. Literally 'boundary gap' at an unidentified site.

* * *

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Stafford Big Burh Day

A celebration of 1,100 years since Æthelflæd the Lady of the Mercians, daughter of King Alfred the Great, fortified Stafford as a defended settlement, or 'burh'.

Saturday 6 July 2013
Storytelling Parade
From 11am - Stafford Town Centre

Part of the Big Burh Day celebrations will be a colourful 'storytelling' parade where 1,100 years of Stafford's history will be recreated by a Celebration Pageant involving community groups, organisations and businesses parading through the town in elaborate costumes showing off Stafford’s rich heritage.

Stafford Ancient High House
The parade will set off at 11am and wind through Stafford Town Centre, taking approximately 45 minutes to complete.

There is an opportunity for the public to take part in the celebration and help to tell the story of Stafford from the founding of the burh in 913, to last year's Olympic Torch Relay. Two stone plinths will also be unveiled marking Stafford’s 1,100 birthday and Queen Elizabeth II memorable visit in 2006.

Following the Storytelling parade in the morning and afternoon's local music showcase, Stafford's Big Burh Day will finish with a free celebratory music concert in Market Square.

Plan of Stafford in 1610 - John Speede


* * *

Copyright © 2013 Edward Watson