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.

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