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.

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