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.

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