Aethelflaed: The Lady of the Mercians
Published by John Donald (an imprint of Birlinn), 7th June, 2018
Paperback, 256 pages.
From the publisher:
“At the end of the ninth century AD, a large part of what is now England was controlled by the Vikings - heathen warriors from Scandinavia who had been attacking the British Isles for more than a hundred years. Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, was determined to regain the conquered lands but his death in 899 meant that the task passed to his son Edward. In the early 900s, Edward led a great fightback against the Viking armies. He was assisted by the English rulers of Mercia: Lord AEthelred and his wife AEthelflaed (Edward's sister).
"After her husband's death, AEthelflaed ruled Mercia on her own, leading the army to war and working with her brother to achieve their father's aims. Known to history as the Lady of the Mercians, she earned a reputation as a competent general and was feared by her enemies. She helped to save England from the Vikings and is one of the most famous women of the Dark Ages. This book, published 1100 years after her death, tells her remarkable story.”
4. A New Mercia
6. Losses and Gains
8. The Final Years
9. Niece and Uncle
Tim Clarkson’s latest book was published just before the 1,100th anniversary of the death of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians at Tamworth, twelve days before midsummer, 918. My copy arrived from the publisher in the summer, with no obligation, however, I must apologise for this late review.
Clarkson’s previous six books, The Picts, Strathclyde and the Anglo Saxons, Scotland’s Merlin, Columba, The Makers of Scotland, The Men of the North, have been highly detailed accounts of the subject matter, concentrating on early medieval Scotland. For Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, he ventures south into the realm of Anglo Saxon Mercia and the story of its remarkable warrior queen. This is another highly detailed account, no stone is left unturned in his pursuit of the full story of Aethelflaed and the struggle against the Vikings.
Clarkson discusses the deficiencies of the sources in the first chapter, but where the sources leave gaps, and in Aethelflaed’s story there are plenty, Clarkson discusses the possible outcomes without delving into wild imaginative speculation. The second chapter sets the scene, discussing the origins and relationships between Mercia and Wessex and the arrival of the Danish Vikings.
The book follows Aethelflaed’s story in chronological order with the bulk of the book, chapters 3-7 dealing with her life, commencing with her birth in the late 860s, the oldest child of Alfred the Great, her name meaning “noble beauty”, childhood and her wedding to Aethelred, Lord of the Mercians in the 880s. Chapter 4, subtitled ‘Women and power’ starts with Mercian Queens who enjoyed a higher profile than their counterparts in Wessex. This would be to Aethelflaed’s advantage when her husband died in 911 and she ruled the Midland kingdom alone.
Chapter 4, ‘A New Mercia’, details Mercian successes on the battlefield against the Vikings at Buttington and Chester before examining the refortifications at Worcester, Gloucester and London, concluding with her father, Alfred’s death in 899. The next chapter continues with rebuilding Mercia with the burhs at Shrewsbury, the arrival of the Irish-Viking Ingimund and the restoration of Chester. Chapter 6 continues with burh building and Aethelred’s passing.
Chapters 7 and 8 cover the period of her widowhood and the height of her military career in the conflict with the Vikings. Clarkson suggests that Aethelflaed constructed the burh at Chirbury in response to tensions with Mercia’s old enemy, the Welsh.
In June 916 an abbot called Ecgberht was slain for reasons unknown. This would appear to be the same clergyman who had witnessed a charter issued at the burh at Weardbyrig (location unknown) the year before, perhaps indicating he was a close associate of Aethelflaed. Three days after his death the Mercians ventured into south-east Wales and attacked the royal site, the ‘crannog’ on Llangorse Lake (Brecananmere) in the kingdom of Brycheiniog. The king was not at home but his wife and thirty-four others were taken captive back to Mercia.
Clarkson suggests the raid on Llangorse Lake may have been more than a simple revenge attack for the murder of Ecgberht. In the 880s the kingdom of Brycheiniog had promised allegiance and submission to King Alfred of Wessex for protection from the North Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd. A decade later Brycheiniog had been among a number of Welsh kingdoms ravaged by Vikings encamped on the bank of the River Severn at Bridgnorth. This was clearly Mercian territory and may have resulted in a switch of allegiance to Aethelred and Aetheflaed for their support, yet Alfred’s son Edward may have not have recognised Brycheiniog’s switch of allegiance.
In 914 when a Viking fleet sailed into the Severn estuary, raiding up the Wye and taking the bishop of Llandaff hostage, King Edward of Wessex intervened to safeguard his release. Clarkson sees this as the act of an overlord stepping-in on behalf of a subordinate kingdom and the possibility that the Mercian attack on Llangorse in 916 and the taking of royal hostages as an act of restoring Mercian dominance over Brycheiniog. The episode suggests growing tensions with her brother Edward.
Aethelflaed was now at the peak of her power, she had refortified Mercia and was now pushing into the Danelaw. In 917 she took Derby, the following year Leicester and York submitted peacefully, probably to avoid conflict with the Mercian military machine.
But by June that year Aethelflaed was dead. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells us she died at Tamworth without divulging any further information. The Winchester version, or ‘A’ text, of the Chronicle makes a rare mention of Athelflaed, stating “[Edward's] sister Æthelflæd at Tamworth departed twelve days before midsummer;”
Aethelred and Aethelflaed had only one child from their marriage, a daughter named Aelfwynn (meaning ‘Elf-friend’). If this had been a son, succession after Aethelred’s death would have been straightforward for Mercia but would have created complications for Wessex and a united England which brings us to chapter 9; ‘Niece and Uncle’.
The ‘A’ text continues, “...and then he [Edward] 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......”
Here, Clarkson tells us, the West Saxon chronicler has compressed a series of events into one short entry to deliberately avoid the political uncertainty created by Aethelflaed’s death. Whereas the author of the Mercian Register writes:
“Here also was the daughter of Aethelred, Lord of the Mercians, deprived of all authority in Mercia, and she was taken to Wessex three weeks before midwinter. She was called Aelfwynn.”
Clarkson notes the omission in the ‘A’ text of any reference to Aelfwynn’s authority over the Mercians, the West Saxon author implying that there was a swift transition from Aethelflaed to Edward. Admitting there is clearly bias on both sides, Clarkson ponders whether Edward’s takeover was welcomed by the Mercian elite, and if Aethelflaed herself had favoured the likelihood of a formal union of Wessex and Mercia following her passing?
Clarkson goes on to discuss these matters and the fate of Aelfwynn, the 'Second Lady of the Mercians' and suggests that Aethelflaed envisaged her daughter continuing her role as the sole ruler of Mercia, citing the immediate transfer of authority in June as evidence of this. He adds that the charter witnessed at Weardbyrig by Aelfwynn in 915 as evidence that Aethelflaed was raising the profile of her daughter while she gained experience of government in readiness to succeed her mother. Certainly the Mercian attack on Brycheiniog suggests Aethelflaed did not consider herself as subordinate to her brother Edward, and, significantly just before her death she had obtained the submission of York, the rulers of Northern England.
Clarkson argues that Edward could not have removed Aelfwynn without support from some Mercian factions. Perhaps this is correct but rather tellingly Edward’s reign would come to an end as he attempted to put down a Mercian uprising by the men of Chester in 924. Whatever the truth of Aelfwynn’s deposition, and its place leading up the unification of England, it is a fascinating episode worthy of further study.
The final chapter ‘Legacy’ details how we remember Aethelflaed today and how her profile has steadily grown over the last fifty years or so through academic journals and the writers of historical fiction. Finally, Clarkson recalls places we can see evidence of Aethelflaed from Runcorn in north Mercia to Gloucester in the south. And who could disagree with the author in his claim that the most recognisable modern image of Aethelflaed is the figure on top of the pillar at Tamworth Castle, sword in one hand, the other around her foster son, the young Aethelstan, first king of all England.
If you read just one book on Aethelflaed it has to be this, full of detail this must be the definitive study on the Mercian Queen. Highly recommended.
* * *