Monday, 10 December 2018

Founder, Figher, Saxon Queen

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians
Margaret C Jones

From the publisher:
“Alfred the Great s daughter defied all expectations of a well-bred Saxon princess. The first Saxon woman ever to rule a kingdom, Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, led her army in battle against Viking invaders. She further broke with convention by arranging for her daughter to succeed her on the throne of Mercia. To protect her people and enable her kingdom in the Midlands to prosper, Aethelflaed rebuilt Chester and Gloucester, and built seven entirely new English towns. In so doing she helped shape our world today. This book brings Aethelflaed's world to life, from her childhood in time of war to her remarkable work as ruler of Mercia. The final chapter traces her legend, from medieval paintings to novels and contemporary art, illustrating the impact of a legacy that continues to be felt to this day.”

This year has been the 1,100th anniversary of the death of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, on 12th June 918 at Tamworth. The celebration of this remarkable warrior queen who fought the Vikings and won has seen several good books published over the last couple of years, where previously there was very little. This book is an easy, enjoyable read, aimed at the general audience and a welcome addition to the few accounts of Aethelfaled available.

This book Founder, Fighter, Saxon Queen: Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians by Margaret C Jones was published (Pen & Sword History) on 3rd August 2018 just after the celebrations at Gloucester and Tamworth during the summer came to end. However, the author delivered talks on the Saxon Queen at both Tamworth and Gloucester during July as part of the Aethelflaed 1100 celebrations.

The Preface discusses the problem of source material for Aethelflaed with Jones briefly reviewing the secondary sources, which until very recently consisted just of the works of FT Wainwright, Jane Wolfe and Don Stansbury, and up to date with last year’s contribution from Joanna Arman. Jones is surely correct when she states that Michael Wood's 2013 documentary for the BBC King Alfred and the Anglo Saxons, screened at the time that both Stafford and Tamworth celebrated 1,100 years since their foundation, has done more to raise the profile of the Lady of the Mercians with the general public “than a thousand printed pages”.

The first three chapters, A Wartime Childhood, Aethelflaed and her Sisters, Marriage, and the sixth chapter, Alfred’s Daughter, centres on her family and influences that moulded the personality of the young woman who was to become known as the Lady of the Mercians. This title alone underlines the fact that this princess from Wessex won over the hearts of the Mercians.

The middle section of the book, chapters Remaking Mercia and Lady of the Church, focuses on Aethelflaed’s achievements in Mercia, re-fortifying towns as burhs and building new, many went on to become urban centres. The cult of Royal Saints was an important part of Anglo Saxon religious belief but were also promoted for political reasons; in her new towns Aethelflaed introduced new cults: St Bertelin (Beorhthelm) at Stafford and Runcorn; St Werburgh at Chester; St Oswald at Gloucester; St Alkmund at Shrewsbury.

Chapter Seven returns to her family with Aethelflaed’s (Missing) Daughter and a discussion of her aspirations for her daughter and successor Aelfwynn. Yet, the reign of the Second Lady of the Mercians was short-lived. Just six months after her mother’s death at Tamworth in June, King Edward (The Elder) rode into Mercia and led her away into Wessex and she simply disappeared from the historical record. We know not of her fate.

The final chapter, Legacy and Legend, discusses how we remember Aethelflaed today, from medieval art to the subject of recent novels. Whereas the modern view tends to follow her near contemporary chroniclers in focusing on Aethelflaed’s military role as a Warrior Queen in support her brother Edward, Jones draws attention to the view that she pursued policies to make Mercia more independent from Wessex. Jones sees this bid for independence as a major factor in Edward’s prompt removal of Aelfwynn following Aethelflaed’s death. Edward’s relations with Mercia were clearly not good; in 1924 he died at Farndon on the Dee after putting down a rebellion at Chester.

The author closes with a summation of sites where you can find evidence of Aethelflaed’s work in the towns of the Midlands.

This book contains much useful information and discussion on the Mercian Queen. However, there are just a couple of little niggles. Owing to the lack of primary source material on Aethelflaed the author occasionally inserts “imagined short scenes”, as she calls them, to “evoke key moments” of her life. These conjectured interjections are unnecessary and detract from the value of the book as a serious composition.

Secondly, in a couple of places (Preface and Acknowledgements) the author refers to “The Making of Aethelflaed”. As these sections are usually written after completion of the main text I can only assume this was to be the original title for Jones' book which should have been updated by the editor before going to print as “Founder, Fighter, Saxon Queen”.

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