Saturday, 8 December 2018

The Uncrowned Queen: A Biography

“The success of Edward’s campaigns against the Danes depended to a great extent upon her co-operation. In the midlands and the north she came to dominate the political scene. And the way she used her influence helped to make possible the unification of England under kings of the West Saxon royal house. But her reputation has suffered from bad publicity, or rather from a conspiracy of silence among her West Saxon contemporaries.” - FT Wainwright, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.


Scandinavian England
Academic articles aside, until very recently there was very little information available for general readership regarding Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, Queen in all but name, and her role in the recovery of the Danelaw from the Vikings went relatively unnoticed; most sources credited the success of the Viking Wars to her father King Alfred the Great and her brother Edward the Elder.

An article by Frederick Threlfall Wainwright (1917 – 1961) in 1959 was the first to highlight Æthelflæd’s part in recovering Mercia: “Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians” in The Anglo-Saxons: Studies in Some Aspects of their History and Culture Presented to Bruce Dickins, ed. Peter Clemoes (Bowes and Bowes, 1959).

This article was published posthumously in 1975, with a collection of other significant articles by Wainwright in “Scandinavian England” (Phillimore) edited by Herbert (HPR) Finberg, highlighting the Scandinavian settlement of north-west England, which Wainwright saw as nothing less than a mass migration. Using place name evidence and O’Donovan’s 1860 translation of the Three Fragments he brought Ingimund’s story and the invasion of the Irish-Vikings in the north-west of England out from the shadows.

Other significant articles in Scandinavian England include: North-West Mercia AD 871-924 (1942); Ingimund’s Invasion (1948); The Scandinavians in Lancashire (1945). Sadly this collection does not include Wainwright’s article ‘The Chronology of the Mercian Register' (The English Historical Review, Volume LX, Issue CCXXXVIII, 1 September 1945, Pages 385–392), however, although now out of print this book should be in the library of anyone with an interest in Æthelflæd and the Viking Age in Britain.

The Lady who Fought the Vikings

After Wainwright there was no further popular works on Æthelflæd published for nearly another 20 years. ‘The Lady who Fought the Vikings’ (Imogen Books, 1993) by Don Stansbury received mixed reviews on publication, he was accused of being over creative and story telling in his efforts to reconstruct the life and times of Æthelflæd. Yet, it must be admitted there is very little historical information available on her and her husband, Æthelred, Ealdorman of Mercia.

Stansbury spends the first half of the book setting the scene and filling in the background to the Viking Wars, a period largely dominated by King Alfred and his construction of burhs in Wessex. This is not surprising as the primary text of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, our main source for the period, was written in Winchester, the ‘A’ text, at the direction of Alfred himself we are led to believe. To that we can add Asser’s biography of the king and the list of burhs in Wessex (The Burghal Hidage) produced some years after Alfred’s death, 911-914.

Much of the first half of Asser’s Life of King Alfred is based on the entries in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle up to 887 and fails to record the battles with the Vikings in the 890s or the death of the king in 899 and was probably left unfinished.

Stanbury heavily references Asser’s work, it certainly is not much use to us in constructing an account of Æthelflæd and merely tells us she was Alfred’s oldest child who married Æthelred and the Mercian Viking conflict up to the division of the kingdom in 874. Stansbury makes no mention of The Chronicle of Aethelweard, edited by Alistair Campbell in 1962, essentially a Latin translation of a lost early version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.

However, that said there is very little primary source material available for Æthelflæd; her history is entirely absent from the 'A' text of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle which simply records her death in 918. Aethelweard does not include much information on Æthelflæd either; following the Winchester version of the Chronicle he merely mentions her passing and burial at Gloucester. So we find most of our primary Anglo Saxon sources silent on the achievements of the Lady of the Mercians.

Stansbury, like most commentators on the Æthelflæd story, is forced to rely on secondary sources, with the key text being Wainwright’s 1959 article. Yet, a series of entries found in alternative copies of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the 'B', 'C' and 'D' texts, focusing on the years spanning 902 to 924 termed 'The Mercian Register', or 'Annals of Æthelflæd' tells the story of the 'Lady of the Mercians' (Myrcna hlæfdige).

Stansbury spends some time discussing Gloucester and Worcester, perhaps the two key sites in Æthelflæd's story. He then moves onto ‘Defending the North’ detailing the burh at Shrewsbury in 901, an episode often ignored, and the translation of the obscure Anglo Saxon Saint Alkmund. He then moves onto Chester and the arrival of Ingimund in 902. Before concluding Stansbury discusses the Æthelflædian burhs at Bremesburh, Scergeat, Bridgnorth, Tamworth, Stafford, Eddisbury and Warwick before a brief analysis of the last three burhs constructed in 915 at Chirbury, Weardburh and Runcorn. Now that the Mercian borders were secure Æthelflæd turned to the recovery of the Danelaw working in conjunction with her brother Edward, launching attacks into the Danelaw from the Mercian burhs. In 917 Derby submitted, followed in 918 by Leicester and York.

Stansbury closes with Æthelflæd’s death 12 days before midsummer at Tamworth and a brief mention of Edward taking her successor and daughter Ælfwynn into Wessex three weeks before Christmas before summing up Edward’s recovery of the Danelaw and then the ascension of Æthelstan, the first king of all England, who as a boy was fostered at the Mercian court by Æthelflæd. And that is Æthelflæd’s story.

Stansbury’s book was the first full biography of Æthelflæd; in essence the story hasn’t changed in subsequent accounts although modern scholarship has produced more detail, particularly on the archaeology of the Mercian burhs.

Aethelflaed: Royal Lady, War Lady
Eight years after Stansbury’s book Fenris Press published a little book of just 35 pages by Jane Wolfe entitled ‘Aethelflaed: Royal Lady, War Lady’ (2001), “aimed at the general reader, to give Æthelflæd the place in history that she clearly deserves.

Wolfe’s all too brief account tells the story of Æthelflæd and how she built or refortified 10 defensive burhs to protect Mercia against the Vikings and includes the raid into Wales in 916 in retaliation for the murder of an Abbot. The booklet includes a map of the Boundaries of Mercia, Wessex and the Danelaw C. 900, and a Plan of Chester in the 10th century. Appendices include Æthelflæd's Burhs and Genealogy of the Kings of Wessex.

From a limited print run this rare booklet has obtained cult status and now as rare as finding Unicorn doodah in your garden! Grab a copy if you get chance.

England's Forgotten Queen
These three books were all the popular reader had since Wainwright’s article  Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians back in 1959. With so little primary source material available and author’s often accused of conjecture and story telling to fill out the gaps perhaps fiction is the best way to reconstruct the story of Aethelflaed?


At the turn of the 21st century the writers of historical fiction turned their attention to Æthelflæd’s story with Bernard Cornwell producing The Last Kingdom (2005) series telling the tale of Alfred the Great and his descendants (Aethelflaed features in Book 4, Sword Song, 2007), now a major television series available on Netflix, and Annie Whitehead’s novel To Be A Queen (2013)  said to be the true story of Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians, to name just two of many.


2017 saw the publication of two new historical works: The Warrior Queen: The Life and Legend of Æthelflæd, Daughter of Alfred the Great by Joanna Arman and Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians: The battle of Tettenhall 910AD; and other West Mercian studies by David Horovitz.

I first came across David Horovitz in researching the Stafford place name. His book on Æthelflæd is over 700 pages long and not a quick read, but it is full of very detailed information. Arman’s debut book is aimed more at the general reader and has received excellent reviews and is highly recommended.


2018 saw the Æthelflæd 1100 celebrations marking 1,100 years since her death at Tamworth which no doubt inspired the production of two further historical works: Æthelflæd: Lady of the Mercians by Tim Clarkson and Founder, Fighter, Saxon Queen: Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians by Margaret C Jones. It seems the forgotten story of the Uncrowned Mercian Queen is finally getting out there and this remarkable Lady is now getting the recognition for her decisive part in the fight against the Vikings.

Perhaps aware of the gap in the market with the unavailability of Jane Wolfe’s  booklet, in February 2019 Penguin are due to publish Æthelflæd: England’s Forgotten Founder by Tom Holland. This little book (around 50 pages) is part of the new Ladybird Expert Series which retain the classic Ladybird style that anyone as old as me will remember from early school days. These Ladybird books were often the very first books we, and then our children, came across with a page of (large) text and pictures opposite. The publisher claims the books are the “same iconic small hardback format, artwork is gloriously retro, echoing the original Ladybird style but containing completely up to date information designed for an adult readership”.


Holland recently wrote on Æthelstan (2016) for the Penguin Monarchs series; the new book promises to tell the epic history of England's forgotten Queen, pulling her out of the shadowy history of the dark ages.


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