Today I am pleased to welcome Annie Whitehead to my blog. Anne is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016. Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, which tells the story of Aelfhere of Mercia, a nobleman in the time of King Edgar, is available now.
“From top to bottom, this country has no sense of itself.” This was a line of dialogue spoken by the character of Robert the Bruce in the film Braveheart. Many will, quite rightly, take issue with the film’s portrayal of history, but as a summation of the succession squabbles in Scotland at that time, it’s not far off the mark. The same could be said of medieval Wales, where brother fought brother and principalities were carved up. A similar situation existed in 9th century Mercia and, as with Wales and Scotland in the 12th and 13th centuries, it allowed others to march in and take over.
Aethelflaed, who died this day in AD918, was not a Mercian. She was a West-Saxon, the daughter of Alfred the Great of Wessex. She was born around the year 869 - we don’t know where - and was the eldest child of Alfred and his wife, who was a Mercian princess of the Gaini tribe. Alfred’s sister was married to King Burgred of Mercia, so here, already, there was a double connection between the two royal houses, alliance cemented by marriage twice over.
There is evidence to suggest that Aethelflaed was fostered by her aunt and spent her early years in Mercia. At this time there were essentially four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: Northumbria in the northeast and East Anglia in the east had already been overrun by the Danish Vikings and now those Danish invaders were pushing at the borders of Mercia in the midlands. Mercia could not hold them off, caught as it was in a succession dispute. Unable to stand united, the Mercians failed to arrest the advancing army. Wessex, in the southwest, was, as Bernard Cornwell called it, The Last Kingdom.
But not all of Mercia had been subjugated. Burgred had been deposed and went into exile, and the rival Mercian king, Ceolwulf, who was accused of being a collaborator, had been killed in battle with the Welsh. Onto the pages of history, seemingly from nowhere, rode a nobleman called Ethelred, who was determined to re-establish Mercian independence.
Ethelred entered into alliance with Alfred. Together, they wrested London from the Vikings and, to cement their alliance, Alfred gave his eldest daughter, Aethelflaed, in marriage to Ethelred, probably around the year 887. Although we don’t know the precise age of either of them, it is safe to assume that he was the elder of the two, by some distance. This cannot be described as anything other than a political marriage. Aethelflaed was yet another ‘peace-weaver.’
She had Mercian blood, through her mother. Her uncle, Aethelwulf of the Gaini, frequently fought alongside Ethelred. She was not a complete stranger to the Mercians, but this could so easily have been another tale of a woman, married off, and quietly slipping between the pages of the chronicles.
The alliance between Mercia and Wessex held, and when he was old enough, Aethelflaed’s brother, Edward, fought alongside Ethelred and Alfred. Or rather, the three of them fought in different locations, weakening the impact of the invading ‘hordes’. The tide began slowly to turn, with the war against the Danes now being fought, effectively, by three armies.
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In 902 the Battle of the Holme was a decisive victory for Edward, but Ethelred was not with him, nor was he fighting at Alfred’s side. And he was not fighting elsewhere either. Something was wrong. The chronicles don’t give us much of a clue, but it’s clear that after this point he no longer rode out in battle. He continued to witness charters however; something was stopping him from fighting, but not from leading. But his place was not taken by another Mercian lord. In 907 the Mercians defended Chester from a Viking siege, but it was Aethelflaed who directed proceedings. An Irish chronicle has her fighting back with swarms of bees, which is more than likely just a tale, but fun nonetheless. The Irish came to regard her as a queen, as did the Annales Cambriae, the Welsh chronicle.
In 910 the invaders were beaten again at the Battle of Tettenhall, but Ethelred was not there. In that same year, Aethelflaed is recorded as building a burh (a fortified town) at a place called Bremesbyrig, unidentified on the modern map. In 911, Ethelred died, and yet no new male ruler was appointed. Edward, who was by this time king of Wessex, moved quickly to take London and Oxford out of Mercian hands and under his direct control, but he stopped short of subjugating the whole of the erstwhile kingdom of the midlands and Aethelflaed continued with her fortification and building programme in Mercia.
In 915 we not only have her location but the exact date - June 19th - when she took an army into Brycheiniog in Wales to avenge the killing of an abbot who was dear to her. And in 917 she was in charge of the siege of Derby which resulted in Derby being returned into English hands. (As one of the ‘Five Boroughs’ of the Danelaw, it was strategically and symbolically an important victory.) In 918, shortly before her death, delegates from the kingdom of York made an appeal to her for aid against the norse armies of Ragnall.
I often have to take a moment to consider what a unique story this is. In a time of almost perpetual medieval warfare, a country was content to allow a woman to lead, even into battle. Whether or not she actually wielded a sword in anger, this is still remarkable. And yet, it was not remarked upon. Scant information is available, even by the standards of the age.
Okay, there wasn’t really anyone else (the internecine squabbles referred to earlier made sure of that) but even so, it appears that the Mercians were happy to let a woman lead them, and not even a native one at that, so it must, in part, have been down to her personality. She was a special woman. So why is she not better known?
I think there are two reasons: in terms of fiction, the Anglo-Saxon age has suffered a little on account of the unfamiliar and difficult-to-pronounce names. In terms of non-fiction, history is written by the victors. No, not the Vikings, but the kingdom of Wessex. Remember that Mercia tore itself apart until it ran out of kings. Its independence was in jeopardy long before the Vikings came a-calling. And after Aethelflaed’s death, her brother Edward gave Mercia to his natural son, Athelstan, who quickly became king of Wessex, too, upon Edward's death. A ‘merger’ was inevitable from that point. And of course, our greatest source of information, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was commissioned by Alfred and written by West-Saxons. Mercia was never going to get star billing.
But she is remembered fondly by some. There is a statue of her in Tamworth, the ancient Mercian capital, which was re-dedicated in 2013, 1100 years after she fortified the town, and where they still refer to her as “The Lady of the Mercians.” A great lady, indeed.