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Title: Ethelfleda  
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For other people named Æthelflæd, see Æthelflæd (disambiguation).
Æthelflæd (from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, ca 1220).
Lady of the Mercians
Reign 911 - 918 AD
Predecessor Æthelred
Successor Ælfwynn
Consort Æthelred
House House of Wessex
Father Alfred the Great
Mother Ealhswith
Born c. 870
Died 12 June 918
Tamworth, Staffordshire
Burial St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester

Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, (d. 12 June 918) was the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and his queen, Ealhswith. Æthelflæd was born at the height of the Viking invasions of England. Her father married her to Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians. After his death in 911 she ruled Mercia until her own death in 918. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle referred to her as the Myrcna hlæfdige, "Lady of the Mercians".

Background and family

By the end of the 8th century the petty Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the early settlement period had been consolidated into four large ones, Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria. In the early 9th century Wessex became the dominant kingdom under Æthelflaed's great-grandfather, Egbert. In the middle of the century England came under increasing attack from Viking raids, culminating in the invasion by the Great Heathen Army in 865. By 878 the Vikings had destroyed East Anglia, Northumbria, and Mercia, and nearly conquered Wessex, but the West Saxons fought back under Æthelflaed's father, Alfred the Great, and achieved a decisive victory at the Battle of Edington. Alfred and the Viking leader Guthrum then agreed on a division that gave Alfred western Mercia, while eastern Mercia was incorporated into Viking East Anglia.

Æthelflæd is mentioned by Alfred's biographer Asser, who calls her the first-born child of Alfred and his Mercian bride Ealhswith and a sister to Edward, Æthelgifu, Ælfthryth and Æthelweard.[1]

Marriage to Æthelred

Æthelflaed was already married to Æthelred, then ealdorman of Mercia.[2] Æthelred and Æthelflæd are recorded as having had one daughter, Ælfwynn. Æthelstan, the son of Edward the Elder and the grandson of Alfred, was brought up in their court.[3]

Near the end of the reign of Alfred the Great, Æthelred and Æthelflæd were requested by Werferth, the Bishop of Worcester, to fortify the town, in return for which they shared the rents and other profits which had belonged to the bishop.[4]

Lady of the Mercians

Æthelflæd established garrisons in Hereford and Gloucester before 914 and repaired the old walls of Chester in 907.[5] In 910 she built her first fortress; since her husband took no part in the campaign against the Danes, some scholars suggest that she was the real leader of the Mercian people.

On her husband's death in 911 after the Battle of Tettenhall, she was recognised as the "Lady of the Mercians". This was not a purely honorific title; Æthelflæd was a formidable military leader and tactician and ruled for eight years.[6] Upon succeeding her husband, she began to plan and build a series of fortresses in English Mercia, ten of which can be identified: Bridgnorth (912); Tamworth (913); Stafford (913); Eddisbury (914); Warwick (914); Chirbury (915); Runcorn (915). Three other fortresses, at Bremesburh, Scergeat and Weardbyrig, have yet to be located.[7]

Æthelflæd allied herself to her brother Edward the Elder. Historian Sir Frank Stenton said that Edward was able to achieve "the outstanding feature of his reign", the move against the occupying Danes in the south of England, due to being able to rely upon Æthelflæd.[8]

In 916 she led an expedition into Wales to avenge the murder of a Mercian abbot, and succeeded in capturing the wife of the king of Brycheiniog.[9] Edward the Elder issued coinage with novel reverses of extraordinary designs, and it is speculated[by whom?] that this series of coinage was for circulation in the part of Mercia under the rule of Edward and his sister, with the design of the coinage perhaps showing the influence of Æthelflæd.

Death and legacy

In 918, the people of the region around York promised to pledge their loyalty to Æthelflæd, probably in order to secure her support against Norse raiders from Ireland, but she died on 12 June 918, less than two weeks before the city was able to pay homage to her.[10] She was succeeded as Lady of the Mercians by her daughter, Ælfwynn, but six months later Edward deposed her and took Mercia under his personal control.

According to the Parker Chronicle (Manuscript A of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), which was strongly sympathetic to Edward, "all the people in the land of the Mercians who had been subject to Æthelflæd turned to him; and the kings among the Welsh, Hywel and Clydog and Idwal, and all the Welsh people sought to have him as their lord". Hywel Dda was king of Dyfed in south-west Wales, Clydog ap Cadell probably king of Powys in the north-east, and Idwal ab Anarawd king of Gwynedd in the north-west. Gwent in south-east Wales was already under West Saxon lordship, but in the view of historian T. M. Charles-Edwards this passage shows that the other Welsh kingdoms were under Mercian lordship until Edward took direct power by deposing Ælfwynn.[11]

Æthelflæd died at Tamworth, Staffordshire and was buried with her husband in St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester, which they had established. A statue of her was erected outside Tamworth Castle in 1913 to commemorate the millennium of her construction of the burh of Tamworth.[12]



Primary sources

  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MSS A, B, C, D and E), ed. D. Dumville and S. Keynes, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A Collaborative Edition. Vols. 3–7. Cambridge, 1983.
  • Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, ed. and tr. Joan N. Radner, Fragmentary annals of Ireland. Dublin, 1978.
  • S 1280 (AD 904).

Secondary sources

  • *Sir Francis Palgrave. History of the Anglo-Saxons. 1876. Paperback edition on Senate. p. 164.

Further reading

  • Justin Pollard. Alfred the Great: the Man Who Made England (2005)
  • Don Stansbury. The Lady Who Fought Vikings (1993)
  • Szarmach, P.R. 1998. "Æðelflæd of Mercia, mise en page." In Words and works: studies in medieval English language and literature in honour of Fred C. Robinson, ed. P.S. Baker and N. Howe. 105–26.
  • Ian W. Walker. 2001. Mercia and the Making of England.
  • Jane Wolfe. Aethelflaed: Royal Lady, War Lady (2001)

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