Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians


Aethelflaed was born circa 870 as the first child and daughter of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, and his wife Ealhswith, who was of Mercian royal descent herself. When she was born Alfred had already become king of Wessex. This happened rather unexpectedly as he was the youngest of five sons. With the Vikings and their overpowering presence in England Alfred needed to build alliances to fight them. This he found in Aethelred of Mercia. Mercia was one of the kingdoms in England during the Anglo-Saxon period, when England was not yet one kingdom.  As a way to consolidate the alliance Alfred a marriage was arranged between Aethelred and Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed. Stafford says of this marriage that this choice of wife “played to internal Mercian insecurity as well as external anti-Viking alliances” (43). Some say that Aethelred promised obedience to Alfred. Pratt states that “in charters of the late 880s and early 890s, Alfred is accorded the novel titles Angul-Saxonum rex or Anglorum Saxonum rex (‘king of the Anglo-Saxons’); Asser described the king in similar terms, in contrast to his predecessors” ( Political thought 104). Aethelred and thus Aethelflaed were not referred to in royal fashion but instead were named Lord and Lady of the Mercians.

After her husband’s death in 911 it appears she was actively chosen as the new leader of the Mercians. Æthelflaed ruled as ‘Myrcna hlæfdige,’ Lady of the Mercians, though it is likely that she ruled by herself before that as her husband was ill (Fell 91). Aethelflaed did not rule in the name of an underage son or brother, made her nearly unique in early medieval Europe. Towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period the role of women had already been somewhat diminished, however, Aethelflaed could rule over Mercia for several reasons. An important role was played by the men in her life. The emphasis on familial relation played an important role in the agency of women during the Anglo-Saxon time. Having Alfred as father, Edward as brother and Aethelred as husband helped her consolidate the role as leader of Mercia but the relation to her mother was also important as it emphasised her Mercian connection. As the daughter of a West-Saxon father and a Mercian mother with royal ties she could bridge the gap between Wessex and Mercia. The Mercian women that came before Aethelflaed also paved the way for her to have the power she did. The (royal) women of Mercia held more prominence in their kingdom than most other women did in their respective kingdoms in England. One of these women was the wife of the Eight century Mercian king Offa of who Stafford says “The titles given to Cynethryth in the charters call her ‘queen’, often ‘queen of the Mercians’, and in 780 ‘queen of the Mercians by the grace of God’.2 Not even in Ecgfrith’s reign was she mater regis. Coins were struck in her name” (39). The last puts her in relation to two other European queens in uniqueness (39). The way for Aethelflaed’s rule was then somewhat paved for her.Unlike previous wife’s of Mercians rulers she is not styled queen in Anglo-Saxon sources, nor was her husband styled king as the men that came before him.  Stafford states that “In contrast to his royal predecessors, Ceolwulf and Burgred, no coins were struck in    Aethelred’s name, nor in that of Aethelflaed when she succeeded him. Charters were granted by them but with the permission, witness or presence of King Alfred or Edward the Elder. All this points to a non-royal, subordinate status in an alliance which was rapidly becoming a domination of Mercia by Wessex. But in the shifting political situation of early medieval hegemonic rule the language of alliance and  domination can be strategic and aspirational, part of the technology of power not a simple measure or description of it” (Mercia 45). However she also adds that “first Aethelred, then Aethelred and Aethelflaed together, and finallyAethelflaed alone, granted charters in their own names, transferring the rights and claims which would normally denote the regal status of the grantor” (Mercia 45-6). Looking at the evidence it is thus quite ambiguous how much the Mercian Lord and Lady deferred to first Alfred and later Edward. It is quite possible that there was slight deference to the West-Saxon king on more national issues but that on more internal Mercian issues the decisions were taken by Mercians leaders themselves. This issue is further confused by the Celtic chroniclers who did style her as queen, calling her famosissima regina saxonum. Whatever the reality of the situation was she certainly ruled like a queen or more accurately like a king.

The Mercian register, an addition to some versions of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, describes Aethelflaed’s activities as Lady of the Mercians. The Mercian register, also dubbed the Annals of Aethelflaed, focuses on “her military activity, but also on the legitimacy of her rule. The entries present her as a ruler, engaged in quintessentially kingly and masculine role of a war leader” ( Annals Stafford 103). Stafford adds that the focus is “not on early tenth-century Mercian rulers more generally – her husband or her brother”(Annals 103). Aethelflaed’s husband is mentioned only once at his death but the activities Aethelflaed undertakes are mentioned numerous times. In the fight against the Vikings she established Burhs which were fortifications or fortified settlements. By doing this she continued, together with her brother Edward, the work her father had started. She also led military expeditions. One example of this is after the murder of a Mercian abbot on Welsh land when she sent an army which destroyed Brecenanmere. During this excursion a number of hostages was taken including the wife of the Welsh king (Whitelock, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 64). Aethelflaed and her husband also founded a minster in Gloucester, initially dedicated to St Peter, in 909 a raid on Viking land was organised which resulted in the return of St Oswald’s bones to Anglo-Saxon territory and subsequently the minster was renamed St Oswald’s Priory. At the time of her death in 918 she had been negotiating an alliance with the Vikings of York.