Peaceweaver - Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great

Written by Jane Mason

Æthelflæd was a remarkable woman, whose leadership of the kingdom of Mercia combined diplomacy, military leadership, religious vision and scholarship. She deserves to be remembered and honoured alongside her father Alfred for her key role in weaving the alliances that led to the unification of England.

Æthelflæd was the eldest child of Alfred and Eahlswith, born around 870CE at the height of the Viking invasions. When she was about 8 years old the family had to flee to the Isle of Athelney, living hand to mouth in the army camp; so she witnessed first-hand how Alfred transformed his fortunes, driving back the Vikings and uniting the Saxon kingdoms of southern England under his overlordship.

In 886 all areas of England not under Viking rule recognised Alfred as their overlord. Mercia had previously been the most powerful kingdom in England, so this was a significant concession by the Mercians, still reeling from the loss of much of their territory to the Vikings. Their new ruler Æthelred was chosen by Alfred and was no longer called ‘king’ but instead ‘Lord of the Mercians'.

England and Wales in CE 878 File:England 878.svg - Wikimedia Commons

However, in compensation, Æthelred was given control of the recently recaptured city of London and very importantly, Æthelflæd was given to him in marriage, now aged about 16. A woman given in marriage in this way was called a frithuwebbe, ‘peace-weaver’, and Æthelflæd was thus entrusted with the extremely important and delicate role of fostering good relations between the two kingdoms. Many Mercian nobles would have resented their subordination, wanting to regain their independence. But it was essential for both kingdoms to work together against the Viking threat. She had a very important job to do.

Although Æthelflæd would have been well educated at the school established by Alfred at Winchester, royal women in Wessex were not allowed any political power at all. A significant reason for this was that an earlier queen, Eadbugh, was said to have taken control in a tyrannical way, ending her life in exile and disgrace. Alfred’s biographer, Asser, says that the king’s wife was not called queen, nor was she allowed to sit enthroned beside him. However, Æthelflæd’s life would be very different and her achievements all the more remarkable because of this contrast to Wessex.

In Mercia, older customs remained which gave much more recognition and respect to the political role of royal women. Nevertheless, at first there is not much mention of Æthelflæd in the records of Mercia, but Alfred died in 899 and her husband’s health also began to fail; thereafter Æthelflæd took on a greater and greater role in government, with her name appearing as co-signatory on documents and eventually appearing alone in the Mercian chronicle, indicating that she became the effective ruler. She also played a significant part in military campaigns alongside her brother Edward, the new king of Wessex. The Wessex Chronicle focuses on him and barely mentions her, but the Mercian and other chronicles give us a better picture of her achievements.

Firstly, she played a crucial role in the establishment of carefully sited fortified towns or ‘burghs’, continuing the extremely effective defensive strategy of Alfred and thus reorganising Mercia to reflect the altered boundaries and threats. These new burghs include important modern cities such as Hereford and Warwick.

Whilst doing this she restored important focal places of religion and learning in Mercia, which had lost much of its territory to the Vikings, particularly Repton, where Mercian royalty had been buried. In one of his campaigns into the Danelaw, King Edward brought back the relics of St Oswald, which Æthelflæd acquired, dedicating a Minster church to this saint in Gloucester. Æthelred was an invalid by this time, so Æthelflæd can be credited with this important foundation, confirming Gloucester as the new heart of Mercia. In this way and in the establishment of many other burghs, she was able to foster Mercian identity and traditions whilst also working harmoniously with her brother and overlord.

In 911 Æthelred finally died and the nobles of Mercia elected her as their next ruler with the formal title Myrcna hlædige, "Lady of the Mercians”. Even for Mercia this was a remarkable decision in those times and reflects the trust that she had earned by her wise rulership during her husband’s long illness.

She ceded Oxford and London to Wessex, a wise and diplomatic move, which meant that Edward could thereafter defend and expand these territories, leaving Æthelflæd able to concentrate on the north and east. Æthelflæd was responsible for many successful campaigns and victories. The Mercian chronicle clearly regards her as their military commander, recording that at the battle for Derby she lost four thegns ‘who were dear to her’.

It is likely also that she was a crucial ally in Irish and Scottish struggles against the Viking threat. The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland gives us more hints as to her character and her diplomatic skills: ‘Æthelflæd, by her own cleverness, made peace with the men of Alba [Scotland] and with the Britons, so that whenever the same race [the Vikings] should come to attack her, they would rise to help her.’

Æthelflæd’s successes continued and in 918 the Mercian chronicle records that ‘she peacefully gained control of the fortress at Leicester.’  Soon after, ‘the people of York promised – some by pledge, some by oaths – that they were willing to be under her direction’. However, Æthelflæd died only a few months later, aged in her late 40s and this treaty collapsed with her death. Had she lived a little longer she could have brought all the kingdoms of England together for the first time. Her body was brought back to be buried beside her husband at Gloucester in the church she had founded. The Annals of Ulster records her death and giving the title that she was not allowed to hold in England:                     ‘Eithilfleith, famosissima regina Saxonum, moritur
Æthelflæd, most famous Queen of the Saxons, died.’

Æthelflæd left only one heir, her daughter Ælfwynn. Remarkably, the Mercian nobles elected her as ruler after her mother, one of the very rare times when rule has passed from one woman to another. But after a few months Edward removed her and hereafter took full control of Mercia himself. It is likely that Ælfwynn passed the rest of her life as a nun.

However, Edward’s son Athelstan was brought up in Æthelflæd’s court and so her wise influence continued through her nephew. After Edward’s death Mercia and Wessex were united under his sole kingship. He finally achieved the conquest of York in 927 and united the kingdoms of England under his stable rule. He is thus regarded as the first to deserve the title ‘King of England’.

In the Middle Ages Æthelflæd was greatly admired, with stories and poems written about her. A manuscript in Dublin library which gives the genealogy of the Kings of England writes this of her: ‘This Æthelflæd was called the wisest of all women, and through her wisdom greatly instructed her brother the king on the governance of his kingdom.’

However, she was then left out of the historical record for a long time and only now is she regaining the recognition she deserves. 2018 was 1100 years since her death and significant celebrations were held in her honour. But she still is not known and recognised enough for what she was – one of the most significant and admirable women in British history: a formidable adversary in battle, a loved and respected ruler, and a diplomat who strengthened alliances between friends and forged peaceful links with former foes – a true ‘peace-weaver’.

 File:Æthelflæd as depicted in the cartulary of Abingdon Abbey.png - Wikimedia Commons