'Heroic Elflede! great in martial fame,
A man in valour, woman though in name:
Thee warlike hosts, thee, nature too obey'd,
Conqu'ror o'er both, though born by sex a maid.
Chang'd be thy name, such honour triumphs bring.
A queen by title, but in deeds a king.
Heroes before the Mercian heroine quail'd:
Caesar himself to win such glory fail'd'
- Henry of Huntingdon, 12th century
Our main primary source for events of this period, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) consists of short entries, usually very briefly listing key events in Old English (and some Latin) organised by year. There are, however, multiple manuscripts (the main ones known by the letters A-F, and a number of other fragments) which differ slightly in content, and in how the dates of events are assigned.
The biggest disagreement in content, however, is a series of entries during the life of Æthelflæd and King Edward which specifically pertain to events in Mercia, known as the ‘Mercian Register’, which only appear in the copies known as the Abingdon Chronicle I (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle version B; Cotton Tiberius A. vi) and the Worcester Chronicle (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle version D; Cotton Tiberius B. iv), though even here, descriptions of events are oddly constrained, often avoiding mentioning key individuals by name. The reasons for this are discussed later.
From Princess to Ruler
During the first years of their marriage Æthelred served as an important military ally campaigning alongside Wessex in the fight back against the Danes, while lady Æthelflæd was heavily involved back at home with the business of government, investing monasteries and churches, witnessing charters, and overseeing the fortification of Worcester. The couple had only one daughter, Ælfwyn (ASC-B) after the birth of whom Lady Æthelflæd is understood to have chosen to be celibate. It has been suggested (Herbert, 1997) that this was a politically canny decision made to avoid producing a male heir which might threaten Mercia’s union with Wessex.
'This year died Æthered, ealdorman of Mercia; and King Edward took London, and Oxford, and all the lands that thereunto belonged.'
The impression given by this unusual, deafening silence on who commanded the joint Mercian/West-Saxon army, is that it was actually lady Æthelflæd who stepped into the military-boots of her ailing husband and, perhaps drawing on her experience from Ælfred’s war, organized Mercia’s defence herself. If so, this was the turning point of her career and life ‒ forced by circumstances to step outside of the traditional role of a noblewoman and command an army in her husband’s stead, successfully, and winning the unshakeable confidence and loyalty of the kingdom.
On the death of her husband, she succeeded him as sole ruler of Mercia, from 911 to 918, as Myrcna hlædige, ‘Lady of the Mercians’ (ASC-B). Were it not for the technical hitch that, by then, kingship of Mercia had become defunct (her husband having been Ealdorman, not king) she would certainly today be regarded as a trailblazing Queen Regnant (a female King) comparable to the much later Mary I or Elizabeth I. ‘Queen’ historically really just meant consort ‒ the Old English ‘cwen’ meaning woman or wife, or later the powerless consort of a ruling King; the idea of putting a woman in charge was so strange to the early English that no word for such a person had not yet evolved, and judging by the clunkiness of the term ‘Queen Regnant’, arguably still has not! This has presented a linguistic problem for female rulers in Britain for at least a millennium. To be a ‘queen’ is to be subordinate to a king, and not to rule in one’s own right. Notably Latin references to Æthelflæd call her ‘Merciorum domina’; some 250 years later Matilda / the Empress Maude (only surviving child of King Henry I but whose status as heir to the throne was disputed due to her sex, leading to ‘The Anarchy’) would likewise refer to herself as ‘Domina Anglorum’ - mistress/lady of the English, in preference to ‘queen’ for the same reason, and possibly specifically channelling the precedent of Æthelflæd.
Despite the strangeness of installing a woman as ruler, there is no evidence, or slightest hint of any discontentment with the succession at the time, probably for a number of reasons. Æthelflæd had at that point already been, de facto, successfully leading Mercia with little help, for years, proving that despite an almost complete lack of memorable precedent, a woman could certainly do the job! She was the daughter of the famous Ælfred the Great whose memory had already begun to grow into legend, and if, as we suspect, the victory at Tettenhall was hers, it proved not only that she was fully capable of the most masculine duties associated with Anglo-Saxon kingship, but more broadly, that a woman could be a successful king, seemingly with God’s approval. The Mercian nobility were also caught in a bind; to support a rival candidate of their own would be to treasonously break with the by-then almighty Wessex and risk retribution. Merely rejecting Æthelflæd, who was at least half Mercian and steeped in Mercian culture and custom, would likely invite intervention by King Edward and perhaps the appointment of a West Saxon overlord, thereby destroying the last fig-leaf of Mercian status as a kingdom. The half-Mercian Æthelflæd’s rulership represented an opportunity for Mercia to preserve at least some of its independence and dignity.
"The Lady who fought the Vikings"
'This year Æthelflæd, lady of the Mercians, with the help of God, before Laminas, conquered the fortress/town called Derby, with all that thereto belonged; and there were also slain four of her thegns, that were most dear to her, within the gates.'
Although she was undoubtedly a great general and tactician, particularly excelling at planning military infrastructure and logistics which make the difference between merely winning battles and winning wars, we don’t actually know that she participated in fighting herself, and although it is increasingly fashionable to view her, and represent her as a sword-waving warrior queen, no reliable primary sources support this interpretation, or indeed, the notion that any late Anglo-Saxon woman participated in battle directly. To do so would have required the necessary physical training, and being decked out in appropriate, male-coded garb and gear, which all may have been one taboo-break too far. But we should not be overly romantic in imagining that any male Anglo-Saxon royal “General” typically got stuck in, on the front line, either. It is certainly not unreasonable to imagine Lady Æthelflæd mounted on a horse and flanked by bodyguards, on a nearby hilltop watching battles she had meticulously planned, unfold, wearing a sword and perhaps armour to symbolise her office, or issuing instructions from behind the lines.
Tragically Æthelflæd died suddenly in midsummer of that year at her forward headquarters at Tamworth, before this diplomatic victory came to fruition, and her body was transported back to her beloved Gloucester; the ultimate final recapture of Northumbria would be left to her nephew and protégé, the mighty Æthelstan.
'...the northern town submitted to him, and sought him for their lord. It was whilst he was tarrying there, that Æthelflæd his sister died at Tamworth, twelve nights before midsummer. Then rode he to the borough of Tamworth; and all the population in Mercia turned to him, who before were subject to Æthelflæd,'
The "Mercian" versions of the Chronicle - B and D, have much more to say about the death of Æthelflæd, singling her out for unique praise, and shedding more light on the events that followed.
(918/19) This year she acquired on her own might and God's assistance at the start of the year the surrender of the fort/town of Leicester, and the most part of the army there was subjugated. And she received word from the York-Vikings, and some pledges were given, making oaths that they to her would be sworn. But shortly after word of this pledge was heard, she died, 12 nights before midsummer at Tamworth, in the eighth year that she had Mercian sole rulership, and right her *lordship* holding was; and her body was taken to Gloucester and the east porch of Saint Peter's church.
Given the remarkable achievements of Lady Æthelflæd, and all she did for Wessex’s project to unite the English, the West Saxon obliteration of her memory is surprising and requires some explanation;
Traditionally responsibility for this erasure has been attributed to her brother, King Edward; it has been suggested that he may have found her achievements and the high esteem in which she was held, especially in Mercia, irritating (Klimek, 2013) and certainly, that the final victory of the Viking War he had himself been fighting (i.e. the retaking of York) had been offered specifically to her, bloodlessly and on a plate, would prick the ego of any insecure king. Nevertheless, she was dead and gone; erasing her memory on these grounds would be quite unnecessary, especially as the hand-over of York ended up not going ahead. It’s alternatively been suggested that Æthelflæd’s memory was feared to be a potential lightning-rod for future Mercian separatism (Stansbury, 1993) though it’s hard to see how, in the short to medium term, redactions in the West Saxon Chronicles could possibly do much to combat her Mercian legend.
Could it be the precedent she set as a female ruler which led to her being damned from memory?
An entry in the (Latin) Chronicle of John of Worcester (12th century) ‒ believed to have been copied and translated from a now lost, unredacted version of the Mercian Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provides a remarkable tribute from the Mercians themselves for their queen, asserting their right to continue to be called a kingdom, and for Æthelflæd’s daughter to succeed her as their ruler.
‘Merciorum domina, insignis prudentiae et iustitiae virtutisque eximiae femina, viii anno ex quo loa regnum Merciorum strenuo iustoque rexit moderamine obiit, et filiam suam haredem regni reliquit’ (Chronicle of John of Worcester (12th century)
‘The Lady of the Mercians, woman of distinguished judgment, justice and strength of character, died in the 8th year of her sole rule of the kingdom of the Mercians, with strength of justice and carefulness, and left her daughter as heir to the kingdom.’ (Translation adapted from Michael Wood)
Humiliation, and Revenge?
(*A holy woman by the name of Ælfwyn is mentioned in a charter from 948 CE ‒ three decades later. Could Æthelflæd’s daughter ‒ deposed as Mercian ruler, have survived and spent the rest of her life in a nunnery in the south?)
<919/20> Her eac wearð Æþeredes dohtor Myrcna hlafordes ælces anwealdes on Myrcum benumen, 7 on Westsexe alæded ðrim wucan ær middum wintra, seo wæs haten Ælfwyn.
'This year every worth of Athelred's daughter's Mercian lordship and every power in Mercia was stripped from her. And to Wessex she was carried, three weeks before midwinter.
She was called Ælfwyn.'
The brutal takeover of Mercia by king Edward - his abduction of Lady Ælfwyn and the disrespect shown both to the ancient kingdom and Æthelflæd’s memory may have come back to bite him. Only two years later King Edward died suddenly "among the Mercians" at Farndon in Cheshire. The "official" history - the Winchester Chronicle (AS Chronicle A) deals with this curiously briefly, saying nothing of the circumstances, jumps immediately to the succession by Æthelstan (who was not his preferred heir) and then skips the next four years. Over half of the previous page is also curiously left blank.
(Nb. The keen-eyed may notice faint writing in the blank space shown above, as if entries here have been somehow physically erased or scratched out, but this faint lettering is actually the text on the other side of the page bleeding through, with this faint lettering actually running behind the list of years on the left hand side (most obvious around and beneath AN DCCCC XXXI) .
There are half-explanations for these gaps, but they raise more questions. First, the reason the previous page ends only half-way down with the entry for 924 is that this was, originally, the end of this chronicle. Until they were separated and rebound in the 11th century, a copy of the Laws of King Ælfred and King Ine had been bound in, here, immediately following the entry for 924, but why? When the Chronicle starts again with the 925 entry it does so in a totally different hand, by a clearly different scribe, with a thin update of the key couple of events of that decade to bring the reader up to speed, before resuming a more detailed history from 931. It therefore seems that official West-Saxon record-keeping was badly disrupted in the mid 920s, which all points to there being a political crisis. That the Chronicle resumes with a very thin glossing of the decade's events rather than incorporating entries from the more complete Anglo-Saxon Chronicles being maintained in Mercia can only have been a deliberate choice. It's clear that powers in Winchester wished for the events of the 920s, and the precise circumstances of the succession from Edward to Æthelstan to be concealed.
None of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles record precisely why King Edward died, or what he was up to in the last years of his reign, but the 12th century Chronicler William of Malmesbury records that he was in Cheshire putting down a joint Mercian and Welsh revolt. Was he killed by Mercians re-asserting their right to choose their own ruler, and avenging Æthelflæd’s memory?
Our Mercian versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles - and, indeed, the last of the so-called "Mercian Register" entries which are absent from the Wessex version give more detail on the events of that year - the death of Edward and the crowning of the next king.
'This year King Edward died among the Mercians at Farndon, and Ælfweard his son died quickly afterwards, around 16 days later at Oxford. And his body was taken to Winchester. And Æthelestan was chosen/proclaimed King of Mercia, and was at Kingston made holy / crowned.'
These entries show that Edward's preferred son and heir Ælweard also died, very shortly after in the Wessex-Mercian border settlement of Oxford, suspiciously clearing the path for disregarded son Æthelstan - Mercian educated protege of lady Æthelflæd, to become king. Is it possible that Ælweard had been assassinated by Mercian agents, as part of the same plot which killed King Edward? Immediately and daringly without deferring to Wessex, the Mercian nobility proclaimed their man Æthelstan first as king of Mercia, and then as king of all the English. In doing so they reasserted Mercian dignity, and Mercia's status not as a vassal but the powerful core of this new 'united' kingdom. The new King was still of the West Saxon royal house, as Æthelflæd had been, but crucially, he was now king of the English because Mercia, not Wessex, had made him so. If Edward and Ælweard were indeed killed by a Mercian plot, we might reasonably describe the succession from Edward to Æthelstan, and the emergence of England, as a minor Mercian coup. Æthelflæd, Ælfwyn, and the annexation of Mercia itself had been avenged.
The Tragic Glory of Æthelflæd
Herbert, Kathleen. (1997) ‘Peace-Weavers and Shield-Maidens.’ Women in Early English Society
Swanton, Michael J. (1998). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Routledge.
Klimek, Kim (2013). Aethelflaed: History and Legend. Quidditas, 34(1), 2.
Giles, J. A. (Ed.). (1912). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. G. Bell and sons, Limited. [Online] [Url=https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Anglo-Saxon_Chronicle_(Giles)] (Accessed 18/02/2022)
Killings, Douglas B. (1996) Ebook of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Project Gutenberg) Translation by Rev. James Ingram (London, 1823) with additional readings from the translation of Dr. J.A. Giles (London, 1847). [Online] [Url=https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/657] (Accessed 18/02/2022)
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle B / The Abingdon Chronicle I / Cotton MS Tiberius A VI ff 1r-35v. British Library, Digitised Manuscript [Online] [Url=http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Cotton_MS_Tiberius_A_VI] (Accessed 18/02/2022)
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D / The Worcester Chronicle / Cotton MS Tiberius B IV ff 3-86. British Library, Digitised Manuscript [Online] [Url=http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Cotton_MS_Tiberius_B_IV] (Accessed 18/02/2022)
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle A / The Winchester Chronicle / The Parker Chronicle / Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 173. Corpus Christi College, Digitised Manuscript [Online] [Url=https://parker.stanford.edu/parker/catalog/wp146tq7625] (Accessed 18/02/2022)