Wednesday, 2 September 2009

AEthelflaed: Character in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Series

Æthelflæd (Old English: Æðelflæd, in earlier history works also Ethelfled or Ethelfleda) (870s–918), was the eldest daughter of King Alfred the Great of Wessex and Ealhswith, wife of Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia, and after his death, ruler of Mercia (911–918).

Early career
Æthelflæd is mentioned by King Alfred's biographer Asser, who calls her the first-born child of Alfred and Ealhswith and a sister to Edward, Æthelgifu, Ælfthryth and Æthelweard. By the time he wrote, roughly about the year 890, she was already married to Æthelred, then ealdorman of Mercia.
While travelling to Mercia for her wedding, her band was attacked by the Danes in an attempt to kill her and so sabotage the alliance between Wessex and Mercia. Though half her company perished in the first attack, Æthelflæd used an old trench as a fortress, and defeated the Danes.
They had one daughter, Ælfwynn.

Mercia and the Vikings
During a sustained campaign of repeated attack between 865 and 878 the Danish Vikings overran most of the English Kingdoms such as Northumbria, Eastern Mercia, East Anglia and even threatened the very existence of Wessex. Alfred and his descendants reconquered these lands from the Danes by 937. The aid given him in this by Mercia had to be acknowledged. Instead of making the dominion of Wessex over Mercia seem like a conquest, Alfred married Æthelflæd to Æthelred of Mercia and gave his son-in-law the title Ealdorman or Earl of Mercia, thus allowing some ongoing autonomy. Since much of Western Mercia was never under the control of the Danes, and remained strong, this was a prudent move. Further prudence prevailed when the kingdoms were finally absorbed; they were not absorbed into Wessex or greater Wessex but into England. The term Anglo-Saxon thus reflects King Alfred's diplomatic integration of the Mercians Angles and the Saxons.

Lady of the Mercians (911–918)
While her husband was alive, she signed agreements, leading some to think that she was the real leader. On her husband's death in 911 after the Battle of Tettenhall, she was elevated to the status of "Lady of the Mercians". This title was not a nominal position; she was a formidable military leader and tactician. Æthelflæd ruled for approximately eight years (according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) from the newly fortified capital at Stafford, it is likely that the English county of Staffordshire first came into being during her reign. She fortified her existing borders and re-took Derby. She died at Tamworth in 918, and was buried at St Peter's Church (now St Oswald's priory) in Gloucester, which city (Gloucester) she had reconstructed from Roman ruins, and laid out the core street plan, which is still in existence today. She was joint lady of the Mercians along with her young daughter Ælfwynn.

The dominion of Mercia descended to Ælfwynn, Æthelflæd's heiress. Chroniclers have noticed the right of Ælfwynn so precisely as to leave no doubt concerning her claim; and this fact is of considerable value in showing that, contrary to the practice of other Germanic peoples, the sovereign authority amongst the Anglo-Saxons might descend to a female; or, according to the Anglo-Saxon expression, which the French have adopted, "fall to the spindle side".
However, Ælfwynn was compelled to submit to her mother's brother, King Edward the Elder of Wessex. The succession of Edward the Elder finalised the union of the two formerly separate kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia and gives some insight into the emergence of a unified England.
In this instance, however, the weaker heir was compelled to yield to a more powerful opponent, and one from whom no enmity could have been feared. Ælfwynn was conducted as a captive into Mercia by her uncle Edward, who was engaged in successful warfare against the Danes; and we do not hear anything more concerning her in history. She seems to have lived the rest of her life in a nunnery

Primary sources
Asser, Vita Ælfredi, ed. W.H. Stevenson, Asser's Life of King Alfred. Oxford, 1904; tr. S.D. Keynes and M. Lapidge, Alfred the Great. Harmondsworth, 1983.
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.
Anglo-Saxon charters: S 221(AD 901), S 223 (AD 884 x 901), S 224 (AD 901), S 225 (AD 878 for 915), S 367 (AD 903), S 1280 (AD 904).

Further reading
Costambeys, Marios. 2004. "Æthelflæd (d. 918)." In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.
Wainwright, F.T. 1975. "Æthelflæd, lady of the Mercians." Scandinavian England. 305–24. 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.
Keynes, Simon. 1998. "King Alfred and the Mercians." In Kings, currency and alliances: history and coinage of southern England in the ninth century, ed. M.A.S. Blackburn and D.N. Dumville. 1–46.
Ian W. Walker. 2001. Mercia and the Making of England.
Sir Frank Stenton. Anglo-Saxon England (2001)
Justin Pollard. Alfred the Great: the Man Who Made England (2005)
Don Stansbury. The Lady Who Fought Vikings (1993)
Jane Wolfe. Aethelflaed: Royal Lady, War Lady (2001)
C. Heighway and R. Bryant. The Golden Minster (1999)

Popular culture
Haley Elizabeth Garwood, Swords across the Thames, Bruceton Mills, 1999. ISBN 0-9649721-8-6
Penny Ingham," Lady of the Mercians", a novel about Æthelflæd; self-published 2004.
Rebecca Tingle, Far Traveler, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2005. ISBN 0-3992389-0-5: A semi-fictional account of the life of Aelfwynn
Bernard Cornwell's The Saxon Stories series of books features her, most prominently in Sword Song (2007 ISBN 978-0007219711).
Rebecca Tingle's "The Edge on the Sword" is a story about the teenage Æthelflæd. Chris Kirwan, Chris Kirwan's novel 'Shadowers Crossing'(2008 ISBN 978-0-9558709-0-3) features Ethelfleda's final, successful fortification at Castle Rock, Runcorn, in AD 915.


  1. I notice that my novel Lady of the Mercians is sited on your website under popular culture. Would it be possible to change this entry, as this book is now out of print. My novel was republished this year by Cava Books as "The King's Daughter". ISBN number 978-0-9555997-5-0. Many thanks, Penny Ingham.

  2. Why is Aethelflaed sexualized in the BBC last kingdom? Why have you had her raped on her wedding night? Where is this rubbish about her and Eric Bloodaxe as lovers? Utter rubbish. Typical BBC pandering to the sex crazed modern audience.