Christine de Pizan

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Friday, June 12, 2015

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

Aethelflaed (died 12 June 918)

Aethelflaed was the eldest daughter of the one English king to be known as "the Great," Alfred of Wessex. Aethelflaed's mother was Ealhswith, the daughter of a nobleman in the kingdom of Mercia. The two were married in 868, and Aethelflaed was the eldest of their five children.

A twelfth-century imagined
version of Aethelflad
Aethelflaed's date of birth is uncertain, though some historians put it at about 870 (still others suggest she was born as early as 864, but that does not seem likely, given the date of her parents' marriage).

Aethelfaed was married to Aethelred, the lord of the Mercians at some point between 882 and 887. (Mercia had once been an independent kingdom, but after much of Mercia had come under Danish rule, Aethelred acknowledged Alfred as his lord.)

During the years after their marriage, Aethelflaed and Aethelred had one daughter, Aelfwynn. After a difficult birth, Aethelflaed was reported to have abstained from further sexual relations (or at least this is what the chronicler William of Malmesbury, writing in the twelfth century, claimed).

After the death of her husband, in 911, Aethelflaed ruled the kingdom of Mercia alone as "Lady of the Mercians." Recognized as a strong military leader, tactician, and builder of fortresses, Aethelflaed may well have been the actual ruler of Mercia even before her husband's death. At some point, perhaps as early as the end of the 890s, Aethelred's health had begun to fail, and some historians believe his wife became the effective ruler of Mercia. 

Another imagined portrait of Aethelflaed,
this one from a fourteenth-century
In 916, she led a military force into Wales. After her death on 12 June 918, Aethelflaed's daughter, Aelfwynn, succeeded her mother on the throne--but she was not the formidable ruler her mother had been. She never fully controlled Mercia and ruled for only a few months before being overthrown by Edward, king of Wessex (her mother's younger brother) in December 918.

Although the quality of the audio and video isn't great, you can listen to an engaging lecture by historian Chris Chatterton, given at the 2014 Gloucester History Festival, by clicking here.

Aethelflaed is a character in a surprising amount of historical fiction, but there is no biography. 

Update, 30 April 2023: For some reason or another (or for no particular reason at all), I decided to do a Google search for Aethelflaed and discovered there was much to add to my 2015 entry. Now, nearly eight years after I posted this brief piece, I have happily discovered not one but two great new books on Aethelflaed.

First is a biography, Tim Clarkson's Aethelflaed: Lady of the Mercians (2018). Second, and as of today still forthcoming, is editor Rebecca Hardie's Aethelflaed: Lady of the Mercians, and Women in Tenth-Century England; due in September 2023, the book is a collection of essays that explore "Æthelflæd’s reign and legacy in the context of women’s roles during this period and so challenges a prevailing misconception that the tenth century represents a decline in female agency and power."

The best contemporary source for Aethelflaed's role in the is the so-called Mercian Register, now lost, but parts of which are contained in three versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This material is published as an appendix to Clarkson's biography. (You can also read the passages on Aethelflaed here.)

Also, one last note: the Wikipedia entry on Aethelflaed, by Dudley Miles et al. is outstanding. It is a peer-reviewed article, first submitted to WikiJournal of Humanities (click here).

BL, Cotton MS Tiberius Bi,
showing incorporated material of
the Mercian Register

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