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Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians timeline

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Aethelflaed was the only Anglo-Saxon known to have commanded an army. For seven years, the forces of Mercia were led by Aethelflaed, the widow of Aethelred of Mercia and the daughter of Alfred (the Great) of Wessex. We take a look back at the events leading up to, and during, Aethelflaed’s heroic achievements:

867        

Alfred (later ‘the Great’) marries Ealhswith of Mercia. This was possibly a political marriage made in response to the Danish conquest of Northumbria the same year (essentially a defensive alliance between Wessex and Mercia).

868        

Alfred and his brother King Aethelred go to the aid of Burgred of Mercian against a great Danish army that had invaded East Anglia.

870        

Birth of Aethelflaed, eldest child of Alfred and his wife Ealhswith of Mercia. At the time Alfred was the brother of the King of Wessex – Aethelred.

871        

Danes invade Wessex. 

In January, a force led by Alfred and Aethelred were defeated by the Vikings at the Battle of Reading.

At the Battle of Ashdown a few days later, Alfred and Aethelred led their army to victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Ashdown.

Towards the end of January Alfred and Aethelred suffered another defeat by the Vikings at the Battle of Basing.

In March, after a long and bloody battle, Alfred and King Aethelred are defeated by a Viking force at the Battle of Meretun (Marton).

Aethelred died and Alfred succeeded him as Aethelred’s two sons, Aethelwold and Aethelhelm, were too young at the time to effectively rule. 

After the Battle of Wilton in May, the Danes were finally bought off by Alfred on the condition that they immediately left Wessex and didn’t return. 

874       

The Danes force King Burgred of Mercia into exile and take control of Mercia by installing a puppet king Ceolwulf.

Aethelflaed’s brother Edward is born (future king of Wessex, Edward the Elder).

875

Aethelflaed’s sister, Aethelgifu, is born

875 - 876

Further Danish attacks.

877        

Aethelflaed’s sister, Aelfthryth, is born

The Danes enforce the partition of Mercia and occupy Gloucester for some months. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle states ‘{the Danes} … ravaged the kingdom of Mercia… and with one involved movement  encamped  in the town of Gloucester.’ It’s unclear if there was any resistance from Mercian forces to this occupation. Some translations of the Chronicle say that the Danes ‘built booths’ in Gloucester which could represent temporary camp or a trading site.

878        

In mid winter the Danes leave Gloucester and carry out a surprise attack, capturing Chippenham. Alfred is staying at Chippenham at the time and is forced to flee.

Many West Saxon nobles surrender or flee. Alfred retreats but continues to resist from a base at Athelney in the Somerset Marshes. The so-called ‘cake-burning’ legend stems from this period. The legend states that Alfred was taken in and given shelter by a woman who did not recognise him. She asked him to watch some cakes for her but he was so caught up in his thoughts about how to defeat the Vikings that the cakes were burnt. At this point, Aethelflaed would have been seven or eight – presumably she was hiding in the Somerset marshes with her father and mother?

In May the West Saxons defeat the Danes at the battle of Edington – they surrendered and their king, Guthrum, was forced to accept baptism and peace terms. He takes on a Christian name, Aethelstan, with Alfred acting as Godfather.  Aethelstan and his followers settle in East Anglia which is ruled as a Christian – but Danish – Kingdom, subject to new laws known as ‘Danelaw’.

879        

Death of Ceolwulf of Mercia. Aethelred of Mercia becomes ruler of ‘English’ Mercia – the south and the west. He is likely to have been ealdorman of the Hwicce (a former minor kingdom – now province of Mercia – essentially Worcestershire and Gloucestershire). How he assumed rule over English Mercia is unclear but as the most powerful surviving Ealderman he made an obvious choice. Gloucestershire and Worcestershire were probably the most intact and undamaged regions in Mercia following the Danish attacks. At some point after 881 Aethelred acknowledged the lordship of King Alfred.

879-886               

A largely peaceful period – some raids, but Alfred uses this time to fortify his realm, creating ‘burhs’ or forts in key locations across the land – examples that can still be seen today include Winchester, Chichester and Wareham. As the Danes have no siege equipment this seriously limits their ability to attack. This is fundamental to securing the kingdom and enabling the later reconquest of England. Aethelflaed will have seen the construction of and lived in many of these ‘burhs’. The construction of burhs was a policy that she and her husband would bring to Mercia and use to recapture Danish Mercia.

Aethelflaed’s brother, Aethelward, is born in 880.

886        

Alfred captures London from the Danes. However, as London is technically Mercian territory Alfred puts the city in the control of Ealdorman Aethelred of Mercia.

887        

Aethelflaed marries Aethelred at some point between 885 and 887 – she would have been 15 - 17. Aethelred’s age is not known – but he is likely to have been notably older. Some historians think they married in 886 just after the capture of London – it being by way of a political alliance that brought London and English Mercia under Alfred’s control . This was obviously an entirely seminal moment in Aethelflaed’s life, effectively an arranged marriage. The ‘capital’ of English Mercia at this time was Gloucester, which whilst not recorded as a burh, almost certainly acted as one.

886-9    

The only child of Aethelflaed and Aethelred is born - Aelfwynn – a daughter. The exact date is not known, but it was certainly early in the marriage.

889        

Worcester is fortified as a burh, likely on the orders of Aethelred and Aethelflaed.

Late 880s or 890               

The priory of St Oswald is founded by Aethelflaed and Aethelred, probably initially dedicated to St Peter.

890

Aethelstan (Guthrum), dies.

891

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle is begun.

892

Two large Danish Viking contingents arrive, landing in Kent at Appledore and Milton. Alfred enters into negotiations with Hastein, leader of the Viking force at Milton. A settlement is reached whereby Alfred gives Hastein money and treasures and Hastein gives Alfred hostages and swears an oath of peace.

893

Soon after swearing his oath of peace, Hastein takes his army and lays waste to Benfleet in Essex.

894        

While Alfred tries to make peace with Hastein, the Appledore Vikings raid towns in Hampshire and Berkshire. On their return to Appledore they are cut off by Alfred’s son, Edward, who recovers the stolen treasure and holds them under siege on an island in the River Colne. 

Whilst Alfred and Edward are occupied by the Vikings in Kent, Vikings from East Anglia sail to Exeter and lay siege to the city. Alfred diverts to Exeter.

Meanwhile, another group of Vikings march west towards Exeter but are met by an alliance of Anglo-Saxons and Welsh led by Aethelred and the Ealdormen of Mercia, Somerset and Wiltshire at Buttington. The combined Wessex, Mercia and Welsh forces defeat the Danes. 

895

A son, Aethelstan, is born to Aethelflaed’s brother, Edward and his first consort, Ecgwynn.

899        

Death of Alfred the Great. He is succeeded by Edward, known as Edward the Elder, King of the Angles and Saxons (he was crowned in 900 AD)

902        

Aethelred becomes ill and so Aethelflaed increasingly takes charge of Mercia. 

Aethelflaed gives a group of norsemen, led by Inngimund, that had been expelled from Dublin, permission to settle in the Wirral.

905

Inngimund’s Norsemen attack Chester, but are beaten off by Aethelflaed’s forces. The people of Chester are said to have defended the city by pouring hot beer down on the Vikings from walls and when the Vikings defended themselves with shields, the defenders hurled down hives of bees. 

907        

Aethelflaed fortifies the town of Chester – helping to extend English Mercia to the north and giving her control of the lower Dee. This also creates a protected burh to use as a base from which to harry the Northumbrian Danes. 

Aethelflaed founds the Church of St Werburgh. It will later become Chester Cathedral.

909        

A combined West Saxon and Mercian raid into Danish territory recovers the bones of St Oswald from Bardney Abbey in Lincolnshire to St Oswald’s Priory, Gloucester which was renamed in his honour.

910        

At the Battle of Tettenhall the combined forces of Mercia and Wessex defeated the Northumbrian Danes. Many thousands of Danes are killed, including the kings leading them.

The Mercian Register records that Aethelflaed constructed a burh at Bremesbyrig (location unknown) – importantly Aethelred  is not mentioned.

911        

Death of Aethelred. Aethelflaed becomes sole ruler of Mercia – exceptional at the time anywhere in Europe. She does not take the title Queen but is known as the Lady of the Mercians (Myrcna hlaedige). The political circumstances in Mercia at this time are rather unusual as Lord Aethelred died leaving no known close male relatives and any earlier Mercian royal dynasties appear to have ceased to exist or been cooperating with the Danes. Mercia badly needed stable rule and a continuation of good working relations with Wessex. Part Mercian, via her mother and the sister of Edward of Wessex, Aethelflaed had effectively been ruling Mercia since Aethelred fell ill. She provides continuity of leadership and maintains the important alliance. 

In the same year she comes to power Aethelflaed surrenders London and Oxford and all the lands between them, frontier territory at the time, to her brother Edward of Wessex. This was probably a temporary measure rather than a permanent surrender of Mercian territory (later sources still refer to this land as Mercian territory). By transferring it to Edward, Aethelflaed at once gives her brother a land border with Danish territory from which he can attack but also frees Mercian troops from the responsibility of defending that area. It releases the Mercians to go on the offensive in the Midlands.  

912        

Mercia under Aethelflaed captures and fortified Scargeat (location unknown) and Bridgnorth. At the same time Edward is securing land north of the Thames, so the two rulers are co-operating.

913        

Edward is unable to take any offensive action during this period as he is attacked by Danish forces based at Northampton and Leicester. The Danes attempt to drive the army of Wessex out of their newly secured territory – they fail.

At the same time Aethelflaed is attacking towards the heart of the old Mercian kingdom. She captures and fortifies Tamworth, the historical capital of Mercia, and Stafford. 

914        

Further advances and fortress building by Mercian forces. A fresh Viking force (certainly either Danish or Norwegian) sails up the River Severn and invades Mercian territory around Hereford. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that ‘the men from Hereford and Gloucester and from the nearest burhs met them and fought against them and put them to flight…’ Importantly this happened while the main Mercian field army was on campaign further north. It shows that the military reforms of Aethelred and Aethelflaed had succeeded in making Mercia far harder to attack. Later in the year Aethelflaed refortified the iron age hill fort at Eddisbury and built a burh in Warwick – Edward seems to have co-ordinated by building burhs to the east.

915        

Lady Aethelflaed built three further burhs on the Welsh border, including Chirbury, and likely Hereford and Shrewsbury.

916        

Lady Aethelflaed sent an army against Tewdr, King of Brycheiniog (in south Wales) to avenge against the murder of a Mercian abbot and his companions. Her men destroyed the Royal crannog and captured the queen and court. Tewdr survived and made his submission soon afterwards. Aethelflaed probably held the overlordship of at least three of the Welsh Kingdoms.

917        

Aethelflaed captured Derby, a major Danish base. The Mercian register relates ‘Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, with the help of God, before 1 August obtained the borough which is called Derby, with all that belongs to it; and, there also 4 of her thegns, who were dear to her, were killed within the gates.’ (Thegns were the rank below ealdormen and probably acted as senior officers in the Mercian army).

918       

The Danes of Leicester – now surrounded and isolated - surrender to Aethelflaed without a fight. Aethelflaed enters negotiations with the Danes of York (who were now ruled by the unpopular Norwegian pagan Ragnall who had taken control of York in 911 after fleeing Dublin). In the summer of 918 the Danish Christians of York promise to submit to her overlordship, presumably in return for her help getting rid of Ragnall.

Sadly this came to nothing as Aethelflaed died at Tamworth Staffordshire on the 12 June. She is carried 75 miles to be buried at Gloucester in St Oswald’s.

Her death was widely recorded in Britain; being noted in the Welsh and Irish Annals, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Mercian Register. The Mercian Register described her as ‘holding dominion over the Mercians.. …with lawful authority’. The Annals of Ulster refer to her as ‘a very famous queen of the Saxons’.

Aelfwynn is recognised as Lady of the Mercians. However, after some months, Edward becomes concerned that Mercia may seek independence and so removes Aelfwynn, becoming King of Mercia as well as Wessex.  

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