1,100 years since her death the Lady of the Mercians, and oldest daughter of Alfred the Great, is finally receiving the recognition she deserves for the part she played in British history and the formation of Britain as we now know it. When we think of a ‘warrior queen’ we might think of Boadicea or Empress Matilda, but Aethelflaed was a shrewd and military-astute ruler in her own right.
Born to Wessex king Alfred the Great and his wife, Ealhswith, in around 870 at the height of the Viking invasion, Aethelflaed followed in the footsteps of the daughters of kings before her when her hand was offered to the much older Aethelred, Lord of the Mercians in a political marriage that strengthened the alliance between Mercia and Wessex. Rather than solely become a wife and child-bearer, however, Aethelflaed went on to prove herself as an accomplished leader and political thinker. In fact Aethelflaed and Aethelred would only have one child, a daughter named Aelfwynn, whose birth was so difficult that Aethelflaed seems to have shied away from sexual intimacy thereafter, claiming, according to chronicler William of Malmesbury, that it was ‘unbecoming of the daughter of a king to give way to a delight which, after a time, produced such painful consequences’.
Before the Battle of Tettenhall in 910, Aetheflaed had already garnered a reputation as a ruler who was prepared to stop the Vikings’ continued invasion of the English-speaking world, refortifying the city of Chester before the Vikings attempted, and ultimately failed, to breach its walls in 907. Danish Vikings had controlled much of northern England for over 100 years, and when they plundered and destroyed large parts of Mercia, believing the Anglo-Saxon forces were further south, Aethelflaed combined her Mercian forces with those of her brother, Alfred the Great’s heir Edward the Elder, and retaliated.
What ensued was the Battle of Tettenhall, in what is now Wolverhampton, on the 5 August 910. Sandwiched between the two Anglo-Saxon forces, the Danes suffered a tremendous defeat; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claimed that ‘many thousands of men’ perished, and the loss of two Danish kings, Healfdene and Eowils, as well as several nobles meant their defeat was the defeat of the last great raiding army from Denmark. Aethelflaed and Edward’s united forces could then turn against those further south, resulting in a rise of allied strength that would eventually unite England under one domestic monarch.
That same year the Mercian Register recorded that Aethelflaed constructed a burh, an Old English fortification or fortified settlement that Alfred the Great was known to have developed a network of to defend his kingdom from Viking raids, at Bremesbyrig.
What’s most interesting about this construction is that it seems to have been Aethelflaed’s alone – the Mercian Register makes no mention of Aethelred. In fact when the aging Lord of the Mercians died a year later in 911, Aethelflaed took control of Mercia as ‘Lady of the Mercians’. Power was secured in Anglo-Saxon England through support from high-ranking royal officials known as ‘ealdormen’, so Aethelflaed was chosen as her husband’s successor over a male heir or even her own brother.
This was the ultimate mark of trust and respect for the woman who faced the Vikings and won.