19 March 2012

Women Who Ruled: Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

By Heather Domin

Ask someone to name some notable early British queens, and you’ll get a lot of Boudiccas, Matildas, and Eleanors. One name you probably won’t hear is Æthelflæd, who ruled the kingdom of Mercia for over a decade in the tenth century. Maybe a lot of people still don’t know about Æthelflæd; maybe they just have a hard time typing her name. (Æthelflæd? Ælfled? Ethelfleda? Oh, you madcap Anglo-Saxons.) But from what we do know of her, it’s clear that she deserves a spot on any list of great English queens.

Æthelflæd was the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, and she proved to be a chip off the old block and then some. In her teens she was wed to Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, to seal the alliance between Mercia and Alfred’s kingdom of Wessex. Her brother Edward inherited Alfred’s crown, but Æthelflæd claimed the Mercian throne – first as Æthelred’s queen, then in her own right as his health declined. When Æthelred died in 911, Æthelflæd succeeded him as Lady of the Mercians.

Æthelflæd was no regent or temporary throne-filler – she was the crowned ruler, a queen regnant in practice if not in title. It’s unclear exactly how many years she ruled while her husband still lived (some estimate a full decade), but after his death she reigned alone for 8 years. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes her as having “rule and right lordship over the Mercians the fact that she gets a mention at all says a lot about Æthelflæd’s credibility and capability as leader in her own right.

Æthelflæd was a capable administrator – founding abbeys, building towns, and renovating Roman infrastructure – but her true claim to fame was as a fearsome military tactician. Working in partnership with her brother Edward, Æthelflæd drove back the encroaching Danes in battle after battle, victory after victory, often leading her armies onto the field herself. (One legend has her single-handedly killing a raiding party of Vikings on her way to her wedding!) When she took York in 918, its leaders swore fealty to her as their liege overlord, as did all the other cities she conquered on her own, spanning from Northumbria to Wales.

When she died sometime around 918, Æthelflæd left her crown to her daughter Ælfwynn. But Uncle Edward didn’t share the same partnership with Ælfwynn that he had with her mother – after a year or so he bumped Ælfwynn off her throne and absorbed Mercia into Wessex once and for all (incidentally creating England while he was at it, but hey). Some believe it had been Æthelflæd’s intention to unite her kingdom with her father’s after she was gone, but the fact that the merger did not occur during her lifetime speaks volumes about the strength, independence, and all around bad-assery of this formidable woman. Æthelflæd might have signed her name as Lady, but she was a great queen all the same.

(Images: painting of Æthelflæd, map of Mercia, statue of Æthelflæd outside Tamworth Castle)

Heather Domin is the author of The Soldier of Raetia, a novel of Augustan Rome and Allegiance: a Dublin Novella.

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