‘Most famous Queen’, an Irish chronicler called her. Her kingdom of Mercia stretched from Gloucester to Northumbria, from Derby to the Welsh border. She led armies in battle and founded six new towns.
For seven years, from 911 to 918, she ruled Mercia single-handed – an unheard-of feat for an Anglo-Saxon woman. Since there was no official title for a lone female ruler they called her simply ‘Lady of the Mercians.’
Eldest child of King Alfred of Wessex, Aethelflaed was cherished by her father and received an education normally reserved for a royal son.
At about the age of nine she received a different kind of education, in the harsh realities of her turbulent times. In January 878 Viking invaders swooped down on the palace at Chippenham in Wiltshire where Alfred and his family were staying.
Aethelflaed became a hunted refugee, along with her family. It was not until May that year that Alfred emerged from hiding, rallied an army to defeat the Danes, and regained control of his kingdom.
Marrying a Mercian
While still in her early teens, Aethelflaed was married off to Aethelred of Mercia, a nobleman from the Gloucestershire area who had pledged allegiance to her father.
The choice was a shrewd one. As Alfred’s daughter Aethelflaed would enjoy power and status within her marriage, ruling beside her husband as an equal. And Alfred of Wessex would be able to keep a careful eye on what went on in neighbouring Mercia.
For the next 25 years what mainly went on was fighting. Aethelflaed’s husband led the resistance to Viking incursions into Mercia throughout the 890s; but as his health declined, Aethelflaed took his place.
If we believe an 11th century Irish chronicler, it was the Lady of the Mercians who commanded when, attracted by the town’s wealth, a combined force of Danes, Norsemen and Irish attacked Chester.
Aethelflaed, it is said, set traps. On her instructions a fifth column of Irishmen tricked the Viking besiegers into laying down their weapons, then killed them. She also orchestrated a faked retreat which led the enemy into a deadly ambush.
When the Vikings attacked Chester, improvised weapons – boiling beer, and beehives – were dropped from the town walls onto the besiegers’ heads. This biological warfare was the final straw and the enemy fled.
Aethelflaed may also have commanded the Mercians at the battle of Tettenhall (near modern-day Wolverhampton), where Viking armies suffered a crushing defeat in 910.
Warrior and founder
After her husband died in 911 Aethelflaed carried on the fight alone. In 917 she besieged the Viking-held town of Derby. It was a bitter battle where according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, four of her noble warriors, ‘who were dear to her’, were killed. But the siege proved successful and the town was brought back under Mercian control.
There was constant warfare in Aethelflaed’s reign, but there was also building. To defend her kingdom from Viking raids she ordered the construction of ‘burhs’ – fortified towns in a network across Mercia, thirty or forty miles apart.
Each was ringed by a defensive wall, guarded day and night. Viking raiders into Mercia could now be stopped in their tracks. It was a strategy pioneered by Alfred in Wessex and carried on both by Aethelflaed and by her brother Edward, now ruling in Wessex
In time the burhs grew into substantial towns – Bridgnorth founded in 910; Stafford and Tamworth (913); Warwick (914); Runcorn, Shrewsbury. Aethelflaed supplemented secular defences with spiritual ones – each town had its newly-founded church or chapel.
While she is justly remembered as a ’Warrior Queen’, Aethelflaed’s lasting achievement is as a founder.
When Aethelflaed died on 12 June 918 her kingdom was growing peaceful and prosperous. The Lady of the Mercians had made herself both feared and respected.
In that last year of her life, Viking leaders in Leicester offered to submit to her rule and there were rumours that powerful Viking leaders in York might form an alliance with Mercia.
Aethelflaed’s only child, her daughter Aelfwynn, now succeeded her mother on the throne as the second Lady of the Mercians. Her brief reign ended however when King Edward of Wessex – her uncle – had his niece deposed and abducted.
Aelfwynn was succeeded by her cousin Athelstan, who had been raised at Aethelflaed’s court. Athelstan ruled over both Mercia and Wessex and would become the first king of a united England.
For centuries Aethelflaed and her unfortunate daughter largely faded from popular memory. Yet in recent years they have been remembered again. The 1100th anniversary of Aethelflaed’s death was marked in 2018 by celebrations of her life in Midlands towns.
There have been historical novels about her recently and three new biographies. The Lady of the Mercians is on her way to making a comeback.
Margaret C. Jones is the author of Founder, Fighter, Saxon Queen: Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians. Published by Pen & Sword, 2018.