Prior to 927, the area now known as England comprised seven kingdoms called East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex. These had been founded around the 5th century and were largely populated by immigrants from the Germany/Holland area who we now call the Anglo-Saxons (to differentiate them from the Saxons, who were still back in Germany/Holland). These groups did not get along well with one another, with wars pretty consistently waged amongst themselves. Vikings from both Norway and Denmark took advantage of this in-fighting as, starting in the 8th century, they began to seize and take control of Anglo-Saxon land and property. If the Anglo-Saxons would set aside their differences and ally against their common enemies, maybe they could stop this but guess what: they were all too stubborn for that. By the 9th century, five of the seven kingdoms were almost entirely conquered by the Vikings. The only bit not mosty conquered was the kingdom of Wessex. And wouldn’t you know, that’s where this story begins, because that’s the birthplace of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.
Let’s do it!
Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians was born in or around the year 870. Like most of the people in this story, she has a truly wonderful Saxon name: “Æthel” means “noble” and “flæd” means beauty so her name meant “noble beauty”. Her mother, Ealhswith, was a member of the Mercian royal family and her father, Alfred the Great, was King of Wessex. Æthelflæd was the eldest of five children, with one of her younger brothers being Edward (later to become King Edward the Elder).
Æthelflæd’s family were Christians, which is notable for a bunch of reasons but at the moment mainly because it means that they would have celebrated Christmas every year. During the Christmas celebrations of of 878, when Æthelflæd was about eight years old, the royal family was attacked by Vikings! Æthelflæd and her family had to flee for their lives in December in the ninth century in England which was obviously very unpleasant between the marshlands, the cold weather, and the terror of being caught by the Vikings. However, Alfred was a skilled negotiator and later on managed to broker a peace deal with the Vikings such that Wessex was split with Albert permitted to control the western part, with the eastern part absorbed into the Danish Viking lands known as the Danelaw.
The Romans had only been out of this area for a few hundred years and lots of their old fortifications were still around, many of which surrounded towns that the Saxons were still living in. Alfred saw to it that many of these walls and structures were fixed up and new similar ones were built to better protect themselves from the Vikings. These fortified towns were known as burhs (a word that developed into the contemporary word boroughs), and in total, he completed about thirty-three of them. Another important bit of background info is that Alfred really valued education, and set up a national program to encourage schooling for all of the children of Wessex, including his children, and including his daughters. So, although women weren’t permitted to have much power in their own right, Æthelflæd was given the same educational opportunities as her brothers and became very well-read.
But as this was the sort of time and place where noble-born boys inherited titles and jobs while noble-born girls were expected to either become nuns or to marry into useful alliances, in 886 a marriage was arranged for the sixteen-year-old Æthelflæd. Her husband was to be a man with a name so similar to her own that surely it must have to some confusion and/or hilarity on numerous occasions. This man was called Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians. For the sake of clarity, we’ll refer to him just as Red. On the Netflix/BBC2 series The Last Kingdom, Red’s character is shown as around the same age as his bride. This is a great choice for TV viewers who like to watch handsome young actors and prefer not to see very old men marrying teenage girls, but the real-life Red was likely much older than his wife. No matter his age, we do know he was Lord of the Mercians, so let’s take a look at what that means.
The kingdom of Mercia was located in what we’d now consider the middle of England, and it had been one of the more powerful kingdoms until the early 9th century when Alfred’s predecessors as Kings of Wessex had mostly conquered the territory. Remember how Æthelflæd’s mother was a Mercian noblewoman? Her marriage to Alfred had been partly to cement an alliance between Wessex and Mercia against the Vikings. So by this point in the story, Alfred the Great was King of Wessex and Mercia, leaving the day to day rule of Mercia to a Lord. The people of Mercia were very independent-minded and didn’t love that they had been subsumed by Wessex. Through this marriage, Æthelflæd fulfilled the Anglo-Saxon role of a “peace-weaver,” meaning someone whose marriage literally weaves together two groups who had been enemies, making them all in-laws so they hopefully would stop attacking each other. After all, they had an enemy in common: the Vikings!
In 886, the same year that Æthelflæd was betrothed to Red, the combined forces of Alfred and Red were able to re-claim London from the Vikings and make it part of Mercia again. Upon the royal marriage, Alfred appointed Red in charge of London – partly, again, to appease the Mercians but also maybe as part of Æthelflæd’s dowry, like a bonus prize Red would get for marrying her. Whatever the motivation, this all meant that sixteen-year-old Æthelflæd moved to London and, upon her marriage to Red, gained the title she’s best known for, Lady of the Mercians.
As it turns out, becoming consort to the Lord of the Mercians was an incredible stroke of good luck for Æthelflæd. Back in her homeland of Wessex, women weren’t given much political power (e.g. her mother, Ealhswith, wasn’t given the title of Queen even though she was married to the King). Mercia, in contrast, had a tradition of granting female consorts power in their own right. Between Æthelflæd’s Mercian heritage, her role as Lady of the Mercians, and local custom, she was able to have much more power and control than she could have ever wielded back in Wessex. So what if she had to marry an extremely old man who was also constantly ill? Our girl made the most of this new situation.
Æthelflæd may have been just sixteen, but she was better educated than many of the people around her. She had lived through Viking sieges and learned from her father how to be a strong and successful military leader. So, rather than being just Red’s consort, it appears she sort of co-ruled alongside him in a partnership similar to that of the 16th-century Catholic Monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. Æthelflæd also maintained a positive relationship with her father (the King, and her boss) and seems to have been popular enough among the people of Mercia that they accepted their new status as Alfred’s subjects without threatening to rebel. She and Red had one child together, a daughter named (this is a great name, get ready) Ælfwynn — a name meaning “friend of the elves”. There’s a rumor that, following this birth, Æthelflæd declared that she would never have sex with Red again because the result of intercourse was childbirth, and she didn’t want to go through that again. Given that one crucial role of consorts was to have as many babies as possible, if this truly happened then it’s an early clue as to her strength of character. But also, spoiler, Red was ill for many years and the lack of any more children likely had to do with his health, rather than Æthelflæd’s family planning.
When Alfred the Great died in 899, Æthelflæd’s younger brother Edward took over the rule of King of Wessex/sort of King of the Anglo-Saxons, who weren’t exactly united yet, but were on their way. Æthelflæd worked even better with him than she had alongside her father, and together they continued to chase their goal of a single united English kingdom. Her role of peace-weaver appears to have worked out exactly as intended, bringing more power to the united kingdoms against the Viking threat.
In 902, a group of Norse Vikings refugees came to see Æthelflæd with a wild request: as they’d just been kicked out of Dublin and had nowhere to go, could the Lady of the Mercians give them some land to live off of, please and thank you? Bold move, Vikings. This is also interesting because: why did they seek an audience with Æthelflæd rather than with her husband? Answer: because Red was known to have been quite ill for at least the past two years, leaving Æthelflæd single-handedly in charge of Mercia. Nobody seems to have had s problem with this arrangement and, frankly, why should they? Female leaders were acceptable in Mercia and Æthelflæd was super smart, tactically brilliant, and more than qualified for the gig.
Anyway, back to the Viking refugees and their request for land. Æthelflæd agreed to let them stay on some land just outside of the fortified town of Chester. Her reasoning may have been to curry favour with these Norse Vikings so they’d team up with her against the Danish. Viking. But once the refugees saw their new home, they decided Chester itself seemed more appealing than their barren farmland, and decided to try and take over the town. Æthelflæd, who was not an idiot, had been keeping tabs on her new tenants and found out about this plan with enough time to prepare. And prepare… she did.
Æthelflæd had some of her troops wait on top of the town’s fortifications to keep an eye out for the Vikings. When they approached, the Mercians used their height advantage by throwing stuff over the top of the wall at the invaders — things like, allegedly, boiling hot ale they had prepared to strip the skin off of their enemies. But! Once the Vikings realized what was happening, they held animal skins over their heads to shield themselves from being scalded. So then! The Anglo-Saxons threw all the town’s beehives down at them, FILLED WITH BEES, and the Vikings were stung so much that they were forced to retreat and/or die.
BEES, AND BOILING ALE.
Whether or not these specifics are true, and the attack bees stuff only appears in one chronicle so can’t be verified, the fact that someone wrote this stuff down speaks to what a reputation Æthelflæd developed for being both skilled at battle and also super creative with strategies her enemies could never prepare for. In the following years, Chester went on to become a particularly prosperous city — likely due in part to Æthelflæd’s town planning.
In 909, the powerhouse brother-sister warrior team of Æthelflæd and Edward the Elder sent combined Wessex/Mercian forces up to Northumbria to try and retake land from the Danelaw. The campaign lasted for five weeks and ended with Æthelflæd and Edward victoriously re-claiming the relics of St. Oswald of Northumbria*.
*A note on Saintly relics: so basically, these are bits of the decomposing bodies of people who had been saints. St. Oswald was a former Northumbrian King who had been killed by — ironically? — Mercian pagans years ago. For a monarch to be in possession of Saintly relics at this time and place meant that their reign was #blessed because the relics were understood to possess supernatural capabilities. In fact, this was one of several sets of relics that Æthelflæd shuffled around her kingdom, ensuring they were near her and so that everyone knew how #blessed she was. The relics of St. Oswald were taken to an abbey in Gloucester, which was re-named St. Oswald’s Priory in his honour and maybe as a sort of apology for how Mercians has been the ones to kill him in the first place.
The Danish Vikings were obviously super pissed about the Northumbria attack/relic-snatching, so in 910 a bunch of them climbed onto a boat and came sailing down the River Severn for some revenge-pillaging in Mercia. They thought they’d be safe to do so, as Edward was off elsewhere attacking some other groups of Vikings. But! Edward found out about the plan and dispatched his troops to intercept the Vikings on their way back North. He was also able to connect with Æthelflæd, who provided Mercian back-up. All of this meant that the Vikings’ trip back home was unexpectedly interrupted by a joint Mercian/Wessex army, and the ensuing battle became known as the Battle of Tettenhall.
With Edward away and Red sick back in London, it is entirely likely that Æthelflæd led the troops in this battle — even if she was not the leader, she almost certainly would have been present as her symbolic presence would be a rallying point for both the Wessex and Mercian forces. The Anglo-Saxons soundly defeated the Danish Vikings, inflicting thousands of casualties including those of the three main Northumbrian Viking leaders. This victory ended the threat of Danish Vikings in the North, and meant that Æthelflæd and Edward were now able to turn their attention to continuing to pursue their father’s dream: to drive out the rest of the Vikings and reclaim all of the seven kingdoms as a single country.
Shortly after this battle, in 911, Red died, and things become so much more interesting.
Usually when a male ruler died in fbix time and place, his wife would retire to a nunnery and a new man would come in and take over ruling. But that’s not what happened here. What happened was: Edward appointed Æthelflæd the official the leader of Mercia, Lady of the Mercians in her own right. This was a singular event in Anglo-Saxon history as the only time a woman had ever taken sole control of a kingdom and speaks to how much trust and faith Edward had in his super-powerful genius big sister. Æthelflæd was also incredibly popular among the people of Mercia. Removing her from her position may anger them, and it was crucial for Edward to retain the support of the Mercians.
No coins seem to have been minted that had the names of either Æthelflæd or her husband on them during their joint reign, but in the years following Red’s death, silver pennies were minted in western Mercia featuring a unique design different from that of Wessex currency. Presumably, these were Æthelflæd’s brainchild as a way to cement in her subjects’ mind the separation of Mercia from Wessex (even though they were both part of the same bigger kingdom).
With Red now out of her way, Æthelflæd became even more powerful and fearsome. Where her father had struggled for much of his reign with the in-fighting between Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the united front of Æthelflæd and Edward allowed them to strategize effectively and to coordinate their attacks. Both siblings began to oversee the repair and/or construction of more buhrs, not just defensive ones for protection as their father had done but also new ones right on the front-lines to support their aggressive raids into Viking territory. The combination of the siblings’ shared high level of education, experience in battle, and willingness to innovate flipped the balance of power firmly in their own direction.
Her reputation for skilled military campaigning, charismatic leadership and savvy peacemaking preceded her… unfortunately, not as far as the Welsh kingdom of Brycheiniog. In 916, King Hwgan of Brycheiniog heard Edward was out of town and decided to attack Mercia. As a part of this raid, he killed oversaw the murder of one of Æthelflæd’s abbots. Clearly, they hadn’t yet learned that killing Æthelflæd’s abbot was akin to killing John Wick’s dog, because just three days later the Lady of the Mercians showed up in Brycheiniog with revenge on her mind. The Brycheiniog forces obviously surrendered to the terrifying power of #TeamÆthelflæd, and then the Mercians seized the royal fort and burned it down. They took thirty-four captives back with them to Mercia, including the Brycheiniog Queen, because ironically Hwgan himself was out of town at the moment and unavailable to be captured himself. Guess what: don’t kill Æthelflæd’s abbot.
In 917, Æthelflæd and Edward launched simultaneous campaigns in a bold attempt to reclaim more land from the Vikings. It was as a part of this series of attacks that Æthelflæd led her first offensive campaign, which became her biggest success, the Battle of Derby. She attacked the fortified town of Derby when many of its Danish Viking occupants were away waging battle elsewhere. But guess who was around to fight her? King Hwgan — now minus his Queen, his fortress, and thirty-three of his friends — apparently fought alongside the Danes against Æthelflæd. Four of her most trusted nobles were killed, ostensibly by Hwgan’s revenge-fuelled sword. However, when he realized that that Æthelflæd’s side was going to win, he took his own life rather than losing in battle to a woman. Ugh, men. This victory was a massive success for the Saxons, allowing them to annex the entire region back from eastern Danelaw to Mercia.
Æthelflæd’s diplomatic skills were also clearly top-notch as she is credited with negotiating an alliance of mutual protection against the Norse Vikings with the Constantine II of Alba (part of modern-day Scotland) and Owain ap Dyfnwal of Cumbria (part of modern-day Wales). This is likely why in 918, Æthelflæd provided much-needed support to Constantine II against Norse Vikings in the Battle of Corbridge. During this battle, the Vikings were forced deep within the woods at which point Æthelflæd is said to have commanded her troops to cut down the trees with their swords so they could kill all of the Vikings. Which they then did.
Between the bees, the deforestation, and her tally of huge victories, Æthelflæd’s fame and reputation spread so widely that when she pulled up with her troops in Leicester in 918, the Vikings pre-emptively surrendered rather than even attempt to fight against her. This same year, the Danish Vikings occupying the prosperous trading centre of York offered her a pledge of loyalty rather than facing off against her and her troops in battle. This offer basically meant that Æthelflæd could peacefully capture the entire Northern part of England. Very notable about both of these offers is that they were made to Æthelflæd herself, not to her brother Edward (who was the literal King).
Sadly, Æthelflæd passed away on June 12, 918, aged forty-eight potentially of a stroke.
Following her death, Æthelflæd’s body was transported in a procession to Gloucester, where she was buried in St. Oswald’s Priory near her hard-won relics, next to Red. In the only mother-to-daughter succession in English history, her daughter Ælfwynn succeeded her as Lady of the Mercians*. This was also the first of only two woman-to-woman successions, the second of which was when Elizabeth I succeeded her sister Mary I in 1533.
*But this cool moment was short-lived. Ælfwynn took over duties for her mother after her death in June, but just six months later, her Uncle Edward the Elder blew into town, claimed Mercia as part of his new Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and basically kidnapped Ælfwynn back to Wessex where she probably spent the rest of her life in a nunnery.
Æthelflæd’s influence continued on after her death in the actions of her nephew, Æthelstan. Æthelstan, Edward’s son, had been sent as a young boy to grow up in Mercian royal court under his aunt’s influence – probably part of Edward’s long-term plan to ensure the people of Mercia continued to support this royal family as their rulers. Æthelstan succeeded his father as King of the Anglo-Saxons in 924; in 927, he became the first King of a united England. He is remembered as one of England’s most effective monarchs, known for his effective and clever military leadership, keen intelligence, ability to unify people, and skills as a negotiator — all strengths exhibited by his guardian, Æthelflæd, and which he may have learned from her example.
In the 14th century, an Irish chronicle lists her as Eithilfleith, famosissima regina Saxonum (Æthelflæd, most famous Queen of the Saxons), recording the date of her death in 918 as a notable historical event. Hers is the only Anglo-Saxon ruler whose death was mentioned in this source, highlighting how famous and important her reign continues to be understood even centuries after her death. Yet, her name and story have gone largely unsung until recently.
In summer 2018, celebrations were held to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of Æthelflæd’s death in both Tamworth (where she is said to have died) as well as in Gloucester (where she is said to have been buried.)
The Netflix/BBC2 series The Last Kingdom is set in the 9th century, and its sprawling cast includes Millie Brady as Æthelflæd (who is appropriately badass, as evidenced by the gif above where she is saving the day by leading Mercian troops into battle). This series is based on Bernard Cornwall’s Saxon Tales book series, which also include Æthelflæd among its cast of characters. The first book in the series is called The Last Kingdom.
After a long time without much by the way of Æthelflæd biographies, four have come out in the past year. They are: Æthelflæd: Lady of the Mercians by Tim Clarkson, The Warrior Queen: The Life and Legend of Aethelflaed, Daughter of Alfred the Great by Joanna Arman, Founder, Fighter, Saxon Queen: Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians by Margaret C. Jones, and for children/all ages and which has indisputably the cutest cover of all, Æthelflæd: A Ladybird Expert Book: England’s Forgotten Founder by Tom Holland.
I also found lots of useful info in this article written by Greig Watson for the BBC: Aethelflaed: The warrior queen who broke the glass ceiling.
I first learned about Æthelflæd in an episode of the excellent podcast Rex Factor. The show’s hosts have made Anglo-Saxon history come alive for me in a way nothing ever has before, not entirely because now I know how to pronounce all these names that start with “Æ” but not not for that reason. This season, the podcast hosts are going through each of the consorts in English and British history; in past series they’ve looked at each of the monarchs in English and Scottish history.
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter