Æthelflæd: an Anglo-Saxon ‘Queen’ and Viking Nemesis

Detail of Æthelflæd glass from the West Window of Chester Cathedral, by WT Carter Shapland, 1961.

12 June 2018 marks the eleven-hundredth anniversary of the death of the remarkable Æthelflæd: daughter of King Alfred the Great, Lady of the Mercians and – to her Viking foes – ‘most famous Saxon queen’. Her impressive reputation and unique position in Anglo-Saxon England are recorded in two medieval sources housed in the Library, one English, one Irish. Both stand as testament to her enduring legend at home and abroad.

Diagram of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms identified as making up England (Essex, Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, and East Anglia). The kingdoms appear as petals with Mercia appearing bottom left. TCD MS 496, ff. 127v-128

The eldest child of Alfred the Great (d.899) and Eahlswith (d.902), Æthelflæd was born into a fragmented England: Alfred’s Wessex was one of a number of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in turbulent co-existence with the constantly encroaching Viking Danelaw. Alfred, it seems, intended each of his children to play important roles in furthering his aim of uniting the English kingdoms against the Danes, and this was to be achieved through a variety of means: through political power, through property, through strategic marriages, and through religious influence. However, Alfred’s contemporary biographer, Asser, describes a society that did not promote female leadership: ‘The West Saxons do not allow a queen to sit beside the king, nor to be called a queen, but only the king’s wife’. This makes Æthelflæd’s achievements all the more startling.

It is not known where Æthelflæd grew up, although she was possibly raised with maternal relatives in Mercia rather than Wessex. Her marriage to the Mercian ruler, Æthelred (d.911), was a strategic power-play for both her father and husband. Despite being a princess of Wessex, she did not officially graduate to becoming Queen of Mercia, rather she was merely designated the wife of the Lord of Mercia in recognition of Alfred’s overlordship of that kingdom.

Statue of Æthelflæd with her foster son and future King of England Æthelstan, Tamworth Castle grounds, Edward George Bramwell, 1913.

From 910 the Mercian Register of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles records her rise to prominence, possibly due to the fact that her husband became gravely ill at this time. On his death in 911 she assumed the leadership of Mercia apparently uncontested and was identified as ‘Myrcna hlœfdige’ – Lady of Mercia. The language is important, as this was the precise equivalent of Æthelred’s habitual title of ‘Myrcna hlaford’. This indicates that the Mercian rulers’ assembly did not draw any distinction between her authority to rule and that of her husband’s. She led the Mercians so successfully that on her death in 918, her daughter, Ælfwynn, was also accepted as her successor (albeit for only six months). The uncontested transference of power from one female ruler to another was unprecedented, and it would not be repeated for another six-hundred years, when the English throne passed from Mary I to Elizabeth I in 1558.

Annals of Ulster containing the entry for the year 918. TCD MS 1282 f.46v

Æthelflæd was both a warrior and a builder, planning and leading military campaigns against the Danes, whilst also extending her father’s policy of establishing a series of fortified towns or burhs. She either rebuilt or founded the county towns of Gloucester, Hereford, Worcester, Chester, Shrewsbury, Warwick, and Stafford. Militarily, she was a smart tactician, and just before her death the Danes of York indicated that they were ready to surrender to her. By this point the extent of the lands under her influence was rivalled only by the realms of her brother Edward the Elder Burhs and the King of the Scots, Constantín Mac Áeda (d.952).

Æthelflæd in the Library

Genealogy of Alfred, roundels containing the names of Alfred, Edward and Elfleda (Æthelflæd) TCD MS 496 ff.129v-130r

Ætheflæd appears in two sources in the Manuscripts & Archives section of the Library. She is profiled in an early-fourteenth-century diagrammatic genealogy of the kings of England, ‘Summary chronicle of English history from Beorhtric’s accession (AD 786) to Edward I’s (AD 1272)’ (TCD MS 496). This contains the family tree of Alfred in which she appears in one roundel, with genealogical lines linking him to his children Edward and Elfleda (Æthelflæd). The accompanying inscription reads:

Elfleda sapientissima filia eius cum aliis quattuor
Æthelflæd the wisest daughter of [Alfred] with four others.
And, beneath the circle:

Ista Elfleda omni mulierum sapientissima dicebatur, que multum[?] fratrem suum regem ab regnum suum gubernandum per sapientam suam instruxit. Haec nupsit comiti Edredo.
This Æthelflæd was called the wisest of all women, and through her wisdom greatly instructed her brother the king on the governance of his kingdom. She married count Edred [Æthelred].*

The annals of Ulster’s (TCD MS 1282 f 46v) record of Æthelflæd’s death in 918 also reflects her status:

Eithilfleith, famosissima regina Saxonum, moritur
Æthelflæd, most famous Queen of the Saxons, died.

‘Eithilfleith, famosissima regina Saxonum, moritur’ from the Annals of Ulster record for 918 TCD MS 1282 f.46v

 

 

 

 

 

The inclusion of the death of an Anglo-Saxon royal in the Irish annals may have been due to Ӕthelflӕd’s position as an opponent of the Norse-Gael leader Ragnall Ua Ímair (d.920/921), one of the Vikings expelled from Dublin in 902. The fragmentary Annals of Ireland, (Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale 5301-5320) also suggest that she allied herself with Constantín Mac Áeda, King of Scotland, against Ragnall at the Battle of Corbridge in Northumberland in the year of her death.

Neither her father Alfred’s nor her brother Edward the Elder’s deaths are recorded in the annals, but Æthelflæd is referenced in Irish and Welsh sources as a most famous Saxon Queen. Although this title was not technically correct, the scribe’s singling out of Æthelflæd in such a way is in clear recognition of her unique position and the importance of her achievements from an opponent’s perspective.

The Library’s online exhibition, ‘Transmitting the Anglo-Saxon past’ provides further examples of Anglo-Saxon history manuscripts from the Library’s collection.

The Anglo-Saxon world will become the focus of a major exhibition ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms‘ at the British Library from October 2018.

‘Our Aethel’ statue, Tamworth, Luke Perry, 2018.

The cities of Tamworth (where she died) and Gloucester (where she was buried) are both hosting ‘Aethel’-festivals in June and July 2018, www.aethelflaed2018.co.uk and www.visittamworth.co.uk/aethelflaed

Estelle Gittins
*With thanks to Dr Laura Cleaver, School of Art History

What lies behind ‘the Ot’: Treasures of the Otway-Ruthven Collection, MS 11093

Blog post by Shauna Donnelly, Summer Intern in the Manuscripts and Archives Department, Trinity College Library Dublin

Professor Annette Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, fondly referred to as ‘the Ot’ by those who knew her, was a pioneering female academic during the mid-twentieth century in Trinity College Dublin. Her achievements during her time at Trinity marked milestones not just in her own career, but also in the progress and history of women in Trinity, and the increasing possibilities for them in College. The first women students were admitted to College in 1904, with Constantia Maxwell becoming the first woman academic appointed to staff in 1909. Maxwell became the first female Lecky Professor of History in 1945, with the Ot succeeding her in the same role in 1951. Although Maxwell’s role in College’s acceptance of women academics was pivotal, she was not as groundbreaking as ‘the Ot’, as she was known to be shy, quiet, and conservative, accepting the discrimination and limitations placed upon her by her male counterparts.

‘The Ot’, however, was more strategic and ambitious in seeking gender equality in College. She began her teaching career in 1938, holding down year to year appointments until 1951 when she became Lecky Professor of History. 1968 became the high point of her career when she was elected the first female Fellow of Trinity College Dublin, which was a high honour. She also published her so-called magnum opus, A History of Medieval Ireland, the same year. Through means of institutional loyalty, proving her credibility as a top class academic, and gaining the favour of Provost A.J. McConnell, the Ot succeeded further in becoming the Dean of Arts and Humanities in 1969, breaking more ground in being the first woman appointed to that position. Her prolific career at Trinity continued until her retirement in 1981, spanning an impressively dedicated 43 years, during which she contributed to the life of College in far more than just the academic realm. She nurtured the talents of many of her female students, and through establishing connections and gaining the favour of influential male colleagues, she succeeded in changing existing attitudes towards women in Trinity. As a result, women became far more than second class citizens, instead being seen as fully integrated members of the College community and engaging in all aspects of life at Trinity. ‘The Ot’ truly played her part in the “quiet revolution” executed by women in Trinity excellently to yield a lasting impact and legacy.

 

 

 

IMG_5571 (1)

The harp of Castle Otway: a family treasure

 

MS 11093 is a collection of papers relating to the Otway-Ruthven family, from which ‘the Ot’ descended. It offers researchers a unique glimpse into the lineage of one of Trinity’s most pivotal female figures, containing a variety of materials spanning over three centuries from c1642–1974. A preliminary list of the collection’s contents was completed in 1999, but since then the materials have been largely untouched. I have had the pleasure of surveying and cataloguing the full extent of its rich contents 8 years later, unearthing many insights into the rich heritage of the Otway-Ruthven clan. The volume of materials, and their meticulous comprehensiveness, illustrates the Ot’s interest in the preservation of her own family’s history. It is clear that her abilities as a historian were lent to her beginning the collection, as she kept a log book of family documents (which is included within the catalogue’s personal section).

The collection comprises largely of miscellaneous estate papers, giving us insight into the large scale of the Castle Otway estate and its operations. Legal, rental, and financial documentation appears alongside maps and correspondence, while the collection also contains many personal items and memorabilia from different members of the extended family. Through these materials we gain insight into the life, times, and relations of the influential clan, and can decipher how life was at Castle Otway before it was burned in 1922. The Castle Otway harp is a particularly beautiful component of College’s acquisitions from the Otway clan. It is probably the largest and most ornate piece of memorabilia, with a rich and much debated history. Personal items relating to the Casement family also appear in the collection, illustrating the Ot’s connections to and relationship with a famously rebellious cousin, 1916 revolutionary Roger Casement. The diversity and comprehensiveness of MS 11093 provides a full picture of the Ot’s ancestry, and allow us to appreciate not just who she was, but where she came from.

The Ot

‘The Ot’: Professor Annette Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven

 

MS 11093 will soon be available for viewing by Readers of the Manuscripts and Archives Department.

Biographical notes for this post were taken from Salters Sterling’s ‘Memoirs of the Ot’ (2002), published in A Danger to the Men? A History of Women in Trinity College Dublin 1904–2004, Susan M. Parkes, FTCD (ed.), (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2004) pp. 263–267.

 

Crossed lines

 

Portrait of John D'Alton © National Gallery of Ireland

Portrait of John D’Alton
© National Gallery of Ireland

Trinity Library has 279 personal letters of John D’Alton (1792-1867) and his wife Catherine, spanning forty years of married life. Craig D’Alton, who visited us from Australia, is a descendant. In this guest blog, he writes about the value of the published letters to the research community:

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The Michael Davitt Papers in the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library

Carla King, Michael Davitt After the Land League 1882-1906The Michael Davitt Papers, held in the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, are a rich source for historians of late nineteenth-century Ireland. Davitt, a Mayo-born man of humble origins, was one of the leading political figures of the day. He exerted a significant influence over popular opinion, as an author, journalist and public speaker in Ireland, Britain, and internationally. For many years, Dr Carla King has studied this rich collection, in preparation for her newly published study, Michael Davitt After the Land League. Here she reflects upon Davitt’s life, the provenance of the Davitt papers, and the invaluable insights which the collection offers to researchers. Continue reading

Supporting researchers at the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library

Researchers at work in M&ARL

Research in progress

As the end of another busy year approaches, this blog highlights some of the ways in which the Manuscripts and Archives Research Library (M&ARL) supports researchers. It is based on departmental statistics collected during the past five years (2011-2015). These show that the department provides a variety of local and remote services to national and international researchers from diverse backgrounds. M&ARL’s services support teaching, learning and research in Trinity College Dublin, and across the globe. Continue reading