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