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

Samuel Beckett: the man and his afterlives

Actor Patrick Magee (1922-1982) in Krapp’s last tape.  (MS 11314) © BBC

Today’s post, by guest author and student of English literature Grace McLoughlin, is the sixth and final one in our series revealing undergraduate students’ reactions to working directly with the Library’s world renowned Samuel Beckett literary manuscripts. Again the Library thanks Dr Julie Bates, Assistant Professor in Irish Writing, in the Department of English.

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Writing about writing in Beckett

Beckett observes a rehearsal of Godot. (MS 11409).

Imogen McGuckin is the fifth of our guest blog authors in the  ‘Beckett afterlives’ series. All are students in the Department of English and all have kindly provided feedback on their experience of working directly with the library’s collection of Beckett literary archives. Imogen writes:

For a student of English Literature, the notebook in which Beckett penned ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’ offers an invaluable opportunity to investigate the authorial process behind the novel. At first glance, I struggled to see how anything emerged from a manuscript in which almost every paragraph has been crossed out. Even the front cover exhibits the original title – ‘FANCY DEAD DYING’ later eliminated by several lines of black marker and replaced by ‘IMAGINATION MORTE IMAGINEZ. However, a flick through the pages yielded many examples of the author’s prolific writing – and doodling, both in French and English.

For me, the value of this notebook lies not in what was written, but rather in what was retained and eliminated. Beckett’s imagery, rhythm and process of composition illuminate the meaning of the final text. Following consultation of both the manuscript and the first edition, I suggest that ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’ explores and experiments with the authorial creative process.

Unlike the Ussher Library – my usual library of preference, the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library allows only for you and the text. All baggage – literal and metaphorical, is deposited in a locker outside. My initial scan of Beckett’s notebook revealed that, for the most part, the left-hand pages showed disconnected lines of text and doodles, while the right-hand pages contained paragraphs of prose. For example, on page six the author writes; ‘and for how long, and for what if any purpose’, in a less italicised hand than the paragraphs opposite and partnered by a doodle of a stick-man. For the most part, Beckett’s handwriting is forward slanting – thus, the upright and vertical handwriting on page six indicated a chronological difference between the writing of this phrase, and those opposite. The author’s frustrated and questioning tone, together with his doodle, suggested Beckett was struggling creatively when he wrote on page six.

Beckett doodling. (MS 11223 p.6 ).

Further investigation of Beckett’s doodles made me wonder if, like me, Beckett was left-handed. I noticed the positioning of his drawings matched those in my own jotter. When left-handed, it is more comfortable to write on left-hand pages as those on the right involve uncomfortably resting your palm on the binding of the notebook. I briefly felt I had insight to a human side of Beckett. Sadly, while there are many references to Beckett’s cricketing prowess as a left-handed batsman, (and sometimes bowler), he was in fact right-handed.

The author’s floating lines, doodles and eventual paragraphs remained in my thoughts when I read the first edition of ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’. In the novel, Beckett’s syntax and punctuation manipulate the reader’s speed and flow. One example of this can be seen on:

‘It is possible too, experience shows, for rise and fall to stop short at any point and mark a pause, more or less long, before resuming, or reversing, the rise now fall, the fall rise’.

Here, the author’s rhythm and punctuation mirror the wording: after ‘mark a pause’ he inserts a comma, thus forcing his reader to pause. Furthermore, ‘the rise now fall, the fall rise’ causes the voice’s intonation to drop for the first half and rise on the second. The beginnings of this syllabic specificity are apparent on page eight of the manuscript, where he experiments with the words ‘… ne pas trop …’, by numbering them ‘9, 10, 11′ after their syllabic order. These then become ’11, 12, 13’ as Beckett inserts the word ‘tout’. The author’s study of syllables as seen in his notebook suggest he intended to manipulate his reader in the final version.

The central aspect of ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’ is the ‘plain rotunda, all white in the whiteness’. Through this image, Beckett explores a binary of light and dark which is continued by, ‘light and heat come back, all grows white and hot together, ground, wall, vault, bodies, say twenty seconds, all the greys, till the initial level is reached whence the fall began’. The rotunda through its whiteness suggests the untouched paper, while ‘the rise now fall, the fall rise’ describes the lifting and falling of the writer’s pen.

In a letter to Ethna McCarthy, Beckett described ‘the exercise-book that opens like a door and lets me far down into the now friendly dark’ (Fintan O’Toole, “Beckett in Love add link http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/04/02/beckett-in-love/). This concept of light and dark within the page forms much of Imagination’s imagery and is particularly pertinent when we consider how many lines of rejected material fill the author’s notebook. Phrases such as ‘Out of the door and down the road in the old hat & coat like after the war, no, not that again’, suggest an author struggling for new material. The refrain “not that again” appears repeatedly and indicates frustration in the author’s search for original thought. One phrase in support of this theory is “Out of the deathbed and drag it to a place to die in, that again”. The deathbed appearing in ‘Molloy’ and ‘Malone Dies’ is a frequent theme in Beckett’s prose and appears again on page thirty-three of the Imagination notebook. While Beckett’s imagery of light and dark within the rotunda mimics the rise and fall of the author’s pen, the punctuation and syllabic order manipulate his reader. As a result, my consultation of Beckett’s notebook illuminated how ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’ is a text about authorial creation itself.

Imogen McGuckin