England in the 9th Century
On 12th June 918, Athelflaed, Lady of Mercia, died in Tamworth, in the heart of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. She was a respected military commander, and a queen in all but name. But who was she, and what was Mercia?
At the opening of 9th century, Mercia was one of the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that made up what is now England. The Anglo-Saxons were the Germanic peoples that raided and then settled in England after the Roman withdrawal in the early fifth century. Four hundred years later, a patchwork of Angle, Saxon and Jutish kingdoms had coalesced into four large power blocks. These four English kingdoms were Northumbria, East Anglia, Wessex and Mercia, the midland Kingdom, from the Old English meaning ‘The People of the March’. Under powerful kings like Offa, Mercia had been poised to dominate all of England. However, dynastic instability, disputed successions and the aggression of a newly empowered Wessex had knocked Mercia from this overlordship.
This period, between 793 and 1066, is also called The Viking Age, and a definition of terms would be helpful. I will use the terms English and Anglo-Saxon interchangeably because, while England did not yet exist as a country, the Anglo-Saxons were referred to at the time as the Angelcynn, meaning the Angle-folk. They were also referred to as Saxons, particularly by the Britons, which meant the Celtic inhabitants of Britain and Ireland. I use the terms Viking and Dane to include the Scandinavian peoples who came as raiders, settlers and invaders to England and Britain from the end of the eighth century onwards. Many of them were not from the Dane-mark, modern Denmark, but it became a blanket term for them among the English. The Anglo-Saxons were also Christian by the time of the Viking Age, and so it was usual to refer to the English as Christian, and the Norse as pagans or heathens, especially as most of the sources for this era are written by literate Christian people.
Old English was the language of the Anglo-Saxons, and at this time there was little standardisation of spelling. As such, the names of people and places had numerous contemporary spellings. I use the ‘Athelflaed’ version, as it is the most widely used and recognisable variant.
The Vikings arrived at the end of the eight century, and small-scale raiding escalated into full-scale invasion in 865, with the arrival of the Great Heathen Army, probably assembled and led initially by the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, to settle and conquer. At the end of five years of ceaseless warfare, East Anglia and Northumbria had been conquered and occupied, and Mercia was but a shadow of its former power. Wessex, the south kingdom, was the last man standing.
Early Medieval Warfare
Before exploring Athelflaed’s life, it would be helpful to know something of warfare in the Early Medieval period. The martial philosophy of this time was built around the infantryman. Archery was used for hunting and skirmishing, and horsemanship was a much-prized skill for scouting and carrying messages, but neither cavalry nor dedicated missile infantry existed on the battlefield in any systematic sense. The soldiers of both sides made great use of throwing axes and javelins, but these would be thrown before the sides closed with each other; the aim was to disrupt the shield-wall. This was the famous formation of the period, having both defensive and offensive uses. The large round shield could be used as both protection and weapon. This was an era of the spear and the axe, and for the Anglo-Saxons, the saex knife, a straight-bladed, single-edged weapon that could be used in extreme close-quarters, stabbing over or under a shield. Indeed, this weapon was so distinctive that it gave us the name ‘Saxon’, meaning the people of the knife.
A reproduction of a saex or scramasax, the fighting-knife of the Anglo-Saxons. The original was found in the Thames in the 19th century.
Swords were prestige weapons, used by professional warriors and worn as symbols of status and wealth. They were single-handed cutting and stabbing weapons, straight-bladed and double-edged, and both their manufacture and use were highly-sophisticated. Chainmail or scaled mail was the prestigious warrior’s armour of the day, and lower-status soldiers would use leather, cloth, lamellar or padded armours. In contrast to Hollywood’s depictions, everyone on an early medieval battlefield wore a helmet or some sort of head protection.
The body of English armies were made up of fyrd soldiers, which were the armed companies of a county, under the control of an Ealdorman, who was responsible for raising the fyrd in times of war. It was demanded that a man of fighting age, equipped, trained and provisioned, be provided from a certain unit of land. Fyrd service was normally for a stated time, after which time the army would return home to bring in the harvest and do other vital work for a largely agricultural population. Strengthening these fyrds were the thegns (pronounced ‘thanes’). These were men of moderate influence and wealth, often literate, who could afford better armour and weapons, and were the full-time, professional soldiers of a king or ealdormen’s retinue.
Similarly, they made no use of siege towers or catapults. They did not think in terms of storming walled settlements, preferring to fight out in the open, shield-wall to shield-wall. It is rare to hear about the storming of a defended settlement, and this was only done against an enemy that was weakened, depleted or distracted. This will be important for Athelflaed’s story, as we shall see.
Athelflaed was probably born in 871, the first child of Alfred and Aelswith, who was herself Mercian. Alfred was an Atheling of Wessex, the Anglo-Saxon term meaning literally ‘noble one’, referring to a male of sufficiently noble birth or influence to be considered for the throne. For Anglo-Saxons, rule did not pass automatically from father to son, or to the closest male heir. This model of monarchical succession, called primogeniture, was a continental idea that came to England later.
In April 871, Alfred was chosen to be King after his brother Ethelred died, probably from wounds received at the battle of Ashdown in January of that year. History would know Alfred as Alfred the Great, but for the first six years of Athelflaed’s life, her father was engaged in continual warfare, until the winter of 877. The Vikings broke the terms of a truce, and launched a surprise attack into Wessex. They assaulted Alfred’s estate at Chippenham at Christmas, probably hoping to kill or capture this stubborn Saxon king, and knock out the last unconquered Anglo-Saxon kingdom with a single blow.
However, Alfred and his family miraculously escaped, and were forced to flee. Alfred found refuge in the marshes of Athelney, and the Vikings annexed or received submission from large sections of Wessex. His options looked be exile, death or capitulation, but Alfred chose to fight. Ealdormen and those loyal to him started a campaign of resistance, which culminated in him summoning the fyrds of three counties, and winning the battle of Edington in the spring of 878, taking back his kingdom on the edge of a sword. Sometime between the battle and 881, a treaty was signed, dividing England roughly in half, with the old Roman Road of Watling Street as the border between the Anglo-Saxons and the Danelaw, the name given to the Danish territories.
The division of England after the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, sometimes referred to as The Treaty of Wedmore
Marriage, Invasion & Rebellion
Alfred at once embarked on an ambitious program of military, social, religious and educational reform. He was a skilled diplomat, and in the mid-880s, Athelflaed was given in marriage to Ethelred, the most influential of the remaining Mercian ealdormen. He is sometimes referred to as the Lord of Mercia, and he had been a focal point and leader for Mercian resistance to the Vikings. Alfred’s wife was Mercian, and it made sense to keep the two kingdoms united.
Until recently, it was assumed that Mercia, lacking a king or even a complete kingdom, was a minor partner, and that Wessex was the dominant power in the campaign. However, scholarship is now taking a more balanced view. Undoubtedly, it was Wessex’s soldiers that had broken the shield-wall of the Dane-horde at Edington, and it was her king, Alfred, who had led the campaign. But there is now a broad consensus that without Mercia’s soldiers and resources, and without the leadership of Ethelred and Athelflaed, the vision of England could not have been realised.
Alfred and Ethelred had learned well the lessons of other kingdom’s failures. They realised that the Vikings enjoyed three main advantages, which we may term mobility, invulnerability and capability. They used their shallow longships to strike up rivers and along coasts with terrifying speed. The water table was much higher in the 9th century, and most of England’s settlements were on rivers or by the sea. They struck hard and fast before fyrd armies could be gathered to meet them. They also struck from overseas, meaning that their vulnerable villages, support and supplies could not be attacked, and they were experts at living off the land, meaning they had no need to burden themselves down with wagons of supplies.
An artist’s impression of a small burh-fortress
But Alfred now turned these advantages against the Vikings. He and Ethelred began building burhs, which were fortified towns with a permanent garrison and well-supplied with food and store of arms, hence the modern English word ‘borough’. These acted as marshalling stations and places of refuge, but crucially it meant that, when Viking armies raided into Mercia and Wessex, they had a line of garrisoned strongholds between them and their line of escape. Alfred also reformed the way that fyrds were mustered, meaning that armies could be kept in the field almost indefinitely, as smaller, more mobile forces were rotated on shorter terms of service. They built bridges and burhs covering river estuaries, and learnt to manoeuvre between Viking raiders and their ships. With the countryside stripped of provisions and cut off from their ships, the raiding armies could by surrounded and starved, and then bought to battle by two or more Wessex-Mercian armies working in concert. However, perhaps the most important psychological change was that the Vikings had settled in England. At a stroke, they were vulnerable. For so many years, they had been able to strike at Anglo-Saxon communities without fear of reprisal, but now the English were able to launch punitive raids into the Danelaw.
However, Alfred was primarily concerned with education, preparation and fortification, making Wessex a secure and powerful fortress from which his descendants could strike out. His single major offensive was the retaking of London in the 890s. Alfred died in 899, and his son Edward, Athelflaed’s younger brother, whom history would know as Edward the Elder, assumed the throne in one of the smoothest transitions in Anglo-Saxon history.
The first challenge to the security of Mercia and Wessex came in 902. Ethelwold, the son of Alfred’s brother, had been too young to rule at the time of his father’s death, and he had never forgotten what he saw as a deliberate snub. With little support inside Wessex or Mercia, he allied himself with the Vikings. He led an invasion of Wessex from East Anglia, and there was a game of cat and mouse between the invaders and the defenders until the Ealdorman of Kent, who had probably disobeyed orders to withdraw, fought Ethelwold’s host in the bloody battle of the Holne. That battle, though a tactical loss for the English, counted Ethelwold in its dead, along with several Norse warlords. However, what this campaign really demonstrated was that a hostile army could be isolated and outmanoeuvred within the network of burhs. It was the first test of Alfred’s reforms without his hand to guide events.
Unfortunately, the sources are mostly quiet about Athelflaed in the twenty-year period between her marriage and her assumption of greater influence. Our main source is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which tells the story from Wessex’s point of view. However, we know that Ethelred and Athelflaed had one daughter, Elfwynn, and that while Ethelred was militarily active against the Vikings across Watling Street, Athelflaed assumed the mantle of domestic rule. She built fortresses and appears often in charter evidence, showing her close involvement with the life of Mercia as it regrew and strengthened. She knew well that winning a kingdom by the sword is one thing, and safeguarding it through wise government quite another.
However, other sources give us information about her reign, and she steps increasingly back into the spotlight from the mid-900s onwards. Irish annals give us some critical information. In 906 or 907, Ethelred fell ill with an unknown illness that would eventually claim his life, and significantly, Athelflaed increasingly assumed control of Mercian forces. In 907, Chester was refortified, probably on Athelflaed’s orders. It was strategically vital, controlling both the Dee and Mersey rivers and sitting at the junction of Welsh, Mercian and Northumbrian influence. This bought a response from a combined army of Norwegians and Irish Vikings, who landed in force and demanded that the city surrender to them, or be destroyed. Athelflaed however, came up with a plan. Feigning retreat, the Mercian forces fled into the city, and the Vikings pursued. However, concealed behind the walls where what the sources call a troop of horsemen, which probably refers to thegns. The gates closed behind the Vikings, and they were slaughtered inside the walls with nowhere to run. Alfred knew how to counter the Vikings, but Athelflaed was learning how to trick them, and how to turn this typically Viking cunning against them.
The following year, 910, Vikings launched a lightning assault up the Severn estuary, making landfall near Bridgnorth. They ravaged the land and took great plunder, but like Ethelwold and his allies eight years before, underestimated Wessex and Mercia. A combined English army outmanoeuvred them in the field, and they were forced to try and flee north into Northumbria. However, the burhs barred their way, and they were bought to battle by the combined Mercian and West Saxon host at Tenttenhall. In the ensuing carnage, many thousands of Danes were killed, including two kings and many earls. It was another test of the system of defence, and it was a spectacular success. By this time Ethelred was in the last stages of his illness, and it is likely that it was Athelflaed who led the soldiers in the field.
Southern England in 910AD, showing the site of Tettenhall; a Viking army destroyed as they fled north towards the border.
Lady of the Mercians
In 911, Ethelred died. He was buried in Gloucester, and alone of all the kingdoms in all the centuries of Anglo-Saxon rule in England, a woman assumed the reins of power. She quickly became known as Myrcna Hlaefdige, ‘Lady of the Mercians’. This was the result of a combination of unique circumstances, and one of the most remarkable personalities in Early Medieval history.
She could never have governed without popular support, and the appellation Lady of Mercia, seems to have come from within Mercia itself. The witan of Ealdormen and the soldiers accepted her rule quickly. She had a dynastic link to Edward of Wessex, but her mother’s Mercian ancestry gave her enough credibility not to be seen as merely a stooge of Wessex. Ethelred had died leaving no close male heir or successor. The kingdom, though growing in strength, needed stability above all else, and a succession crisis could have destroyed all the work of Alfred and Ethelred. Popular, wise and courageous, Athelflaed was the obvious choice. She was as devout as her father, and a keen patron of the church.
A fascinating period of history now began, where Edward of Wessex and Athelflaed of Mercia began a joint campaign, striking ruthlessly at their enemies with surgical skill. They rarely combined forces, but the efficiency and effectiveness of their campaigns indicates a high level of strategic cooperation and sharing of information.
Barely a year had passed before Athelflaed, at the head of her army, built burh-fortresses at Bridgnorth and Stafford, on the border with the Welsh kingdoms. She had learnt the lessons of Tettenhall, and was determined to deny the Vikings the use of the Severn River. She could also count on the military support of the Welsh, who provided tributary payment and oaths of fealty. With the western border secure, Athelflaed turned her eyes to the Five Boroughs. These were the powerful and influential fortified towns of Derby, Leicester, Nottingham, Stamford and Lincoln, which had been in Viking hands since the early 860s. In those days, the area known as the Wash covered a vast area of marsh and fenland. As such, recapturing the Five Boroughs would slice the Danelaw in half, cutting East Anglian Vikings off from Northumbrian support, and allowing Northumbria to be faced without an enemy on the English flank.
She started by building a fortress at Tamworth, which was as much a political statement as a military one. Episodes like this show her consummate flair for political theatre, for this was not only the historic capital of Offa, Mercia’s most prestigious king, but it controlled the Tame River and traffic along Watling Street. Her action was deliberately provocative, and the reaction was swift; an army under a collaboration of earls launched an attack into Edward’s Wessex, hoping to exploit the weaknesses of his unfinished burh forts in Cambridgeshire. This historically Mercian province had been surrendered to Alfred by Ethelred only a few years before. However, the Viking’s attack was not only typical, it was utterly predictable. Trapped behind a line of garrisoned fortresses and laden with loot, they were annihilated by the local fyrd.
The following year, 914, The Lady of Mercia moved north with her army, and built a new fortress near Chester, placing a further choke on the Dee and Mersey estuaries, and advancing Anglo-Saxon influence to the very borders of Northumbria. A Viking force from Ireland raided South Wales and moved to strike into the underbelly of Mercia. The Lady of Mercia was north, they reasoned, the homelands would be empty of troops and ripe for rapine and pillage. But they had underestimated the sophistication of the English machinery of government and defence. Alerted by activity on the Welsh coast, local forces again mobilised, and defeated the invaders. This aptly demonstrated that Wessex and Mercia had the power and resources to muster highly capable local defence forces even when their ruler was on campaign elsewhere.
In 915, Athelflaed instigated another program of borough fortresses, taking more and more land from former enemies along the Welsh border and guarding the rivers that flowed out of Mercia. With her typical diplomatic skill, she would often grant the lands around these newly reconquered territories to her thegns. This bonded them to her in loyalty and gave them a vested interest in protecting those lands from incursion.
The following year, 916, there is an episode which is another interesting window into Athelflaed’s character. A Mercian abbot under Athelflaed’s protection was travelling through Welsh kingdom of Brycheiniog with his retinue, when he was set upon and killed, presumably by rebels hostile to Mercian influence. Athelflaed immediately summoned the king, Tewdr, to appear before her. He ignored the summons, perhaps assuming on the toothlessness of a female ruler. He was quickly to realise how mistaken he was. Athelflaed led an army into the area in person, razed the king’s fortress to the ground, and secured his submission by force. Interestingly, Tewdr appears as a witness to the charters of later king Athelstan, illustrating that Athelflaed’s firm hand secured a lasting peace.
The line of Wessex and Mercian burhs crept north and east, and enemy counter-attacks were increasingly sporadic and disorganised. Edward of Wessex had been fighting a rapidly-moving war against the Vikings in East Anglia, and Viking rulers, once so feared across Europe, opened their gates and offered submission to Edward or Athelflaed rather than face them in battle.
In 917, Athelflaed’s campaigning reached its offensive maturity. In that hot summer her armies crossed over into Danish territories en masse. Their target was the city of Derby, a Viking fortress and centre of influence. The marching companies of spearmen would have visible to the horizon, and their enemies would have known they were coming. Athelflaed was, as always, striking at precisely the moment when her enemies were weakest. They were reeling after having been repulsed by Edward further south, and the Mercian Register reports that, ‘Athelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, with the help of God, before 1st August obtained the borough that is called Derby with all that belongs to it, and there also four of her thegns, who were dear to her, were slain within the gates’.
This account, though brief, is telling. Thegns were not high nobility; they owned land and wealth enough to arm and armour themselves with chainmail and swords, but they were not often of especially high rank. It is a poignant detail that someone as high status as Athelflaed should be close to these warriors. It suggests a leader who led from the front and knew the ordinary men who were sworn to her service. The mention of God is interesting, because as a Christian people, the Anglo-Saxons of this time attributed loss or victory often to the grace or displeasure of God. This mention of divine assistance may well highlight how bitter and uncertain the struggle had been. This was the first direct English offensive against a stronghold held by the Vikings, and it had been a stunning success.
Edward was quick to capitalise on his sister’s momentum, capturing the fortress at Colchester, and trusting to the borough-garrison at Maldon in Essex to defeat a counter-strike. Athelflaed returned to the offensive after the passing of winter, and in 918, her army advanced to Leicester, ravaging the countryside and surrounding the fortress. But the ruler could see the writing on the wall, and opened the gates to her, surrendering without a fight. Emboldened, Edward captured Stamford in May 918, and we see these two campaigns working in seamless tandem once again.
By now, the Vikings of Northumbria, weakened by constant dynastic conflict, recognised that it was only a matter of time before the Lady of Mercia and Edward of Wessex would turn their eyes north. They sent emissaries to Athelflaed, promising submission and the swearing of oaths to her personally, along with fealty and the provision of hostages. It looked to be the zenith of an incredible career.
The plaque to Athelflaed and Ethelred in Gloucester, which was refortified as a Burh, or fortress-town
The Legacy of the Lady
But then, sadly, at the age of 46 or 47, Athelflaed died, on the 12th June 918. Given the widespread reporting of her death in Norse, Saxon, British and European sources without any adverse commentary, it seems likely that it was a natural death. Her passing was widely grieved by her people and the annals of Ulster refer to her as, ‘The most-famous Queen of the Saxons’. She died feared, respected, and loved in equal measure.
Without her leadership it is doubtful that Mercia would have presented an effective resistance to the Danes. Although ‘what if’ history is ultimately fruitless, it is my opinion that a squabble amongst the nobles in 911 would have set the stage for major setbacks, and even the reoccupation of Mercia by the Danes. She deserves to be remembered as an English hero, and a distinctly Mercian one. The midland counties of England can rightly be proud of her. Like all children, she showed a combination of her inherited traits and her own force of character. From her mother came her love for Mercia and a deft political touch; from her father came an iron will, devout faith and shrewd judgement, and from her own personality came the warrior’s natural cunning and a deep concern for her people.
The statue of Athelflaed and the boy Athelstan in Tamworth
Sadly, her daughter did not assume governance of Mercia after her death as she had wished. Elfwynn did not have her experience, and the political situation was very different than in 911. Edward, after mourning his sister and attending her burial, took control of Mercia. When he in turn died, he was hailed as King of the West Saxons and the Mercians, or as King of the Anglo-Saxons. He continued his sister’s campaign, but it would be his children and their successors who would complete the creation of England. Indeed, Athelflaed’s greatest legacy lay with Edward’s son by his first marriage, a boy named Athelstan (it was common in that time for Kings to marry more than once, though not polygamously. Edward himself married three times). On Edward’s second marriage, Athelstan was sent to Mercia to be raised by his uncle Ethelred and aunt Athelflaed. The statue of Athelflaed in Tamworth, pictured above, shows the boy Athelstan at her side, highlighting this touching relationship between aunt and nephew. We may view this exile as cruel, but by the standard of the times, it was very usual for the children of noble or royal birth to spend many years in the households of close kin for their training and education. Thus, Athelstan learnt his statecraft in the Mercian court, and he would become, in time, the first King of England. Significantly, when Edward died, Athelstan was almost immediately acclaimed king by the Mercian nobility. This is persuasive evidence that he had had fostered strong relationships among them.
Until recently, Athelflaed had faded into near obscurity, known only to scholars and readers of Early Medieval history, but she has received something of a renaissance. New archaeology and historical research, coupled with a rising public appetite for all things Saxon and Viking, has at last returned this great lady to some prominence among the pantheon of English heroes.
Her most obvious portrayal has been as a main character in The Last Kingdom from season two onwards, where she was portrayed by the actress Millie Brady. Her performance is an excellent one, combining strength and vulnerability. I have used an image from that show as the banner image for this article. However, the chronology and history of the show should be taken with a pinch of salt, as Bernard Cornwell admits, he is telling a story, not writing a history book. The greatest liberty is probably Athelflaed’s love affair with the protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg. However, the Anglo-Saxons loved nothing more than a ripping good yarn, so I can forgive the showrunners for that.
But to close this article, there is another representation of Athelflaed in fiction which I find more compelling, and that is in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In the second book, we meet the Rohirrim, a kingdom of warriors whose language and culture are based on Anglo-Saxon England, and particularly, we are introduced to the Lady Eowyn, niece to King Theoden and sister of Eomer, a great warrior. Tolkien had a love for the Mercian kingdom that grew from his life in the English midlands, and he describes Eowyn in this way: ‘Slender and tall she was in her white robe, girt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings’. One can imagine a diplomat from a foreign court describing Athelflaed in just those terms. Just as Athelflaed assumed the mantle of a typically male leadership, so does Eowyn. When the king and the warriors of his following make ready to leave for war, there is a debate about whom should lead in his stead. ‘There is Eowyn’, says the king’s bodyguard-captain, ‘She is fearless and high-hearted. All love her, let her be as Lord to the Eorlingas, while we are gone’. There is more than an echo here of Athelflaed’s role while her husband took the war to the Danes, and Eowyn even marries the son of a neighbouring kingdom’s ruler, and is given rule of Ithilien with him. Critically, like Mercia, Ithilien is a border province, facing the mountains of Mordor. Her fate also befits that of Athelflaed, who led her armies in war, for in the climactic battle before Minas Tirith, it is Eowyn who stands faithfully by the body of her fallen king. For Tolkien, who redeemed so many Anglo-Saxon themes and characters in his work, this was his tribute to the first child of Alfred the Great of Wessex; Athelflaed, Lady of Mercia.
Miranda Otto’s portrayal of Eowyn in The Two Towers, image property of New Line Cinema