Birth: c. 870
Death: 12 June 918
Parents: Alfred the Great and Æalhswith of Mercia
Time for a quick trip back to the first century AD in the earliest days of what would become Great Britain.
This was the time of the Vikings when several Anglo-Saxon tribes populated the mainland. This is the era of Alfred, who would later be titled "the Great" after he united Britain and defeated the Vikings.
One forgotten figure of this era is his eldest daughter, Æthelflæd. I came across her story while reading about the earliest kings of Britain however as her name was just mentioned in a footnote I took it upon myself to go in search of her story. What I uncovered was the tale of a female warrior and national heroine, so I was stunned that I'd never heard of her before, (then again, as I came to see, she appears to have been written out of history which is not uncommon for women of her time).
Before I talk about Æthelflæd, I think it is important to establish some context and make mention of her Father, Alfred who himself defied the odds. Born into the royal family of Wessex (remember Anglo Saxon Britain was not united at this time) he was the youngest son of the King so it was not anticipated that he himself would become King. He was considered the runt of the family and is often depicted as a bookish nerd so no one would have expected him to become the first ruler of a united Britain. Despite the role he'd come to play in history he is also often underrepresented.
During his reign as King, Alfred defeated the Vikings by taking modern approaches to the army and warfare. Once the Vikings had retreated and peace became the norm he was able to focus on education reforms which helped the population to flourish. This included educating his children, both boys and girls. He then helped to bring the various kingdoms together in a union which Wessex, and thus he as the King of Wessex, dominated.
In the 16th century, during the years of the Reformation, Alfred was styled with the title “Great” and to this day remains the only English King to be styled in this manner.
It is possible that her Father's interest in education helped to grow Æthelflæd as an independent female and as she was born during the years of war with the Vikings she gained first hand battle experience on the frontlines.
Her mother was the daughter of a noble Mercian family so it is not surprising that she was married to Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians. For most of their marriage his health was in decline and they had just one child, a daughter Ælfwynn who was born around 888.
As her husbands’ health declined further she effectively took on the rule of Mercia and when he died in 911 she became Lady of the Mercians, a very unusual role for a female during this era but as she was half Mercian (her Mother being Mercian), she was welcomed by the Mercians. She proved herself to be strong and even led her troops into battle against the Vikings.
Her brother Edward held her and her court in high esteem as he sent his eldest son Æthelstan (future Anglo Saxon King) to live and gain tutorage in her court.
In Anglo-Saxon text she is merely remembered as the sister of Edward (who by this time had assumed the rule of the newly united Britain from their Father Alfred), and daughter of Alfred but in local Mercian legend she is well-known as the Lady of Mercians. The fact that her role was played down by the Anglo Saxon Chronicle is likely one of the main reasons why her place in history has been forgotten.
Æthelflæd ruled as Lady of Mercia until her sudden death on 12 June 918. At this time her daughter, Ælfwynn assumed control of Mercia however her Uncle Edward had other ideas and took this opportunity to completely incorporate Mercia into the united Britain. Thus no local lord or monarch would sit between Edward as King of Britain and the Mercian people. This ended the line of Mercian Queens as Ælfwynn was sent away to a monastery.
Æthelflæd's role in history was only properly recognised in recent times. In 2018, on the 1,110th anniversary of her death a series of major events were held in Tamworth, where she died. The first known statue of her was unveiled outside Tamworth Railway Station and is the town’s largest ever piece of installed artwork.
The Ladybird Book:
When I was a kid, I remember my Grandparents having old fashioned Ladybird Books that were fun to read but covered more factual topics than other children’s books such as everyone’s much loved Little Golden Books.
I can’t remember where this book came from but it reminded me of the Ladybird books, even though I didn’t immediately see the tell-tale logo, so I was surprised when I looked closer and found it was actually a Ladybird book but part of their “expert” series which produced easy to read content for an adult audience.
This is a great way to introduce kids & adults to more in depth topics and its great that Aethelflaed has her name in print in her own right.
A quick read that provides more content on her and it was easy to step away from the other book I was reading to take a bit of a deep dive into her story rather than just seeing her name as a footnote or single reference.
The author Tom Holland was featured in an episode of the BBC podcast Great Lives (see below for link) and he speaks with great passion about who he calls the “Mother of Britain”.
Further Reading and listening:
Tom Holland, "Æthelflæd: England's Forgotten Founder", (Ladybird, Penguin Random House, 2019)
"Æthelflæd: The Warrior Queen Who Broke the Glass Ceiling", BBC News, 12 June 2018), <https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-44069889>
Ben Johnson, "Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians", Historic UK: The History and Heritage Accommodation Guide, <https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Aethelflaed-Lady-of-the-Mercians/>
"Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, chosen by Tom Holland", BBC 4 Great Lives, April 2019 <https://open.spotify.com/episode/2JqSL4hLodm9N6PErkQtBR?si=76ef2b43df674657>