Alfred the Great died in 899 and was succeeded as king of Wessex by his son Edward. At that time the Vikings held sway over much of northern and midland England, having toppled the old kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia. The western part of Mercia still lay under English rule but its leaders now called themselves ealdormen rather than kings and acknowledged the authority of Wessex. When Edward succeeded his father the Mercians were ruled by Ealdorman Aethelred whose wife Aethelflaed was Alfred’s firstborn child and Edward’s sister.
Aethelred assisted his overlord King Edward against the Vikings but fell ill in c.902 and withdrew from political life. In his stead Aethelflaed, herself half-Mercian by blood, became the effective ruler of Mercia. When Aethelred died in 911 the people accepted his widow as their sole leader, calling her Myrcna hlaefdige, “The Lady of the Mercians”. She continued her husband’s anti-Viking policies and supported the campaigns of her brother Edward. Together the siblings built a line of fortresses, running diagonally across England from the Thames to the Dee, to serve as military bases for future campaigning.
Aethelflaed was no armchair general and took an active part in warfare, leading her Mercian warriors on successful expeditions in the east midlands. In 917, for example, she enhanced her reputation at home and abroad by capturing the Viking stronghold of Derby. Her military policies were not, however, confined to the frontiers of Mercia. She was acutely aware of the threat posed by Scandinavian settlements in northwest England – in what are now the counties of Cumbria and Lancashire – and across the Solway Firth in the coastlands of Galloway. But her principal source of anxiety in the North was the powerful Viking warlord Ragnall who had appeared in Northumbria with his warband in 914.
English sources shed little light on Aethelflaed’s northern policy. Their authors were evidently keen to highlight Edward’s successes by downplaying those of his sister. Only among the Celtic peoples were her achievements in North Britain duly acknowledged. According to traditions preserved in the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland she formed a military alliance with the Scots and Strathclyde Britons, her aim being to offer a unified challenge to Ragnall. She seems to have been recognised as leader of this tripartite coalition and, when the allied forces met Ragnall’s Vikings at Corbridge in 918, she either took part in the battle or – perhaps more likely – sent a contingent of Mercian troops. English sources noted her death in the same year, at Tamworth in Mercia, on June 12th. Her brother Edward maintained the impetus of her northern policy and, two years later, he finally secured the homage of Ragnall. This was not Aethelflaed’s only legacy to the North: her nephew Athelstan, a fosterling at her court, may have learned how to deal with the Scots and Britons by watching her methods of diplomacy. This knowledge would have been crucial in later years when, as ruler of Wessex, he found himself facing a powerful Celtic-Scandinavian coalition which included his aunt’s former allies.
I end this post with a brief epilogue or epitaph on Aethelflaed. A measure of the respect in which she was held by the Celtic nations can be gleaned from the Annals of Ulster which noted her death in June 918 by praising her as famosissima regina Saxonum (‘a most famous queen of the Saxons’) while ignoring the passing not only of her brother Edward but also of her father Alfred the Great. The fact that she was singled out for such high praise by the Ulster annalists adds weight to the traditions preserved in the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland.
F.T. Wainwright, “Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians”, pp.53-69 in P. Clemoes (ed.) The Anglo-Saxons; some aspects of their history and culture presented to Bruce Dickins (London, 1959)
Pauline Stafford, “Political women in Mercia, eighth to early tenth centuries”, pp.35-49 in M. Brown and C. Farr (eds.) Mercia: an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Europe (Leicester, 2001)
Stephanie Hollis, “Aethelflaed”, pp.5-7 in R. Pennington (ed.) Amazons to fighter pilots: a biographical dictionary of military women. Vol.1 (Westport CT, 2003)
Joan Radner (ed.) Fragmentary Annals of Ireland (Dublin, 1978), pp.180-1
Alan Orr Anderson (ed.) Early sources of Scottish history, AD 500 to 1286. Vol. 1 (London, 1922), p.402.