Remembering Aethelflaed

Aethelflaed of Mercia

Aethelflaed of Mercia with her young nephew Athelstan (a modern sculpture at Tamworth Castle).


Today is the 1097th anniversary of the death of my favourite individual from the Dark Ages.

I refer, of course, to the Anglo-Saxon princess Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians. She was the daughter of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, and sister to his successor Edward the Elder.

Aethelflaed married Aethelred, the ruler of Mercia in the western midlands of England, and joined him in a programme of fortress-building that strengthened his people’s defences against Viking raids. After Aethelred died in 911, his widow became sole ruler and – unusually for a woman in those times – a commander of armies in the field. She led military campaigns in person and achieved several major victories. Working in tandem with her brother Edward, she not only held off the Viking menace but won back a number of conquered territories in eastern England.

As part of her wider anti-Viking strategy, she formed a three-way alliance with the kings of Alba and Strathclyde. This northern and Scottish dimension is one of the reasons why I have long been fascinated by her career. Another reason is her connection with Mercia, my homeland, which she governed and protected during a time of great peril and uncertainty.

She died on 12 June 918, at the ancient Mercian settlement of Tamworth.

I’ve mentioned Aethelflaed here at Senchus quite a few times and, six years ago, devoted a blogpost to her. Last year I wrote about her again, at one of my other blogs. Here are the links to those posts…
‘The Lady of the Mercians’ [Senchus blog, 2009]
‘Aethelflaed’ [Strathclyde blog, 2014]

Her alliance with the Scots and Strathclyde Britons is described in a medieval text known as The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. The passage in question gives an idea of the high regard in which she was held by contemporaries in lands far beyond the borders of Mercia. The relevant passage, with an English translation, can be seen in my blogpost on the Fragmentary Annals.

I also recommend Susan Abernethy’s article ‘Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia’ and Ed Watson’s ‘Aethelflaed: the making of a county town’.

I discuss Aethelflaed and her relations with the northern kings in my book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age (on pages 58-63).

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17 comments on “Remembering Aethelflaed

  1. Susan Abernethy says:

    She’s one of my all time favorites too Tim. Today is a sad anniversary. It’s tantalizing to think what more she could have done if she lived and if she could have helped her daughter rule after her.

    • Tim says:

      Yes, the way her daughter Aelfwynn was deposed from the rule of Mercia looks like a ruthless move on Edward’s part. I sometimes wonder what might have happened if Aethelflaed had outlived Edward, whose son Athelstan had been raised at the Mercian court alongside Aelfwynn. Maybe Aethelflaed would have obtained a sworn pledge from her nephew to not interfere in the Mercian succession on her death?

  2. L.A. Smith says:

    Interesting! Don’t you wish we knew more about these figures from our past? Aethelflaed sounds like a woman to be reckoned with, for sure!

    • Tim says:

      I agree, Lisa. She must have been a formidable and charismatic individual. A few more snippets are known about her, but these mostly relate to her military policies and don’t give a true insight into her character. To me, she seems like an English equivalent of Boudicca (whom we English cannot really claim as one of our own).

  3. Maggie Craig says:

    Fascinating. Shall certainly follow up on those links you’ve cited.

  4. She features in both my novels, The Bone Thief, and The Traitors’ Pit, as well as being the subject of the first case study in my Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge, 2004).

  5. Maggie Craig says:

    I’ll certainly have a look at those, Victoria.

  6. Jo Woolf says:

    An inspiring woman, Tim, and she must have been gifted in diplomacy as well as military strategy. She obviously inherited much of her father’s courage and skill in leadership. Do we know what she died of?

    • Susan Abernethy says:

      I never found anything stating what she died of Jo. But it was obviously a sudden death.

    • Tim says:

      The cause is unknown, Jo, although her death seems to have been unexpected. The Anglo-Danish leadership at York was due to swear allegiance to her, so she presumably expected to be well enough to travel to the city. She was in her forties when she died. Her death has been described as ‘untimely’ and ‘sudden’ (Stephanie Hollis in Amazons to fighter pilots: a biographical dictionary of military women).

  7. Albert Sheean says:

    Thank you for this recent article, Aethelflaed’s name appears in my family tree although I am descended from her brother. I have copied this into a folder of family history documents.regards,Albert Gaines Sheean

  8. If anyone would like to read her story in novel form, please take a look at To Be A Queen. Here’s the HNS Indie Review link: https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/to-be-a-queen/# I’m so glad to see other people talking about this magnificent lady, who seems to have been forgotten by all but a few and eclipsed by her famous father.

    • Tim says:

      Too true, Annie. I’m surprised she isn’t given the same amount of focus as Boudicca, with whom she clearly has a number of parallels. I’m hoping the 1100th anniversary of her death (June 2018) will be marked in a way that raises awareness of her achievements.

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