Aethelflaed: Lady of the Mercians

Written by Tim Clarkson

This biography of Aethelflaed, the 9th-century Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who ruled Mercia, is both an enjoyable read and meticulously well researched. Aethelflaed was the daughter of King Alfred, the wife of Lord Athelred of Mercia and the foster-mother of Athelstan, who later became king. Yet Aethelflaed, uniquely, undertook more than the female roles of daughter, wife and mother in this critical period in England’s history. She was acknowledged by the Mercian witan (all the major noblemen) and by her brother, King Edward, as ruler and warleader of Mercia in her own right during her husband’s final illness (perhaps a decade), and after his death (a further eight years). During her rule, she built numerous fortresses and cooperated with Edward in the reconquest of the Danelaw, the Viking-occupied territory of England. The medieval historian, William of Malmesbury, was amazed that “a woman should be able to protect men at home, and to intimidate them abroad”.

Her achievements went largely unnoticed until an article by F T Wainwright in 1959 and new scholarship resulting from growing interest in the history of medieval women. Clarkson gives a lucid account of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms before Aethelflaed’s birth and the increasing threat from Vikings. He details the Norse and Dane annexation of most of eastern England, Northumbria and York. Clarkson picks his way deftly through the archaeology, place name and chronicle evidence. Putting Aethelflaed’s extraordinary achievements in context, he discusses other Anglo-Saxon women who briefly ruled or led military campaigns, such as the earlier Wessex queens Seaxburh and Aethelburh. Useful translations of primary sources, maps, plans of the burhs, a bibliography and index are included. Interestingly, Clarkson also discusses Aethelflaed in fiction by writers such as Annie Whitehead and Bernard Cornwell. Highly recommended.