Category Archives: Kings & queens

Æthelflæd and Wednesbury

Aethelflaed at Wednesbury

“The renowned Ethelfleda, who governed the kingdom of Mercia with so good conduct, fortify’d this Town against the Danes who infested her Nation”
[Robert Plot (1686) The Natural History of Staffordshire]

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A number of places in the western midlands of England claim to have been founded by Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians. One such place is Wednesbury, a town lying between Walsall and Dudley. Formerly in the old county of Staffordshire, Wednesbury is now part of the borough of Sandwell in the post-1974 metropolitan county of West Midlands.

Aethelflaed at Wednesbury

Wednesbury’s position in the West Midlands.

Æthelflæd was the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex from 871 to 899. She was born a year or two before her father succeeded to the kingship. Her mother Ealhswith was a Mercian noblewoman of royal ancestry, so Æthelflæd was half-Mercian by blood. At the time of her birth, the old kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England were under relentless pressure from Viking attacks. Mercia had once been a large and powerful kingdom, its rulers holding sway across almost the whole of the midlands. But in the second half of the ninth century it was repeatedly ravaged by the Great Heathen Army, a huge Viking force said to have been comprised mostly of Danes. Indeed, by the mid-880s only a western rump of Mercia remained under English rule. Its steadfast ruler, Lord Æthelred, continued the fight against the Great Heathen Army. Competent in war, he became a redoubtable ally and trusted subordinate of King Alfred. His loyalty was duly rewarded when, sometime in the mid-880s, he received the hand of Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd in marriage.

Aethelflaed at Wednesbury

Southern Britain in the early 900s.

In the ensuing years, Æthelred and Æthelflæd sought to strengthen their lands against further Viking raids, as well as against the ever-present threat of assault from Wales. They built ‘burhs’ (fortresses and fortified settlements) in strategic locations across western Mercia, often at places that had been important to the kings of pre-Viking times. After Æthelred’s death in 911, Æthelflæd continued the burh-building programme and led the Mercian army on campaign, right up until her own passing in June 918. It is in this seven year period that Wednesbury claims to have been founded by her. Although its name is absent from the Mercian Register – a contemporary record of Æthelflæd’s career in which a number of her burhs are mentioned – this need not preclude a connection. The places named in the Register are unlikely to represent a complete list of all the burhs she founded or re-fortified.

Aethelflaed at Wednesbury

Mercian burhs founded by Æthelflæd: sites identifiable today.

Wednesbury has a long history. The oldest known record of its name comes from 1086, when the royal manor of Wadnesberie was noted in Domesday Book. The name is Old English ‘Woden’s Fort’, recalling the paramount god of the Anglo-Saxons, a pan-Germanic deity whom the Vikings knew as Odin. Woden had been worshipped by the earliest English-speaking settlers in Britain during the fifth, sixth and early seventh centuries, before their conversion to Christianity. It is rare to find his name preserved in a present-day place name. That it survived at all in the post-conversion landscape might seem remarkable, until we note that he was not entirely abandoned by the Christian descendants of the early Anglo-Saxon settlers. Indeed, he was given a new role as an ancestor of kings, his name being included in royal genealogies compiled in the eighth and ninth centuries. Tracing descent from Woden seems to have become a matter of importance for the ruling dynasties of Mercia, Wessex, Northumbria and other kingdoms. Yet it did not compromise their rejection of paganism. The new, post-conversion Woden was not the powerful god of old but a less divine figure whose lineage was now linked to the Old Testament patriarchs Adam and Noah.

Aethelflaed at Wednesbury

St Bartholomew’s on Church Hill, Wednesbury.

The fort of Woden that gave Wednesbury its name is often thought to have originated as an Iron Age hillfort on Church Hill, the high ground where the parish church of St Bartholomew now stands. No ancient fortification can be seen there today but, if it did once exist, it would have been an important feature of the local landscape in the centuries before modern urbanisation. In the 1700s and 1800s, faint remains of old earthworks were indeed said to have been visible on the hilltop. Such claims appear to be consistent with the results of an archaeological excavation undertaken a decade ago, when a large ditch was discovered. This feature seems to belong not to the pre-Roman Iron Age but to the early medieval period, the time of the Anglo-Saxons. It contained framents of pottery that have been dated to the eleventh century, perhaps within a hundred years of Æthelflæd’s death. This raises the possibility that the ditch was first dug in her lifetime, and that it formed part of a fortification that she herself ordered to be built (or rebuilt). If that was the case, then Wednesbury would be one of her unrecorded burhs.

Any discussion of Wednesbury’s early history should also consider that of nearby Wednesfield, another small town lying 4 miles to the north-west. Both places share the same Woden– element in their names and, given their close proximity, it might be more than mere coincidence. Wednesfield, recorded in the late tenth century as Uodnesfeld (‘Woden’s Field’), holds a special place in the history of the Viking Age. In 910, it was the scene of a major battle in which the combined forces of Mercia and Wessex defeated a raiding-army of Danes from Northumbria. The same battle is also placed at Teotaheale or Totanheale, now the village of Tettenhall on the edge of Wolverhampton. Tettenhall lies only 3 miles west of Wednesfield, close enough for us to imagine a battle raging fiercely across the lands in between, with both places caught up in the fighting. Alternatively, the name ‘Woden’s Field’ might originally have referred to an extensive area of felde (‘open ground’) which encompassed Tettenhall and other settlements, including the one that became present-day Wednesfield. If this was the case, then ‘Woden’s Fort’ at Wednesbury might have been so named because it was an important location in the wider district of Woden’s Field, perhaps a prominent landmark. We should also keep in mind the slight possibility that Woden’s Field might have taken its name from Woden’s Fort rather than vice-versa.

Aethelflaed at Wednesbury

Geography of the Tettenhall/Wednesfield campaign, AD 910.

And so we come back to Æthelflæd. In 914, according to the Mercian Register, she built a burh at a place called Eadesbyrig, usually identified as the Iron Age hillfort of Eddisbury in Cheshire. It is thought that she repaired Eddisbury’s ancient ramparts before installing a garrison of soldiers there. Perhaps she did something similar at Wednesbury, refurbishing a long-disused hillfort and turning it into a garrisoned stronghold? Placing a burh in such a location would have been consistent with her policy of strengthening her long frontier with the Danelaw (the part of England under Viking control). This frontier ran diagonally from the Mersey to the Thames and had divided the ancient Mercian lands since c.880. Proximity to the Roman road network was a key factor in Æthelflæd’s burh-planning and we may note that Wednesbury is close to the presumed line of a road running from the major highway of Watling Street. This route took a south-east alignment between the Roman forts of Water Eaton on Watling Street and Metchley near Birmingham, although its precise course in the Wednesbury area has yet to be confirmed.

If the Lady of the Mercians did indeed build a burh at Wednesbury, what did she call it? One possibility is that it might be the unlocated Weardbyrig (‘Watch Fort’) that she built in 915 according to the Mercian Register. A more ingenious theory relates to Wednesfield and the great battle of 910. It has been suggested that the name ‘Woden’s Field’ might not pre-date the battle (as is often assumed) but could have been coined in its aftermath. As both legendary royal ancestor and erstwhile war-god of the Anglo-Saxons, Woden would have been an appropriate figure to invoke in commemoration of a great victory over the Danes. Following the same train of thought, ‘Woden’s Fort’ on Wednesbury’s Church Hill might likewise have acquired its name around the same time, by virtue of being a landmark in a large area that had recently been renamed Woden’s Field. Or perhaps ‘Woden’s Fort’ was coined by Æthelflæd herself as a suitable name for a new burh within Woden’s Field? Such musings might not be as idle as they seem. Some historians do indeed wonder if the Mercian soldiers who fought in the Tettenhall/Wednesfield campaign were led not by Lord Æthelred – who appears to have been seriously ill at the time – but by his wife. Did Æthelflæd subsequently devise the name ‘Woden’s Fort’ to mark not only the English triumph at Woden’s Field but also the part she played in it?

Aethelflaed at Wednesbury
Aethelflaed at Wednesbury

Present-day Wednesbury has undoubtedly taken the Lady of the Mercians to its heart. Near St Bartholomew’s Church, a street called Ethelfleda Terrace preserves the Victorian form of her name, as does the nearby green space known as Ethelfleda Memorial Gardens. In the town centre, her image can be seen in public artworks created from stone and metal. At the main bus station she appears as one of two sturdy ‘caryatids’ supporting an arched gateway, while on nearby Holyhead Road she is depicted on a large mural as a spear-wielding warrior confronting a boatload of Vikings. There is no doubt that local people view her with affection, regardless of the uncertainty surrounding her connection with their town.

Aethelflaed at Wednesbury

Wednesbury bus station: sculptured arch supported by ‘caryatids’ (Æthelflæd on the left; a worker from the tube-making industry on the right).


Aethelflaed at Wednesbury

The Æthelflæd caryatid (see also the photo at the top of this blogpost).


Aethelflaed at Wednesbury

(above and below) Mural sculpture on Holyhead Road, Wednesbury: Æthelflæd confronts Viking raiders.


Aethelflaed at Wednesbury
Aethelflaed at Wednesbury

Finally, we may note that the dedication of St Bartholomew’s church is of interest in the context of an Æthelflæd connection. We know that she was keen to promote and develop the cults of Anglo-Saxon saints, especially Mercian ones, among the people under her rule. One such saint was Beorhthelm who, according to old tales, had lived in Staffordshire as a monk and hermit in the early 700s. He is also known as Bertelin, and this is the usual form of his name in present-day churches dedicated to him. Some of these churches can justifiably claim to have been founded in Anglo-Saxon times, examples being St Bertelin’s in Stafford (adjoining the parish church of St Mary) and the parish church of Runcorn, now dedicated to All Saints but formerly dedicated to Bertelin. Another alternative form of the saint’s name is Bartholomew which in some cases took over the original dedication. This is what happened at Runcorn, where St Bertelin’s church eventually became known as St Bartholomew’s before being re-dedicated to All Saints in the nineteenth century. Might a similar process account for the name of St Bartholomew’s at Wednesbury, with the dedication having replaced an older one to Bertelin?

Stafford St Bertelin's Chapel

Stafford: the outline of St Bertelin’s Chapel beside the parish church.

Stafford and Runcorn are two old Mercian towns that originated as burhs founded by Æthelflæd, in 913 and 915 respectively. The original dedications of their churches are thought to reflect her promotion of Bertelin as one of Mercia’s premier saints. It is even possible that both churches were founded by her to serve the inhabitants of the new burhs. At Wednesbury, we cannot – on present evidence – be certain that she played any direct role in the town’s foundation. Nevertheless, the dedication of St Bartholomew’s parish church is certainly worth noting, and the possibility that it was originally known as St Bertelin’s can at least be kept in mind. Medieval records mention a church at Wednesbury in 1210, a building that may already have been old at that time. Whether a church existed as far back as the early tenth century is a question that archaeologists might be able to answer in the future.

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Notes & references

Wednesbury is mentioned in my book Æthelflæd: the Lady of the Mercians as a possible Æthelflædan site and as one of the places where she is commemorated in public art.

Further information on Roman roads, place-names and Anglo-Saxon settlement in the area containing Wednesbury, Wednesfield and Tettenhall can be found in David Horovitz’s meticulous work Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians; the Battle of Tettenhall 910 AD; and other West Mercian studies (2017).

I’ve taken a look at the Anglo-Saxon history of nearby Wolverhampton in a recent blogpost on Lady Wulfrun.

Lastly, a curious item of local news from Wednesbury. The original brass plaque in Ethelfleda Memorial Gardens was stolen some years ago, as reported in an article from the Express & Star newspaper.

[All photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B. Keeling]

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New biography of Æthelflæd

Aethelflaedcover_500high

On the twelfth day of this month, at Tamworth in Staffordshire, a national service of commemoration was held to mark the 1100th anniversary of Æthelflæd’s death. A few days earlier, in Gloucester, a solemn procession conveyed a re-imagining of her funeral bier to the medieval ruins of St Oswald’s Priory. More events are scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, all of which will help to raise wider public awareness of the Lady of the Mercians.

June has also seen the publication of my latest book – a biography of Æthelflæd that I mentioned here back in April when it was still in the pipeline. Like my other titles its publisher is Birlinn of Edinburgh who have issued it under their ‘John Donald’ imprint.

The narrative incorporates my usual focus on political history with an emphasis on warfare. It considers the military campaigns not only of Æthelflæd but also those of her father Alfred the Great and of her brother Edward the Elder. Hence there are frequent mentions of battles, fortresses, treaties and alliances. But there is much more to Æthelflæd than the Anglo-Saxon warrior queen visualised in modern artworks. She was an educated, literate woman with strong religious beliefs. She had a keen interest in saints – especially Mercian ones – and actively promoted their veneration by establishing new cult-centres in various parts of her domain. She was also adept at what we now call ‘urban planning’ and has left her mark on the modern street-pattern in a number of west midland towns.

A synopsis of my book is provided by the ‘blurb’ on the back cover:

At the end of the ninth century AD, a large part of what is now England had been conquered by the Vikings – heathen warriors from Scandinavia who had been attacking the British Isles for a hundred years. Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, was determined to halt the conquests but his death in 899 meant that the task passed to his heirs. In Wessex, his son and successor Edward continued the English fightback. So, too, did Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd and her husband Lord Æthelred, rulers of the old kingdom of Mercia. After Æthelred’s death in 911, Æthelflæd ruled on her own, leading her army on a series of campaigns to recapture lost territory. Known to history as the Lady of the Mercians, she earned a reputation as a competent general and was feared by her enemies. She helped to save England from the Vikings and is one of the most famous women of the Dark Ages. This book, published 1100 years after her death, tells her remarkable story.

Early chapters include an introduction to the documentary sources as well as a summary account of Anglo-Saxon history up to the ninth century. These are followed by the main narrative which deals with the life of Æthelflæd from her birth and childhood up to her mid-teens, then through roughly 25 years of marriage to the period of her widowhood. The penultimate chapter looks at the immediate aftermath of her death in 918, when her daughter Ælfwynn briefly succeeded as the new ruler of Mercia before being deposed. In the final chapter, Æthelflæd’s historical significance and her modern role as a subject for the creative arts are discussed.

Notes for each chapter point the reader to primary sources and secondary works, all of which are listed in a 10-page bibliography. The middle of the book contains a plate section of 15 black-and-white photographs, while the main narrative is interspersed with maps (mostly relating to military campaigns) and plans of burhs (fortified settlements).

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Æthelflæd: The Lady of The Mercians, by Tim Clarkson
(Edinburgh: John Donald, 2018)
ISBN: 978-1-910900-16-1

Available in paperback from Amazon UK and Amazon USA or direct from the publisher.

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Æthelflæd in 2018

WorcesterWindowBlog400high

This year sees the 1100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, who died at Tamworth in Staffordshire on 12 June 918. Æthelflæd is one of the most important figures in early English history, yet her story is rarely told. Although she is remembered and commemorated in the areas she once ruled – the west midland counties of England – wider recognition of her achievements is sadly lacking. Many people hope that this will change in 2018.

Æthelflæd’s father was Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, whose long struggle against the Vikings was reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other contemporary texts. While still in her teens, Æthelflæd became the wife of Alfred’s staunch ally Lord Æthelred of Mercia, a man who held the power of a king but not – as far as we can tell – a royal title. After Alfred’s death in 899, Æthelflæd and her husband maintained the Mercia-Wessex alliance. They joined her brother King Edward in recovering territories lost to the Danelaw – the eastern part of England that had been conquered by Viking armies. Lord Æthelred died in 911 but his authority passed to his widow who became known as the Lady of the Mercians (Old English: myrcna hlæfdige). Under her rule, Mercia recovered its former status as one of the major powers of Dark Age Britain. This was an era of kings and warlords, a period when female rulership and generalship were almost unheard-of, yet Æthelflæd proved herself adept in both roles. The final chapter of her story was equally remarkable: she was succeeded not by a man but by a woman – her daughter Ælfwynn who, if only for a brief time, ruled the Mercians as their new hlæfdige.

Commemorations of Æthelflæd are being held this year at Tamworth, Gloucester and other places closely associated with her. My own tribute takes the form of a biography, to be published by Birlinn of Edinburgh in the summer. It will be my seventh book and the first to focus on events outside Scotland. Although this might seem like a departure from my usual track, it actually brings me closer to my roots as a native of Mercia. In any case, Æthelflæd’s story is connected to the northern regions I have previously written about, not least because of a tradition that she forged an alliance with the Scots and Strathclyde Britons

Updates on my book will appear on this blog in the next few months. In the meantime, here’s a preview of the cover. It shows an image of Æthelflæd from a public artwork at Runcorn in Cheshire, one of the places where she established a burh or fortified settlement in the early years of the tenth century.

Aethelflaedcover_600x400

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The picture at the top of this blogpost shows Æthelflæd wearing a crown and holding a sword. It appears in a stained-glass window at Worcester Cathedral (photo by B. Keeling)

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A Govanite on the Scottish throne

Heart of the Kingdom

Earl Siward Earl Siward (from a painting by James Smetham, 1861)
The title of this blogpost should really be turned into a question: Did a man from Govan become king of Scotland? It takes us into a rather obscure period of Scottish history, a period less well-known than the age of Bruce or the Stewart monarchs, but I believe we can glean enough information to answer the question with a cautious Yes.

Our starting-point is the year 1018, when a great battle was fought at Carham on the River Tweed. On the losing side was an English army led by the Earl of Bamburgh, fighting on behalf of their half-Danish, half-Polish king Cnut (‘Canute’). The victors were the Scottish king Mael Coluim (‘Malcolm’) and his ally Owain the Bald, king of Strathclyde. It was a famous battle, possibly with far-reaching consequences, one of which may have been that the Tweed became…

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Essential Sources: 2 – Fragmentary Annals

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, in the 12th-century Cartulary of Abington Abbey

Unlike the better-known Irish chronicles (such as the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Tigernach) the text known as the Fragmentary Annals embellishes many of its year-entries with long passages of narrative saga. This is one reason why modern historians approach it warily. Another reason is its compiler’s obvious intent to write political propaganda for a particular dynasty, in this case the royal house of Ossory in south-east Ireland.

The text of the Fragmentary Annals survives in a seventeenth-century manuscript but analysis has shown that it was originally compiled in the mid-eleventh century. The compiler used various older chronicles, supplementing their year-entries with narrative tales of uncertain provenance. Without any means of tracing the origin of most of these stories, we cannot assess their accuracy or reliability, nor can we measure their historical value. Such uncertainty makes the Fragmentary Annals a controversial source indeed – and also a frustrating one. Many of the narrative passages offer unique, tantalising details about important historical characters and real events, but the very uniqueness of the data reduces its credibility.

The Viking-Age kingdom of Strathclyde appears twice. The first occurrence is slightly erroneous, because the context relates not to Strathclyde but to its predecessor Alt Clut. The event in question is the assault on Dumbarton Rock by a large force of Norse Vikings in 870. Although the eleventh-century compiler of the Fragmentary Annals knew of a kingdom called Srath Cluada in his own lifetime he seems to have been unaware that a political entity of this name did not emerge until after 870 when the royal dynasty of the Clyde Britons abandoned Dumbarton. The annal for the Viking raid is shown below. This is a scanned image from the definitive 1978 edition by Joan Radner, where the English translation appears on the facing page. Numbers in bold typeface are from Radner’s own editorial notation.

Dumbarton Viking siege 870

The besieging and plundering of Alt Clut was widely reported in contemporary chronicles, so the unique detail about the water supply is usually regarded as an item of authentic information. By contrast, Strathclyde’s second appearance in the Fragmentary Annals lacks a clear supporting context and thus invites scepticism. It occurs at the end of a narrative describing the military activities of Aethelflaed, ruler of Anglo-Saxon Mercia, against her Viking foes. Aethelflaed’s achievements as a war-leader are not in doubt but the Fragmentary Annals credits her with a deed that no other source mentions: an alliance with the Scots and Strathclyde Britons:

Aethelflaed Strathclyde

Again, the text and translation are from Radner’s edition. I have added square brackets to the date 914 because, as Radner herself points out, the section in which the alliance occurs is more likely to relate to 917 or 918. Did the alliance really happen, or was it a fictional detail added by the compiler? Opinions are divided on the issue, with some historians taking a firmly sceptical stance. Personally, I see no reason to reject the passage outright. An alliance with Alba and Strathclyde would have been consistent with Aethelflaed’s defensive strategy, which was concerned with the defence of her borders. From other sources we know that she was particularly anxious about the threat posed to north-west Mercia by Viking forces operating in the Irish Sea. We also know that her policies were looking northward at the time of her death in June 918, for Anglo-Danish Northumbria was on the point of pledging allegiance to her when she passed away. Perhaps their overtures of peace were prompted by news of her alliance with Alba and Strathclyde – a development that would have seemed profoundly worrying to the Northumbrian elite at York.

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Notes & references

Joan Newlon Radner (ed. & trans.) Fragmentary Annals of Ireland (Dublin: Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, 1978)

The difficulties of using this source were neatly summarised by Radner in her introduction:
‘Much valuable and unique historical information is contained in the Fragmentary Annals. But the uncertain date and provenance of the text, and its eclectic nature – myth and history, fancy and fact, rather erratically organized – have made modern scholars wary of trusting it as a historical source.’ [Radner 1978, xxxiv]

The extracts used in this blogpost were scanned from the following pages in Radner’s edition:
Siege of Alt Clut – p.142 [text], p.143 [translation]
Aethelflaed’s alliance – p.180 + 182 [text], p.181 + 183 [translation]

For more information on Aethelflaed, see my earlier blogpost.

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The kings of Strathclyde (AD 870 to 1070)

Like my previous books, Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age has a chronological structure which guides the reader along a timeline. In this case, the chronology runs from c.750 to c.1150, with special attention being given to a 200-year period between 870 and 1070 – the ‘lifespan’ of the kingdom of Strathclyde.

In the first chapter of The Picts: a history, I stated that the narrative was structured around a medieval list of Pictish kings in which each is named in chronological order, with reign-lengths conveniently added by the compiler. No such list is available for Strathclyde, nor has the kingdom bequeathed a chronicle or set of annals that might otherwise have provided the framework for a linear chronology. The sequence of royal succession in Strathclyde is, in fact, difficult to reconstruct with any measure of completeness. This does not mean that the task of reconstruction should be dismissed as a pointless exercise. It simply means that the resulting sequence is punctuated by gaps where the line of succession is uncertain, or by a question mark where the name of a king is unknown.

Two landmark studies tackled these difficulties head-on. In 1993, Alan Macquarrie listed all the known kings of the Clyde Britons from the fifth century to the eleventh, giving brief biographies in those cases where reliable information can be gleaned from the sources. His task for the early part of this period was made somewhat easier by the survival of a royal genealogy for the kingdom of Alt Clut, the precursor of Strathclyde, which was ruled from an ancient fortress at Dumbarton. Although the Alt Clut genealogy gave no dates, Macquarrie found chronological information in other sources and was able to reconstruct a fairly complete king-list. This ends in the late ninth century with Artgal, the last king, who witnessed Dumbarton’s destruction by a Viking army in 870. The original genealogy ends with Artgal’s son Rhun (pronounced ‘Rhin’) who is usually seen as the first king of Strathclyde, the successor realm established in the strath or lower valley of the river. In the absence of a genealogy for Rhun’s descendants, Macquarrie collated fragments of information from a range of sources, such as the Irish annals, to continue the line of kings through the tenth century and beyond. He noted that the last king of Strathclyde named in any source is Owain the Bald who fought at the Battle of Carham in 1018.

Macquarrie’s study was cited by Dauvit Broun in an equally groundbreaking article published in 2004. Broun showed the sequence of kings from 870 onwards in table form, like a family tree, with question marks indicating gaps and uncertainties. Four years ago, I used Broun’s table as the basis for my own version which appeared in The Men of the North. More recently, I’ve used the same format in Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. In both books, the table has been tweaked and polished by a professional designer who makes everything look neat and tidy. The image below is a working copy from my files.

Kings of Strathclyde

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References

Broun, Dauvit: ‘The Welsh Identity of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, c.900–1200’ Innes Review vol.55 (2004), 111–80

Clarkson, Tim: The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010)

Macquarrie, Alan: ‘The Kings of Strathclyde, c.400–1018’, pp.1–19 in A. Grant and K.J. Stringer (eds) Medieval Scotland: Crown, Lordship and Community (Edinburgh, 1993)

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Essential Sources: 1 – John of Worcester

John of Worcester Chronicle

This is the first in a series of posts highlighting the primary sources in which I located raw data for my book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. Each post will give a brief summary of the source rather than a lengthy analysis, with pointers to ‘further reading’ in case anyone wishes to know more. In no particular order, then, I’ll start the series with John of Worcester’s Chronicon ex chronicis (‘Chronicle of chronicles’).

Many students of Anglo-Saxon history are well-acquainted with this work, which is frequently cited as a major source of information on early medieval Britain. In older textbooks it often appears under its alternative attribution to ‘Florence of Worcester’. Florence, who was actually called Florentius, was once thought to be the author of the entire chronicle but is more likely to have assisted the principal writer who is nowadays identified as John. Both men were monks at Worcester Priory, the medieval precursor of Worcester Cathedral, in the early twelfth century. Florence died in 1118; John outlived him by twenty years or so.

Chronicon ex chronicis is a history of the world to AD 1140, written in Latin. Its sections on Anglo-Saxon history are particularly valuable because John had access to a number of early English texts that no longer survive. Among these was an old Northumbrian chronicle – a set of annals – dealing with events in the northern parts of Britain. The material John extracted from these lost annals contains information not found elsewhere, some of it relating to the kingdom of Strathclyde.

The image below shows John’s entry for the year 973. It’s a scanned page from the definitive modern edition by Darlington and McGurk, which also gives a parallel English translation. The entry is a record of a meeting of kings and warlords at Chester, hosted by the English king Edgar, an event I’ve described in an earlier blogpost. On the image I’ve highlighted ‘Malcolm, king of the Cumbrians’, otherwise known as Máel Coluim, king of Strathclyde or ‘Cumbria’, whose death in 997 was noted by contemporary annalists in Ireland.

John of Worcester Chronicle

Like any source relating to this period, John of Worcester’s chronicle cannot be taken at face value. Its author, like all medieval writers, had his own ideas about how history should be presented. He carefully selected the things he wanted to write about, putting other material aside – to the frustration of today’s historians. Nor did he cite his sources in a way that enables a modern scholar to easily identify them. Notwithstanding these caveats, his chronicle remains an essential text for the history of early medieval Britain and continues to be widely consulted. It plugs a few gaps left by other works, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and puts flesh on the bones of obscure figures about whom little else is known.

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Manuscripts:

Chronicon ex chronicis survives in five copies, of which the principal manuscript is Oxford, Corpus Christi College 157, written in the early twelfth century by three different scribes, one of whom was almost certainly John of Worcester himself.

Editions:

Reginald Darlington and Patrick McGurk (eds) The Chronicle of John of Worcester. 3 vols. (Oxford, 1995-8). [includes a parallel English translation by Jennifer Bray & Patrick McGurk]

The full text of an older edition by Benjamin Thorpe (1848) is available online via Google Books An English translation based on one by Thomas Forester (1854) is available at Barry Sharples’ website.

Further reading:

Brett, Martin, ‘John of Worcester and his contemporaries’, pp.101-26 in R.H.C. Davis and J.M. Wallace Hadrill (eds) The Writing of History in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1981).

Darlington, R. and McGurk, P. (1982) ‘The Chronicon ex Chronicis of Florence of Worcester and its use of sources for English history before 1066’ Anglo-Norman Studies 5: 185-96.

[The introduction in Volume 2 of Darlington and McGurk’s edition of the chronicle provides a detailed study of contents and sources]

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Games of thrones

While researching my book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, I was frequently reminded of analogies between the political dealings of tenth-century Britain and those depicted in the television series Game of Thrones. Being a fan of the series, it was perhaps inevitable that it would spring to mind whenever I came across historical references to dynastic marriages, temporary treaties and oaths of fealty. At times, the webs of alliance and allegiance in the 900s seem just as fluid as those involving the royal families of fictional Westeros – and with similar levels of intrigue.

A number of tenth-century treaties directly involved the kings of Strathclyde, who were as adept as any Lannister or Tyrell in the cut-and-thrust of political negotiation. Strathclyde’s geographical position gave it a shared border with several other realms and this meant that its kings were seen as useful allies. They could also be dangerous foes, and had few qualms about switching sides if it suited them to do so. Like their contemporaries in other lands, they might swiftly abandon a treaty when it no longer gave them an advantage, even at the risk of breaking a sworn oath.

I’ve highlighted three treaties in Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, weighing the significance of each and examining the sources that record them. All three were hosted by Anglo-Saxon (English) rulers of the West Saxon royal house, the family to which Alfred the Great belonged, but the other attendees came from far and wide. From the northern Celtic lands came the kings of Strathclyde and Alba, representing the North Britons and Scots respectively. From the old realm of Northumbria came the Viking rulers of York and the still-English lords of Bamburgh. From the West came various Welsh kings and, from across the Irish Sea, the kings of Viking Dublin. Other key figures also turned up from time to time.

The three treaties are discussed more fully in the book but here I’ll simply list them in chronological order, with venue and participants (where the latter are named in the sources or otherwise identifiable by deduction).

Bakewell Anglo-Saxon Cross

Shaft of an Anglo-Saxon cross at Bakewell Parish Church in the Peak District.

Year: 920
Venue: Bakewell
Hosted by: Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great
In attendance: Constantin, king of Alba; Ragnall, king of York; Ealdred and Uhtred, lords of Bamburgh; Owain, king of Strathclyde.
Purpose (probable): recognition of Edward as ruler of all Britain south of the Mersey and Humber estuaries.
Source: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript ‘A’)

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Mayburgh Henge Cumbria

Standing stone in the prehistoric henge of Mayburgh, a possible venue for the royal meeting near the River Eamont in 927.

Year: 927
Venue: River Eamont (near Penrith)
Hosted by: Athelstan, son of Edward the Elder
In attendance: Hywel, king of the West Welsh; Constantin, king of Alba; Owain, king of Strathclyde; Ealdred, lord of Bamburgh.
Purpose (probable): recognition of Athelstan as the most powerful king in Britain; mutual agreement to refuse offers of alliance from Vikings.
Sources: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript ‘D’); William of Malmesbury’s ‘History of the English Kings’

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Chester Anglo-Saxon Cross

St John the Baptist Church, Chester: head and part of the shaft of an Anglo-Saxon Cross.

Year: 973
Venue: Chester
Hosted by: Edgar, nephew of Athelstan
In attendance: Cináed, king of Alba; Máel Coluim, king of Strathclyde; Maccus Haraldsson, Viking warlord; Dyfnwal, former king of Strathclyde; Guthfrith Haraldsson, brother of Maccus; Iago, king of Gwynedd; Hywel, Iago’s nephew; Iudicael, count of Rennes in Brittany.
Purpose (probable): non-aggression pact to prevent future hostilities
Sources: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript ‘D’); John of Worcester’s Chronicle

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Aethelflaed

Aethelflaed of Mercia


Aethelflaed leading her warriors into battle (from Cassel’s Illustrated History of England).

‘Certainly I think we could say that Mercia by the tenth century was prepared to accept female rulership in a way unlike any other part of early medieval Europe.’

The above quote is from a response by Jonathan Jarrett at his blog A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. It appears in the comments thread attached to a recent post on the St Andrews Sarcophagus which considers the monument’s possible links with Anglo-Saxon sculpture. What Jonathan is referring to here is a brief period in the early 900s during which the Mercians – the people of the English midlands – were ruled by a woman. Her name was Aethelflaed and she is one of the most significant political figures of the Viking Age.

Aethelflaed was the firstborn child of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, and sister of Alfred’s son and successor Edward (known as ‘the Elder’). She was born c.870, at a time when Wessex was under attack by Danish Vikings who had already ravaged and occupied East Anglia and eastern Mercia. Around 885 she became the wife of Aethelred, ruler of the still-unconquered western part of Mercia. Although Aethelred’s power was essentially that of a king, contemporary chroniclers referred to him as an ealdorman or senior lord. His marriage to Alfred’s teenage daughter cemented an alliance between Mercia and Wessex which brought the two realms closer together, thus laying the foundations of a unified English kingdom.

After Alfred’s death in 899, his son Edward succeeded to the kingship of Wessex and continued the struggle against the Vikings. Edward’s military policies relied on close co-operation with the rulers of Mercia – his sister Aethelflaed and brother-in-law Aethelred. After Aethelred’s death in 911, possibly from wounds inflicted in battle, Aethelflaed became sole ruler of her husband’s people. Her title, according to the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was myrcna hlaefdige, ‘Lady of the Mercians’. She proved herself a competent war-leader, forging a fearsome reputation in victories over Viking and Welsh foes. Campaigning beyond her eastern border she regained many of Mercia’s lost territories by wresting them out of Danish hands. Her greatest success came in 917 when she recaptured the stronghold of Derby, forcing its Danish occupants to submit to her rule. Her military policy also included the construction of new fortresses, as a protective shield against future incursions. One of these was at Tamworth, the ancient capital of Mercian kings.

Tamworth Castle

Tamworth Castle.


I visited Tamworth earlier this year, to see the medieval castle which reputedly stands on the site of Aethelflaed’s fortress. Near the base of the castle’s mound is a statue of the Lady of the Mercians, mounted on a high pillar. It was erected in 1913 to mark the millennium of the fortress. In recognition of her military achievements the sculptor has depicted Aethelflaed holding a drawn sword. At her side stands a small child: her nephew Athelstan, the future king of Wessex, whom she fostered at her court.

Aethelflaed of Mercia

My interest in Aethelflaed’s story began many years ago, when I was gathering information on Aethelburh, a queen of Wessex who lived in the eighth century. This was for an entry in Amazons to Fighter Pilots, an encyclopedia of female participation in warfare, which was published in 2003. As well as my brief note on Aethelburh (of whom little is known) the encyclopedia included an entry for Aethelflaed. At the time, I noted a number of similarities between these two Anglo-Saxon women, both of whom led armies to war in an era when such responsibilities were usually regarded as a male preserve. This prompted me to learn more about Aethelflaed and, in particular, to study her dealings with the kingdoms of North Britain whose history has always been my main area of research. Her contact with the northern realms is described in an Irish chronicle known as the ‘Fragmentary Annals’, which tells of a military alliance she forged in 918 with the kings of Alba and Strathclyde. Under the terms of this three-way pact, the Scots and Britons pledged to help Mercia if it was attacked by Vikings. The Irish annalist tells us that Aethelflaed gave similar pledges in return, ‘so that whenever the same race should come to attack her, they would rise to help her. If it were against them that they came, she would take arms with them’.

I discuss this alliance briefly in The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland, but my new book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age offered scope for a more detailed study. Aethelflaed duly features as an important figure in the fourth chapter, ‘Strathclyde and Wessex’, which covers the reign of her brother Edward the Elder (899 to 924). A photograph of her statue at Tamworth appears as a full-page illustration in the plate section in the middle of the book.

Anglo-Saxon Tamworth

During my visit to Tamworth I purchased a booklet on the town’s Anglo-Saxon history. It was published by the local council in 2011 and was on display in the gift shop at the castle. The author, Stephen Pollington, has written several books on similar topics, including a comprehensive study of Anglo-Saxon warfare. His Tamworth booklet is concise, informative and well-illustrated. It has plenty to say about Aethelflaed and her military achievements and gives a dramatic account of her capture of Derby in 917. I especially enjoyed the following passage, which narrates the surrender of the Danish leader or ‘jarl’:

‘Finally, in a desperate attempt to get away from the massacre, the jarl called out to seek terms from the English commander. A group of horsemen rode through the gate, armoured in mail and with their tall spears sparkling. Behind them came a woman of no great age, her strong face framed by tightly-bound hair, dressed as if for a pleasant day’s riding in the woods. The jarl’s face reddened and he let out a roar of anger and humiliation as he realised from the deference of the warriors around her that this Englishwoman was the commander who had beaten him.’

Within a year of her great victory, Aethelflaed’s remarkable story came to an end. In June 918, King Edward of Wessex was at Stamford, a former Danish stronghold in what is now Lincolnshire. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us what happened next:

‘While he stayed there, his sister Aethelflaed died at Tamworth, twelve nights before Midsummer. He rode to the fortress at Tamworth, and all the people in Mercia who had been under Aethelflaed’s rule turned to him.’

So passed the Lady of the Mercians. She was taken with reverence to Gloucester, to be laid to rest alongside her husband in St Oswald’s Priory, a church they had founded together in the early years of their marriage.

* * * * *

References:

Stephanie Hollis, ‘Aethelflaed’, pp.5-7 in Reina Pennington (ed.) Amazons to Fighter Pilots: a Biographical Dictionary of Military Women. Vol.1 (Westport, 2003)

Stephen Pollington, Tamworth: the Ancient Capital of Mercia (Tamworth, 2011)

Frederick Wainwright, ‘Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians’, pp.53-69 in P. Clemoes (ed.) The Anglo-Saxons (London, 1959)

Joan Radner (ed.) The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland (Dublin, 1978)
* Although this chronicle contains elements of saga, its account of Aethelflaed’s alliance with Strathclyde and Alba is regarded by many historians as a record of real events.

(Link) Jonathan Jarrett’s blogpost on the St Andrew’s Sarcophagus.

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The Meeting at Chester

King Edgar 973

From the twelfth-century chronicle of John of Worcester, under the year 973:
Edgar the Peaceable, king of the English, was blessed and crowned with the utmost honour and glory, and anointed in the thirtieth year of his age by the saintly bishops Dunstan and Oswald, and by the other bishops of England, in the city of Bath, in the first indiction, at Pentecost on the 11th of May. Shortly afterwards, he sailed round the north coast of Wales with a large fleet and came to the city of Chester. He was met, as he had commanded, by eight tributary kings, namely Cináed, king of the Scots, Máel Coluim, king of the Cumbrians, Maccus, king of many islands, and five others: Dufnal, Siferth, Hywal, Iago and Iudicael, who swore fealty and bound themselves to military service by land and sea. Attended by them, king Edgar on a certain day went on board a boat, and while they plied the oars, he took the helm, and steered skilfully down the course of the river Dee, and followed by his whole retinue of earls and nobles he sailed from the palace to the monastery of St. John the Baptist. Having paid his devotions there, he returned to the palace with the same pomp. He is reported to have said to his nobles, as he entered the gates, that any successor of his might truly boast of being king of England when he should receive such honours, with so many kings doing him homage.

Máel Coluim, here described as ‘king of the Cumbrians’, was a king of Strathclyde. His death in 997 was noted in the Irish annals. The king named ‘Dufnal’ who also attended Edgar’s royal gathering is usually identified as Máel Coluim’s father Dyfnwal, former king of Strathclyde, who died in 975 while on pilgrimage to Rome.

Maccus ‘king of many islands’ is probably the Viking warlord Maccus Haraldsson, a significant player in the Irish Sea region at this time. Siferth is unknown but Hywel and Iago (and possibly Iudicael) came from Wales.

The idea that Edgar received oaths of allegiance at the meeting might be English propaganda. Many modern historians think that the event was more likely to have been a gathering of equals rather than a display of one king’s superiority. Issues of mutual concern were no doubt discussed, with disputes being settled by pledges of peace. I examine this topic more closely in Chapter Seven of Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age.

The illustration at the top of this blogpost was produced by James Doyle in 1864. A depiction of the same event can be seen in a stained glass window at the present-day church of St John the Baptist, which stands beside the River Dee on the site of the Anglo-Saxon monastery.

King Edgar 973

St John the Baptist Chester

St John the Baptist, Chester: columns of the Norman period.