Category Archives: Treaties & alliances

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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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 the book, 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 named (where known). Names in italics mean an identification is uncertain.

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, son of Harald, Viking warlord; Dyfnwal, former king of Strathclyde; Guthfrith, 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.

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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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Strathclyde and Wessex

Edward The Elder

The coronation of Edward the Elder at Kingston-on-Thames in AD 900. Illustration by R.C. Woodville (c.1850).

The politics of tenth-century Britain were dominated by an English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) royal dynasty descended from Alfred the Great. Alfred ruled Wessex, the kingdom of the West Saxons, but his descendants expanded the kingdom until it grew into what we now know as England. The ambitions of the West Saxon dynasty inevitably brought it into contact with the kings of Strathclyde, with whom it had a stormy relationship throughout the tenth century. Dealings between the two kingdoms are studied in detail in Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, especially in the book’s four central chapters, but I’ll use this blogpost to give a basic summary in the form of a diagram.

The image below is a partial ‘family tree’ of Alfred’s descendants in the tenth century. Recorded dealings with Strathclyde are noted under the names of the individuals concerned, all of whom (except one) were kings of Wessex. The exception was Aethelflaed, Alfred’s daughter, who ruled the former kingdom of Mercia as a semi-independent region. Non-hostile relations, such as peace-treaties and alliances, are marked in green. Hostile relations, such as invasions of Strathclyde, are marked in red.

Strathclyde & Wessex

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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.