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.

* * * * * * *

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

* * * * * * *

Checking the proofs

Strathclyde & the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age

The publisher of Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age is Birlinn of Edinburgh, from whom I recently received the ‘first proofs’ – a preliminary version of the book in unbound form. The author’s job is to see if any last-minute tweaks are required.

The low-res photo above is a snapshot of the proofs. Note the three Pictish warriors on the title page. You might recognise them as the robed spearmen carved on a magnificent symbol stone from the Brough of Birsay in Orkney.  This is the logo of ‘John Donald’, Birlinn’s academic imprint, which is also the stable for two of my other books (Columba and The Men Of The North).

The proofs arrive in hardcopy and PDF format. I’ve spent most of today checking the paper version, a task I started last week. I’m now nearly at the the end of Chapter Five, which is basically a biographical study of the Strathclyde king Dyfnwal who reigned from c.940 to c.970. The title of the chapter is King Dunmail, taking its name from the fabled ‘last king of rocky Cumberland’ mentioned in a poem by William Wordsworth.  The Dunmail of legend and the Dyfnwal of history are one and the same.

Tomorrow I hope to get through another few chapters.

* * * * * * *

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.

Lowther hogbacks

On one of my research trips for the book I visited Lowther Church in Cumbria to see the Viking Age sculpture, which includes hogback gravestones similar to the ones at the Giant’s Grave in Penrith.

Lowther hogback

Lowther hogback (with shaft of Anglo-Saxon cross)

 

Lowther hogback

Lowther hogback (with fragment of another)

Parts of the present church were built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It sits on high ground above the River Lowther and probably occupies the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery.

Lowther Church

In Chapter Six of Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, I consider a possible tenth-century reference to this monastery as a frontier settlement between the ‘Cumbrians’ (Britons) and the Scandinavian rulers of Northumbria.

Research materials for Chapter Three

Books

The above photograph shows some of the items I consulted for the third chapter of Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age. This chapter brings the narrative to the end of the ninth century. You’ll notice that all five are secondary sources which are fairly mainstream and easily obtainable. I’ve not included any primary sources in the picture, mainly because I now tend to access these via online editions. I do however possess several primary texts in hardcopy and still find them useful, especially for quick reference when I’m offline.

Here’s a checklist of the items in the photo. Some of them will no doubt be familiar…

Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland: the Dynasty of Ivarr to AD 1014 by Clare Downham
The Kingdom of Northumbria, AD 350-1100 by Nick Higham
From Pictland to Alba, 789 to 1070 by Alex Woolf
Kings of Celtic Scotland by Benjamin Hudson
Warlords and Holy Men, Scotland AD 80 to 1000 by Alfred Smyth

All five provided good grist when I was grinding out the narrative for Chapter Three.

Ivar the Boneless

Dumbarton Rock

Dumbarton Rock. Illustration by T. Nelson (1892)

The kingdom of Strathclyde emerged from the wreckage of a much older kingdom whose principal fortress lay on the summit of Dumbarton Rock. Kings were residing at this fortress as far back as the sixth century and probably earlier. Archaeological evidence shows that they imported high-status goods such as wine from the Mediterranean. They identified themselves as Britons and, like their fellow-Britons in Wales, spoke a language similar to the ancestor of Welsh. Their imposing stronghold was known as Alt Clut, which means ‘Rock of Clyde’. It served as their main centre of power for hundreds of years until, in 870, it was besieged by a huge force of Vikings. The attackers came from Dublin, a major colony and pirate-base of the Norse or Northmen (Norwegians). The outcome of the assault was reported in the Annals of Ulster by scribes writing in Latin:

Obsesio Ailech Cluathe a Norddmannis, .i. Amlaiph & Imhar, duo reges Norddmannorum obsederunt arcem illum & distruxerunt in fine .iiii. mensium arcem & predauerunt.
(‘The siege of Alt Clut by the Northmen. Anlaf and Ivar, two kings of the Northmen, laid siege to the fortress and at the end of four months they destroyed and plundered it.’)

In Wales, the compilers of the Welsh Annals briefly mentioned the catastrophe that had befallen their fellow-Britons:
Arx Alt Clut a gentilibus fracta est.
(‘The fortress of Alt Clut was broken by the heathens.’)

More is said on the fall of Dumbarton in Chapter Three of Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age where, for instance, the political repercussions are discussed. One small aspect not touched on in the book is the parentage of the Norse leaders Anlaf and Ivar. Irish tradition identified them as brothers, while the old Norse sagas mention a great warrior called ‘Ivar the Boneless’ who may be the historical Ivar of 870.

Ragnar Lothbrok

Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok.

Being quite an avid viewer of the ‘Vikings’ series on the History Channel, it hasn’t passed my notice that the star of the show is the warlord Ragnar Lothbrok (played by Australian actor Travis Fimmel). The Norse sagas depict Ragnar as the father of Ivar the Boneless, a relationship that may or may not have a basis in fact. This is picked up by the TV show in Season 2, where Ragnar’s wife Aslaug gives birth to Ivar whose legs are deformed, thus explaining his nickname (other explanations are possible). Since Ragnar’s own historicity is sometimes doubted, we may be dealing here with semi-legendary figures anyway. If not, and if Ivar the Boneless was the Ivar who led the destruction of Alt Clut, the TV series may have a link with one of the key events in the history of Strathclyde.

Introducing the book

Battle of Brunanburh

The Battle of Brunanburh, AD 937. Illustration by Alfred Pearse.

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age is a narrative history of political relations between the North Britons and the English in the early medieval period or Dark Ages.

The book puts a long-overdue spotlight on a people described in early English chronicles as Cumbri or Cumbrenses (‘Cumbrians’), Clutenses (‘Clyde Folk’) and Straecledwealas (‘Strathclyde Welsh’). They inhabited a territory known as ‘Cumbria’, this being a name for the kingdom of Strathclyde at the time of its greatest extent (late ninth to early eleventh centuries). The main language of Strathclyde was Cumbric, an ancient Celtic tongue similar to Old Welsh but different from the Gaelic speech of the Scots and Irish. The kingdom’s native inhabitants were descended from groups of North Britons whom the Romans had first encountered during military campaigns in the first century AD.

‘Cumbria’ is more familiar today as the name of an English county created in 1974 from the old counties of Cumberland and Westmorland together with parts of Lancashire. What may be less widely known is that the county’s origins are closely bound up with the history of Strathclyde. The modern names ‘Cumbria’ and ‘Cumberland’ preserve a distant memory of the Cumbri of early medieval times, a people whose territory included Carlisle and the Solway Plain as well as the long valley of the River Clyde. The kings to whom all these lands owed allegiance ruled from a centre of power located at Govan near Glasgow. How the district around Carlisle fell under the control of the Govan kings is examined in Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, as is the process by which these same lands eventually passed into English hands.

Early medieval Cumbria

Early medieval Cumbria, the realm of the Strathclyde Britons.

Cumberland

The pre-1974 county of Cumberland.

Cumbria

Cumbria: the post-1974 county.

Large parts of the book deal with relations between the kings of Strathclyde and an ambitious West Saxon dynasty represented by the descendants of Alfred the Great. Contacts between these two sides, although not always hostile, were rarely conducted on friendly terms. Powerful West Saxon monarchs such as Edward the Elder and his son Athelstan recognised the importance of Strathclyde as a potential ally or foe in the long struggle against Viking warlords. West Saxon dealings with the ‘kings of the Cumbrians’ were therefore conducted against the backdrop of a larger political picture involving other powers such as the Scots, the Welsh and the Vikings themselves. Negotiations sometimes led to oaths of friendship and pledges of peace but the threat of conflict was never far away.

Athelstan

Athelstan, king of the English 924-39.

The first wars between the North Britons and the early English were fought in the sixth century but are not examined in detail in this book. The earlier period to which they belong is discussed by me at greater length in The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland, published in 2010. The focus of Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age is on a later era when the Scandinavian presence in Britain caused major political upheavals from which, eventually, the great medieval kingdoms of Scotland and England both emerged.
Vikings
This blog is a place where I’ll be mentioning things relating not only to topics in the book but also to the Viking period in general. Expect to see a fairly broad range of posts. There will, inevitably be some cross-posting between my other blogs Senchus (early medieval Scotland) and Heart of the Kingdom (early medieval Govan).