Tag Archives: Mercia

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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Lady Wulfrun

Statue of Lady Wulfrun

On the steps below St Peter’s parish church in Wolverhampton stands a fine modern sculpture of a woman in medieval garb. She stands proudly on a stone plinth, gazing out over the present-day urban landscape. A plaque on the plinth tells us that she is ‘Lady Wulfrun’ and that the sculpture, by Sir Charles Wheeler, was presented to Wolverhampton in 1974 to mark the centenary of the local Express & Star newspaper.

The people of Wolverhampton regard Wulfrun as the eponymous founder of their city, the name of which is said to derive from Old English Wulfruneheantun (‘Wulfrun’s high settlement’). Little is known of her origins but we know that in the late tenth century she was a major Anglo-Saxon landowner with close links to the royal dynasty of the newly emerging kingdom of England. She is named as the beneficiary of a charter issued in 985 by King Æthelred the Unready in which she received a gift of royal estates in Staffordshire at Heantune (later Wolverhampton) and Trescott. The charter was witnessed by the leading figures in Æthelred’s kingdom, including the archbishops of Canterbury and York. Another charter, dated to 994, confirmed a grant of lands from Wulfrun to the church of Heantune to enable its re-founding as a college of priests. Unfortunately this document has been shown to be a fake, probably created in the eleventh century by the Wolverhampton clergy. It does, however, appear to incorporate older information on estate boundaries and may be based on authentic documents associated with Wulfrun’s ownership of local lands. She is shown holding this charter, represented as an unfurled scroll, in the sculpture beside St Peter’s Church.

St Peter's Church in Wolverhampton

Stone inside St Peter’s Church commemorating the charter of 994.


Lady Wulfrun of Wolverhampton

Stained glass window in St Peter’s, showing the charter of 994 being issued by Wulfrun to the clergy of ‘Heantune’.

Wulfrun’s son Wulfric (known in later times as Wulfric ‘Spot’) became one of the richest landowners of the Late Anglo-Saxon period, holding lands not only in his native Mercia but in Northumbria as well. He received some of his estates as grants or bequests from his mother while others were inherited from his father whose name is unknown. Wulfric died sometime in the first decade of the eleventh century, leaving his lands to his daughter and other relatives. His will is one of the most important documents to come down to us from pre-Conquest England.

The name of Wulfric’s father – Wulfrun’s husband – has long been a subject for speculation. Some historians think a likely candidate is Wulfsige the Black, an important Mercian nobleman, but others think Wulfsige may have been Wulfrun’s father. The little we know of Wulfsige suggests that he was a loyal henchman of Edgar, king of England from 942 to 975, from whom he received substantial estates in Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Some of Wulfsige’s lands were later held by Wulfrun before passing to her son Wulfric. If these people do indeed represent members of the same family, the estates may have simply passed down through three generations from father to daughter to grandson.

Another of Wulfrun’s sons was Ælfhelm who served King Æthelred as ealdorman of Northumbria (based at York) from 993 to 1006. Ælfhelm was eventually murdered on the king’s orders, presumably for an act of treachery, and his two sons were blinded. However, his daughter Ælfgifu survived and, in 1013, she married the Danish prince Cnut. Seventy years earlier, Ælfgifu’s grandmother Wulfrun had herself come into close contact with Danes when she was kidnapped from Tamworth by Viking raiders from Northumbria. Tamworth may have been an important place for Wulfrun’s family, for her son Wulfric Spot bequeathed an estate in the area to his daughter and this could have been an ancestral landholding.

Lady Wulfrun at Wolverhampton

Wulfrun depicted in a window at St Peter’s Church, Wolverhampton.

One of the most intriguing theories about Wulfrun proposes that she was a grand-daughter of Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, via Æthelflæd’s daughter Ælfwynn. This would make Wulfrun a great-grand-daughter of Alfred the Great. At first glance, the idea seems to gain slight support from a medieval description of Wulfric Spot being of ‘nearly royal’ blood. However, the little we know about Ælfwynn suggests that she remained unmarried and childless, possibly having been forcibly confined as a nun after her mother’s death in 918.

The chronology of Wulfrun’s life is uncertain. She might have been quite young, perhaps a teenager, when she was abducted from Tamworth by Danish Vikings. Four decades later, when she received lands from King Æthelred in 985, she was perhaps in her fifties. The Wolverhampton charter of 994, although spurious, might be correct in depicting her as still alive in the final decade of the tenth century. The date of her death is unrecorded but she might not have been long deceased when a charter of c.1005 refers to her as having taken ‘her last breath’. What, then, was her true ancestry? Rather than being an otherwise unknown descendant of Alfred the Great it seems more likely that she sprang from one of the senior noble families of central Mercia. Her kin may have obtained much of their wealth from estates bestowed as gifts by grateful kings in reward for loyalty and faithful service. At present, there is not enough data to connect her with Wulfsige the Black or with any other known figure of the tenth century.

Wolverhampton Anglo-Saxon cross

Wolverhampton’s Anglo-Saxon pillar: the shaft of a cross?

Finally, we return to St Peter’s in Wolverhampton and to another monument in the churchyard: a tall sandstone pillar, somewhat weathered but displaying an array of sculptured animals and intricate patterns. Mystery surrounds its provenance and purpose but it has been tentatively associated with Mercian stonecarving of the ninth century, placing it a hundred years before Wulfrun’s time. If it is the shaft of a cross, as some observers believe, its existence would suggest that the St Peter’s site has been a focus of Christian worship since the 800s. In any case, it must have been a familiar sight to Wulfrun after she took ownership of the surrounding lands in 985.

St Peter's Church in Wolverhampton

A display inside St Peter’s includes this scale model reconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon pillar.

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Notes and References

David Horovitz, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians; the Battle of Tettenhall, 910 AD; and other West Mercian studies (Stafford, 2017)

Anthony and Joyce Perry, Lady Wulfrun’s Hampton: early Wolverhampton and its church (Revised edition: Wolverhampton, 2011)
[I obtained this excellent little booklet at the shop inside St Peter’s Church for a couple of pounds]

Wulfrun’s abduction from Tamworth was reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 943:
Here Anlaf broke down Tamworth and great slaughter fell on either side, and the Danes had the victory and led away great war-booty with them. There Wulfrun was taken in that raid.
[Anlaf (Olaf) is either Anlaf Guthfrithsson or his kinsman Anlaf Sihtricsson, Viking warlords from Dublin who ruled successively as kings of Northumbria.]

In the online Sawyer index of Anglo-Saxon charters, the Heantune charter of 985 is numbered S.860. Wulfrun’s spurious charter of 994 is S.1380

Older generations of historians, particularly in Victorian times, liked to make the names of Anglo-Saxon women look more feminine by sticking an ‘a’ on the end. Hence we sometimes see Ethelfleda (for Æthelflæd) and Wulfruna (for Wulfrun).

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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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Brunanburh and the Mercian borderlands

Brunanburh Casebook

The battle of Brunanburh in 937 was a victory for the English king Athelstan over an alliance of Vikings, Scots and Strathclyde Britons. Despite being one of the most important battles of the Dark Ages, its location is unknown. Various places have been suggested as candidates, some more forcefully than others, but none have found universal acceptance.

One candidate is Bromborough on the Wirral peninsula in Cheshire. To many people this is the leading contender, but its case is far from watertight. The main weakness can be summed up in a three-part question relating to geography and military logistics: why would the Scots and Strathclyders choose to fight on such a distant battlefield, how would they get to Cheshire and how would they get home after being defeated?

Until a few years ago, I gave my tentative support to a Wirral location, having initially been attracted by the place-name argument: early forms of the name ‘Bromborough’, such as Bruneburgh, do indeed look like plausible antecedents of Brunanburh (the name mentioned in a contemporary Anglo-Saxon poem). Also, as a native of Cheshire, I probably liked the idea of my county being the scene of an iconic Dark Age battle, even if Bromborough seems a very long way from the Clydesdale and Perthshire heartlands of two of the main protagonists. In the tenth century, what would later become Cheshire lay on the north-west frontier of English Mercia, and the Mercian contingent in Athelstan’s army played a major role at Brunanburh. This frontier had received special attention from the Mercian ruler Aethelflaed (died 918) and her brother King Edward of Wessex (Athelstan’s father), both of whom had built fortresses along it as a defence against Viking raids.

It wasn’t until late 2009, when I began writing my book The Men Of The North: the Britons of Southern Scotland, that I really became interested in the debate over the battle’s location. Having explored military logistics and other practical aspects of early medieval warfare in the 1990s (for a PhD thesis) I now wanted to give the same scrutiny to the Brunanburh campaign. I began by looking at the logistical issues from a northern perspective, through the eyes of the Scots and Strathclyde Britons. The latter, in particular, are frequently ignored in modern discussions of the battle – or regarded as an afterthought, a mere appendage to the Scottish army. Yet their participation raises important questions about where the battle was fought. Neither the Britons nor their Scottish neighbours were accustomed to waging war in the English midlands, yet the case for Bromborough asks us to imagine both of these northern powers invading Mercia in 937. My current thoughts on all of this are set down in my new book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age where the Brunanburh campaign takes up a large part of the fifth chapter.

In 2011, the argument in favour of a Wirral location was reiterated in The Battle of Brunanburh: a Casebook, a scholarly work edited by Michael Livingston. This substantial volume assembled the main medieval references to the battle (from the tenth century onwards), quoting relevant sections alongside modern English translations. Also included were a number of academic articles in which, among other topics, the thorny question of the battle’s geography was addressed. Since the map at the beginning of the book showed ‘Brunanburh’ (without a question mark) in the spot where we might have expected to find the name Bromborough, readers were given a hint of what was to come in the articles. Sure enough, although the wider geographical debate was mentioned, Bromborough’s candidacy was strongly emphasised. For me, this geographical bias was the only downside to what is otherwise a very useful book. Unsurprisingly, the bias has attracted criticism from readers and reviewers alike.

In last October’s issue of the Scottish Historical Review, the Casebook was reviewed by Neil McGuigan of the University of St Andrews. While highlighting the book’s positive contribution as a useful repository of primary source material, McGuigan drew attention to its pro-Wirral bias. He observed that the philological case for Bromborough, based on early forms of the place-name, is not decisive in its favour. Indeed, the whole Brunanburh debate seems to be dominated by the notion that philology should take precedence over other disciplines. A more objective approach should recognise that political geography, military logistics and the war-aims of the main protagonists demand equal consideration. These factors were noted by McGuigan in his review. Thus, while observing that the Wirral would have been easily accessible to the Dublin Vikings, he pointed out that the argument for Bromborough also asks us

“to believe that the Scottish king Causantin mac Aeda boxed himself into a small peninsula hundreds of miles from his heartland and escaped decisive defeat free and alive; and did so having led his followers and family into the heavily fortified region of western Mercia, the geography of which is erratically tangential to the project’s likely aim.” [McGuigan 2014, 287]

So, although Brunanburh may indeed have lain near the western seaboard, within easy reach of Viking Dublin, a location on the Cheshire frontier seems doubtful when other logistical factors are taken into consideration. The Scots and Strathclyders could not have travelled there without many risks and difficulties. This is why I now prefer to look further north, beyond the Mercian frontier, to the river-valleys of Ribble and Lune and to the land that nestles between them.

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References

Neil McGuigan, Review of The Battle of Brunanburh: a Casebook, Scottish Historical Review 93 (2014), 286-288

Michael Livingston (ed.), The Battle of Brunanburh: a Casebook (Exeter, 2011)

Tim Clarkson, The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010) [pp.177-9]

Tim Clarkson, Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age (Edinburgh, 2014) [Chapter 5]

Kevin Halloran, ‘The Brunanburh campaign: a reappraisal’ Scottish Historical Review 84 (2005), 133-48

Nick Higham, ‘The Cheshire burhs and the Mercian frontier to 924’ Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society 85 (1988), 193-222

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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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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.

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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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