Ethelflaed (Aethelflaed) d. 918

Saxon  princess, ‘freedom figher’ and ruler of the Mercians

Ethelflaed was the daughter and first-born child of Alfred the Great.  She led her troops into battle against the Vikings and it was only with her active  support that her younger brother Edward, King of Wessex between 899 and 925, was able to rule and implement peace policies which led to a united England.

Early life

Ethelflaed leading her warriors into battle. Illustration from Cassel’s Illustrated History of England.

Ethelflaed’s mother was Ealhswith, a woman with two noble houses in her  bloodline; Ethelflaed’s sister, Ethelgiva, became the Abbess of Sharftsbury.  When Ethelflaed’s father Alfred came to power, the country was still in the  throes of on-going battles, dragging on in the aftermath of the Viking  invasions in the early- eighth century. Although Alfred won some initial  battles, within two years into his reign most of Mercia and Northumbria had  reverted to Danelaw (rule by the Vikings). Alfred was forced to flee,  retreating into the marshy wilderness of the Isle of Athelney (present day Somerset),  where the legend of the burning of the cakes is said to have occurred.

It is unlikely that Ethelflaed shared the dangers of her father’s exile:  the family would have been sent to a place of safety while Alfred made plans to  regain power. However there would seem little doubt that she must have been  aware, even as a young girl, of her father’s plight. The family’s fortunes were  dramatically reversed when Alfred won a resounding victory over the Danes at  Edington, Wiltshire, after which the enemy was driven back to their strongholds  in East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. Alfred, now undisputed King of Wessex,  went on to consolidate his victory and, by the end of his reign in 899, he  handed over to his son Edward, a stable and well-governed kingdom.

Warrior and Ruler of the Mercians

At some point during the golden years of her father’s reign, Ethelflaed  marrried Ethelred, Ealdorman of the Mercians, but was apparently widowed young.  After her husband’s death, Ethelflaed ruled in her husband’s stead, becoming  known as ‘The Lady of the Mercians’ – a soubriquet that put her on a par with  the Saxon Ealdormen of the time and which reflects the respect in which she was  held. When war broke out in 910, Edward immediately called on his powerful  sister for help. ‘Edward was materially assisted in these struggles by his  warlike sister Ethelflaed, widow of the Alderman [sic] of Mercia who, despite her sex, appears to have delighted in  arms’, writes the anonymous author of nineteenth-century Cassell’s Illustrated History of England – one of the few  historians to then credit Ethelflaed with the important role she played  alongside her brother, and to accord her her deserved place in history:

Aided by her brother’s troops, she attacked the Welsh, who sided with  the Danes, and obliged them to pay tribute to her. Nothing, indeed, is more  remarkable in the history of this time than the ease and rapidity with which  Edward and his sister re-conquered the Danelagh, as the district inhabited by  the Danes was called. The reason of this prompt submission was that the two  warriors, as we may fairly call them, were not content with merely winning  battles, but took care to fortify and garrison the towns that fell into their  hands.

Etheflaed, evidently, was much more than simply a powerful ally to her  brother, offering ladylike support form the sidelines. She fought bloody  battles at his side and in his name, in addition to which she was an able general  and administrator. The author of Cassell’s  History records:

 At the time of her death in 918, the Lady of the Mercians had  re-conquered the country as far north as York and was actually treating for the  surrender of that city.

Edward went on to annexe all the Danelaw south of the Humber and was  acknowledged as overlord by the Danish King of York, the King of the Scots, the  King of the Strathclyde Britons, and many other warring chiefs.

Ethelflaed’s role in consolidating the Kingdom

Ethelflaed’s part in Edward’s victory should not be under estimated; on  her death Edward took over the lands in Mercia—‘an important step in the  consolidation of the kingdom’—and two important territories were brought under  one rule. Edward died in 925 and the wars between Saxon and Dane continued  unabated for some years. It was left to Edward’s son Athelstan (925-39) to  finally consolidate the victories won by his father and remarkable aunt.  Following a great victory at Brunanburgh in 837, his rule as overlord was  acknowledged throughout the country.

Ethelflaed’s legacy is immeasurable but—like her warrior forbear Cartimandua, who eight centuries earlier had led her troops into battle, only  to fade into obscurity—Ethelflaed, ‘of warlike fame, who delighted in arms’, is  a largely forgotten name.

This is an edited version taken from the book Infamous Yorkshire Women (The History Press, 2009) by Issy Shannon.

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