Athelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

Statue of Athelflaed
Statue of Athelflaed with Athelstan at Tamworth

Athelflaed was the daughter and eldest child of King Alfred of Wessex and his wife Ealhswith, who was of the Mercian royal house. She was born around 870 CE and grew up in a court which included some of the greatest scholars of Europe. She had a full education as befitted a royal princess, and was highly literate and intelligent. Alfred’s biographer, Bishop Asser, was at pains to record the thorough education that Alfred provided for all his children.

Later she married Athelred of Mercia, uniting Mercia and Wessex during the Danish encroachments. She was first recorded as Athelred’s wife in a charter of 887 CE, when he granted two estates to the see of Worcester ‘with the permission of King Alfred’ and the witnesses included “Athelflaed conjux (wife)”.

However the marriage may have taken place even earlier, perhaps when Athelred submitted to Alfred, following the recovery of London in 886 CE. Their status and titles are unclear: Athelred is always referred to as the Ealdorman of Mercia rather than King, at least in the English Chronicles, and Athelflaed as the Lady of the Mercians (“Myrcna hlæfdige”); however some other sources, including the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, do refer to her by the title of Queen.

Both she and Athelred are mentioned in Alfred’s will, which probably dates to the late 880s. Athelflaed, described only as “my eldest daughter”, received an estate and 100 mancuses, while her husband Athelred, the only ealdorman to be mentioned by name, received a sword worth 100 mancuses. A mancus was a gold coin probably about 4.25g, and used as a measure for value; it is possible she received her inheritance in silver worth the equivalent amount as gold was in very short supply at this time.

In 883 CE Athelred granted privileges to Berkeley Abbey and in the 890s he and Athelflaed issued a charter in favour of the church of Worcester. This was the only occasion in Alfred’s lifetime when they are known to have acted jointly; generally Athelred acted on his own, usually acknowledging the permission of King Alfred. However, Athelflaed did witness charters of Athelred in 888, 889 and 896 CE. Another charter, dating to the end of the 9th century, records that Athelred and Athelflaed fortified Worcester, with the permission of King Alfred and at the request of Bishop Werferth, who is described in the charter as ‘their friend’ and who was the leading English scholar of the time. They granted the church of Worcester a half share of the rights of lordship over the city, covering land rents and the proceeds of justice; in return, the cathedral community agreed in perpetuity to dedicate a psalm to them three times a day and a mass and thirty psalms every Saturday.

Then in 901 CE, after Alfred’s death, Athelred and Athelflaed gave land and a golden chalice weighing thirty mancuses to the shrine of Saint Mildburg at Much Wenlock church.

Athelred and Athelflaed had one daughter, Alfwynn, who seems to have been expected to take over from her parents as the Mercian leader. In 904 Bishop Werferth of Worcester granted a very valuable lease of land in the city to Athelred and Athelflaed, to be held for the duration of their lives and that of their daughter Alfwynn. Alfwynn is recorded witnessing charters from 903 CE onwards, and at a relatively high ranking among the signatories; by 915 CE she was second only to her mother in the secular list. Athelflaed also fostered her nephew, Edward’s son by his first marriage, Athelstan. Interestingly he does not appear on the Mercian charters.

Meanwhile Athelred had health problems and probably declined after Alfred’s death. Athelflaed may have become the ‘de facto’ ruler of Mercia by 902 CE. According to the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, the Norse Vikings were expelled from Dublin and made a failed attack on Wales. Then they applied to Athelflaed, her husband being ill, for permission to settle near Chester. Athelflaed agreed and for some time they were peaceful. The Norse Vikings then joined with the Danes in an attack on Chester, but this failed because Athelflaed had fortified the town, and she and her husband persuaded the Irish among the attackers to change sides. Other sources confirm that the Norse were driven out of Dublin in 902 CE and that Athelflaed fortified Chester in 907 CE.

Much of the information we have about Athelflaed’s activities derive from the Mercian Register which was partially copied into some versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and cover the period of her and Athelred’s reigns. The Mercian Register covers the years 902 to 924 CE, and focuses on Athelflaed’s actions; her brother King Edward is hardly mentioned and her husband only twice, on his death and as father of their daughter.

In 909 CE Athelred and Athelflaed managed to extricate the relics of St Oswald from Bardney in Lincolnshire to their new foundation in Gloucester; the record is confusing and it is not clear if this was part of a raid into Danish territory, or whether it was a separate transaction which occurred around the same time. The focus on Gloucester was probably motivated by political as well as religious reasons. Mercia had been divided with the Danes in 877 CE, so that the former East Mercia had become a series of small realms with various leaders, centred around the Five Boroughs of Lincoln, Nottingham, Stamford, Leicester and Derby. This put greater pressure on the old Mercian royal centre of Tamworth close to the boundary. However, Gloucester also brought them closer to Worcester as well as moving them deeper into Mercian territory and nearer to Wessex. A further advantage was that it kept the Mercian ruling family distinct and independent from Wessex without being overly provocative by returning to traditional seat of Mercian royal power.

Mercia had a long tradition of venerating royal saints and this was enthusiastically supported by Athelred and Athelflaed. Saintly relics were believed to give legitimacy to rulers’ authority, and Athelflaed was probably also responsible for the foundation or re-foundation of Chester Minsterand the transfer to it of the remains of the seventh-century Mercian princess Saint Werburgh from Hanbury in Staffordshire.

The raid on Danish territory, whether related to the relics or not, may have contributed to the Danish incursions the following year as it broke the peace agreement that had been made in 905 CE at Tiddingford by her brother King Edward with the Danish leaders. The Danish incursion in 910 CE as far west as Bridgnorth ended in an English ambush and victory at Tettenhall in Staffordshire which was sufficiently devastating to the Danes to open the way for the recovery of the Danish Midlands and East Anglia over the next decade.

Athelflaed and her brother, King Edward, seem to have co-ordinated their campaigns against the Danish. Athelred died in 911 CE after a long illness and Athelflaed buried him at Gloucester and took sole control of Mercia. She and Edward continued their programme of building burhs (fortifications) at strategic locations; Edward along the boundary of the Danelaw and Athelflaed along the Welsh marches and up towards the north west to deter Irish Viking incursions.  Her burhs included Bremesburh, Sceargeat (unknown), Bridgnorth, Staffford, Tamworth, Eddisbury, Warwick, Chirbury, Weardbyrig (unknown) and Runcorn.

As well as fighting Danes, Athelflaed had wider responsibilities to all those sworn to her. One of her Abbots, called Ecgbriht, appears as a witness to a charter issued at the burh at Weardbyrig (location unknown) in 915 CE, so was probably a close adviser of Athelflaed. He had been travelling in Brycheiniog under Athelflaed’s protection when he was attacked on 16th June and killed. On 19th June 916 AD Athelflaed sent an army into Wales and took the royal residence at Brecenanmere, capturing the wife of King Tewdr of Brycheiniog along with 33 other people.

Brecenanmere was a crannog in the lake at Llangorse, a unique and Irish-influenced royal residence emphasising the Irish connections of the Welsh ruler, King Tewdr ap Elisedd. The crannog itself was constructed with timbers felled 889-993 AD, many of them re-used making precise building dates difficult, but the crannog itself would have been unique in Wales. The link to the Irish would have been intended to support the claims of the Brycheiniog ruling elite to be of Irish descent. It was around 40m wide and 30-40m off the northern shore of the lake. It was built from planks of oak with a dwelling platform formed from layers of stone, soil and brushwood on a man-made island and was defended by a wooden palisade. There would have been a central hall and a number of smaller buildings. Archaeological excavations of the site have found a number of items indicating a substantial settlement consistent with a royal palace, as well as a burnt layer which may be evidence for Athelflaed’s attack. The kings at that time moved from site to site through the year, so it was not occupied at all times. Although the Welsh queen was taken prisoner the king was not – he may have escaped or he may not have been present.

The attack on the abbot is unexplained and perhaps the Welsh were testing the Mercian defences given the English focus on dealing with the Danish incursions. At this time Edward was away in the east of England campaigning in Essex and fortifying Maldon, and Athelflaed was busy with her own campaign. Also, a number of the burhs that Athelflaed had had built were along the Welsh / English border so it is also possible there had been a build-up of tension prior to the abbot’s misadventure; however she was also dealing with Viking threats from Ireland and Brittany which threatened her western borders.

Athelflaed responded quickly and decisively to the killing, so either the abbot was important to her personally or her general response to Welsh impudence was intended to be clear and immediate. She moved her forces quickly and stormed the crannog probably moving forces engaged in building her burhs, most recently at Warwick.

King Tewdr was required to submit to Athelflaed and pay compensation, but it seems there were no further reprisals against the Welsh for the incident, and no further disruptions are recorded. The crannog itself was not rebuilt by the Welsh king. When Athelflaed died the Welsh submitted to Edward, which possibly implies Mercian overlord(or lady)ship prior to that.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also records that in 917 CE Athelflaed took control of Derby in the Danelaw, although four of her thanes were killed in the assault “which to her was a cause of sorrow.” Then the following year, 918 CE she took the submission of another Danelaw stronghold, Leicester, apparently without any fighting. At this time it was anticipated that York also planned to submit to her, seeking her support against Irish Vikings who were threatening the kingdom. The offer of submission was not repeated to Edward after her death.

She died seemingly unexpectedly at Tamworth on 12th June 918 CE and was buried at Gloucester with her husband and Oswald’s relics. She was succeeded by her daughter Alfwynn, the only time in English history that a Queen has succeeded her mother. However, following Athelflaed’s death Edward moved quickly to take control of Mercia from his niece, and by December she was whisked away, probably to a convent.

Royal women in Mercia had a strong tradition of political involvement, unlike in Wessex, and this comparative freedom allowed Athelflaed the opportunity to flourish, applying all she had learned watching her father’s strategies in dealing with the threats to his kingdom. She was intelligent and well educated, and seems to have provoked a strong personal following among her advisers, both religious and military. After her death Edward faced a more resentful Mercia and even full fledged rebellion; he had been putting down a combined rebellion of Mercian and Welsh forces when he died in 924 CE. Her death was recorded in the Annals of Ulster as the “most famous Saxon Queen”; the annals failed to record the deaths of either Alfred her father or Edward her brother.