(Athelfleda also called Æthelflæd, Ethelfleda, Ethelfled, Ethelflaed, and Lady of the Mercians)
Having read a multitude of Anglo-Saxon history by now, I have found it surprising how widely opinions differ concerning whether women were treated with “respect” or not. Some sources write as if it’s a shining era of women’s history, while others are quick to remind readers that women could lose all their property and get their noses cut off if they were caught adulterating. I’ll refrain from going too much in depth about my own opinion here. However, I think it’s safe to say that one will not find a story like Aethelfleda’s very often.
William of Malmesbury provides a very flattering depiction of Aethelfleda:
“And here indeed Ethelfled, sister of the king and relict of Ethelred, ought not to be forgotten, as she was a powerful accession to his party, the delight of his subjects, the dread of his enemies, a woman of an enlarged soul; who, from the difficulty experienced in her first labour, ever after refused the embraces of her husband; protesting that it was unbecoming the daughter of a king to give way to a delight which, after a time, produced such painful consequences. This spirited heroine assisted her brother greatly with her advice, was of equal service in building cities, nor could you easily discern, whether it was more owing to fortune or her own exertions, that a woman should be able to protect men at home, and to intimidate them abroad.”
–William of Malmesbury, Chronicles of the Kings of England, Chapt V
Apparently, even a monk chronicler found the fact that Aethelfleda chose to avoid her husband’s bed important enough to mention in this brief summary of Aethelfleda’s life. One can only wonder how profoundly this decision affected her career, and how different her life might have been had she not made this choice. She had one child, and that was Aelfywnn. Indeed, Aethelfleda became a great leader, and one might surmise that the people of her country filled her heart as surely as any more sons or daughters might have.
Aethelfleda was the daughter of King Alfred the Great, meaning her brother became King Edward. She married in 884 around the age of twenty, which at that time was considered old for a woman to marry. The name “Ethel” meant “royal” or “noble” and indicated royal lineage, so Ethelred and Aethelfleda might have been somewhat related—she from the royal line of Wessex and he from the royal line of Mercia. In any case, their marriage helped merge those nations together, also bringing together Anglos and Saxons, so much as those differences still existed.
As one can determine from the quote below, Aethelfleda went straight to work after her husband died:
“A.D. 912. This year died Ethered, alderman of Mercia; and King Edward took to London, and to Oxford, and to all the lands that thereunto belonged. This year also came Ethelfleda, lady of the Mercians, on the holy eve called the invention of the holy cross, to Shergate, and built the fortress there, and the same year at Bridgenorth.”
-Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Entry for Year 912
The years of Aethelfleda and Edward’s joint rule was a time of great reconstruction. King Alfred before them had set the tone for this rebuilding, but his children took it even further. These fortifications surrounded what once might have been small villages, creating a new system of cities in which the commerce had to take place safely within the new walls. This is why towns that might have begun simply took on the terms of “burroughs” or, as I tend to call them, “burgs.” Most of these burroughs would have been built with earthworks, ditches, and palisades (walls of spiked wooden stakes). However, one chronicler mentions that Aethelfleda’s fortifications might have been made of stone, identical to later ones made in Germany under Henry I (Knight, 144).
Simply read the entry for year 913 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to see how radically Aethelfleda and her brother were scurrying about reconstructing England’s cities, almost as if it was a competition (and perhaps it was!).
“A.D. 913. This year, about Martinmas, King Edward had the northern fortress built at Hertford, betwixt the Memer, and the Benwic, and the Lea. After this, in the summer, betwixt gang-days and midsummer, went King Edward with some of his force into Essex, to Maldon; and encamped there the while that men built and fortified the town of Witham. And many of the people submitted to him, who were before under the power of the Danes. And some of his force, meanwhile, built the fortress at Hertford on the south side of the Lea. This year by the permission of God went Ethelfleda, lady of Mercia, with all the Mercians to Tamworth; and built the fort there in the fore-part of the summer; and before Lammas that at Stafford: in the next year that at Eddesbury, in the beginning of the summer; and the same year, late in the autumn, that at Warwick. Then in the following year was built, after mid-winter, that at Chirbury and that at Warburton; and the same year before mid-winter that at Runkorn.”
-Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Entry for Year 913
Clearly Aethelfleda was a master of constructing defenses, but very importantly, she also led armies on offensive attacks. She attacked Wales in 916, capturing the king of Bretnock’s wife and thirty-four more hostages. She also attacked Viking settlements within England, most notably Derby and Leicester.
“Edward and Ethelfleda were unwearied in their resistance to the powers which assailed them in so many directions ; and they were ultimately successful. They became assailants, too, of the territories which had been subdued by the Northmen. The Danes of East Anglia swore allegiance to Edward, who had possessed himself of Colchester, and had repaired the Roman walls; and Ethelfleda compelled the Danish garrisons of Derby and Leicester to surrender, and the Danes of York to submit to her authority. Finally all the island acknowledged the son of Alfred as lord and protector.”
–Knight, Charles. The Popular History of England, Vol. 1 pg. 144
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, the day Aethelfleda took Derby was a painful one for her, and required great sacrifice. Four of the thegns “most dear to her” were slain within the gates. It was not long before she followed them.
“A.D. 918. But very shortly after they had become so, she died at Tamworth, twelve days before midsummer, the eighth year of her having rule and right lordship over the Mercians; and her body lies at Gloucester, within the east porch of St. Peter’s church.”
–Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Entry for Year 918
So for approximately seven years, Aethelfleda ruled as Lady of the Mercians, and made a profound impact on her country and the history books.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Translation by James Henry Ingram
Knight, Charles. The Popular History of England, Vol. 1. New York, John Wurtele Lovell. 1881
William of Malmesbury, William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England