Aethelflaed – ‘Iron Lady Of Mercia’ Was A Tough Female Warrior And Great Commander In Medieval England

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A. Sutherland - AncientPages.com - Aethelflaed, (870 - 918 AD) is among tough female warriors of old times, who are usually left outside the official history records.

Had Aethelflaed not been the daughter of the King of Wesses, Alfred the Great (r. 871–899), we might not have any knowledge whatsoever of this great military commander in medieval England.

Aethelflaed - 'Iron Lady Of Mercia' Was A Tough Female Warrior And Great Commander In Medieval England

Aethelflaed from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, c. 1220. Source

She accompanied her husband into battles and after his death in 912, she succeeded him as the ruler of Mercia, one of the most powerful kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England.

Her greatest contribution is most probably reclaiming territory from the Danish Vikings, who had continuously controlled a large part of England for forty years.

She was widely known as the Lady of the Mercians who led the counter-offensive against the Danish Vikings.

Aethelflaed’s Family Ties

The eldest child of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899) and his wife, Ealhswith, Aethelflaed (c. 870–918) was of the royal house of Mercia. The family lived under the constant threat of Viking invasions as the Danish Vikings had already conquered large territories in Eastern England.

The 9th century and early 10th century was a period of intense warfare involving Viking armies all over the British Isles.

Aethelflaed never knew a time when the attacking Vikings were not a threat. Over time, permanent Danish settlements were established, which by the end of the ninth century, created the area known as the “Danelaw. Her father, King Alfred managed to defend the kingdom of Wessex against the Vikings, and even assigned a partition treaty with the Danes, controlled eastern and northern England, but returned Kent and West Mercia to Anglo-Saxon control.

Marriage Was Necessary To Strengthen The Alliance

In this unstable political situation, Alfred decided to strengthen his alliances and arranged for his daughter to marry Aethelred, Lord of Mercia, who really hated the Danes and was the king’s most important ally.

Danelaw

The union of Wessex and Mercia through the pair’s marriage was an important step on the way to a full unification of the kingdoms. The couple had a very good cooperation and they accompanied each other into battle until his death in 912.

Aethelflaed shared military responsibilities with her husband and succeeded him as military commander after his death.

Roger of Wendover, a monk based at St Albans Abbey, Buckinghamshire, who was one of the most notable thirteenth century chroniclers, said of her marriage that Aethelflaed was ‘united to Aethelred, earl of the Mercians’, otherwise, not much is known about the young Lady of Mercia and her life until the beginning of the tenth century, when her husband became seriously ill.

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Already during his illness (about 902 AD) she was engaged in the country’s and Mercia’s problems with the Danish Vikings. She was involved in building of fortresses that could protect Mercia against sporadic Danish raids and to provide bases for Mercian military operations into Danish territory. She constructed ten fortified garrison towns over the course of ten years.

Illness And Death Of Lord Of Mercia

After Aethelred's death in 911 AD, she officially took over the power, she continued the process of building defensive forts and joined forces with her brother Edward the Elder (r. 899–924) to protect the territories against the Danes.

Aethelflaed - 'Iron Lady Of Mercia' Was A Tough Female Warrior And Great Commander In Medieval England

The new Aethelflaed statue outside Tamworth Railway Station, erected to commemorate 1,100 years since her death in Tamworth. Her spear points visitors towards the town centre and Castle. Source

In the years 912 to 915 at least nine were built: Bridgnorth (912), Stafford (913 ), Tamworth (913), Eddisbury ( 914 ), Warwick (914), Chirbury ( 915 ) and Runcorn (915).

In 916, she sent an expedition against Wales as revenge for the murder of a Mercian bishop, attacking and destroying Brecenanmere in Powys County. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle confirms that in 916 AD Brecenanmere (in English: lake), was destroyed by the Mercian queen Aethelflaed and that she captured the wife of the king of Brecon and 34 others. (3).

She also “led an alliance of Briton, Picts, and Scots rulers against a large group of Norwegian and Irish-Norwegian invaders, who crossed the channel from Brittany in 914…” (Toler).

A year later, the Lady’s army recovered Derby, occupied by the Vikings. Shortly afterwards the Viking leaders of York offered her their loyalty. Ironically, this great female fighter died only days before the Danes would have surrendered York to her, recognizing her as their overlord.

She died on 12 June 918.

Unexpected Death Of Aethelflaed

She fell in battle at Tammorth in Statfordshire. No records survived to tell what Aethelflaed died of but perhaps it was due to serious wounds; she was about 50 years old woman. Her body was carried 75 miles (121 km) from Tammorth to Gloucester where she was buried with her husband. It was a speedy procession, as it is highly unlikely that her body was embalmed.

Lady Of Mercia And Her Political Achievements – Half-Buried In History Of England

In the words of the Annals of Ulster, she was Famosissima Regina Saxonium, the “most famous Queen of the Saxons”.

She was mourned throughout the land, even the enemy, the Danes, recognized her as a more than worthy enemy.

Aethelflaed – ‘Iron Lady Of Mercia’ Was A Tough Female Warrior And Great Commander In Medieval England

Actress Millie Brady plays Aethelflaed in the series The Last Kingdom. Credit: Imdb

The Annals of Ulster recorded the death of the ‘most famous queen of the Saxons’ and the Annales Cambriae recorded that ‘Queen Æthelflæd died’. Is it possible though that they used the royal title because they simply didn’t know what else to call her?

However, as Toler writes, “most of the surviving written sources for English history, most notably the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, focus on Edward’s kingdom of Wessex, which ultimately triumphed in the struggle for control of England…”

Two hundred years after the Lady Of Mercia died, English chronicler William of Malmesbury (1080–1143) described her as a warrior who “protected men at home and intimidated them abroad.” He argued she “ought not to be forgotten, as she was a powerful accession to his [Edward’s] party…”

It is almost coincidence that we know about this brave lady warrior and her contributions. Usually she is only referred to as … Edward’s sister, and even her title of Lady of the Mercians is omitted.

Written by – A. Sutherland  - AncientPages.com Senior Staff Writer

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Expand for references

Toler Pamela D. - Women Warriors

Whitehead, A.. Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom

Source 3 - S.Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of Wales