Æthelflæd, lady of the Mercians, ruled the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia from 911 until her death in 918. She was a significant figure in the events leading up to the creation of the kingdom of England.
She was the eldest child of King Alfred of Wessex (reigned 871–899) and his wife, Ealhswith (died 902), who may have been related to the royal house of the neighbouring kingdom of Mercia. Alfred had made an alliance with Æthelred, lord of the Mercians. Æthelflæd subsequently married Æthelred, strengthening this bond.
Lady of the Mercians
When Æthelred died in 911, Æthelflæd became the ruler of the Mercians in her own right. As lady of the Mercians (‘Myrcna hlæfdige’), she expanded her territories to the North, East and West. Æthelflæd fortified settlements and led her armies into Wales and Northumbria.
In the final year of her life, the people of York pledged to obey her direction (‘rædenne’). Some of her military exploits were possibly co-ordinated to help her brother, Edward the Elder, king of Wessex (reigned 899–924), but at other times Æthelflæd is likely to have been acting independently.
Most of our information about Æthelflæd’s reign comes from a narrative of Mercian affairs for the years 904–924, embedded in three manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This is known as the ‘Mercian Register’. It provides a very different account from another version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which focuses on her brother, Edward the Elder.
For example, when discussing what happened during the same months in 916, one version of the Chronicle describes Edward building a burh, while the other details Æthelflæd’s military campaign in Wales.
Women and power in the 10th century
Æthelflæd’s reign was unusual. Her successful political career did not necessarily reflect tolerant contemporary attitudes towards women, and (with one brief exception) she did not pave the way for future Anglo-Saxon female leaders.
According to Asser, her father’s biographer, the West Saxon court where she grew up was particularly opposed to over-mighty queens:
‘The West Saxons do not allow a queen to sit beside the king, nor to be called a queen, but only the king’s wife [because of] a certain obstinate and malevolent queen [from Mercia], who did everything she could against her lord and whole people’ (Asser, Life of Alfred, chapter 13, translated by M. Lapidge and S. Keynes, Alfred the Great, Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1983).
Æthelflæd was initially succeeded by her daughter, Ælfwynn. The Mercian Register claims that one year later, in 919, Ælfwynn 'was deprived of all authority in Mercia and taken into Wessex, three weeks before Christmas' by her uncle Edward (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation, translated by D. Whitelock and others (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), p. 67).
England would have to wait until the 16th century for another queen (Mary I) to rule unchallenged in her own right.