Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

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Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, was the first-born child of King Alfred the Great (r. 87199) and his wife Ealswith, a princess of Mercia. Throughout her life, Æthelflæd worked with her father, brother, and husband to reclaim English Mercia from the Danes. Her birth date is unknown, but she married Ethelred, Ealdorman of Mercia, in 886, and had one daughter, Ælfwyn. Both she and Ethelred were fiercely loyal to Alfred, who placed the governance of London in their hands.

Æthelflæd supported her father, and later her brother Edward the Elder (r. 899925) through a vigorous program of building fortresses and fortifying towns, and by actually leading campaigns against the Danes. A charter (S223) issued by Ethelred at some time during the decade before Alfred's death states that he and his Lady "ordered the borough at Worcester to be built for the protection of all the people and also to exalt the praise of God therein." They also fortified the walls of Chester and refurbished London's defenses. The boroughs were designed to act as points of defense, and also to work in conjunction with Alfred's reformed fyrd, or standing army. These boroughs were part of England's national defense, marking an offensive line against the Danes while protecting the English frontier.

Æthelflæd and her husband were supported the Church in many ways. Several of their charters consist of grants to religious communities; one in particular (S223), in response to a request from Wærferth, Bishop of Worcester, states that "they will grant to God and St. Peter" and to the Lord of that Church half of their rights within the newly fortified borough of Worcester. Another charter (S221) refers to a grant of a gold chalice in honor of an Abbess Mildburg. Æthelflæd also used relics to provide spiritual blessings and protection. When she encountered various saints' relics during her campaigns against the Danes, she moved them to the West Saxon boroughs. St. Oswald was translated from Bardney to Gloucester, St. Werburg from Hanbury to Chester, and St. Ealhmund from Derby to Shrewsbury, all from Danish lands into those held by the West Saxons.

A contemporary source, The Three Fragments, implies that Ethelred was ill from 902 onwards and incapable of governing Mercia on his own. Æthelflæd, being half Mercian by birth, was accepted by the people of Mercia and began to act in Ethelred's stead. In 907 she granted land to Ingemund, a leader of the Norse-Irish, in Wirral and rebuilt Chester to ensure their loyalty. The Mercian Register records that in 910 the English successfully fought the Danes, and Æthelflæd built a fortress at Bremesburh. Ethelred died in 911, and Æthelflæd was immediately acclaimed Myrcna Hlæfdige, Lady of the Mercians, which was the exact feminine equivalent of Ethelred's title.

Æthelflæd continued her building program, working closely with her brother Edward to destroy the independent Danish armies in England. Between 912 and 915 she built fortresses at Scergate, Bridgnorth, Tamworth, Stafford, Chirbury, Weardburh, and Runcorn, and refortified existing strongholds at Eddisbury and Warwick.

Toward the end of her life, Æthelflæd began to take an active part in battle. On June 16, 916, an English abbot, Ecgberht, was murdered along with his companions on a trip to Wales. Three days later, Æthelflæd sent an army into Wales to punish the king of Brycheiniog, who was responsible, and took the king's wife and 33 other people hostage. In July 917, when the main army was away fighting Edward, Æthelflæd captured the Danish military center at Derby. In the early part of 918, Æthelflæd peacefully took possession of the borough of Leicester, and accepted the submission of many of the Danish forces that were stationed there. The people of York had also promised to accept her rule, but she died before receiving their submission.

Æthelflæd died on June 12, 918, and was buried in the east chapel of the monastery of St. Peter at Gloucester, which she and Ethelred had built.

Bibliography: r. abels, Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England (Los Angeles 1988). p. blair, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (2d ed. Cambridge 1977). c. brooke, From Alfred to Henry III 8711272 (London 1969). g. garmon-sway, ed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1992). d. rollason "Relic Cults as an Instrument of Royal Policy, c. 900c.1050" Anglo-Saxon England 15 (1986). f. stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 1971). r. thomson and m. winterbottom, eds., William of Malmesbury: Gesta Regum Anglorum (Oxford 1999). f. wainwright, Scandinavian England. Collected Papers (Chich-ester 1975).

[l. a. lehtola]