LADY OF THE MERCIANS
By kind courtesy of Christine Smith
Ethelfleda was born around 864, the eldest child of King Alfred of Wessex and his Queen Ealhswith. She may have been educated at the convent school at Wilton or at Winchester, both royal residences, and while excelling in academic studies, she had early on a leaning towards a soldiering life. Eahlswith her mother, was a Mercian royal, and Ethelfleda was encouraged to keep the culture and heritage of both lands throughout her education. She brought up among some of the most interesting and influential people for her father, being a scholarly king, brought to his court some of the greatest academics of the day. The king wrote and translated documents, and had a collection of art and literature from centuries back.
During those times, girls (at least those of royalty and nobility) as well as boys received an education, and she obviously joined in all the sporting pursuits and military training the boys went through, archery, swordplay, fast and furious riding and horse-jumping, and becoming skilled in these gave her the impetus to achieve more than most women, and to become a leader of men.
The young girl was raised amid some of the most spectacular countryside along the borders of Wales, and as her lineage included both British and Anglo-Saxon royalty, she established liaisons with all the people from these different lands most of whom remained loyal to her throughout her life.
Ealhswith, her mother, was the daughter of Ethelred Mucel, Alderman of the Hwicce, a territory that mainly covered Herefordshire, by his wife Edburgh, a daughter of Cenwulf, King of Mercia (796-821) who was descended from King Penda`s brother Cenwealh.
The whole long saga of this warrior princess would have made a successful film or television series, but then we wouldn`t really want outside film-makers putting their own interpretation on a character such as Ethelfleda, who was among a few women unique in English history.
Her relationship with her brother Edward does not appear, at least from later on in their lives, to have been all that close. They were comrades, certainly, born into times of strife with the norse invaders landing on these shores, and the victories they achieved together could not have occurred without a mutual respect and understanding.
Edward, born around 868, does appear to have been made under-king of Mercia by his father, and Tamworth was undoubtedly the royal residence to which Edward took his concubine Egwynna, perhaps to keep her away from the tumult of the Wessex court. His two elder children were born there, probably his daughter first, who remained unnamed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and then his eldest son Aethelstan.
In the vast kindred of royalty at that time, and during Alfred`s reign when he was trying to unite England under his kingship, there were inevitably struggles for political power. The Mercians had always been a territory apart, on the Welsh border, liaising with and often fighting against both Britons and Anglo-Saxons. Their kings were a mixture of both. They had been a kingdom since the 7th cent and one of their bitterest enemies throughout the 8th cent had been Wessex. There was only a tentative peace between them by the time Alfred come to the throne and married a Mercian royal. To have their leaders reduced in power and to be made as they saw it, vassals of a larger state, was unacceptable to many. Equally unwelcome were the continuing encroachments of the norsemen, and while the troops of Mercia rallied around Edward as he conquered the insurrecting Danes of the east Midlands and East Anglia, they were also wary of him, knowing that once he succeeded to Wessex he would annexe Mercia. The people of this area of the midlands especially, looked to an uncertain future of being taken over either by Wessex or by the Danes. One fact was certain, they would lose their identity as one of the longest-established and at one time most powerful kingdom in the country.
Ethelfleda was given in marriage in about 884 to Ethelred, a successor of Ceolred II, King of Mercia, and described by some at the time, as a prince of Mercia. The Anglo-Saxon historians maintain that very little has come down to us about Ethelred and yet its fairly obvious by the prefix of his name “Ethel” (“Aethel”) that he belonged to the Mercian royal family. Also because of the respect shown him by the king and the giving of Alfred`s daughter in marriage to him. The Wessex sources referred to most of these royals of the former kingdoms however, as “Eorldermen” (Aldermen) and this is how Ethelred has been introduced onto the royal scene, as Alderman of Mercia. Ethelfleda was not of course just “given”; such a formidable princess would have had her own opinions on whom to marry and she married late for women at that time, being about 20 years old.
Its obvious that as marriages were kept within the royal kindred, Ethelred must have been a cousin of Ethelfleda, perhaps the grandson of Ethelred Mucel and Edburgh through their son Ethelwulf, who was Ealhswith`s brother, though there are many more with the prefix “Ethel” in the royal family, not specifically mentioned in the king-lists. It would explain the closeness of the families, who had been inter-marrying for some time, and might also explain the obvious rivalry between Edward and his sister and brother-in-law. Edward, after he had later succeeded to Wessex, fought another cousin Ethelwold, at the Battle of Holme, 903, in which Ethelwold died. This could be the Holme on the Ermine Street south of Peterborough in the fens where Edward was reclaiming land from the Danes.
Ethelred and Ethelfleda became extremely popular with the people, and were regarded as King and Queen of Mercia. Many sources including those of the Irish mentioned them with these titles. They were able to issue charters in their own right, and governed Mercia seemingly alone. Ethelfleda and her brother grew to be rivals over the years, for events later on appear to be proof of that. Edward however, allowed his sister and brother-in-law to rule unhindered, and probably in any case could not during his father`s lifetime do much else. All the royals recognised that inter-family strife could only result in the downfall of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and they had come too far, at too great a cost, to allow misguided principles to bring down all that they had achieved.
The three went on their campaigns, often together, as many to carry out diplomatic assignments as to do battle. The Danes of the north however did not trust Edward as they trusted the Earl and Countess of Mercia and this further inflamed relationships in the royal family.
After her father`s death in 899 Ethelfleda was anxious to bring up her nephew and his sister at Tamworth, safe from the intrigues of the Wessex court. Her brother, she knew, would undoubtedly marry a Wessex noblewoman and she feared for the safety of Aethelstan if more sons were born. In the event her worries proved real. Aethelstan was left out of the succession, and attempts were made on his life that fortunately proved unsuccessful. His aunt, as long as she was able to, worked towards her nephew gaining his rightful crown, and no doubt because of the way in which she had raised the young prince, he was one day accepted by the thanes of Wessex as their king.
Ethelfleda, who maintained childbearing was not for her in her warrior role, eventually gave birth to a daughter Elfwynne. The girl was born sometime before 903, but exactly when is not known.
It was in Wessex in the time of Alfred that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were first compiled, but there were many important events not recorded, including those changes carried out by Ethelfleda, whom the people called “The Lady of the Mercians”.
The Danes were rapidly colonising the north-west, especially around the natural sea-ports of the Wirral. They agreed to a supervised colonisation, but in many places, they wanted more. They rose in revolt and attacked Chester, and Ethelfleda, sometimes on her own as Ethelred started to suffer from a chronic illness, planned a series of burhs (defences) at strategic points starting with the fortification of Chester, Mercia`s northernmost town. Eventually she threw a defence around the whole of Mercia, and while some Welsh kings were letting the Danes in through their territories, others stood beside her on this issue. The Danes had been driven off in areas of Cumberland, Northumberland and Scotland, but still kept coming. The raids on eastern England despite the controls by the combined forces of Mercia and Wessex, continued. Some norsemen had come to settle and work beside the people already here, and many norse settlements remain to this day, showing a continuous habitation. Others settled, but planned to rise up in revolt at a suitable time and try and take more territory. Mainly they invaded without warning in organised bands and plundered the rich abbeys and monasteries of the Christianised lands. For centuries the English lived in fear of the ferocious invaders, and despite some modern historians saying they weren’t as bad as they were made out to be, the evidence is that nothing seemed to assuage the dreadful terror the norsemen inflicted on innocent settlers. Several invasions of the monastic settlements on the Scottish and Northumbrian coasts had been bravely fought off, but those leaders were also looking for a long-lasting solution to this ever-present threat. The land of the Strathclyde Britons, (south-west Scotland) particularly suffered, and Ethelfleda allied with these rulers and those of other parts of Scotland, Cumbria and Northumbria.
Only the efforts of successions of English kings had kept them under control, but Ethelfleda planned to do something more permanent and used her political skills to achieve this. She planned to invite settlement from the north into the east Midlands and eastern England, into the fenland and the coastal regions, in an effort to keep the Danish settlers under control.
The marriage between Ethelred of Mercia and Osthryth, niece of King Oswald, in the 7th cent had instigated the building of churches in memory of Osthryth`s uncle, before she was murdered by unruly Mercian thanes. Her husband after a 30-year reign, as a warrior and a scholar, retired to Bardney Abbey. It was Ethelred and Ethelfleda who, two centuries later, took the relics of King Oswald from Bardney to Gloucester to the new church they had dedicated to him.
For all the wars had depleted certain areas, the Anglo-Saxon era was one of constant renewal. They had brought a superior plough here; they managed woodland, coppicing and pollarding trees; they carried on much of the brilliantly-illuminated art and literature of the early Celtic Christian Britons before them, and they brought new breeds of livestock from the continent.
New settlements were made in eastern England, and the population was swelled by people from the north, who had obviously come from a terrain much different to that in their own lands, and who brought new fishing and farming skills to this flat area of fenland. Perhaps because life was so harsh, and it was a constant struggle with the land and the sea, people had little time for strife and in spite of their differences had to unite to survive. Whatever the reason, Ethelfleda`s plan worked.
All the people of Mercia felt safe for the first time in a long while, and they attributed their state of peace to her and remembered her in their worship and in their daily lives. They called her “the Lady of the Mercians”.
Throughout her long military career, Ethelfleda was also building and endowing churches. With her husband she fortified the episcopal city of Worcester whose revenues they shared with Bishop Waerferth. They made Gloucester their chief residence, and under their rule it developed as a main administrative centre on the borders of Mercia and Wessex, and instead of at the palace of Kingsholme, the Mercian Council (the “Witan”) met at Gloucester in 896. Recent archaeology has revealed the richness of the church of St. Oswald they founded.
It seemed a sudden and drastic action for Ethelfleda to set about a concerted effort at conquest of the Danish settlements, but this she did in 910. Despite her conciliatory efforts the Danes of York and Dublin had been pushing their boundaries out with brute force for too long. More norsemen from Scandinavia and from Iceland sailed around the coast, plundering the isolated settlements and being given safe harbour in the Danish towns. Local efforts to contain their attacks on were inadequate. Again, Ethelfleda planned something big. And lasting.
The onslaught on the Danish settlements began in 910 and Ethelfleda, together with Ethelred, ailing but still soldiering on, and Edward, routed the Danish army at Tettenhall near Wolverhampton. They closed in two flanks around the town, and caught the Danes in-between. Ethelfleda had Welsh troops from her allies in her ranks and they proved skilful in counter-attack in hilly country. On one occasion she chased the Danish leaders to Gwent where the king gave them aid. Ethelfleda took his wife and some nobles hostage until he handed them over. Hastening back to Leicester, a Danish stronghold, she found to her anguish that four of her thanes had been slain within its walls, though not with the approval of all the Danish leaders. The Countess ringed the town with her force, and by her formidable manner and strength of purpose, caused the Danish leaders to at last accept her as their overlord.
While Edward concentrated on East Anglia and the south-east midlands, his troops being joined by many others from garrisons along the way, Ethelfleda led her army into the north midlands, through the hilly passes to the borders of the kingdom of York. Many came to join her ranks on the way, and there was no shortage of manpower to build the many burhs she then started to construct.
Ethelred had been with her to supervise some of these, but he died in about 911 and Ethelfleda was left suddenly alone. They had been through many dangers together, in fact their lives had been bound up in the defence of their land. People mourned for their lost king, and Ethelfleda escorted his cortege to Gloucester, where in his tomb there was a place left for her.
The huge defensive strongholds, mainly earth-mounds with wooden palisades on top, and an encircling ditch, had been used since remotest times. The Countess however, brought a new meaning to the word “defence” with forts at strategic places manned by troops, providing a regular watch over Mercia`s borders.
When looking at a map we can recognise many of the places of fortification, though some remain unidentified. Chester, Bridgenorth, Worcester, Gloucester, Hereford, Stafford, Tamworth, Warwick, Eddisbury, Chirbury and Runcorn. Also at Sceargate described as being on the Severn, and Bremesbyrig, which some say was Bromsgrove on a Roman road, but which I think could possibly have been Bromyard, a few miles south-west, near to which is the village of Bremenbury. The name “Brom” could indicate “broom”, the plant, or as there are several places over a few miles beginning with “Brom” or “Brem”, could come from “Breme” an Anglo-Saxon chieftain. “Yard” comes from “Ghuerd” (as in “Yardley” or “Ghuerdly”, Birmingham) and can mean an enclosed place. There was also a burh at Weadburgh, which could possibly be Wednesbury or Wednesfield near Wolverhampton, which were norse settlements. The pattern of burhs shows how the Countess defended Mercia from the inroads of the Danes through the ports of the west, and also the central area of government in Mercia.
Probably wounded in her many battles, obviously exhausted and suffering from the effects of many years spent in military camps in distant , cold and windswept places, Ethelfleda died at Tamworth, in 918. She may have heard before she died that a faction of the Danish leaders of York had accepted her as their overlord. Formidable, but strong, warrior-like but just and fair, she won the admiration and respect of all her people. Her brother Edward paid his own respects to her, and the people of both the old kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, both English and Dane, mourned their princess, their Queen. Ethelfleda`s last resting-place was beside her husband Ethelred in their tomb in Gloucester church.
Elfwynne should have become Lady of the Mercians after her mother died, but her uncle Edward the Elder usurped her rule and took her to Wessex, some say to a convent. The Mercians who had just fought the Danes, now fought the king, for their independence, and for their rightful ruler. This was the final stage of Mercia`s annexation to Wessex. It would no longer be a kingdom of it own. There was some story that Elfwynne wed a Danish prince, but after that, say the history academics, Elfwynne fades into obscurity.
Who then is the Elfwynne who emerges in the fens of Cambridgeshire during the reign of King Aethelstan, son of Edward the Elder? She was wed to Aethelstan Half-King, so called because he controlled practically half a kingdom, that had been entrusted to him by Ethelred and Ethelfleda. King Aethelstan, brought up at Tamworth by his aunt Ethelfleda, also respected this scholarly, religious man, who was a brilliant administrator and peace-keeper between English and Dane. This perhaps gives credence to the story that Elfwynne became the wife of a Danish prince. He wasn’t a Dane, but had lived among the peoples of the east midlands long enough to become trusted by both English and Dane.
The king`s half-brother who succeeded him was Edmund the Elder who had a son Edgar, later to become Edgar the Peaceful, first acknowledged King of the English.
Edgar was like many royal children, fostered out throughout his childhood, and his foster parents were Aethelstan Half-King and his wife Elfwynne. The atheling would have been carefully placed with people his parents trusted, and only very rarely would this have been outside the royal family.
Elfwynne was obviously Ethelfleda`s daughter, for her own daughter was named Ethelfleda Eneda, and she was wed when young to her cousin Edgar. The “little white duck” was however left alone with a baby, Edward, when her 16-year-old husband, the newly-proclaimed king, ran away with the youthful Wulfrith, obviously another cousin, from convent school at Wilton. Their daughter was born a year later, but Wulfrith returned to the convent, eventually becoming Abbess. Their daughter was St. Editha of Wilton.
Many years ago after writing to Gloucester library they could find very scant information on Ethelfleda Lady of the Mercians. Some historians still maintain she was not buried at Gloucester. New archaeology however is slowly unravelling the rich heritage of the past, and we may yet find the tomb of the Lady of the Mercians.