Battle Queen: Aethelflaed
Scourge of the Vikings
England was a nasty place in the 900s A.D.; life was short and brutal, starvation was common, disease was everywhere, the country was made up of several dozen kingdoms that were constantly at each other’s throats, and the Vikings had decided to make England’s eastern coast their regular pillaging grounds. In fact, they liked England so much that they ultimately decided to move in permanently.
King Alfred of Wessex was determined not to allow the Vikings into the already fractured England. Already admired for his fighting prowess and intelligence, Alfred plotted to unite all of the kingdoms of England under one rule—his—and use their combined armies to drive the Vikings out of England for good. The difficulty in executing that plan was that Alfred, soon to be called “the Great,” couldn’t fight two different wars on two fronts at the same time.
That’s when he enlisted Aethelflaed.
Princess Aethelflaed was Alfred’s eldest daughter, thought to be well educated in a time where illiteracy was rampant and known to be a ferocious warrior and amazing tactician. She went to war against the resistive city-states and brought them to heel while her father battled the Vikings along the coast. On several occasions Aethelflaed encountered Vikings on her excursions and was able to route them every time.
Being of the Saxon tribe, Aethelflaed had more freedom than most women and was allowed to pick her own husband. She chose Aethelraed of West Mercia, a kingdom around modern Stratford-on-Avon. According to one report, realizing that a union of Wessex and Mercia would strengthen Alfred’s army, the Vikings ambushed Aethelflaed and her entourage as she rode to her wedding! It is not recorded what the outcome of the battle was, but I’m sure she kicked butt, and at some point safely made it to West Mercia and married Aethelraed.
Aethelflaed very quickly united the squabbling Mercians and moved quickly to improve the fortifications throughout her kingdom. It seems that Aethelflaed exercised the most control while in West Mercia (Aethelraed didn’t seem to mind), and she was so powerful and commanding that the Mercians adopted this foreign queen as one of their own, revering her as “the Lady of the Mercians.” Aethelflaed retreated from the battlefield and war room long enough to birth her daughter Aelfwyn, but the experience nearly killed her and Aethelflaed swore eternal virginity rather than risk death like that again. Apparently, Aethelraed was all right with her decision, kept her as his queen, and they remained good friends until his death in battle in 911.
St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester
After Alfred the Great died in 899 and his son Edward took the throne of Wessex, civil unrest began to boil again, and the Vikings, seeing Edward as weaker than his father, sought to reclaim their lost territories. Aethelflaed, now sole ruler of West Mercia, rushed to help, hiring mercenaries from the English Midlands to help her brother while she attacked and captured large portions of Wales in retaliation for them aiding the Vikings. She built fortresses in Warwick and Stafford, repaired the Roman wall in Chester, captured Northumbria and a Viking fort in York, and wrested Derby from the Vikings. When Aethelflaed marched in on Leicester following her victory at Derby, her reputation preceded her and the people of Leicester surrendered instantly. Aethelflaed then created ironclad peace treaties between the Vikings, the Scots, the Picts and British, turning England into the first semblance of the country it would become. Her successes were so great that the Mercians began to call her King Aethelflaed.
Unfortunately, Aethelflaed’s life ended too soon; while some say that it was plague that felled the warrior queen, many claim that Aethelflaed died at Tamsworth in June 918 while fighting in battle, taking a swinging mace to the side of her helmet. While thousands grieved, her brother Edward seemed unmoved; one year after Aethelflaed’s daughter Aelfwyn became queen of the Mercians, Edward led a coup, overthrew his niece and annexed all of Aethelflaed’s territory to his own.
Please note that he waited until his fearless sister was dead before attempting that.
Aethelflaed works referenced:
Women Warriors, David E. Jones 1997
Warrior Women, Robin Cross & Rosalind Miles 2011
The Encyclopedia of Amazons, Jessica Salmonson 1992
Alfred the Great http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_the_Great
Monument to Aethelflaed at Tamsworth
Books You Should Be Reading
More by this Author
How a supposedly "barbaric" queen destroyed a god-king
Meet the world's first female doctor--without her we'd be surrounded by old guys in lab coats asking us weird questions.
She sang, she danced, she acted, she fought for civil rights, she spied on the Nazis ... is there anything Josephine Baker *didn't* do?