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Aethelflaed: The Secret Queen of England
When you think of English history and the Dark Ages, the first thing you may think of is the crusades and King Richard the Lionheart or you may not know anything of English history at all. If you have some knowledge of it, do you think of Alfred the Great and his daughter Æthelflæd of Mercia? There are many people who have never heard of either of them. Æthelflæd was the first Queen of the English people reigning from 870-918 C.E. (S, Bryan). However, common knowledge states that Elizabeth Tudor was the first Queen of England but this is commonly misconstrued. Æthelflæd was Queen six hundred years before Elizabeth Tudor was even conceived (Wainwright). Why is it that Queen Æthelflæd of Mercia is not considered a legitimate ruler of England? Æthelflæd of Mercia should be recognized as a legitimate ruler in English history because she executed intense battle tactics on her enemies, fortified her country against attackers, and founded religious priories and cathedrals all during her reign.
In a time when England was not yet England, Æthelflæd, the first child and daughter to Alfred of Wessex and Ealhswith, a noble woman from Mercia, was born (Wainwright). Æthelflæd was born during a time in the Dark Ages (Wolbrink) when her uncle and father were barely holding off a massive Dane and Viking invasion around 869 C.E. (Bately 62) when her uncle, Æthelred, was King. Her uncle died during this invasion from wounds he received in battle, leaving her father in command of all of the Saxon people. After he created and signed a peace treaty with the invading Danes and Vikings, King Alfred created the Kingdom of Wessex or “The Kingdom of the West Saxons”. He also divided the land of “The Angles” or “Engle Land,” as the Danes called it, into many different Kingdoms of which had their own Kings and Queens. He created with these Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms “The Danelaw” to the east and “Norththumbria” to the north (Hadley 72-78).
In the peace treaty, England was split into thirds – Wessex, Sussex, Wales, West Wales and half of Mercia went to Alfred whereas Kent, Essex, East Anglica, and the other half of Mercia went to the Danes. The Vikings got Deira and Bernicia (Ford 115-120). Territories that were not yet invaded in today’s United Kingdom were Cumbria and Strathclyde, controlled by Scottish Highlanders; Ireland was a separate country onto itself (Ford 112-114). The treaty only bought him five years. The Danes started encroaching on Wessex and in January 878, launched a winter offensive which took the Saxons completely by surprise. The whole of Wessex was overrun and the royal family was forced to flee, fugitives in their own land (S, Bryan)
Details about her fathers life are described in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by the Welsh scholar and bishop, Asser. Students of Asser would continue The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles after his death where Æthelflæd, serving as Queen of the Mercians, would briefly be mentioned. This history may not seem familiar because it has almost been forgotten by academics entirely. There remains only a few aged scholars who recall the history of “The Lady of Mercia” yet it is not as common of knowledge as that of Queen Elizabeth I or Queen Mary Tudor. Both of these females were Queens of the same country of which Æthelflæd had a major part in founding.
England would not be England if it were not for King Alfred the Great, Æthelflæd’s father. In The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Asser states that “Alfred was a learned man who encouraged education and improved his kingdom's legal system and military structure” (Bately 60). He was considered a great King because of his ability to hold off the invading Danes and Vikings so they did not gain control of the Anglo-Saxon people. The father of Queen Elizabeth I, Henry Tudor, is only remembered for beheading four of his six wives and for breaking away from the Catholic church. He was also the father of Queen Mary Tudor of England who is only remembered for beheading the Anglican people who would not convert back to Catholicism after the death of her father. Why is it that Æthelflæd is not remembered as the great Queen she was?
Æthelflæd had her first major political stand off when she was only eight years old. As a child, Æthelflæd was head strong and had a love for worldly knowledge yet only wished to be outside exploring. While exploring, she came upon a band of Danes, when she overheard them say her fathers universal name she hid from them knowing that they were not suppose to be on the land because of the peace treaty they signed along with her father. (Bately 61). Before she could hear anymore, a twig snapped and the Danes detected her. They chased her but she was able to get away. When Æthelflæd got back to camp she found her mother, Ealhswith, frantic with worry. Alfred towers above her, and demands to know where she has been. When her father finds out she has been spying on a group of Danes that were in the marshes, he is furious, but then he realizes that the information his daughter has brought him is extremely valuable. Alfred soon implores guerilla warfare and wins an important victory over the Danes once again.
It was arranged for Æthelflæd to marry King Æthelred of Mercia when she was only fifteen years old (Æthelred is not to be confused with her uncle of the same name). During her journey from Wessex to Mercia, her wedding party was attacked again by the Danes (S, Bryan). Æthelflæd fought alongside her body guards, protecting her maids, servants, and dowry. They fought and were driven into an old broken castle, her dowry by then being looted and the majority of her servants and men being slaughtered. They were outnumbered but fought until every last Dane was killed. Only Æthelflæd, her maidservant and a bodyguard survived. It took the remainder of the wedding party three months to reach Æthelred in Mercia.
Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary Tudor never had to fight for their own lives while they were traveling. These ladies always left the obligation to the men that accompanied them. Mary was exiled as a child for being the daughter of Henry VIII’s first wife (Weir 53) and Elizabeth was sent to live in a prison for being the daughter of Anne Boleyn (Collinson 85). However, Æthelflæd spied on the Danes who were killing her own people and also fought against them alongside her own men as an equal. Æthelflæd never allowed herself to be controlled or imprisoned and she was did not live within the boundary of the traditional feminine role.
When she was married and became Queen alongside Æthelred, she helped him form battle strategies that would later gain many victories over the Danes. Æthelred became deathly ill after the Battle of Tettenhallin 910 (Arnopp)forcing Æthelflæd to rule Mercia in his absence. During this time, she signed agreements and fought on his campaigns for him; winning a vast majority of the campaigns. On her husband's death in 911, her people began to refer to her as "Lady of the Mercians" because she was a formidable military leader and tactician. After the death of her father, her little brother, Edward, became King of Wessex and she helped him win decisive victories over the Danes and hold off the Vikings that were invading Wessex once again. This small detail showed that she was a better general than her own brother, the King of Wessex (Bately 62). When it came to battle strategies and the Tudor Queens, they did not plan or plot any uprising of their own that would benefit their people in a positive way ie) self preservation. Mary and Elizabeth Tudor were simply (and still are) figureheads to a country (of which Æthelflæd fought for) that crumbled under their very power. During both Mary’s and Elizabeth’s reigns, they were at war with Spain and briefly with France; never once did the Queens have as significant an impact on the outcome of any wars they fought as Æthelflæd had over the outcomes of her battles.
During her lifetime, Æthelflæd rebuilt the Roman roads of Gloucester, the capital and residency of the royal family of Mercia. The same streets that she built can still be seen in Gloucester today. If you are driving though the heart of the city, you are driving on the roads that Æthelflæd herself arranged to have rebuilt. Æthelflæd also founded the original Gloucester Priory of which only the ruins stand today. About a block away from the Gloucester Priory ruins, stands a grand building now known as the Gloucester Cathedral (Nelson 183). In Æthelflæds lifetime, the Gloucester priory consisted of many buildings on a large plot of land; the Cathedral now stands on where the main building of the ancient priory once stood. Æthelflæd ruled for approximately eight years (Bately 63) until she herself became deathly ill during a campaign. Her remains and that of Æthelred lay underneath the Gloucester Cathedral. When compared to Æthelflæd and the improvements she bestowed upon her country Mary and Elizabeth were made to look like they never contributed anything towards the benefit their country. Mary is called “Bloody Mary” for her heartless beheadings of enemies (following in her fathers footsteps) while Elizabeth is known for reigning in the “Golden Age” because for a brief time, England did see peace between Spain (until Elizabeth insulted the King).
Æthelflæd deserves to be acknowledged as a legitimate ruler of England because she was a legitimate ruler of England. From the details included above, she was more of a Queen then any of the other Queens in England’s history because she actually had first hand experience in founding, organizing, and protecting the land that we call England now. Not only was her father a great King but she married a King as well. She was first a Princess and then a Queen, in her own right and earned her title as a “respected tactian” and “Lady of the Mercians” (Encyclopedia Britannica) while her husband, the King of Mercia was ill and was bestowed the title “Queen” out of his invalid state. Her brother, also a King of England, requested her advice on many occasions to defeat invaders proving that she was far better of a commander then he was himself. She was a spy for her father when she overheard the Danes planning their attack and she was an architect by planning and reconstructing the battlements of Gloucester so that her people were not completely annihilated by the invading Danes (Wainwright).
What did the other Queens of England do for their country? Queen Elizabeth I argued with the Spanish for her entire term, going to war with them on occasion. She constantly brought up the fact that she did not want to be married because she wanted to control the crown herself and then trusted men that manipulated and lied to her (Collinson). Queen Mary sat on her thrown, yelling at people like a punished spoiled child, beheading anyone who disagreed with her. She was also infatuated the King of Spain who thought she was absolutely disgusting (Weir 58-60). Æthelflæd makes the Queens that came after her look school children who never got their way. Of all the things that Æthelflæd accomplished in one life time, it is amazing that we have been so careless to forget her memory. A true woman and military leader like this deserves to be remembered far after her death (Stafford 50-59).
Æthelred was called an “Ealdorman” in that time which many people think translates to the royal title of “earl” nowadays but because it is old English, ealdorman means more precisely, “King” as the word has come to be understood as someone who reigns, protects, and serves people in the region that they command. Therefore, Æthelflæd, being his wife, is rightfully a Queen who should be legitimized in English history.
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Arnopp, Judy. "Potent Elfleda!" The Medieval World of Judith Arnopp. Judy Arnopp, 2007. Web. 21 Nov. 2010.
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Collinson, Patrick. Elizabeth, I. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.
Ford, David N. "St. Mary & St. Aethelflaed's Abbey Church, Romsey." Early British Kingdoms (2003). 100-150. Print.
Hadley, D. M. The Northern Danelaw: Its Social Structure. London: Leicester University Press, 2000. Print.
S, Bryan. "Action Heroines of History - Aethelflaed - Daughter of Greatness." Girls With Guns. Bryan S, Aug. 2005. Web. 21 Nov. 2010. <http://www.girlswithguns.org/long/aethelflaed.htm>.
Stafford, Pauline. "The King's Wife in Wessex, 800-1066." New Readings on Women in Old English Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. 50-59. Print.
Nelson, Janet L. "Anglo-Saxon England." In The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England. Ed. Nigel Saul. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print.
Wainwright, F. T. "Æthelflæd Lady of the Mercians." The Anglo-Saxons. Ed. Peter Clemoes. London: Bowes and Bowes, 1959. Print.
Weir, Alison. The Children of Henry VIII. Print.
Wolbrink, Shelley. Great Lives from History: The Middle Ages. Salem Press, 2004. 850-55. Print.
A collection of poetry by author Sarah Schwartz with selected essays.
© 2017 Sarah Schwartz