Sunday 18 June 2023

Ad Gefrin - Anglo-Saxon Museum

 On Friday I had the opportunity to travel into ancient Northumbria to visit Ad Gefrin. A few years ago I had visited the site, at Yeavering, where an enormous 'Anglo-Saxon' hall had once stood (you can find my blog post about that visit HERE) so I was excited to hear news that in 2023 a new museum was opening just a few miles away, at Wooler. 

In April, Ad Gefrin Tweeted a selection of the books for sale in the shop, and I was thrilled to see one of mine included. A conversation ensued, during which I promised to let them know when I was planning to visit.

So now, let me tell you about my visit, starting with the website and booking tickets. It's maybe not essential to book in advance, though it would be advisable at busy times, and I was a bit concerned because though I didn't want to travel all that way and find it fully booked, I also - because of travelling such a long way - couldn't say exactly what time I'd be there. No need to worry though, because it's so simple to book your tickets online and know that the ticket gives you all day access, from 10am-6pm.

Off I went, tickets secured and, following another conversation via Twitter, knowing that the team there were ready to welcome me when I arrived. I'm afraid the first thing I did when I got there (in my defence, it wasn't my idea; I was encouraged!) was to sing into the 'atrium' and enjoy the resonance. I must say in apology to all who were there that I had given five talks in the week leading up to the visit and have not been to choir practice for a month so my voice was not at its operatic best!

Upstairs I was welcomed into the mead hall, (and asked to leave any weapons at the door)

and it was explained that there was an audio-visual to watch. I imagined the usual run-of-the-mill VT scenario, and I couldn't have been more wrong. The auditorium makes up an imagined half of the great hall, while the audio-visual presentation makes up the other half. It is an extraordinary presentation and does an incredible job of bringing the Anglo-Saxon hall to life. Various characters stepped forward to speak, and explain who they are and talk about their lives. It was mesmerising (though not easy to photograph, so apologies for the picture quality):

I was told that on the dais where there are three beautiful wall hangings there will soon be two replica 'thrones' so that's all the excuse I need to return for another visit. 

Here are some pictures of the other half of the hall where you can sit and enjoy the audio-visual show:

In the other half of the museum you can see the display of artefacts, some unearthed nearby and some on loan from the British Museum and other places:

as well as site plans and models of the buildings:

I was so intent on scrutinising the exhibits that it was only as I made to leave that I fully noticed the paintings behind the displays, and spent a long time looking at them and appreciating how much they helped to contextualise the exhibits:

Of course, me being me, I chatted at length to the staff who were all knowledgeable and friendly. Downstairs again, I had another long chat with the team, and accidentally found myself purchasing a bottle of gin from the distillery... I didn't have time to do the distillery tour so again, that's another excuse to go back again...

The museum has only been open for three months or so and already it is a stunning place and it will continue to grow and develop. What I especially loved is how immersive it all is and how, without fanfare or fuss, it opens a window onto life in an Anglo-Saxon 'court'. The artefacts are well presented, easy to see and with easy to read notes. The backdrops add visual aids which really help to imagine what life looked like and the colours and detail are rich. Anyone who thought that early medieval buildings were drab wooden sheds will leave with an entirely different impression after looking at the intricate and beautifully decorated carvings in the 'hall'. Similarly, anyone who thinks that the clothing of the period was drab, plain, and unadorned will watch the film and discover that's simply not true.

There are dots to be joined up too: in one of the display cases there is a shield boss

which is, frankly, stunning enough. But back in the hall, you can see a replica of how this shield would once have looked:

I think it's so important to present history in this way; to give an insight into how that world looked. While I was there I noticed that many of the visitors were prompted to ask questions about what they were seeing, and came away having learned even more about the importance of the site at Yeavering, the history of the Northumbrian kingdom, and the Anglo-Saxon world.

I cannot recommend Ad Gefrin highly enough. Do visit if you can.

Find Ad Gefrin on Twitter and Instagram

Saturday 17 June 2023

Prominent Women of Mercia

On Sunday June 12th as part of Tamworth's Æthelfest 23, I delivered the second of my talks*. This time the subject was Prominent Women of Mercia and I began by thanking everyone for coming, and expressed my gratitude to Tamworth Borough Council and the festival organisers for inviting me.

Then I began my talk by shouting at everyone:


That’s how the great epic poem Beowulf starts and whilst scholars argue about what that actually means, the purpose surely is to get everyone to settle down and listen. (And by the way, there’s more than one historian who thinks that Beowulf originated in Mercia).

[You can see that word hwaet up there on the screen, top left – that’s the opening page of a copy of Beowulf there]

And we can imagine them in a hall, gathering round, drinks in hand - drinks served by the women. The poem was eventually written down, but even then it was meant to be performed, not read, because well, the Anglo-Saxons weren’t that literate were they? Well, actually they were. And those women who were serving the drinks? Yes, them too, some of them at any rate, but I’ll come back to them. (Incidentally it was a great honour and a sign of high status when the lady of the hall served the drinks. It was she who really gave permission for the fun and feasting to start.)

Now, whilst I have written a book about Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, and there were plenty of them, mostly I write about the ancient kingdom of Mercia, both in my fiction and nonfiction, so I’m going to talk today about some phenomenal Mercian women, some of whom were given a really bad press.

If we go right back to the beginning, one standout woman was King Penda’s wife, Cynewise. We know very little about her but Bede - the Northumbrian monk who wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People - does imply that she was ruling the kingdom when her husband was away and that she was left in charge of a high status hostage, the son of the king of Northumbria, no less. Penda spent a lot of his time up in Northumbria, fighting, so I guess we can assume that the clearly able Cynewise was left in charge during his absences for long periods.

One of their granddaughters was St Werburg, who was revered at Chester, and you can see her pilgrim badge there, a design incorporated into a stained glass window, with geese on it. Among the many miracles attributed to her is the one told by William of Malmesbury. He said that she owned a strip of land where the crops were being eaten by wild geese. Werburg told the bailiff to shut the geese up in his house and, whilst he thought it an odd request, he obeyed. He then stole one of the birds for his supper, fearing no reprisal, we’re told. The next day Werburg commanded the geese to fly off but they did not, instead crowding round her feet and complaining loudly. She realised something was amiss, questioned the bailiff and obtained his confession. She then made a sign of healing and the bird sprouted new feathers and sprang back to life. William of Malmesbury went on to say that Werburg’s powers were such that the prayers of all were granted, especially those of women and children. Her cult was promoted by Mercian kings in their own kingdom and in Kent. In the tenth century, though, the main focus of her cult was Chester, where her remains were enshrined probably at the command of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, at a minster which became known as St Werburgh’s. During the Reformation, St Werburgh’s Abbey became the cathedral of the new see of Chester.

Werburg’s father, Wulfhere, was equally as strong a Mercian king as his father, Penda, but unlike Penda he was Christian, (and you can see him there on the right at Lichfield Cathedral) and he set about ensuring that smaller kingdoms under his overlordship were Christian, too. The king of Sussex accepted Wulfhere as his baptismal sponsor and, perhaps as a reward, received as a bride a princess of the kingdom of the Hwicce (an kingdom roughly the area of modern-day diocese of Worcester)

Now, this princess called Eafe might just -though the dates barely work, be the same person as an abbess of that name, who was granted land by the king of Mercia at the time, Æthelbald, for the murder of her kinsman. If this Eafe is one and the same, then she’s a good example of how royal women forged independent lives in widowhood, because the religious life was far from unpleasant, and she clearly made sure that the king atoned for his crime against her kinsman. The oft-quoted ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ seems to suggest that in such an establishment there will be piety, chastity, and quiet contemplation. All these are true, but perhaps our idea of a nunnery is of a slightly austere building or buildings, where holy sisters spent their days in prayer and hard work. In fact, many were what we call Double Houses, containing both monks and nuns. Sometimes the two houses were separated by high walls, but not always. Most were run by princess-abbesses; royal, they were powerful, and influential, like our next lady.

A few generations after Penda’s family, we meet Cynethryth, wife of Offa. He was not especially closely related to the previous king, and her bloodline might have strengthened his claim (the bloodline of royal women often played a part in establishing rule). He had ambition - reckoning himself the equal to the emperor Charlemagne (it’s clear from his letters that Charlemagne didn’t feel the same way!) - and because of the precarious nature of kingship, Offa arranged to have his son, Ecgfrith, anointed as his official heir (not that it did him much good; the lad only reigned for five months). Offa’s wife, on the other hand, holds a special record. She is the only queen consort - that we know of - who had coins minted in her own name. Part of Offa’s plans for empire, no doubt, but the fact remains that she had her own coinage.

[and you can see her coin there, with the word REGINA on it]

She was also involved in government (she witnessed 25 charters). Alcuin who was a Northumbrian scholar in Charlemagne’s court wrote to her son after he succeeded, and reminded him that he should learn compassion from his mother and, tellingly, he asked that the king send greeting to her; he would have written to her himself but knew that the king’s business kept her too busy to read letters. So she’s clearly acting as regent, if she’s busy with the king’s business, and also clearly able to read any letters that Alcuin might have chosen to send. She retired to become abbess at Cookham, a foundation which is currently being excavated, so that’s very exciting.

Cynethryth was accused by a later chronicler of inciting her husband to commit murder. But I must emphasise that bit about a LATER chronicler. Because remember Alcuin, who was a contemporary, called her compassionate.

In 794, we’re told, Offa, king of the Mercians, had Æthelberht of East Anglia beheaded.’ This is a contemporary-ish account, fairly standard, blames the king.

And there you can see the murdered king immortalised in a stained glass image

One version of the story is that this murdered king of East Anglia wanted to marry a daughter of Offa. He travelled to meet her in Mercia but Offa suspected him of planning an invasion and had him killed, beheaded and thrown into the nearby River. That later chronicler, Roger of Wendover  - remember that name! - blamed Offa’s wife, saying that it was she who had counselled the murders.

Roger’s story gives great detail: 'Æthelberht came to Offa, the most potent king of the Mercians, beseeching him to give him his daughter in marriage.’  On learning the reason for his visit, Offa apparently entertained him with ‘all possible courtesy’, so this is a different spin. But when he consulted his queen, she said ‘God has this day delivered into your hands your enemy, whose kingdom you have so long desired; if, therefore, you secretly put him to death, his kingdom will pass to you and your successors forever.’

The king was ‘exceedingly disturbed in mind at this counsel of the queen’ and rebuked her as a ‘foolish woman’. But she nevertheless hatched a complicated plan, which involved the digging of a pit underneath the visitor’s chair, into which he fell and was there ‘stifled by the executioners placed there by the queen.’ What we do find in these murder stories is the elaborate nature of some of the schemes!

The noble King Offa, when he heard the news, ‘shut himself up in grief … and tasted no food for three days.’ Still, it seems he was not one to miss an opportunity and set out on a great expedition and ‘united the kingdom of the East Angles to his dominions.’ So it all turned out well for him in the end...!

Cynethryth’s daughter was also labelled a murderess, though her story in a way was much more straightforward. She was married to a king of the West Saxons, and apparently took a dislike to her husband’s counsellor and gave him poison, but inadvertently poisoned her husband, too. She was banished abroad, ended up in the court of Charlemagne and was set up in a nunnery, but she was publicly caught in debauchery with a man of her own race, she was ejected from the nunnery on Charlemagne’s orders. Reduced to a life of poverty, she ‘died a miserable death.’ The chronicler who gave us this story said it was the reason why wives of the West Saxon kings were never again given the name and status of queen. I talked a bit about her yesterday, too)

Another royal daughter and powerful abbess was Cwoenthryth.  Cwoenthryth was the daughter of the king who succeeded Offa’s son Ecgfrith (who only reigned for a matter of months as I said). Cwoenthryth was named as her father’s heir, not to the throne, but to his property, and she became abbess of the family house at Winchcombe, the burial place of her father. She also inherited an argument concerning the lands, which the archbishop of Canterbury insisted belonged to the Church. As well as Winchcombe in Mercia she inherited houses in Kent: Minster-in-Thanet and Reculver. 

[that’s Minster Abbey, showing the original Saxon Stonework and it’s actually still a religious house today]

She cannot have overseen all three sites in person; she was clearly in charge of a wide network, and with the religious houses acting as centres for growing settlements, she would have been a powerful woman in charge of huge revenues. The eventual settlement of the dispute saw Cwoenthryth remaining in possession and in charge of Winchcombe, and continuing her role as abbess of the Kentish abbeys but she had to recognise the archbishop’s authority over them and the associated lands and of course if you own the land, you get the money, the income.

I mentioned at the beginning that we know many women must have been literate, and here are two cases in point: wealthy abbesses such as Cynethryth and Cwoenthryth would need to scrutinise documents, especially when in dispute with the Church as they both were. Letters, legal documents, land grants: they wouldn’t have been able to manage these huge, profitable estates unless they could be sure what was written on those important documents, and it seems to me unlikely that they would trust the word of someone reading them out loud. 

Of course, she too was accused of inciting murder – Here I told the story of how she was supposedly upset that when their father died, her little brother Kenelm was declared heir rather than her and she arranged for him to be taken into the woods and disposed of. All would have been well had not a dove flown over St Peter's in Rome and dropped a message on the altar saying what had happened and where the body could be found. It was duly discovered, and brought back to Winchcombe for burial. Cwoenthryth, reading from a psalter, looked out of the window and saw the procession. Realising the game was up, she began chanting a psalm backwards as a spell, whereupon her eyeballs spontaneously fell out. The chronicler who gave us this story said that even in his day, you could still see the blood spatters on the psalter. It's a great story, but there is no evidence that little Kenelm ever even existed. King Cenwulf might have had a son named Cynehelm, but he wasn’t a small boy and he seems to have predeceased his father.

And there you can see the carving from the building housing 'Kenelm's Well' just outside Winchcombe where the funeral procession is said to have rested.

King Cenwulf was succeeded not by his son, then,  nor by his daughter, but by his brother, Ceolwulf, and Cwoenthryth was succeeded as abbess of Winchcombe by Ceolwulf’s daughter, her cousin Ælfflæd.

Ælfflæd can be seen in action in her capacity as abbess in a charter and this charter seems to mark her only appearance in the contemporary records, but later Saints’ Lives name her as not only the daughter of King Ceolwulf, but the wife of a subsequent king, Wigmund. Her importance in the history of Mercia was not as abbess of a rich foundation, but as a member of more than one branch of the royal family. I mentioned in my talk yesterday this idea that the royal women had huge status by dint of their own bloodlines, which could bolster claims of men seeking the throne and as I said, might have been employed by Offa.

For most of the eighth and ninth centuries Mercia was beset by dynastic struggles. Rarely did son succeed father and, if he did, the reign was short-lived. Between the death of Offa in 796 and the death of the last Mercian king in c. 878 there were more than a dozen reigns. Cenwulf had ruled for twenty-five of those years, but others ruled for short periods, some had their reigns interrupted, and few succeeded or preceded members of their own branch of the family. To get back to Ælfflæd: Ælfflæd’s father Ceolwulf ruled for two years before being replaced by a man named Beornwulf, who was killed in battle a few years later and succeeded by a man called Ludeca. He was killed in battle and succeeded by Wiglaf, who reigned twice, having his kingship interrupted by Ecgberht of Wessex, a man whom Offa had forced into exile. Wiglaf’s son was Wigmund. Phew! Sorry about the slew of names! Anyway, with that last one, Wigmund, we get back to Ælfflæd because, according to a thirteenth-century prior and chronicler of Evesham, Wigmund married Ælfflæd.

And here comes another story of supposed child murder. 

Essentially we can break down the power struggles by looking at the names of the men involved - and it was pretty much a fight between a branch of the royal family whose names began with C, a branch with names beginning with B, and another beginning with W.

Our Ælfflæd was descended from the Cs, but she was now the wife of a W, and she had a son, also a W - Wigstan, or sometimes Wystan. And so he had the blood of two lines and was the grandson of two kings. The story goes though that when his father died, he didn’t want to be king, even though he had a perfect claim, an untainted bloodline, preferring the religious life. A man from the B branch wanted to marry the widowed Ælfflæd. Wigstan protested, was murdered, and his body taken to Repton for burial alongside his grandfather, King Wiglaf.

And there you can see the crypt at Repton (St Wystan's Church, Derbyshire)

Now, this story may or may not be true but it does highlight the importance of women and their bloodlines. We know that Ælfflæd was at some time an abbess, and so perhaps this marriage didn’t go ahead and she retired to Winchcombe after her first husband died. But it’s not quite the end of her story, because whilst the succession stayed with a number of B kings for a while, the last being Burgred, there was one more king of Mercia, a man named Ceolwulf, the same name as Ælfflæd's father. 

He is most famous for having allied with the Vikings who occupied Repton in the 870s and forced Burgred to flee, and he was dismissed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a ‘foolish king’s thegn’ but there may be a clue to his heritage in his name; we know that he was a recognised king, and shared coinage with Alfred the great, (in fact there’s been a recent court case where two detectorists tried to sell a hoard of those shared coins) and  it is possible that he was the son of Ælfflæd. If so, then it shows clearly how a woman barely mentioned in the sources was nevertheless a daughter, wife and mother of kings and a crucial player in the power politics of the age.

One Mercian woman who was definitely not accused of murder, nor was embroiled in murder plots or coups, is the niece of that king Burgred - Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. Some might be familiar with her story. It’s not quite the same as that portrayed recently in the TV show The Last Kingdom though.

[There she is – two very different statues of her in Tamworth. I love the contrast]

The daughter of Alfred the Great and his Mercian wife, Ealhswith, she’s perhaps one of the better known Mercian women of power. Whilst she was initially sent to Mercia for an arranged marriage, she made a success of that marriage, and was elected leader after her husband’s death. She worked tirelessly with her brother Edward to push back the ‘Vikings’, but there is one small, often overlooked detail about her which to me is the most significant of all in a way: after her death, the Mercians elected her daughter as leader. Her tenure didn’t last long, only six months or so, but the crucial point is that a woman leader was succeeded by a woman leader, something which didn’t happen again in England until Tudor times.

There is actually very little mention of Æthelflæd in the chronicles, yet we have enough in the documented history about her husband to make deductions about her, and we have the document known as the Mercian Register, compiled in Mercia and inserted into the collection we call the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which details her activities (until her death in 918) from 902. Her husband, Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, having been mentioned fighting alongside Alfred and his son Edward, abruptly disappears from the record at this time and when we piece the reliable, and not so reliable sources together, it does seem that Æthelflæd was in charge of Mercia at this time, and that her husband was ill for some years. 

When Æthelred died, Edward took London and Oxford under the direct control of Wessex, but left Mercia ‘proper’ to his sister and didn’t even appoint an ealdorman to rule the province in his name. A woman leader was not unique but was rare. Edward didn’t allow Æthelflæd’s daughter to rule for long after her mother died, but the Mercian Register complains that she was ‘deprived of all authority’ so they clearly viewed her as rightful leader.  

We don’t know that Æthelflæd wielded a sword, however. I’m not convinced by the whole warrior woman scenario. [As I said in my talk yesterday] The Mercian Register focuses on her building programme, rather than the fighting, with brother and sister building fortresses in a strategic and coordinated campaign. 

In addition, the Mercian Register tells us she sent an army into Wales to avenge the death of an abbot and that the following year she took Derby out of Viking hands but in neither case are we told specifically that she herself fought.

As I said, she certainly wasn’t accused of murder. In fact, it seems that no one had a bad word to say about her. But in truth, hardly anyone spoke about her at all. She’s not even named in the main version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, she’s just called King Edward’s sister. Were it not for the Mercian Register and the Irish and Welsh annals we wouldn’t know very much about her at all. And, sadly, that’s true for many of the women of this period – what we get is straightforward and/or minimal reporting from contemporary sources, or lurid tales of murder and scandal from the later ones.

And actually, let’s just knock these murder accusations on the head. With one exception, they’re all later ‘inventions’ - 12th-century Church attitudes were very different regarding women and of course these chroniclers were all monks. Only one murder story is anything like contemporary - the story of the queen who accidentally poisoned her husband and was banished abroad. But this story came to us from Asser, the biographer of Alfred the Great, who didn’t even deign to tell us the name of Alfred’s wife. It's more a story to discredit the Mercians and I have a theory about that because I believe that her husband wasn’t a West Saxon, (his name, Beorhtric, is much more Mercian-sounding (you remember that B branch of the royal family?), so I think he was actually a Mercian, a puppet installed by his father-in-law, Offa, and obviously the West Saxons wouldn’t want to dwell on that. All that said, it does seem likely that her husband was actually killed in battle, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle seems to imply this, so I think we can discount the whole poisoning story full stop.

For our next amazing woman, we stick with the theme of murder, but this time the story is of a canny woman who used it to her advantage.

And we go back in time a bit too, because Domneva, who was from Kent [that’s her in the middle], was married to a son - or perhaps foster son - of Penda of Mercia whom I mentioned earlier. This son or foster son  was king of the Magonsaete, roughly coterminous with the diocese of Hereford. Domneva’s brothers were murdered by their cousin and she demanded compensation, as per the law. But instead of money, she asked for land on which to build an abbey, as much land, in fact, as her tame hind could run round in a day. The murderous king underestimated how far this would be, and ended up being tricked into giving much more land than he'd anticipated. And the abbey that Domneva founded was this one, Minster Abbey, so that's a nice closing of the circle.

Generally, the abbesses began to lose something of their power and status with the decline of the double houses and monasteries gradually began to be ruled by men. Later abbesses as we’ve seen came into direct conflict with the Church which wanted to lessen their wealth and influence. But it should not be forgotten that in the early days, it was women who were entrusted with managing these huge estates and who were responsible for the spiritual welfare of their human flocks.

Domneva’s family links were complicated; not only did her cousin kill her brothers, but his sister was married to a brother, or perhaps half-brother, of Domneva’s husband. It must have made for some awkward family Christmases!

And speaking of family sagas and complicated links, I’d like to return to Mercia ‘proper’ as it were, and mention some of the women from the later period of Anglo-Saxon history who left their mark in the 11th century.

It’s a complex tale, of rivalry and murder and astonishingly all these women were related, members of one of the richest and most powerful families in England. It starts with a woman named Wulfrun, and though we don’t know much about her, the few known facts of her life confirm that she was in the uppermost tier of high society. 

She is the only female high status hostage named by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (she was actually taken during a raid here in Tamworth), she founded the monastery in the city named after her [and that statue is there] – Wolverhampton – and was of such high standing that her son was known not by any reference to his father, but as Wulfric Wulfrunsson.

Now, Wulfrun had two other children that we know of, besides Wulfric. Her other son, Ælfhelm, was murdered by another ealdorman and his two sons were blinded. All on the orders of the king, Æthelred the 'Unready' it would seem. But as you can see from this family tree, that left a daughter, 

Ælfgifu of Northampton: 

Æthelred the 'Unready' did not have an especially happy reign, particularly when his country was invaded by Svein Forkbeard. This powerful and influential Mercian family was under suspicion, accused of encouraging or even facilitating the submission of their area of Mercia to Swein. Indeed, it was around the time of that submission that Ælfgifu married Swein’s son, Cnut.

And you can see him there with the two sons who reigned after him, not both Ælfgifu’s, as we’ll see in a moment.

She was later to be called a concubine, but the details of her life suggest that she was more to him than a mere sexual partner, even after Cnut remarried. Perhaps we can imagine how the two met. Swein based his operations in the north, camping at Gainsborough. It would have made perfect sense to strengthen the bonds with the northern families by marrying his son to the daughter of one of the most powerful among them. The union bears all the hallmarks of yet another political marriage, in which the wife’s value rested solely on her bloodline. Yet Ælfgifu’s later life and career show that she was anything but a timid maid given no responsibility other than to breed heirs and keep her family loyal.

By the time of the marriage – probably 1013 – her father was dead and her brothers had been effectively removed from political life, having been blinded. Ælfgifu had two sons by Cnut, who were probably born early on in the marriage. (Cnut remarried in 1017, of which more in a moment.) After Æthelred the Unready’s death, his son Edmund Ironside fought five battles in one year against Cnut but ultimately Cnut was victorious. Cnut set about neutralising any opposition threats, including that from any remaining English royal sons, and to do that he married Æthelred's widow, Emma of Normandy, with whom he also had two children. 

Emma, (there she is, above) with her credentials as an English queen, was no doubt important to Cnut, but so too was Ælfgifu of Northampton, and Cnut had a task for her to perform. He had an empire to rule, and his son by Emma, Harthacnut, was in Denmark for some years before his father’s death, ruling the country and minting coins in his own name there. In 1030 Cnut sent Ælfgifu and her son Swein to Norway, there to rule for him.

 The regency in Norway may have been hugely symbolic, but it was not a success. At the outset, it demonstrated the powerful status of the mothers of royal heirs. Swein would only have been around fifteen and it is telling that the period was remembered in Scandinavian history as ‘Ælfgifu’s time’. It was a rule noted for harsh taxation, but it has been argued that although the records do indeed indicate a heavy tax being raised during this time, it could not have been achieved without the cooperation of the majority of the nobles. It might also have been wrongly assumed to be an annual tax rather than a one-off payment, which would make it sound worse. Whatever the reason, the regency was not popular and in 1034 Ælfgifu and Swein were ousted and had to flee to Denmark. Swein died shortly afterwards, in 1035. The more significant death of that year, however, was that of Cnut, on 12th November. Now the battle between his two wives, or widows, we should say would really begin, as they revealed their aggressive determination to secure the kingdom of England for their sons.

The fight was on. Emma championed her son by Cnut, Harthacnut, whilst Ælfgifu was unsurprisingly batting for her surviving son, Harold, known as Harefoot (and I must be careful here, because in the famous and fabulously funny book 1066 And All That he is called Harold Hairbrush, so forgive me if I slip up!)

When Cnut died, of the four of them - the two widows and their sons - only Emma was still in England. Harthacnut might have been Cnut’s choice of heir, as promised to Emma upon their wedding, but the political situation in Denmark was too volatile to allow him to return to England, while Ælfgifu and Harold, on the other hand, were free to do so.

The two women entered into the most fascinating propaganda war as they each championed the rights of their sons by Cnut to succeed and it included some dirty tricks and smear campaigns – Ælfgifu was accused of bribery and corruption and Emma commissioned a work known as the Encomium Emmae Reginae,  more of which in a moment. 

And that image above is actually taken from the cover of the Encomium and it shows Emma in, as far as I know, the only contemporary ‘portrait’ that we have for this period.

The long, complicated upshot was that Harold Harefoot was declared king. Emma commissioned this work of fantastic spin, the Encomium, setting out her own son’s claims, in which it was said that the archbishop of Canterbury refused to crown Harold and slurs were cast over his legitimacy, and even his parentage, but he was there, Emma’s son was in Denmark, so the deal was a done one. 

Emma needed to change tack. Reports vary as to whether they were invited by her, or someone else, but her sons by Æthelred the Unready came back from their exile in France. One of them, Alfred, was captured and blinded. Could it be that Ælfgifu was behind this order - in vengeance for the blinding of her brothers all those years ago on the orders of Alfred’s father? Intriguing thought.

One 20th-century historian considered that, during her son’s brief reign, Ælfgifu was actually running the country. Harold died not long after becoming king, Harthacnut reigned for not much longer and then the last of Emma’s sons, Edward the Confessor, eventually succeeded.

Emma had pretty much ignored her sons by Æthelred the Unready until she needed them and when Edward became king, he moved against her and took her treasure from her. These were not women content to sit by their needlework, that’s for sure!

But that’s not quite the end of our Ælfgifu:

There was one last possible ‘sighting’ of this once great lady of the Danelaw, in a twelfth-century cartulary from Aquitaine, which mentions a lady named Alveva who was related to a king named Heroldus. It is possible that these are Ælfgifu and her son Harold. This text mentions a grandson and given that Harold was only in his early twenties when he died, perhaps an infant son of his was given over to his mother who maybe took him with her to exile in southern France. 

But we’re not done with the story of this powerful family descended from Wulfrun. If I take you back to the family tree, you’ll see another branch on the right.

And we now get a look at the descendants of Wulfrun’s daughter, Ælfthryth. You’ll see it says Sigeferth and Morcar, brothers, who were both killed. Again, this seems to have been on the orders of Æthelred the Unready, and it had far-reaching consequences. It appears that these young men, powerful young nobles, were part of the court circle of Edmund Ironside, who, as I mentioned, ultimately lost out to Cnut. But these killings came at a time when Edmund was beginning to flex his muscles and was perhaps anxious that his father’s sons by Emma were coming of age. When Sigeferth and Morcar were killed, Morcar’s wife Ealdgyth was imprisoned and Edmund not only freed her, he married her (we’ve no idea, of course, how she felt about that - but it did gain Edmund the allegiance of the people who lived in the family’s lands, in Mercia).

Now, the line down this side gets a bit uncertain, but if we follow the projection you’ll see a man named Ælfgar, who appears to have married into this illustrious family. He became an earl of Mercia, he locked horns with the powerful Godwine family who had him banished not once, but twice, but he had pretty famous parents himself. His father was Leofric, earl of Mercia, and his mother was Lady Godgifu, or as she’s more familiarly known, Lady Godiva.

First, that horse ride. The story goes that Leofric (her husband) founded the monastery at Coventry on the advice of his wife. He endowed the foundation with so much land, woods and ornaments that Godgifu was keen to free the town of Coventry from such a financial burden, and yet when she spoke to her husband about it [there she is in the first picture, remonstrating with him] he challenged her to ‘Mount your horse, and ride naked, before all the people, through the market of the town, from one end to the other, and on your return you shall have your request.’ Whereupon, she ‘loosed her hair and let down her tresses, which covered the whole of her body like a veil, she rode through the market-place, without being seen, except her fair legs, and having completed the journey, returned with gladness to her astonished husband’, who then freed the town from the aforesaid service, and confirmed what he had done by a charter. 

Except…the only source we have for the story is Roger of Wendover, a monk writing in the thirteenth century. I told you to remember his name! Other sources suggest that the founding of Coventry was a joint enterprise between husband and wife (and none mentions the horse ride).

It's such a shame that this is all she’s remembered for. She was the matriarch of a very powerful family – her husband was one of three leading earls, her son was an earl, her grandsons were the famous earls Edwin and Morcar and I’ll talk about her granddaughter in a moment. 

We know that Godiva was a wealthy woman; possibly originally from northwest Mercia, she held lands in Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire.

Leofric was described as pious, and being ‘but a moderate drinker’ and prayed in secret when his drunken companions were asleep. He was in power for over twenty years, we’re told  ‘without violence or aggression’. He was heavily involved in the succession crisis created by the death of Cnut, when two contenders vied for the throne as we’ve seen and this particular game of thrones was very much directed by the two royal mothers, Ælfgifu and Emma, and was heavily reported. Had another high-ranking woman, wife of a leading and rather staid nobleman, with family ties to Ælfgifu, done a public striptease, I think it would have been commented upon. One of the more contemporary records for this period, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is quite detailed by this stage, giving over pages and pages to each year, as opposed to one sentence summaries for earlier centuries (in 776 for example it tells of a battle but not who won, and records that 'marvellous adders were seen in Sussex), but it doesn’t mention the horse ride. 

It's possible that she was born around 990 and if she died even shortly after 1066 then she might have been well into her seventies, having lived through the reigns of Æthelred the ‘Unready’, Swein Forkbeard and Cnut, Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut, Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwineson, and lived to see William of Normandy crowned king of England. And she kept hold of her lands after the conquest which is more than can be said for many!

So she was pious, rich - in her own right as well as through her marriage - and an old lady to be reckoned with. But riding naked through the streets? I don’t think so. 

So, Godiva lived through turbulent times, but she wasn’t the last person in her family to have a large part on the political stage. If I go back one more time to the family tree,

you’ll see that her son Ælfgar had at least three children. The two boys, and they were just boys, teenagers really, Edwin and Morcar, became earls of Mercia and Northumbria respectively. They fought Harald Hardrada at the battle of Fulford in 1066, though sadly they lost. Morcar seems to have joined the resistance fighter Hereward the Wake down in the fenlands of Ely, though it didn’t end happily for him. He was imprisoned by William and Edwin was killed, seemingly by his own men.

[later depiction of the battle of Fulford]

But their sister, Ealdgyth, well, she has a story too. And it could, but for a moment of fate, have been one that everyone would have heard. Her father had been a staunch ally of Gruffudd, king of Wales and she had been married to Gruffudd until his own men turned on him, killed him, and sent his head to Harold Godwineson. Later on, perhaps looking for support for his bid for the kingship, Harold married Ealdgyth, which presumably secured the support of her brothers, Edwin and Morcar who really had little reason to love Harold whose family had caused their father to be banished twice. So Ealdgyth holds the unique distinction of having been queen of Wales, and queen of England.

What’s more, it is said that when all was lost at Hastings, Edwin and Morcar hot-tailed it back to London and scooped their sister away to Chester and safety. Their pregnant sister… for it is also said that she was carrying, and later gave birth to, Harold’s son, also called Harold.

But for a stray arrow (if we choose to believe the story about Harold’s death on that fateful day) the kings and queens of England could all have been descended from this incredible Mercian family.

It is really challenging piecing together the scant details of these women’s lives, but it is rewarding. And what we find is women who found ways, sometimes unconventional, to influence policy, to establish religious houses and royal dynasties, and remain politically active, even in widowhood. Their stories are there, if we listen carefully.

So yes, Hwaet is an important word – if we listen, we can hear the past and it’s been so wonderful for me to have the opportunity to talk about these great Mercian women here in Tamworth at the very heart of Mercia. Thank you.

*You can read the transcript of my first talk, Lady Æthelflæd - Warrior? Queen? HERE

Friday 16 June 2023

Lady Aethelflaed - Warrior? Queen?

On Saturday, 11th June 2023, as part of Æthelfest 2023, I gave a talk at Tamworth Castle. Here is the transcript from that talk:

Lady Æthelflæd - Warrior? Queen? 

[I began by thanking everyone for coming, and also expressed gratitude to Tamworth Borough Council and the organisers of Æthelfest for inviting to talk about one of my favourite Mercian women, who has a special place in my heart particularly as my novel about her really launched my writing career.]

To me, she has always been something of an enigma - a female ruler in a time when men were pretty much always in charge of kingdoms, a woman about whom so much has been said and written but about whom we actually know very little. A woman worthy of mention, yet hardly mentioned in the contemporary records.

So, was she a warrior woman? Was she a queen?

Perhaps we should start with what we DO know about her life, or rather, what we can piece together. And I must say at the outset, it really isn’t much. She is barely mentioned in the main stock of the annals known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (ASC), though we do have a preserved portion of a document known as the Mercian Register, which records her activities from 902-918. It is assumed that she was born around 870, but we don’t know. It is possible that she spent some of her childhood away from the court of the West Saxons, where her father, Alfred, was king. If so, Mercia would have been the obvious place because her mother was a Mercian, the daughter of a high-ranking nobleman, a tribal leader, and her paternal aunt was married to the Mercian king. We know that she was the eldest of Alfred’s children, because a Welsh monk, Asser, commissioned to write a biography of Alfred, tells us so. Asser spent time in Alfred’s court, so we must assume he knew the family well, although, oddly, he never tells us the name of Alfred’s wife! (And this strikes at the heart of our problems - the chroniclers didn’t often give us much in the way of detail about even the most high-ranking women of the time.) 

(And that's a very bad, non-contemporary portrait of her. Her name was Ealhswith, by the way)

In 886, (again, we’re not sure, but we assume it was in this year) Æthelflæd was married to the ealdorman of Mercia, seemingly as a diplomatic bride. This man was Æthelred. He’d helped Alfred take back London from the vikings and it appears that the marriage was the seal on the alliance between Wessex and Mercia. 

Æthelred was a tried and tested warrior - We have to assume this because he was obviously accepted as the leader of the Mercians once they’d effectively run out of kings, and he is named as being the man to whom Alfred entrusted London once it had been regained - and it’s safe to assume that he was older than his wife by some years.

He was named in the sources, fighting alongside Alfred against the encroaching Danes and, later on, with Alfred’s eldest son, Edward, too. 

The campaign against the Viking invaders is quite long and complicated, but I just want to highlight a couple of incidents. One is when Alfred came to an agreement with a Viking named Hasteinn and where Hasteinn gave oaths and hostages, and his sons were baptized with the sponsorship of Alfred and the ealdorman Æthelred.  Another was when Alfred’s son, Edward, besieged the enemy and ‘Earl Æthelred lent his aid to the prince [Edward].’ The three leaders were clearly working in concert together and are named as doing so in the annals. 

And then, around 902, Æthelred's name stops being mentioned. In 906, we’re told, Edward was forced to make peace, temporarily, with the Vikings ‘from necessity’. (Alfred had died by this point and there’s no mention of Æthelred, so Edward appears to be alone now.) In a few short years the English resistance had withered from a triumvirate to Edward working, seemingly, on his own. Gone are the comments along the lines of ‘with the aid of Æthelred, earl of the Mercians’ and then in 907, we’re told that Chester, in Mercia, was restored, i.e. wrested back from Viking control, but we’re not told by whom. Æthelred seems to have disappeared.

When we look at sources from outside Wessex and Mercia, specifically the Irish annals, we can see that he was ill, and here we are told that Æthelred, whom they call the king of the Saxons, was on the point of death yet still advising as to the best course of action. 

The Irish fragmentary annals known as the Three Fragments records that when Chester was overrun those inside the city sent messengers to the King of the Saxons i.e. Æthelred, who was in a disease, and on the point of death at that time, to ask his advice, and the advice of his queen. The advice which he gave was, to give [them] battle near the city outside, and to keep the gate of the city wide open, and to select a body of knights, and have them hidden on the inside ; and if the people of the city should not be triumphant in the battle, to fly back into the city, as if in defeat, and when the greater number of the forces attacking came inside, those there should close the gate and attack. There was, apparently, a ‘red slaughter’’ but still it wasn’t over, and we are told that the king, who was on the point of death, and the queen sent ambassadors to the Gaeidhil (Irish) and the message begins  "Life and health from the King of the Saxons, who is in disease, and from his Queen, who has sway over all the Saxons” and then it goes on to request aid. 

The annal goes on to say that many were killed with large rocks and beams hurled down upon their heads. The Saxons, apparently, also boiled up all the beer and water in the town to throw down on the invaders, and then threw beehives down on them, at which point they left. [Well you would, wouldn't you?]

Now in the course of telling this detailed episode, the Irish annalists tell us twice that Æthelred is ill. Neither the ASC nor even the Mercian Register records Æthelred's illness, but when Edward gathered West Saxon and Mercian forces and went harrying into Northumbria, there is no mention of Æthelred. When, presumably in retaliation, the Northumbrians broke peace, and ravaged Mercia, at the ensuing battle at Tettenhall, Æthelred is not mentioned. 

So it seems safe to say that he was ill for some years before his death, but still somehow able to rule.

For corroboration, we can look to that annal which is known as the Mercian Register, compiled in Mercia, and inserted, as I said earlier, into the common stock of the ASC. It does show Æthelflæd engaged in rather ‘queenly’ behaviour whilst her husband was still alive. For it tells us that it was she who built a burh, a fortified town, in 910. So, she’s clearly acting for him.

This, of course, changed with his death in 911. What is odd, and almost unprecedented, is that Æthelflæd then became the leader of the Mercians. From this point until her death in 918, here in Tamworth, she worked in tandem with her brother Edward, (although Edward took over control of London and Oxford, he left his sister to rule the rest of free Mercia), pushing back the Danes and carrying out a concerted and strategic campaign of burh-building with Edward building five fortresses and Æthelflæd building nine and both had the enemy submitting to them. The campaigns appear to have been very coordinated. 

In the middle of all this frenetic activity she sent an army into Brycheiniog (to Llangorse Lake) in Wales. The Mercian Register tells us that this was to avenge the death of an abbot but we have no further detail. The following year she took the borough of Derby and in 918 The Three Fragments says that she directed a battle against the Dublin-Norse, ordering her troops to cut down the trees where the ‘pagans’ were hiding. Thus we are led to believe that as well as partnering her brother in an extensive and well co-ordinated attack on the Danes, she was conducting her own campaign against the Norse. I have to say I’m a bit sceptical about this one, which would have us believe she she nipped up to Corbridge in Northumbria and back down again in very quick time. [It also says that she entered into an alliance with Alba and Strathclyde - this came up in the Q&A afterwards]

But in Mercia, between them brother and sister regained control of crucial areas: the five boroughs of Lincoln, Stamford, Nottingham, Derby and Leicester. 

In the year of her death, she was approached by the Danish leaders of York, who seem to have submitted to her in return for her protection although she died before being able to assist. 

She was also an effective administrator, seemingly. She issued charters in her own name which show her granting land to the nobility and she witnessed charters issued by the bishop of Worcester. She and her husband were certainly benevolent. As well as restoring land to the community at Wenlock to keep them in food, they also intervened in a case over a monastic estate which the bishops at Worcester had been trying to recover for some years. In 909 the bones of St Oswald were translated from Bardney to Gloucester and if this was done at Æthelflæd’s behest, as seems likely then it was a shrewd move on her part. An English saint was now safe in a strong Mercia, away from overrun Viking territory. There is no doubt that her husband was ill at this point; Edward was harrying Northumbria so it might be that he brought the relics back and into her hands for safe-keeping. The minster in Gloucester dedicated to St Peter was renamed St Oswald’s, and it was here that Æthelred was buried. 

St Oswald's, Gloucester

Although Æthelflæd died here in Tamworth, her body was taken back to Gloucester and she was buried at St Oswald’s, alongside her husband. She perhaps, ultimately, felt more affinity to her mother’s homeland than her father’s and despite the arranged nature and age gap of the marriage, was clearly a devoted wife, too. At some point before 911, and probably before 902, she had a daughter, Ælfwynn.

So, that’s the bare bones that we know of her life, and she clearly was a leader. She was instrumental in the repossession of the so-called Five Boroughs, and I think she must have been utterly exhausted by the time she died! But did she actually fight? And was she a queen?

If she did fight, actually wield a sword, then where did she learn the necessary skills?

I’m going to quote from Asser’s biography of Alfred, where he tells us that Æthelflæd was the first born and that ‘when the time came for her to marry, she was joined in marriage to Æthelred, ealdorman of the Mercians. Æthelgifu entered the service of God; Æthelweard, the youngest of all, was given over to training in reading and writing under the attentive care of teachers, in company with all the nobly born children of virtually the entire area and a good many of lesser birth as well. In this school, books in both languages, that is to say in Latin and English were carefully read. They also devoted themselves to writing, to such an extent that, even before they had the requisite strength for manly skills (hunting, that is, and other skills appropriate to noblemen), they were seen to be devoted and intelligent students. Edward and Ælfthryth were at all times fostered at the royal court - [and this is why some think that perhaps Æthelflæd wasn’t] - and these two have attentively learned the psalms, and books in English, and especially English poems and they very frequently make use of books.’

Now, this education seems to have been comprehensive, but it doesn’t specifically talk about the education of Æthelflæd, or say that there was any weapons training, though it does mention learning the pursuits of noblemen which we must assume means weapons training, but it doesn’t say it for Alfred’s daughters. So this isn’t especially helpful in tracking down any clues about women warriors.

We know that Edward’s own daughters were educated. An Anglo-Norman Chronicler said that Edward brought up his daughters so that, ‘in childhood they gave their whole attention to literature, and afterwards employed themselves in the labours of the distaff and the needle.’ Thus the royal daughters were literate, but also well-skilled in sewing and embroidery; excellent preparation for their adult lives as royal wives or indeed as religious women. So here we have a bit more detail but again, no mention of fighting.

Nowhere is it mentioned that royal daughters were schooled in weapons training, and it does seem rather unlikely. For details of Æthelflæd's martial activity, we can discount the ASC apart from the Mercian Register. But even that's not clear. It says she 'sent' an army into Wales, that she ‘took’ Derby, but can we confidently infer from that that she was actually leading the army? The Three Fragments says that she collected hosts and Chester was filled with her hosts, but doesn't say she was there.

Psychomachia Faith conquers Idolatry – BL, Cotton Titus D. xvi, fol. 6r

What about other written evidence? The Psychomachia is a poem by Prudentius, from the early fifth century AD and it contains images of women warriors. The trouble with this is that this work is an allegory and tells of the virtues fighting the vices, and it seems that the personifications are women because in Latin, words for abstract concepts have feminine grammatical gender. So this really isn’t much help. This is very stylised.

In the fourth volume of his Gothic Wars, Procopius of Caesarea, writing in the 550s, describes how an  Anglian bride from ‘Brittia’ went on the warpath against a tribe living on the banks of the Rhine. She had been betrothed to the king of this tribe, but he had died and his successor reneged on the deal. She then took 400 ships and led the expedition personally, defeating them soundly. Now there’s a few problems with this too, because whilst Brittia could mean Britain, and perhaps even East Anglia, we don’t know for sure. We do know that the Angles living in South East ‘England’ did have strong contacts with the Continent but even if this story is true, it still took place over 400 years before Æthelflæd was born. 

Now, I said at the start that Æthelflæd was almost unique in leading a kingdom. But we do have written evidence of a queen of the West Saxons whose name was Seaxburh. She was, definitely uniquely, included on a regnal list, but unlike our Æthelflæd we’re told by a later chronicler that the West Saxons would not go to war under the leadership of a woman. Bede recorded that after her husband’s death there was a troubled period during which sub-kings ‘took upon themselves the government of the kingdom, dividing it up and ruling for about ten years.’ The ASC, on the other hand, says that when her husband died she reigned one year after him. This succinct entry gives no hint about the circumstances. Was she, as would become more common, reigning on behalf of a son?

If we add to these two conflicting reports a third, that later chronicler, who said that Seaxburh ruled for one year in her husband’s stead, ‘but was expelled [from] the kingdom by the indignant nobles, who would not go to war under the conduct of a woman’, we get a scenario building where it looks like her husband died with no adult heir, and Seaxburh and the local nobility were in conflict over the succession. The chaos seems to have lasted more than a year in fact, because it’s two years before the next king is recorded. If she was fighting for her own right to the throne, and not on behalf of any sons, then she truly was a trail-blazer, but we just don’t know and I have to say that the information we have on her makes what we have on Æthelflæd seem extensive by comparison. But we just don’t know any more about her reign, just as we don’t know the circumstances that led another queen, wife of another king Wessex to (according to the ASC) raze Taunton to the ground. Kings DID fight, they led their forces. But we don’t know what the rules were for the VERY few women leaders. We must also bear in mind that these two women ruled, if that’s what they did, in the seventh century, and whilst we also know from Bede that at around the same period the Mercian king Penda left his wife in charge of Mercia for long periods while he was away fighting, he doesn’t say she fought, so it’s not enough to say that in either kingdom there was a tradition of women rulers who led armies. And, as we’ll see, Wessex did not necessarily have the same cultural identity and attitudes to royal women as Mercia.

Now, a Danish historian, Saxo Grammiticus, talked about women in Denmark dressing as men and cultivating soldiers’ skills. But Denmark isn’t England, of course, and he was also writing a good deal later - he died in around 1220.

So there’s really little in the written sources to enlighten us on this. What about the archaeological evidence then?

The obvious place to look is in graves, but of course only pre-Christian burials have grave goods. There are some where women are buried with weapons but that’s not conclusive as we don’t know the context. In 1954, two cemeteries, A and B, were excavated in Beckford, now in Hereford & Worcester, so Mercia, and Grave A2 was found to contain a female buried with a spear and shield. The skull had a lesion, maybe made by a weapon. 

The report concluded that this skeleton was probably female, but the accompanying spear and shield show that it was a weapon-bearing male, and therefore more likely to incur such an injury - clearly in the 1990s the thinking was that a woman could not be a warrior, so the bone analysis must be wrong in their view. Of course, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence but we need much more before we can say for certain that there were women warriors and we also need to remember that we have no context for this burial. It was much earlier, too, late fifth to mid sixth-century. Stating that something is true for such an early part of the Anglo-Saxon period is not automatically to say that it’s true for the later part. Remember that the Anglo-Saxon period spans the same amount of time as from present day back to the Tudors. Things changed.

So now then let's look at this notion of queenship, and a good place to start would be to go back to Asser, the monk who wrote Alfred the Great’s story and who was very much a contemporary source. He tells a very lurid tale and gives this incident as the reason why the wives of kings in Wessex were not called ‘queen’. 

It concerns Eadburh, who was the daughter of Offa of Mercia, and was married to the king of the West Saxons, a man named Beorhtric. According to Asser, Eadburh resented the influence over the king of one of his chief advisors, and contrived to poison him. Sadly for her, she accidentally also poisoned the king. For punishment she was sent abroad, to the court of the emperor Charlemagne, who set her up as abbess in a nunnery. She was later found in flagrante de licto with an Englishman and died in disgrace and poverty. Henceforth, Asser says, West Saxon wives of kings were never called queen. There’s a few things amiss with this tale: firstly, the ASC records a battle in the year Beorhtric died, in which Ecgberht, Alfred’s grandfather, became king, so it’s most likely that Beorhtric met his end on that battlefield. I actually think, given that his name is much more Mercian-sounding than West Saxon, that he was a puppet king installed by Offa. If this is the case, Asser would not have wished to dwell on any reminders that Wessex was once far less powerful than Mercia and actually had a Mercian in charge of them. 

And you can see how similar those coins of Offa and Charlemagne are - Offa clearly considered himself on a par with the emperor!

Now here’s a different coin and I’ll get on to that in a moment

However, whatever the reason, Æthelflæd's mother, (named Ealhswith as I said, though Asser doesn’t tell us so), was not a queen. Certainly, she didn’t witness any charters. But early on in Edward’s reign, just after Alfred died, there was a rebellion by Edward and Æthelflæd's cousin - it was a serious challenge, he declared himself to be the more throne-worthy, he minted his own coins (that's one of them above) and was eventually defeated in battle. But it is interesting to note that the rebellious cousin’s mother, was named regina in a charter whereas Edward’s and Æthelflæd's mother was not. As I said, their mother Ealhswith, never even witnessed charters. Still, Edward was declared king after Alfred’s death, not his cousin, so perhaps we should not read too much into the title of regina, and its importance in conferring status to the children of the marriage.* (Side note: Later in the tenth century it became important. King Edgar’s wife was officially crowned and a charter of 966 makes it abundantly clear that her children are throne-worthy, whereas Edgar’s older son by another woman was not (although ultimately it didn't make any difference and the older son was declared king in due course) - and it’s quite the beauty - this is the frontispiece).

[*I also mentioned that conversely, being a mother of a king brought a woman enhanced status]

We have seen that, according to Asser, the ninth-century West Saxons did not permit a king’s wife to be called queen, and actually he’s clearly wrong, because the rebellious cousin’s mother WAS called regina. An alternative title might have been hlæfdige (lady), which was used for Alfred the Great’s wife, Ealhswith. Edward had good reason to stress the status of his mother, obviously having faced rebellion so soon into his reign, and Ealhswith became the ‘true’, or ‘dear’ Lady of the English. So, the fact that her daughter Æthelflæd was called LADY of the Mercians should perhaps make us think that this was an important word, an indication of high, or even the highest status. 

Edward’s second wife was evidently an important royal wife and did her duty in providing ‘an heir and a spare’. But in the only surviving charter where she appears on the witness list she is styled not regina but ‘wife of the king’ and attests after her mother-in-law, Ealhswith, (who is styled ‘mother of the king’, receiving more recognition than she had as wife of King Alfred). So I should probably just explain about these charter witness lists - they’re a record of everyone who witnessed the act that the charter records - a land grant, for example, and they go in a strict pecking order.

Now, I’ve pretty much dismissed Asser’s claims about Wessex royal wives not being called queen, and especially the reason he gave for it, but a quick look at how some notable Mercian king’s consorts were styled in charters is revealing:

Cynethryth wife of Offa - regina (she had coins minted in her name, with the title regina on them too)

Eadburh, wife of Beorhtric, even though, apparently disgraced - regina

The wife of Cenwulf, a mercian king for 25 years - regina

Æthelswith, sister of Alfred, Æthelflæd's paternal aunt - regina. [I spoke briefly about her gold ring - commissioned by her for a gift; it's too big for a woman's finger] 

By contrast, in Wessex:

Wulfthryth the rebellious cousin’s mother  - regina (AFTER Eadburh and the poisoning story but in Asser’s lifetime, so he’s wrong there)

But as we’ve also seen, the second wife of Edward ‘wife of the king’ [Though I mentioned that some - by no means all - historians believe that the Second Coronation Ordo was not written for Athelstan's coronation but Edward's because it includes rites for consecrating a queen]

And in that charter Ealhswith is ‘mother of the king’

So maybe there’s something going on here - Mercian royal wives, regina, regina, regina,

But with the West Saxons it’s a bit more haphazard.

Ealhswith was not to be recorded or remembered as a queen. She did not attest any charters while Alfred was alive, and we don’t know why – although Æthelflæd did. She did more than just witness them actually, as I mentioned briefly earlier and which I’ll come back to in a moment.

So we can see that some royal wives and daughters witnessed charters, including Æthelflæd, and it’s notable that part of the paradox of Æthelflæd's life is that she actually wielded much more power than all of these women who were styled regina

We can also see that there’s no definition of a ‘queen’ per se. Sometimes this word ‘queen’ means a king’s wife, sometimes a king’s mother (and there are multiple instances of a woman’s status being elevated by being the mother of a king as we see with Ealhswith). But of course, in these terms, we then need to look at Æthelred's status, too, to determine if he was a king and if, therefore, Æthelflæd as his wife, was a queen. After all, it does seem that the wives of the kings of Mercia were indeed called regina, queen, so, if he was a king… 

In the early period, royal brides brought their status with them into the marriage - for example a 7th-century king of Northumbria needed to strengthen his claim to the southern part of Northumbria, the kingdom of Deira, so chose a bride who had Deiran royal blood. Is this the case with Æthelflæd, is that what was working here with her marriage? Was Æthelred looking to enhance his status by marrying a West Saxon ‘princess’ - not that they used that word. What is unusual about the marriage is if Æthelred himself wasn’t of royal stock, this would be pretty much the first time a royal daughter had been married to a so-called commoner. It didn’t happen again until the 11th century.

Alfred's Will

Æthelred was definitely remembered differently from the other ealdormen in Alfred’s will, being left a sword of great value. Interestingly, no mention in this will that he was Alfred’s son-in-law. Possibly because at the point at which the will was drawn up, he wasn’t, but if so, why the expensive bequest? Still, it was rare for royal daughters to marry non-royals as I said and it wouldn’t happen again until Æthelred the 'Unready' married two of his daughters to ealdormen in the early 11th century. So the evidence points to his being somewhat more than ‘just’ an ealdorman.

Now, we’ve already seen that the Irish annalists were happy to give Æthelred the title of king. They called him king of the Saxons, although actually the Mercians were more probably Angles.

The Welsh submitted to Alfred, Asser tells us, because of the ‘tyranny’ of Æthelred who was presumably acting independently of Wessex at that point.

Æthelred apparently began his reign as the ruler of an independent kingdom but there’s charter evidence which reveals that by 883 (so maybe 3 years before his marriage) he had submitted to Alfred and in that charter he’s styled (S218) ealdorman and operating with Alfred’s consent. No coins of his survive but Alfred had coins minted in Mercian towns - London, Oxford and Gloucester - which does suggest overlordship. Control of the mints is an important and significant thing. But in a way, Alfred’s forging a new kind of overlordship, one without major interference. Of course, he had other things to deal with!

Three years after his marriage, Æthelred is styled in a charter as subregulus which brings his status up a bit from ealdorman, to you know, a literal translation, subking. And it must be said that from the late 880s, after London, Alfred was styling himself Rex Anglorum Saxonus - king of the Angles AND Saxons

Sometimes Æthelred's granting land independently without reference to either King Alfred or King Edward, and we have the charter I mentioned earlier, where the couple give land to the religious community at Wenlock and without reference to the then king, Edward. 

Fragment of the Much Wenlock Charter

Æthelred's an ealdorman, sometimes even a subking, in West Saxon sources, but there’s a cartulary - a collection of documents, 

preserved in Worcester. It’s known as Hemming’s cartulary and among the documents is a regnal list, a king list, which includes Æthelred, so presumably at some stage the English Mercians considered him a full king. 

Interestingly - another side note here: though we often speak of the Viking kingdom of York, none of the English chronicles ever name these men as being kings. So we might wonder, actually, what constitutes a king, never mind a queen! 

So we’re not much further on with her husband’s status as ealdorman or king, so what about hers, independently? When Æthelred died, Edward of Wessex took over London and Oxford but was happy to leave the rest of Mercia under his sister’s direct control. Hence we can assume that there was no intrinsic aversion to female rule.

Henry of Huntingdon, an Anglo-Norman chronicler, was very taken with her, comparing her to Caesar:

Heroic Elflede! great in martial fame, was A queen by title, but in deeds a king. Heroes before the Mercian heroine quail'd: Caesar himself to win such glory fail'd.

but the contemporary records say very little about her - the main ASC doesn’t even name her. Now, it could be argued that Mercia had run out of kings, that Æthelred was a vassal of Alfred’s, and therefore the couple could not have been king and queen of Mercia. 

Nevertheless, the Mercian Register  makes it quite clear that in 918, Æthelflæd's daughter was deprived of all authority. Clearly the Mercians were a) happy to have not one, but two female rulers and b) considered that Edward was wrong to take Æthelflæd's daughter into Wessex, and that her authority in Mercia was absolute. Presumably they felt this way about her mother’s agency too. And let’s not ignore this point: A female ruler succeeded, albeit briefly, a female ruler. This would not happen again in English history until these two:

We can see that Æthelred and Æthelflæd issued JOINT charters, which in itself contrasts with Ealhswith who didn’t even witness any in her husband’s lifetime, but often they’re doing it with the permission of Alfred or Edward. We even then have Æthelflæd granting by herself, in Weardburh in 915 as ruler of the Mercians. But ruler, not queen. Is there a difference? 

Perhaps if we move away from Wessex and Mercia things might become a little clearer - because her dealings with the Welsh and Irish Norse were different. We might wonder whether the West Saxons either thought of her as a junior partner in an alliance, or wanted history to remember her as such. The Welsh and Irish Annals clearly viewed her differently, and gave her a different title and spoke about her in different terms.

If we can believe the Irish annals, the men of York came to ask her for assistance, not her brother. Yes, Mercia is nearer, but clearly either the Irish chroniclers, and/or the men of York, were happy with the idea of a woman ruler. And the Three Fragments, remember, called her a queen who held sway.

It’s been suggested that though we know that Edward – probably in 919 – took the submission of certain Welsh rulers, they had earlier submitted to Æthelflæd, and that at her death Æthelflæd exercised some sort of hegemony over most of the major Welsh kings.

We also have to remember that the very fact that her death was recorded at all in the Welsh and Irish annals suggests that she was a leader of some significance, yet the main ASC chronicle remains very quiet about her, not even naming her as I said, just calling her Edward’s sister. The Welsh annals entry is succinct: It gives the date wrongly as 917 but it simply states that Queen Æthelflæd died. 

I mentioned at the beginning the curious entry in the annals that says simply that Chester was restored in 907 i.e. taken back from Viking control. We know that Æthelred was still alive at this point but that his wife was acting on his behalf. And we know that in the Irish annals they were called king and queen. Now, the Three Fragments reads rather more like a saga than an annal, but if we look again at this idea that Chester was restored:

Chester was a significant trading centre, it was the centre of large-scale minting of coins, and merchants from all over were trading there, so it was a lucrative place to have control over. 

This restoration of Chester was followed by the building of burhs along the Mersey - at Eddisbury in 914 and Runcorn in 915 (note that this is after Æthelred had died). The siting of these burhs suggests that the wary Mercian eyes were looking across the Irish sea, not to the Danes in Northumbria and the northeast of Mercia. So as well as acting in concert with her brother, she’s got one eye on the Irish Seaboard, and is effectively in control there.

So it’s perhaps in this context that we should look again at the request from York. By controlling access to Mercia from the Irish sea via the Mersey, she’s in a strong position to prevent another influx of Norse Irish, though of course they could still navigate a long way up the Ribble, north of the Mercian border. But it’s Mercia, not Wessex, that shares a border with Northumbria, and therefore with York. So to the Irish and Welsh, and indeed the Northumbrians, she’s looking powerful, not at all a junior partner of Wessex.

And although, when she died, Edward did finally take control of the whole of Mercia, Mercian history did not stop. In many ways Mercia remained independent - it seems to have welcomed Athelstan as king before the West Saxons did. Twice more in the tenth century the Mercian council opted for a different candidate from Wessex. Leading Mercians fell out with the Godwines, too, in the 11th century so there was always a strong independent/nationalist streak!

But to get back to our heroine, whom the Welsh and Irish called Queen, and who acted in every way as if she were one, more so than other women styled regina: can we answer our original questions?

Was she a warrior? It’s perhaps disappointing to some, and recent tv productions have shown otherwise, but I don’t believe Æthelflæd fought though others may choose to disagree. But I think we have to wait for more concrete evidence that there were such people in early medieval England. And I do feel that had she actually wielded a sword, someone might have commented. 

It’s difficult even to know for sure if she was governing independently or whether events and decisions were engineered by the men around her (and we don’t even really know who they were). Just what advice she was getting and how much she was bound by it, we just don’t know.

She IS presented as acting independently in the Mercian Register, she and her husband are called ealdorman and lady in charters and West Saxon sources, but some Mercian, and the Irish and Welsh sources elevate them to the rank of king and queen. Whether or not she wielded a weapon, she was acting in parallel with her brother Edward. She was making decisions - again I must stress that we don’t know who, if anyone, was advising her, but it is abundantly clear that the Mercians considered her to be their rightful ruler. And her daughter after her.

What we’ll never know is why we know so little. If the West Saxons were keen to play down her role in events, was this because she was representing Mercia, or because she was a woman? If there was no intrinsic aversion to women leaders, why weren’t there more of them? Why did Edward allow her rule, but not her daughter’s - was it a matter of character? Was it a matter of timing? If she was so exceptional, why wasn’t more comment made about her at the time? 

Even though she probably didn’t fight, she was a fierce and determined and undaunted person who remains pretty much unique.

Can we say that she was a queen? Well, perhaps it’s all just a question of semantics and how we define that word. The West Saxons didn’t seem to want to name her as such, but then as we’ve seen, they wanted to downplay her contribution full stop. The main version of the ASC promotes the rule of Edward, does not mention his sister by name, and incidentally even bigs up the latter part of Edward’s reign when it looks as if he was losing his grip over Mercia. Clearly Æthelflæd was acting in such a way that the Welsh and Irish thought she was a queen, and she exercised much more agency than those officially given the title. As we’ve seen, in contrast with some king’s wives who didn’t witness charters, she actually issued her own.

This woman was instrumental in stemming the tide of invading Danes, of recovering lost land, and establishing fortified towns. We’ll never know for sure whether she did that with a sword in her hand, or whether those around her called her, or thought of her as a queen, but the fact remains that when she died on June 12th 918, here in Tamworth, it ended a partnership with Wessex which had been phenomenal in fighting back the Vikings and this is how we all will remember her. 

And there you can see her title: Mrycna Hlaefdige - Lady of the Mercians

The transcript of my second talk of the weekend, Prominent Women of Mercia, can be found HERE