Image of the Week: Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

On this Friday evening I’m pleased to announce a new feature to the blog: “Image of the Week.” I do confess this is inspired by a book I recently read (more on that in an upcoming post), though ideas for future images might spring from a variety of sources.

I’ve got two motives in mind, one being my desire to immerse myself more in photography, even if at this point it’s on a seriously amateur level. While today’s image is not a photograph from my own hand, it is intriguing in its appearance as well as subject. Also, the reading experiences I have enjoyed with small and independently published authors have been so rewarding because they’ve brought me to far more worlds than I believe I might ever have visited had I not discovered (or been led to) and pursued these novels, and I’d really like to share them and the personages within.

Since we all know this is a great big world and anything at all might capture one’s imagination, it will be inspiring to see what might pop up during any given week.

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Today we have a look at this image of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great and later to be known as Lady of the Mercians. Born (c. 870) to the West Saxon King Alfred and a Mercian mother at the height of the Viking raids against England, Æthelflæd spent her childhood on the run from the invaders’ long reach.

Æthelflæd_as_depicted_in_the_cartulary_of_Abingdon_AbbeyMarried by her father to Æthelred of Mercia, she left her native Wessex for her new court. Upon her husband’s death in 911 she led her adopted land to freedom from years of Danish onslaught. Together with her brother, known to history as Edward the Elder, Æthelflæd understood that defense of England required unifying the land rather than fighting the enemy with smaller armies without cohesive organization. Her plans to defeat the Vikings were cunning and even the Danes recognized her value as a military strategist. Her death was mourned by friend and foe alike.

While I learned a bit about Alfred the Great at school, this era later had the same effect on me as did 1066: I was intimidated by the immense detail and perhaps also the amazing import of it upon later times, including our own.

Having now been persuaded out of my “historical comfort zone,” I began recently to read of Æthelflæd and was absolutely captivated. I’ve always understood that love of freedom and a willingness to fight to the death for it isn’t a modern phenomenon, and earlier instances of it solidifies our fight for it today. It isn’t a fly-by-night concept; we fight for something humans have demanded through history, and won even when far less equipped as we are today. There is admiration, even pride, for what was achieved against the odds.

There also is an innate human desire, nay, need, to know from where we come. This is why societies make record of what happens in their time, who they want those to come to know about. Images, engravings, coins, these and more are created and develop, and individuals continue to make new and different works of art, but also consistently return to the previous, for study as well as expansion. What do we see in these images? What was the artist thinking or how do his techniques mirror the times?

This portrait of Æthelflæd, from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, c. 1220, obviously dates from much later than her lifetime, but a few details might tell us a bit about her status even so many years later. An image found at the British Library’s Online Gallery is accompanied by a caption informing readers that most cartularies have minimal or even no decoration. That this one does makes a statement, and though characterized by its medieval style lacking depth, it nevertheless translates high regard by placing Æthelflæd on a throne and showing her positioned as if issuing directive. Straight backed and regally attired, she is a figure of force even to the modern eye, which on occasion tends to perceive such images as less than serious. There are certainly many more details to be interpreted by eyes more well-versed in art than mine, though my hope is that even this small amount of discussion will spur interest in others about these figures who really are people so like us, and though they lived in such a distant time, they are ours, and we are theirs.

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Sources:

Æthelflæd: Her World: Warring Kingdoms and Viking Raids.” History’s Heroes? East of England Broadband Network, n.d. Web. 22 July 2016.

Johnson, Ben. “Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.” Historic UK. n.p., n.d. Web. 22 July 2016.

Queens Æthelswitha and Æthelflæd, in the Cartulary and Customs Of Abingdon Abbey.” British Library Online Gallery. The British Library Board, 26 March 2009. Web. 22 July 2016.

 

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