The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Guest Post: Invitation to the Past

Today Annie Whitehead, award-winning author of To Be A Queen and Alvar the Kingmaker, takes up the reins with a lovely guest post, giving us a bit of background as to how she came to the world of the Mercians ….

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In the last piece, I was ‘chatting’ to Lord Ethelred of Mercia, and he asked me how I first ‘met’ him and his wife.

To Be a Queen came about because of a single sentence. My university tutor said of Ethelred of Mercia that “Nobody knew exactly where he came from.” I suddenly had a vision of this guy riding onto the pages of history out of some unknown hinterland. I wanted to write his story and, in a way, I have. Although of course the real story was that of his wife: daughter of a king, wife of a man with the powers of a king, a woman who led her army into battle against the Vikings.

aetheflaed-big-image
Statue of Æthelflæd with her nephew Æthelstan, son of Edward the Elder (Photo provided by author, courtesy Richard Tearle)

Aethelflaed was born around AD869 – we don’t know where – and was the eldest child of Alfred the Great of Wessex, and his wife, who was a Mercian princess.

Firstly, how does one pronounce her name? Some say Ethelfled, some say Athelflat. To be honest, I’m not sure, and there are other names in the book which are equally hard to pronounce and pretty difficult on the eye. So I changed a few of them, and gave others nicknames – like my heroine, who is called ‘Teasel’ by those who know her. Why? Ah, that would be telling. And it leads to some confusion early on, when her husband misunderstands…

It’s thought that Aethelflaed spent some of her early years in Mercia. At this time there were essentially four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: two of them, Northumbria and East Anglia, had already been overrun by the Danish Vikings and now those invaders were pushing at the borders of Mercia in the midlands. Mercia could not hold them off, caught as it was in a succession dispute.

Onto the pages of history, seemingly from nowhere, rode a nobleman called Ethelred, who was determined to re-establish Mercian independence.

Ethelred entered into alliance with Alfred of Wessex who gave him his eldest daughter, Aethelflaed, in marriage, probably around AD887. Although we don’t know the precise age of either of them, it is safe to assume that Ethelred was the elder of the two, by some distance. This cannot be imagined as anything other than a political marriage. Aethelflaed was a ‘peace-weaver’, and this could so easily have been another tale of a woman, married off, and quietly slipping between the pages of the chronicles.

The alliance between Mercia and Wessex held but, from AD902 onwards, Ethelred is no longer mentioned riding out into battle. We don’t know why; he continued to witness charters, so something was stopping him from fighting, but not from leading.

Closeup of Æthelflæd and Athelstan. (Photo provided by author, courtesy Richard Tearle)
Closeup of Æthelflæd and Athelstan (Photo provided by author, courtesy Richard Tearle)

AD907 found the Mercians defending Chester from a Viking siege. It was not another lord who took Ethelred’s place, but Aethelflaed who directed proceedings. An Irish chronicle has her fighting back with swarms of bees, which is more than likely  just a tale, but fun nonetheless. The Irish came to regard her as a queen, as did the Annales Cambriae, the Welsh chronicle.

After Ethelred’s death, no new male ruler was appointed. Edward (Aethelflaed’s brother, who was by this time king of Wessex) allowed his sister to retain control of Mercia.

Let’s consider what a unique story this is. In a time of almost perpetual warfare, a country and its neighbouring king were content to allow a woman to lead, even into battle. Whether or not she actually wielded a sword in anger, this is still remarkable. And yet, it was not remarked upon.

There are many stories to be found within Anglo-Saxon history. This was a society which produced the most exquisite artwork – the Lindisfarne Gospels – and the most intricately worked jewelled weaponry – the Staffordshire Hoard – hundreds of years  before the period in which Queen is set, and had a sophisticated system of government. My characters are not the inhabitants of Middle Earth. They are not mystical, magical or mythical, but rather they are medieval.

The Anglo-Saxons were very real, but I still needed to know how they lived. I immersed myself in my Early Medieval world, finding out about looms, textiles, cooking methods, flour production, and I even learned how flammable flour dust can be (a fact which served me well in one particular passage in Queen).

But research isn’t the only thing required: you have to decide where along the historical time-line to begin and end your tale. I decided that I needed to tell Aethelflaed’s whole life story; I think we are all a product of our childhood experiences, tempered by the wisdom gleaned from experiences as an adult, and I felt that we needed to know about her upbringing and the times she’d lived through if we hoped to understand how she came to be famous, and yet, bizarrely, forgotten.

It appears that the Mercians were happy to let a woman lead them, and not even a native one at that, so it must, in part, have been down to her personality.

She was a special woman. So why is she not better known?

I think there are two reasons: in fiction, the Anglo-Saxon age has suffered a little on account of those unfamiliar and difficult-to-pronounce names. In terms of non-fiction, history is written by the victors. No, not the Vikings, but the kingdom of Wessex. Mercia  ran out of kings and, after Aethelflaed’s ‘rule’, a merger was inevitable. Our greatest source of information, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, was commissioned by Alfred the Great and written by monks of Wessex. Mercia was never going to get top billing.

But Aethelflaed is remembered fondly by some. There is a statue of her in Tamworth, the ancient Mercian capital, which was re-dedicated in 2013, 1100 years after she fortified the town, and where they still refer to her as “The Lady of the Mercians.”

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Base of the Æthelflæd statue, erected in 1913 to commemorate her fortification of Tamworth (Photo provided by author, courtesy Richard Tearle)

Still, I had to make sure not  to place my modern values on my character; she needed to live and work in her own world. Aethelflaed is a strong-minded woman, yes, but in writing her, I had to keep her firmly rooted in her early medieval environment. She’s a woman in a man’s world, but she’s not what we would recognise as a feminist.

Shortly before her death, delegates from the kingdom of York made an appeal to her for aid against the Norse armies of Ragnall. They had heard, as we do in the book, of her steely determination and single-mindedness.

In AD915 we not only have her location but the exact date – June 19th – when she took an army into Brycheiniog in Wales to avenge the killing of an abbot who was dear to her. And in AD917 she was in charge of the siege which resulted in Derby being returned into English hands. (As one of the ‘Five Boroughs’ of the Danelaw, it was strategically and symbolically an important victory.)

But, although she wouldn’t recognise the phrase, there is no gain without pain. Next time, an excerpt, from that siege at Derby…

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Stay tuned as “The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen” continues next week with an excerpt from Annie Whitehead’s To Be A Queen.

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About the author …

Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has just been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.

Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia, and is available now. It charts the career of the earl who sacrificed personal happiness to secure the throne of England for King Edgar, and, later, Æthelred the Unready. Alvar the Kingmaker is also a B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree.

She has completed a third novel, also set in Mercia, and scheduled for publication in 2017. She has twice been a prizewinner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, she won first prize for nonfiction in the new Writing Magazine Poetry and Prose competition, and she has had articles published in various magazines, on a wide range of topics. She is also an editor for the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog.

Most recently, she has contributed to the anthology of short stories, 1066: Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagine the events of 1066, and which has just been awarded HNS Editors’ choice and long-listed for Book of the Year 2017. She lives in the English Lake District with her husband and has three grown-up ‘children’.

You can learn more about and follow author Annie Whitehead and her work at her website, blog, Twitter, Facebook and her Amazon author page. Click titles to purchase To Be A Queen, Alvar the Kingmaker and 1066: Turned Upside Down.

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Related post: “Image of the Week: Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

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