Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

The following post is a fine example of student research in legal history. Its author is Kaylin Oldham, a rising third-year law student and a 2013 graduate in English of the University of Kentucky. Her paper is titled “Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians: An Analysis of Women’s Rights in Anglo-Saxon England from the Perspective of a Warrior Queen.” The essay examines, from a legal standpoint, the extraordinary career of Aethelflaed (d. 918), daughter of Alfred the Great. Ms. Oldham’s paper was written for the class “From the Dark Ages to the Black Death: History of English Law.”

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians: An Analysis of Women’s Rights in Anglo-Saxon England from the Perspective of a Warrior Queen

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of King Alfred the Great and sister of King Edward the Elder, was a heroine of Anglo-Saxon England and played a significant role in the unification of the nation. However, despite her lasting contributions to Edward’s campaigns against the Danes, the details of her life and exploits (even the year of her birth) are largely missing from the historical record.

Aethelflaed, Worcester Cathedral

Aethelflaed, Worcester Cathedral

In his twelfth-century Gesta Regum Angelorum, for example, William of Malmesbury wrote, “Aethelflaed, sister of the king and widow of Aethelred, ought not to be forgotten, as she was a powerful accession to his [Edward’s] party.”

However, the happenstance of history has ensured that her role is subject of little scholarship and review.[1] Despite this neglect, at least one modern historian has concluded that Aethelflaed “play[ed] a vital role in England during the first quarter of the tenth century.”[2] In light of her blighted reputation and the lack of historical sources concerning her, this essay examines the available record of Aethelflaed’s life in a manner that exposes the legal status of women of the time. Though Aethelflaed was royal by birth and marriage, this essay uses original sources to examine her own role in contrast to the position of the everyday Anglo-Saxon woman. Using examples from Aethelflaed’s own life, we consider how the role of one “miraculous” woman may represent the unknown achievements of less visible women.

Part I of the essay analyzes the role of family in Anglo-Saxon England and provides known biographical details about Aethelflaed’s life. Then, using those details, the essay compares Aethelflaed’s own life experiences to the laws and codes concerning women and examines the female influence on Anglo-Saxon family life. Part II scrutinizes the status of widows in Anglo-Saxon England and considers how Aethelflaed’s own widowhood acted as a catalyst for her military achievements.

Aethelflaed’s Familial Presence

“Of all the laws which concern women in Anglo-Saxon legislation, several were concerned with a woman’s most basic rights: the right to social and sexual protection.”[3] This protection (mundium­) stemmed from the active role fathers, husbands, brothers, and other male guardians played in a woman’s life; however, the familial structure was decisive in providing Anglo-Saxon women with a measure of independence, despite the male influence.[4] Aethelflaed’s own family can be characterized in this manner as she was technically under the control of strong male figures her entire life, including her father, King Alfred, her husband, ealdorman Aethelred of Mercia, and her brother, King Edward the Elder. Aethelflaed was the eldest child of King Alfred the Great and his Mercian wife, Ealhswith, and would serve as his own “built-in diplomatic agent.”[5] 

In order to defend Wessex from Norse Viking attacks, King Alfred began building built fortified sites (burhs). These burhs, described in the early tenth-century document known as the Burghal Hidage, served as armed networks to prevent attacks from neighboring bases in Ireland and Wales. However, King Alfred was not the only leader facing pressure from outside forces. Because of Welsh advances, Aethelred, the leader of the nearby Mercians, chose to submit to King Alfred and agreed, “that in every respect he would be obedient to the royal will” of Wessex.[6]

In order to forge a permanent alliance between Mercia and Wessex, King Alfred married Aethelflaed to Aethelred. Though the date of the union is unknown, King Alfred’s biographer Asser wrote in the 890s that she was given to Aethelred “‘as the time for matrimony approached’ (advenientematrimonii tempore), which probably means that she was under twenty” upon her marriage.[7] Aethelflaed and Aethelred remained married and ruled Mercia together until Aethelred’s death in 911.[8] Women who married for political reasons in Anglo-Saxon England were called “peaceweavers.”[9] The role of a peaceweaver was to solidify agreements between hostile tribes and conciliate the members, eliminating antagonism.[10] “Despite the political nature of the peaceweaver role, it seems unlikely that the woman was forced into it.”[11] King Alfred had two other daughters, Aethelgifu and Aelfthryth, either of whom could have married the Mercian ruler.[12] Upon their marriage, King Alfred acknowledged Aethelred and Aethelflaed as Lord and Lady of Mercia.[13] Though Aethelflaed may have not chosen this marriage, the historical record provides no indication that she rejected the alliance. This suggestion is furthered by her subsequent independent-minded decisions regarding childbirth and her military achievements as a single ruler. In marrying Aethelred, Aethelflaed gained a husband, a country, and an army to continue territorial conquests in tandem with her brother, King Edward.

Despite Aethelflaed’s apparent lack of control concerning her marriage, for some Anglo-Saxon women, marriage remained a matter of individual choice. [14] Though King Alfred arranged Aethelflaed’s marriage as an alliance between neighboring kingdoms, “by the eleventh century the laws of Cnut state: ‘let no one compel either woman or maiden to [marry a man] who she herself dislikes.’”[15] Though Cnut ruled over a century after Aethelflaed’s death, his dooms were “not intended as a complete statement of the law, but rather as a reference to and modifications of customs already known.”[16] Thus, Cnut’s consideration of a woman’s influence in her choice of spouse could have been a developing custom in Aethelflaed’s time.

Though Aethelflaed did not choose her spouse, she did exercise control over childbirth and her child, which is a “significant choice in an age when many women died in childbirth.”[17] Aethelflaed and Aethelred only had one child, a daughter named Aelfwynn.[18] Records suggest that Aethelflaed suffered a difficult labor to deliver Aelfwynn and thus “rejected the marital bed after the birth of her daughter…[she believed] that it was unbecoming for the daughter of a king to give way to delight which could then produce such painful results.”[19] Moreover, a twelfth century poet mentioned Aethelflaed’s subsequent celibacy, which described her as a virgin, “O mighty Aethelflaed! O virgin, the dread of men…Even Caesar’s triumphs did not bring such great rewards. Virgin heroine, more illustrious than Caesar, farewell.”[20] Though Aelfwynn was an only child, she played an involuntary, yet significant role in the unification of England after her mother’s death in 918.[21] Aelfwynn was proclaimed as her mother’s successor and was allowed to hold a nominal political position for about six months; however, King Edward swiftly deprived his niece of all her power in December 918 and removed her to Wessex, ending “the age of Mercian autonomy.”[22]Furthermore, Aethelflaed had raised Aethelstan, King Edward’s son alongside Aelfwynn.[23] This deliberate step by King Edward suggests his future intentions in taking over Mercia after Aethelflaed’s death,[24]but also demonstrates that Aethelflaed’s household was deemed fit to provide a future king with a proper education

Though kinship in Anglo-Saxon England was bilateral, the priority was on the paternal line.[25] Nevertheless, Aethelflaed’s governing role in her own family is one example of the control women displayed over family and reproductive issues. Childbirth in Anglo-Saxon England, and specifically during Aethelflaed’s lifetime, was valued, evidenced by one of her father’s dooms.

Aethelflaed as depicted in the cartulary of Abingdon Abbey

Aethelflaed as depicted in the cartulary of Abingdon Abbey

One doom specifically relates to the killing of a pregnant woman and outlines the compensation owed. The doom states that if a pregnant woman was killed, full compensation would be paid for the woman and half compensation for the unborn child, according to the wergeld of the father’s kin.[26] Though this doom is not directly applicable to Aethelflaed’s own life, it demonstrates the importance Anglo-Saxon culture placed on motherhood, as it was an offense that occurred often enough to be included in King Alfred’s law code. Further, the law codes of King Aethelbert suggest that Anglo-Saxon women were not rejected for their inability to birth children.[27] One of King Aethelbert’s dooms states, “If she does not bear a child, her father’s kin shall have the money and the wedding-gift.”[28] This doom addresses who will inherit property but does not directly repudiate the barren woman.[29] King Aethelbert’s dooms also address divorce. Though the concept was “viewed from a practical rather than a religious one,” the dooms concern which parent will keep the children upon dissolution of a marriage.[30] Whether the separation was by “divorce or death…the question of child custody” remained.[31] If the wife chose to leave with the children, she would have half the money; however, if the husband wished to keep the children, the wife would have the same portion as a child.[32] “This sequence of laws [suggests] that the woman was presumptively the custodian of the children, losing them only if the husband wanted them.”[33]Also, early laws under Hlothhere of Kent and Eadric protected the “rights of the woman to raise her children once the father died.”[34] The doom stated, “[i]f a man dies leaving a wife and child, it is right, that the child should accompany the mother.”[35] These dooms from reigns throughout the Anglo-Saxon period demonstrate the status of women’s rights concerning children and custodial choice. Combined with the circumstances surrounding Aethelflaed’s marriage and motherhood, the dooms suggest women retained the right to exert control over their personal lives.

Aethelflaed and Widowhood

In Anglo-Saxon England, “a women was still under a man’s authority her entire life whether she was a daughter or wife, unless she remained a widow.”[36] Further, this “absence of direct male control enabled widows to develop more rights than single women or wives.”[37] Though Aethelflaed’s social position and royal rank facilitated her military conquest, her status as a widow provided her with additional power. Aethelflaed became a widow in 911, when Aethelred died after a thirty-two year-long reign.[38] After Aethelred’s death, the Mercian Register notes that Aethelflaed officially became “Lady of the Mercians” (Myrcna hlaefdige).[39] This title is the female equivalent of the title that Aethelred held before his death, suggesting Aethelflaed “succeed without qualification to the position which he had held.”[40] This is an important implication because other sources suggest that Aethelflaed had ruled Mercia for some time before Aethelred’s death, due to his ailing physical condition.

The Three Fragments, an Irish source, mentions Aethelred’s illness and describes him as “in a disease” or “on the point of death.”[41] Though The Three Fragments “do not readily command the confidence of scholars,”[42] they describe the interaction between Aethelflaed and Ingimund, who established a Norse colony in Chester in 907, with Aethelflaed’s permission.[43]After some time, Ingimund and his followers became restless and hoped to possess the city for themselves.[44] In response to their planned attack, “[Ae]thelflaed ‘collected large forces around her in every direction, and the city of Chester was filled with her hosts.’”[45] The story recited by The Three Fragments is untrustworthy, as it suggests Aethelflaed “fought with boulders, boiling beer and bees,” but the explicit silence on Aethelred’s role is telling.[46] The recitation of the land grant and battle does not refer to Aethelred “and the assumption is that, though still alive, he was not in any condition to command or direct Mercian forces.”[47] Furthermore, the Mercian Register “records that in 910 [Ae]thelflaed built the fortress at Bremesburh”; the account does not mention Aethelred.[48]Other sources suggest that Aethelred may have been infirm as early as 902.[49] Thus, this evidence suggests Aethelflaed was acting like a widow before Aethelred’s death and that she served as ruler-in-fact long before she gained the proper title.

Aethelflaed continued to rule Mercia and focused on her father and brother’s “concentrated building program.”[50] “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that she built a number of forts…including those at Bridgnorth (912), Stafford and Tamworth (913), Eddisbury and Warwick (914), and Chirbury and Runcorn (915), building a protective network to defend Mercia against both the Danes and the Welsh.”[51] Describing the burh at Bridgnorth, the Mercian Register states “…came [Ae]thelflaed lady of the Mercians, on the holy even called the invention of the holy cross, to Scregeat, and built the fortress there, and the same year at Bridgnorth.”[52] Moreover, Aethelflaed continued her alliance with her brother, King Edward the Elder, conquering the town of Derby in 917, which held a Danish garrison.[53]

A 917 entry in the Mercian Register describes this battle: “This year, [Ae]thelflaed, lady of the Mercians, with the help of God…conquered the town called Derby, with all that thereto belonged; and there were also slain four of her thegns, that were most dear to her, within the gates.”[54] This entry in the Mercian Register demonstrates Aethelflaed’s military prowess and provides evidence that the leading men of Mercia were satisfied with her rule, even without a spouse. Likewise, Aethelflaed’s enemies were willing to submit to her rule. Under pressure from both King Edward and her own advances, in 918, the armies of Leicester and York peacefully submitted to Aethelflaed’s rule.[55] The Mercian Register records: “This year [Ae]thelflaed got into her power…without loss, the town of Leicester; and the bigger part of the army that belonged thereto submitted to her. And the Yorkists had also promised and confirmed, some by agreement and some by oaths, that they would be in her interest.”[56] It is significant that the “battle-hardened Danish armies were willing to submit themselves to a woman’s rule,” and without this submission, King Edward may not have completed his unification of England.[57]

During their marriage, Aethelred and Aethelflaed granted several charters, which “reveal the workings of boroughs which were being planted in this period”[58] and Aethelflaed continued granting land and writing charters after Aethelred’s death. In 907 Aethelflaed granted land to Ingimund and his foreign invaders in Wirral before she defeated their rebellion at Chester.[59] Aethelred was still living when Aethelflaed made this land grant, but his absence from the records of the event, as noted above, suggest that Aethelflaed acted alone. In one charter, Aethelflaed grants two hides (manentes) at Stantun to Ealhhelm in return for 60 swine and 300 solidi.[60]Another charter by Aethelflaed translates to read: “Aethelflaed, ruler of the Mercians, to Eadric, minister; grant of permission to acquire 10 hides (manentes) at Farnborough (Warwickshire or Berkshire), bought from Wulflaf.” The landbook, granted by King Offa to Bynna, Wulflaf’s great-great-grandfather (abavus), had been destroyed in a fire.[61]

Interestingly, Aethelflaed’s own father’s dooms do not mention widows.[62] Despite this, the most common provisions in the inheritance laws [of Anglo-Saxon England] were for widows.[63] Though Aethelflaed was a unique widow, her control over land disposition and conquest is comparable to the rights accorded the everyday Dark Ages woman. Women could receive grants of land singly or jointly with their spouses. They could also make grants of land singly or jointly with their spouses.[64] Women, and widows, also had full rights of use and disposition of movables.[65] Furthermore, a widow could dispose of both her morgengifu and her inheritance in a will.[66] The morgengifu was a gift from an Anglo-Saxon man given to his wife on the morning after the wedding night, and was the wife’s property during her marriage and after her husband’s death.[67] Although married women were allowed to make wills to bequeath their property, they could not do this during their husband’s lifetime without his consent.[68] This suggests that widows had considerable influence over the disposition at property. Indeed, widows were often beneficiaries of large estates, especially those persons widowed more than once.[69]

Additionally, F.M. Stenton argues evidence of this female ownership, control of, or connection with land can be found in the many still-existent feminine-based place names from the Anglo-Saxon period.[70] The ability to dispose of land gave Anglo-Saxon women a capacity for self-determination comparable to that enjoyed by men. Women devised land to gain political favor and to ensure that wills would be upheld.[71] This self-determination may not have been as extensive as Aethelflaed’s drive to protect her nation and continue her family’s territorial expansion, but the power of disposition of land ensured women, especially widows, remained relevant in society without male guardianship. The lack of male guardianship for widows reveals significant details about the status of widows in Anglo-Saxon England, as widows’ most basic right was the mundium.[72] The mundium was the protection of male guardianship and first appeared in the dooms of Aethelbert.[73] The Anglo-Saxon laws that describe this right were primarily concerned that widows not be sexually assaulted. But others suggest that the mundium of widows required them to be placed under the sponsorship of church and state.[74] The effect of these laws was to provide widows with increased economic independence, aided by the absence of direct economic control.[75] Combined with the right to control land and become financially stable without a male counterpart suggests widows in Aethelflaed’s time exercised similar independence over their own lives, albeit on a smaller scale.

Anglo-Saxon women also actively participated in the legal arena, as they could be litigants and oath givers.[76] Women as well as men might swear in support of a party, certainly if the party was a woman.[77] One example of female oath giving concerns a suit between Wynflaed and a man named Leofwine.[78] In order to prove ownership of certain estates, Wynflaed called female witnesses; these oaths were successful, as Wynflaed won possession of her estates.[79] In another land dispute, Eadgifu, the third wife of King Edward the Elder, was directed to clear her father by an oath which she “introduced . . . at Aylesford in the presence of the whole assembly, and there cleared her father.”[80] King Alfred’s first doom emphasizes the importance of oath-giving, explaining the importance of keeping the oath and pledge in a careful manner.[81] The doom declares, “If anyone be compelled to give either [the oath or his pledge] wrongly. . . , then it is better to forswear than to fulfill.”[82] This doom refers to “each person keep[ing] his oath,” but the use of gender neutral pronouns suggests that the importance of oath-giving was shared by both sexes.[83] Though the existing charters of Aethelflaed do not identify specific instances in which she provided oaths in legal proceedings, the appearance of women in the legal arena demonstrates the female influence on Anglo-Saxon society.

Conclusion

The Mercian Register documents Aethelflaed’s death at Tamworth in 918: “[B]ut very soon after they had done this, she died at Tamworth, twelve days before midsummer, the eighth year of her having rule and right lordship over the Mercians; and her body lies at Gloucester, within the east porch of St. Peter’s church.”[84] In her expansive study on the rights of Anglo-Saxon women, Christine Fell writes, that the “[Anglo-Saxon] woman is a person, not a thing. She lives, she speaks, she acts for herself.[85] Though Aethelflaed and the average Anglo-Saxon woman lived under different circumstances, they all faced the challenge of navigating a male dominated society. Just as Aethelflaed’s military achievements are significant, the power of Anglo-Saxon women to control their marriages and make reproductive/custodial decisions, dispose and bequeath property and participate in the legal arena demonstrate their important, yet sometimes downplayed, role in Anglo-Saxon culture. Though Aethelflaed’s death ended “the age of Mercian autonomy,” her life stands as a testament and a lasting example of the accomplishments of women, both royal and common, during a war-torn age.[86]


[1] For William of Malmesbury, see Views and Opinions, History’s Heroes, http://historysheroes.e2bn.org/hero/howviewed/4292 (last visited Apr. 16, 2016).

[2]F.T. Wainwright, Scandinavian England 305 (H.P.R. Finberg ed., 1975).

[3]Theodore John Rivers, Widow’s Rights in Anglo-Saxon Law, 19 Am. J. Legal Hist. 208, 208 (1975).

[4]Id.

[5]Kim Klimek, Aethelflaed, History and Legend, Quidditas, 2013, at 15.

[6]Alex Burghart, Aethelflaed: Warrior Queen of Mercia, BBC History Magazine, July 2011, at 61.

[7]Wainwright, supra note 2, at 307 (quoting Asser, De Rebus Gestis Elfredi §75 (W.H. Stevenson ed., 1904).

[8]Id. at 308.

[9]Christine G. Clark, Women’s Rights in Early England,1995 BYU L. Rev.207, 216 (1995).

[10]Id.

[11]Id.

[12]Alfred P. Smyth, King Alfred the Great 10 (1995).

[13]Klimek, supra note 5.

[14]Clark, supra note 9, at 215.

[15]Id.(quoting Laws of Cnut cl. 74, quoted in Ernest Young, The Anglo-Saxon Family Law, in Essays in Anglo-Saxon Law 153 n.6 (Rothman Preprints Inc. 1972)).

[16]Paula J. Bailey, Daughters, Wives and Widows: A Study of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman Noble Women (2001) (unpublished M.S.E. thesis, Henderson State University) (available at http://www.hsu.edu/academicforum/2001-2002/2001-2afdaughters.pdf).

[17] Clark, supra note 9.

[18]Burghart, supra note 6, at 63.

[19]Judith Collard, Gender and Genealogy in English Illuminated Royal Genealogical Rolls from the Thirteenth Century, Parergon, Jan. 2000, at 30.

[20]Id. (citing Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum 308-09 (Diana Greenway ed. & trans., Clarendon Press 1996). The original text reads “O Eifleda, potens, O terror uirgo uirorum…Iam nec Cesarei tantum meruere triumphi. Cesare spledidior uirgo uirago uale.” Judith Collard, Gender and Genealogy in English Illuminated Royal Genealogical Rolls from the Thirteenth Century

[21]Burghart, supra note 6, at 63.

[22]Wainwright, supra note 2, at 323; Burghart, supra note 6, at 63.

[23]Wainwright, supra note 2, at309.

[24]Id. at 310.

[25]John Hudson, The Oxford History of the Laws of England Volume II  225 (2012).

[26]Bill Griffiths, Early English Law: An Introduction 62 (1995).

[27]Clark, supra note 9.

[28]Griffiths, supra note 26, at 42.

[29] Clark, supra note 9.

[30]Griffiths, supra note 26, at 41.

[31]Clark, supra note 9, at 216-17.

[32]Griffiths, supra note 26, at 41.

[33]Id.

[34]Clark, supra note 9, at 217.

[35]Id. (citing Laws of Hlothhere and Eadric cl. 6 in Laws of the Earliest English Kings 20 (F.L. Attenborough ed. & trans., 1922).

[36] Bailey, supra note 16.

[37]Rivers, supra note 3, at 209.

[38]Burghart, supra note 6, at 62.

[39]Wainwright, supra note 2, at 309.

[40]Id.

[41]Id. (quoting Annals of Ireland, Three Fragments (J. O’Donovan ed., 1860)).

[42]Id. at 132.

[43]Id.

[44]Id.

[45]Id. (citing Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society 224-37 (1860)).

[46]Id.

[47]Id. at 308.

[48]Id.

[49]Burghart, supra note 6, at 62.

[50]Klimek, supra note 5, at 18.

[51]Burghart, supra note 6, at 62.

[52]Views and Opinions, History’s Heros?,http://historysheroes.e2bn.org/hero/howviewed/4292 (last visited Apr. 12, 2016).

[53]Klimek, supra note 5, at 20.

[54]Views and Opinions, History’s Heros?,http://historysheroes.e2bn.org/hero/howviewed/4292 (last visited Apr. 12, 2016).

[55]Burghart, supra note 6, at 62.

[56]Views and Opinions, History’s Heros? Http://historysheroes.e2bn.org/hero/howviewed/4292 (last visited Apr. 12, 2016).

[57]Burghart, supra note 6, at 62.

[58]Anglo-Saxon Charter of Worcester, Researching Historic Buildings in the British Isles, http://www.buildinghistory.org/primary/charter.shtml (last visited Apr. 10, 2016). One important charter was the Charter of Worcester. In this Charter, Aethelred and Aethelflaed ordered that Worcester was to be built “for the protection of all the people.” Id.

[59]Wainwright, supra note 2, at 309.

[60]S 224, The Electronic Sawyer, http://www.esawyer.org.uk/charter/224.html (last visited Apr 17, 2016).

[61]S 225, The Electronic Sawyer, http://www.esawyer.org.uk/charter/225.html (last visited Apr 12, 2016).

[62] Rivers, supra note 3, at 209.

[63] Bailey, supra note 16.

[64]Clark, supra note 9, at 212.

[65]Hudson, supra note 25, at 152.

[66]Id. at 129.

[67] Bailey, supra note 16.

[68]Id.

[69]Id.

[70]Clark, supra note 9, at 212 (quoting Frank M. Stenton, The Historical Bearing of Place-Name Studies: The Place of Women in Anglo-Saxon Society in 25 transactions of the Royal Historical Society 1, 1-13 (4th ser. 1943), reprinted in Preparatory to Anglo-Saxon England: Being the Collected papers of Frank Merry Stenton 314, 314-24 (Doris M. Stenton ed., 1970)).

[71]Clark, supra note 9, at 213.

[72]Rivers, supra note 3, at 210.

[73]Id.

[74]Id. at 211.

[75]Id.

[76]Clark, supra note 9, at 221.

[77]Hudson, supra note 25, at83.

[78]Clark, supra note 9, at 221.

[79]Id.

[80]Hudson, supra note 25, at 82.

[81]Griffiths, supra note 26, at 58.

[82]Id.

[83]Id.

[84]Views and Opinions, History’s Heros?,http://historysheroes.e2bn.org/hero/howviewed/4292 (last visited Apr. 12, 2016).

[85]Clark, supra note 9, at 223 (quoting Christine Fell et al., Women in Anglo-Saxon England 8 (1984).

[86]Burghart, supra note 6, at 63.

 

Comments are closed.