This week, Prince Edward was paying tribute to a much-loved Queen. Not ‘Mummy’ — but Queen Æthelflæd, Alfred the Great’s eldest child, the Lady of the Mercians and one of our greatest, if largely forgotten, Anglo-Saxon leaders. If it wasn’t for Æthelflæd kicking the Danes out of Mercia during her reign from 911-918, we’d all be speaking Danish. You could call her the first Brexiteer.
Æthelflæd died in 918, 1,100 years ago this week, in Tamworth, Staffordshire, heart of her Mercian kingdom (roughly equivalent to Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire). In the West Midlands some people call her the Founding Mother of England. A huge statue of ‘Our Aethel’ sporting a Usain Bolt pose, with her spear aloft, dominates the Offa Drive/Saxon Drive round-about outside Tamworth Railway Station. Tamworth Brewery has brewed a commemorative, dark, velvety stout, also called ‘Our Aethel’.
And on Tuesday Prince Edward was in Tamworth at St Editha’s Church — Editha was Æthelflæd’s niece — at a National Service of Commemoration, unveiling a stained-glass window of Æthelflæd, his kinsman. Five bishops, two archdeacons and a host of eminent historians were also there to record Æthelflæd’s achievements. Professor Dame Jinty Nelson said her ‘real achievement was peace’ in England. A beautiful young redhead playing the part of Æthelflæd was backed up by a retinue of hefty, heavily bearded Anglo-Saxon warriors in chainmail, brandishing spears and shields. Prince Edward smiled at them as they passed him under St Editha’s Anglo-Saxon tower. But his protection officer looked a bit green in the gills when he saw one helmeted Anglo-Saxon brush by the prince, swinging a huge, primitive axe.
Born in around 870, Æthelflæd was a Wessex girl who did much to unite two huge English kingdoms by marrying Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians. But she did much more than that. Like her father, Alfred, she was a keen Latin scholar at a time when the Danes had smashed up libraries across the country. As Alfred said: ‘There were so few [Latin scholars] that I cannot even recollect a single one south of the Thames when I succeeded to the kingdom.’
She certainly would have understood the nickname bestowed on her in the medieval Annals of Ulster: ‘Famosissima regina Saxonum’ — ‘Most Famous Queen of the Saxons’. Through the mists of time, it is possible to work out that she really was a remarkable figure, taking up her father’s mantle in bashing the Danes, who had dominated the England of her childhood. When Æthelred died in 911, Æthelflæd ruled Mercia alone — an astonishing example of early female power, and a tribute to the enlightened values of the Midlands then. Alfred’s Wessex had never been so keen on equal rights.
She commissioned enlarged defences for Warwick, Stafford, Runcorn, Bridgnorth and Tamworth. In 917, she captured Derby from the Danes. A year later, she took Leicester without a fight. The Vikings of York offered her their loyalty only days before her death.
When she died, her soul would have been prayed for at St Editha’s in Tamworth, before her body was taken to be buried in Gloucester, next to her husband at the shrine of St Oswald.
Gloucester held its own commemoration this week, too, with 10,000 people watching a local actress, Samantha Swinford, playing a dead Æthelflæd, carried on a bier from Gloucester Docks to an Anglo-Saxon encampment at St Oswald’s Priory.
Not long after Æthelflæd’s death, the medieval chroniclers of England were queueing up to sing her praises. In the 12th century, Henry of Huntingdon wrote her a poem:
Heroic Elflede! Great in martial fame,
A man in valour, woman though in name.
She was so devoted to royal standards that she even gave up sex after bearing her only child, Ælfwynn. In the 1120s, William of Malmesbury wrote: ‘After having difficulties with the birth, she abhorred her husband’s embraces ever after, declaring that it was beneath the dignity of a king’s daughter to involve herself in pleasures which would be followed in time by such ill-effects.’
It wasn’t the first time that a woman stopped finding her husband attractive after having children — and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
But Æthelflæd was the first Anglo–Saxon queen to send the Danes packing. And for that we should all give thanks to Myrcna hlædige — the Lady of the Mercians.
Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English (Penguin).