In today’s Women’s History Month post, I want to introduce you to another favourite feisty English princess: Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.
Born in 870 as the first daughter of King Alfred the Great and his wife Ealswith, she grew up in a kingdom plagued by Viking invasions and increasing Danish domination of lands the had until recently been other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
In 878, the tide began to turn when Alfred defeated the Danes at the Battle of Edington, and Æthelred became leader of the the half of Mercia that was still under English control. As Lord of the Mercians, he acknowledged Alfred as King over all the English people who lived in areas not controlled by the Vikings. This alliance was sealed by the marriage of Æthelflæd to Æthelred.
Not content to be a political pawn, Æthelflæd established herself in Mercia as a very capable co-ruler with Æthelred, and when his health began to fail, she took on the responsibilities of rule. When he died in 911, she assumed sole leadership of the kingdom and ruled in her own right as the Lady of the Mercians.
This was the first time a woman had ruled an English kingdom, and she did a brilliant job of it. She fought against the Danes alongside her father and then he brother Edward, who became King on the death of Alfred in 899, enjoying victories that led to the Viking rulers of York offering her their loyalty in 918. However, Æthelflæd died before she was able to accept their offer and Edward absorbed Mercia into his own kingdom.
RClearly, Æthelflæd was a woman who was not content to take a passive role in either history or her own life. She recognised no glass ceilings, and showed most of the men around her— including her own brother— how leadership should be done.
To learn more about this fascinating woman, I recommend Annie Whitehead’s fabulous work of historical fiction, To Be A Queen.