tagRomanceThe Lady of Mercia

The Lady of Mercia


The Anglo Saxon Chronicles Part III

I am an old man now, with an old man’s failings. It is nine years since my liege and, dare I venture, my friend Ælfred, King of Wessex and Rex Anglorum, passed to greater glory. I fear I shall not be long behind him for winter chills my bones and I sleep more and more by the brazier in the Scriptorium. My hands have grown too stiff for fine work these many years but I may still wield my pen to good effect.

Presently, I dwell on secular matters. I trust that those who follow me will forgive an old man’s foibles. I spent my youth and my prime in the service of God and one man, a King, it is true, but a man for all that. Ælfred had his faults, which of us does not? There was true greatness in him, never more clearly seen than in the service of his Land and its people. However, he served his family less well, as I shall tell in these pages.

Perhaps it is the fate of great men to excel in those things which men judge to be the most important. Also, perhaps, it is the fate of those who stand most closely in the shadow of such greatness to find themselves eclipsed, adumbrated. For it is certain sure that such a doom belonged to Ælfred’s kin.

It was never the king’s intent that his family should suffer by neglect; but only evil men truly intend evil. Nonetheless, it was his doing, or the lack of such, that caused a great evil, the true consequences of which were only narrowly avoided, as I shall now recount.

Fr Asser of St Davids
In the Year of Our Lord, 908.

Author’s Note

Æthelflaed, the Lady of Mercia, was born about 868 AD. She was the first child of Alfred the Great and was married at the age of sixteen to Æthelred II of Mercia. This was almost certainly a political alliance. Alfred’s eldest son, Edward, took the throne upon his father’s death in 899.There is some evidence to suggest that Alfred intended Edward’s son, Athelstan to be his successor. Athelstan eventually became King in 924.

Æthelflaed came to real prominence in 911, following her husband’s death and after the events in this story. The wars that eventually led to the re-conquest of Scandinavian England commenced in AD 909. Again, there is evidence to suggest that Æthelred was incapacitated for some time before his death and that Æthelflaed was the de facto ruler of Mercia from about 905. What is beyond dispute is Æthelflaed’s military genius.

She had a keen eye for ground, was the mistress of strategy and appears to have been enormously popular. Some of her greatest victories were bloodless. Just before her death in 918 AD, the entire Danish Kingdom of Northumbria was negotiating to place itself under her rule. Unfortunately, she died at Tamworth in June of that year and the chance was lost. No similar offer was ever made to Edward. After his sister’s death, he seized the Kingdom of Mercia, which never again enjoyed an independent existence.

Edward was certainly a successful Ruler. By the time of his death in 924, all of England south of the Humber River had been annexed to Wessex and Mercia disappears from History as an independent kingdom. However, we see little in the way of improvement to the social, cultural or political life of his kingdom. The renaissance in learning, begun under Alfred, was in abeyance until Athelstan succeeded Edward.

Ælfred, Æthelred of Mercia, Edward, Athelstan and Æthelflaed are all historical characters. The Danes did cease Chester and were expelled in the manner I have described. Æthelwold did dispute Edward’s accession to the throne with Danish help. The rest, and this entire story, are my own imaginings.

The Lady of Mercia, AD 884-906

“You are so lucky, Hereward.”

“My Lady?”

“You married Elfgirda for love. I’m to be married to smelly old Æthelred because Father says it’s important to the Kingdom.”

“Well, My Lady, we all have our duty in these times. And can it be so bad to be married to the King of Mercia?”

“But he’s old, Hereward; older than you, even. Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that you’re old. But his teeth are rotten and his breath stinks!”

The Princess Æthelflaed was walking in the gardens of the Abbey at Wiltun with Hereward of Middletun. Hereward was one of the inner circle of King’s Men and a respected voice on the Witan – the Council – despite his relatively young age of thirty. He was fond of the young Princess. He had a deal of sympathy for the girl. Æthelred of Mercia was a dull man with few redeeming features. King Ælfred was using the marriage to cement relations between the two surviving Saxon Kingdoms. Even Mercia was only half a Kingdom. Guthrun and the Danes had seized the eastern portion of that unhappy land from Æthelred’s predecessor, Ceolwulf. Æthelred had inherited a country that was beaten and cowed and in fear of being finally crushed between the hammer of the Danes and the anvil of a resurgent Wessex.

Hereward now looked down at her. She wasn’t the beautiful princess of the sagas, that was for sure. Her dark hair spoke of her Frankish ancestry, for her grandmother had been sister to Charles, King of the Franks. Her build was on the square side. She was not fat, far from it, but she had wide shoulders and hips and the effect was exaggerated by her shortness of stature. She had a pleasant face with lively green eyes and a ready smile. Hereward enjoyed her company. He sensed a deep-rooted strength in her. It was no less than he would expect from the first-born child of his King.

He knew all about the impending marriage. Ælfred could be impetuous. Æthelred of Mercia had suggested closer ties between their Kingdoms. Hereward wasn’t sure that the Mercian entertained any hopes of marriage to the King’s daughter but it fell out thus. Hereward was rarely surprised by the King these days, having been an almost constant companion since the dark days on Athelingaig, but he was taken aback by the speed of Ælfred’s promise. “Of course,” he had said to Æthelred, “You are quite right. You shall marry my daughter, Æthelflaed.” And the matter was decided.

Ælfred was quite unprepared for his daughter’s reaction. She had gone very pale and still on being told the news. Then she had said, “How little you must think of me, Father,” and walked away, back straight and head held high. Ælfred had tried to explain, to justify his decision but Æthelflaed refused to be drawn. All she would say was “It shall be as you command, My Lord.” It was to Ælfred’s great sadness that she never called him ‘Father’ thereafter. Now, the day had come when she must leave Wessex and travel to Tamoworthig in Mercia to be married. Hereward had begged the King for command of her escort. He felt she might need a friend’s company on such a journey.

It was early summer and the weather stayed fair as they travelled northwards. Æthelflaed was withdrawn and reserved for the most part. Hereward had imagined that she would be nervous, unsure of what to expect. She was, after all, only just sixteen. But Æthelflaed showed no outward signs of nerves. What Hereward could not see was the anger blazing deep within her soul. He tried to make light conversation, riding beside the wagon in which she rode, but she answered him with monosyllables, refusing further dialogue.

They made slow progress, stopping each night in a town or larger village and lodging with the local nobles. Æthelflaed was always gracious and polite to her hosts but always made some excuse to withdraw early, leaving Hereward to explain her absences as due to the fatigue of travel. So it was they came to the King’s camp at Tamoworthig and it was with something like relief that Hereward was able to turn his charge over to Æthelred’s household.

He tried once more to talk to her before he left but she rebuffed him gently. “My father sent me here to be his pawn,” she said. “This, I shall never be. I was a Princess of Wessex, now I shall be a Queen of Mercia. Hereward, you have always been a good friend but you are my father’s man, for good or ill. Tell him, then, that I shall do my duty.” Hereward bowed and made his farewells. It was a sadly puzzled man that rode away.


Æthelflaed had been raised in the Court of a King at war. For as long as she could remember, her father and his House Ceorls had been on the move, fighting or planning for the next fight. In the absence of the men, she had enjoyed, perhaps, a greater freedom than that which was normally afforded to a Saxon noble’s daughter. Her mother was devout and spent much time closeted with her priest. Æthelflaed had been left to her own devices and she had taken the opportunity to acquire an education normally the preserve of male offspring. She had insinuated herself into the Abbey schoolroom and proved an apt pupil.

King Ælfred had attracted men of learning from all over Christian Europe and, while at first they may have found her a curiosity, they came to recognise that she was the possessor of a fine inquiring mind. She took full advantage of what was on offer. She soon mastered both Latin and Greek and read every precious book she laid hands on. Attempts to confine her to religious tracts were countered with a fierce determination. The teacher-monks soon realised that here was spirit as dauntless as that of Ælfred himself.

It could be said that the young Æthelflaed became too used to having her own way. Had she been of a different character, she may have well have become an unbearable little prig. As it was, that fate was reserved for her brother Edward, the King’s heir. Edward was barely more than a year her junior and ever conscious of his position. Æthelflaed was by far his intellectual superior and he constantly found cause for personal affront when she bested him in any task set by their tutors. It was only in the matter of physical challenges that Edward could crow his superiority; but even here, Æthelflaed contrived to beat him.

The pair had been set the problem of raising a number of stone blocks set in the Abbey cloister. The object was to lift the lumps of masonry from the ground to the level of the parapet on the curtain wall. Edward, of course, tried by main force to lift the heavy stones. Strong as he was for a lad of only twelve summers, the weight proved too much. Æthelflaed recognised instantly that she would fare no better. Instead, she constructed a kind of crude seesaw. She attached a stone block to one arm and a large leather bucket to the other. Mounting a ladder, she proceeded to fill the bucket with water. After several trips, the weight of the water in the bucket was greater than the stone block and it swung upwards to the desired location.

The monks were delighted and heaped praise on her ingenuity; this damned Edward by comparison. Having been mastered in the one area where he felt himself to be his sister’s, the young Prince flew into a rage and struck his sister, knocking her to the ground. Punishment was swift and harsh and ever after, relations between the two royal siblings were scarcely cordial.

Now Æthelflaed found herself facing a challenge for which she felt totally unprepared. It is true that she expected marriage but had always imagined it would be to a younger man than Æthelred of Mercia. She somehow envisaged herself marrying for love, having the time to indulge her passion for learning and, at some point, having children on whom she could dote. Instead, she was in a strange land surrounded by an embittered people who saw her native Wessex as almost as great a threat as the hated Danes. Her husband-to-be was dull, unimaginative and, by her lights, crude.

This was unfair to Æthelred. True, he lacked any great spark of personality but he was a brave warrior and was utterly committed to the cause of his land and people. There were few in England who could stand close comparison with Ælfred, the scholar-King. Æthelflaed’s horror was complete when she discovered there were only three books in the whole of Æthelred’s establishment and that the monks of the Abbey at Tamoworthig were ill educated, aside from matters religious. There was no formal schooling and many of the Household could neither read nor write. Had she been more disposed towards the King of Mercia, she would have admitted that such was the situation in Wessex scarcely a generation before. The difference, of course, was Ælfred.


They were married on the First day of July; the Bishop of Liccidfeld conducted the nuptials and if the rejoicing was somewhat muted, there were many who viewed the marriage as a shrewd move by Æthelred to strengthen his ties with Wessex. For Æthelflaed, the reluctant bride, the wedding ceremony was like the slamming of a gaol door, leaving her imprisoned; her hopes and aspirations stranded on the other side of the bars.

The wedding feast and subsequent bedding – where the newly married couple were escorted to the bedchamber, accompanied by much bawdy advice and exhortation – proved an even greater trial. Æthelred had consumed a great quantity of old ale and he hid his own nervousness in a brusque and clumsy mounting that put Æthelflaed in mind of a rutting boar. She watched him in silence as he heaved and sweated above her. The pain was bearable; the humiliation was not. She felt only relief when he stiffened, grunted and collapsed beside her to start snoring almost immediately.

This set a pattern for their married life. It seemed that Æthelred could not come to her sober. She would lie unmoving, enduring. His visits became less and less frequent as the months went by and Æthelflaed found no cause for regret in this. At first, she hoped that pregnancy would give her the excuse to curtail their trysts. In the event, she remained singularly barren and Æthelred seemed to lose all but the most passing interest in her. Æthelflaed decided she could tolerate his intrusions. A bigger enemy by far was her own boredom.

She could not spend her days happily in spinning or weaving. She did not have her mother’s devout nature to pass her time in the company of priests in contemplation of the Almighty. After six or so months of enforced idleness, she determined to take matters into her own hands. Æthelflaed decided to start a school. First, she wrote to Asser, her father’s friend and adviser, to beg the services of an educated monk to help with the endeavour. Next, she approached her husband, Æthelred.

“My Lord, I wish to found a school for the education of the children of your Household. I cannot spend another day in dreary idleness.”

“You take no pleasure in the company of the ladies?”

“Sadly, no, My Lord. I was not raised to enjoy those pursuits that are deemed suitable for a lady.”

“So what would you do?”

“First, I will have a school. The children will need more than skill at arms.”

“The shield wall is school enough. That’s where I got my education.”

“And do you suppose, My Lord, that you are the first warrior to fight a battle? Men have been fighting for thousands of years. The Romans conquered half the world and Great Alexander the other half. Could you not learn from them?”

“Did your father?”

“Indeed he did, My Lord. The moving shield wall is a Roman tactic, as is the founding of the Burghs. The Romans, too, built fortified places as the anchors for their armies.”

“Men rot when locked behind walls. Victory can only be had in true battle.”

“And you think so? It was not victory in battle that sees your kingdom now divided. I understand your thinking Lord, but things must change if we are to win back Mercia.”

“We, Lady? And which ‘we’ do you mean? We, the Mercians or the ‘we’ of Wessex?”

“My Lord, we seem to have begun badly. Now I give you my most solemn oath, I am Queen of Mercia, no longer Ælfred’s daughter. And if I would not have chosen to be your wife, that is what I am. I don’t yet know how to be a Queen but I shall learn.”

“It is my regret, Lady, that I don’t yet know how to be a husband. Perhaps we could teach each other?”

And over the next few years they tried to do so.
The first eight years of Æthelflaed’s marriage to Æthelred of Mercia were relatively peaceful for the surviving Saxon Kingdoms. Relations with the Danelaw had settled into wary co-existence and a fledgling trade had begun between the Saxon Kingdoms and the Danes. In Wessex, Ælfred had used the time to further establish his Burghs – fortified towns that could act as centres of operations – and to build a fleet of ships to meet marauders at sea. Æthelflaed urged similar preparations in Mercia but her husband was stubborn. He clung to the view that victory could only be won in the open field. Unable to change her husband’s mind, she threw herself into the education of her new subjects – an enthusiasm that was not universally shared. Little by little she won them over and one school became four and then eight. If Æthelflaed did not find happiness, she found a kind of contentment. Still and all, something nagged at her; something was missing, unfulfilled.

Now it happened that in the Year of our Lord 892, a vast new horde descended on England. Ælfred Obtained agreement that the Danelaw would remain neutral, but it was not to be. The fighting was bitter that year but no victory could be gained and winter saw the invaders camped in the land of the East Saxons. With the spring, the Danish army broke out and took the Saxons by surprise. They marched day and night and occupied the ancient city of Legaceaster, Chester of the Legions, once a great Roman camp. It was from here that they planned to invade Mercia; unprepared Mercia whose King was sorely sick and could not take the field.

In Tamoworthig, Æthelred wandered in and out of consciousness, barely clinging to life. The King was unaware of the danger that threatened and the Court seemed paralysed, powerless to act in his absence. Æthelflaed called the Thegns of Mercia to her. She knew what must be done but was unsure if the army would follow a woman.

“My Lord, the King is too sick to lead us but he has given me his orders,” she lied. Gather your House Ceorls and summon the Fyrd. We march on Legaceaster.”

“Who will command, Lady?”

“Yes, My Lady, who will lead us?”

“I will command. I have my husband’s orders and his writ.” She brandished a parchment, knowing full well that none there before her could read it. To her surprise, there was no dissent. The King had commanded and their oaths demanded obedience. If she felt any sense of nervousness at the prospect of commanding an army at war, it did not show in her demeanour. She stood proudly, simply dressed in a woollen robe of russet brown, unadorned by any jewels or fripperies. Yet she looked every inch a Queen. There was a fire in those green eyes that could not be quenched and a steely determination in the jut of her jaw and the straightness of her back. The Thegns saw and noted all; and were pleased by what they saw. Here was a Queen indeed.

As she told her husband long afterwards, she had no plan when the army marched from Tamoworthig. She simply knew that such a host could not be allowed to stand on Mercia’s northern border. The land thereabouts was rich and good for farming. Abundant water made for thick, green grass and fat cattle. Left alone, the Danes could sustain themselves in plenty, raiding into Mercia at their will.

Æthelflaed knew that the old Roman enclosure was easily fortified. Also, there was in her an abhorrence for the slaughter of the shield wall. She had read widely and included many military tracts amongst her readings. She was particularly fond of Xenephon, the Greek farmer-strategist, and it was to his teachings that she turned now. She called the Thegns to her.

“My Lord believes that we are in for a long, hard campaign against these new invaders. It is therefore his wish that we husband our forces. Send out parties to drive off all the cattle and burn all the crops for twenty miles around. We cannot deny them water as they sit astride the river, but we can deny them food.” Æthelflaed looked about her, judging the effect of her words. She saw some frown but also some solemn nods from the older men who saw the wisdom in her strategy. There was a general rumble of assent and her orders were soon put into action. The Mercian army then sat down and began the long business of the siege.

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