I first met Aethelflaed in gradeschool, from a Scholastic book called Edge on the Sword. I read it many times, and though it managed to end up in a giveaway pile during one of my raging episodes of room-cleaning, the story has remained with me.
Aethelflaed, (which is pronounced ethel-fled, according to Youtube) was the daughter of King Alfred the Great (who is himself quite the historical figure), and eventually married Aethelred (ethel-red) of the Mercians. As an aside, the prefix Aethel, or Ethel, is an Old English word that means “noble”, perhaps derived from the Latin word “aedilis”, which meant a magistrate of some kind. The addition of it to a name indicated the social status of the person, first used for any high ranking noble, but soon after restricted to members of a royal family. So if you know anybody named Ethel, you’d best be showing your respect!
But back to my main theme. While I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the novel, the impression I got was of a young girl finding ways to overcome the societal restrictions placed upon her. The novel begins with her finding out about her engagement to a complete stranger, and the realization that she must soon leave her home and family forever. This dilemma, paired with her active and curious mind, made Flaed a compelling character to me, both then and now. In the novel she rides horses, seeks out military knowledge and the history of her people, and then is able to put that skill and knowledge to the test when she and her retinue are attacked by marauding enemies. She ends the novel by arriving triumphantly in Mercia, where the people respect her for her ingenuity, and where her husband-to-be appears to be a kind man that she can grow to love, despite the fact that he is quite a bit older than her.
I have no idea exactly how much was fictionalized for the benefit of the novel. But I do know that Aethelflaed became a beloved ruler to her adopted people, who referred to her as “The Lady of the Mercians”, and that she and Aethelred seemed to share the burden of rule in many respects, in addition to functioning well as a couple. Aethelred eventually fell very ill, effectively making Aethelflaed the sole ruler of Mercia, both before and after his death. During Aethelflaed’s rule, she worked in tandem with her brother, Edward the Elder, to lead military campaigns against the marauding Vikings (and they kicked some serious Viking butt, just for the record). After her own death she was succeeded by her daughter, Aelfwynn, who ruled for only six months before being deposed by her uncle, Edward. I always found this last detail to be a jarring and unfair ending to a story that, until that point, had featured a woman that became successful, revered, and powerful in an age when those attributes were generally reserved for men (I mean…rude!?). Sadly, after the time of her deposition, Aelfwynn seems to disappear completely from history, and the Mercians who loved their Lady hero lost their independence. But who knows? Maybe she wouldn’t have made a good ruler anyway.
In any case, Aethelflead has become quite the figure in Anglo-Saxon history, and is, apparently, the only known female ruler of the period. Her status as a queen figure who could wield actual political power, even during Aethelred’s life, is quite unique, since most women of status, even her own mother, were never granted such prerogative. In a time were women were all but invisible, Aethelflaed’s name and legacy have shined brightly for over a thousand years (give or take a few).The 12th century English historian Henry of Huntington penned these words of her:
Heroes before the Mercian heroine quail’d:
Caesar himself to win such glory fail’d.
Cooler than Caesar huh? That’s a pretty big deal, I’d say.
This humble blog post presents only the briefest sketch of this amazing lady and her importance to early history – if you’re interested, the Wikipedia article gives a much more thorough overview, not only of her, but the intrigues of the period. And if you know of any books or other sources on the subject, be sure to mention them in the comments!
I, for one, am always a sucker for female characters that overcome the odds. And I’ll admit, my admiration for Aethelflaed is probably colored a great deal by the novelization in The Edge of the Sword. But I’m also willing to bet that most people haven’t heard of her, so, for your reading pleasure, here’s a no-nonsense warrior queen from the tenth century. What’s not to like?