Æthelflæd

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Æthelflæd - daughter of Alfred of Wessex married into the Mercian ruling elite and, restored and extended the City Walls along their modern course as part of a grand strategic plan to defeat the Danes. This image is from the Cartulary of Abingdon Abbey.

The Roman city of Chester was refortified around 907 by the Mercians. The event is recorded in the Chronicle (although versions vary) and a cryptic note from 907 that "Chester was restored" suggests more fighting (or rebuilding) in that year:

  • A.D. 907. This year died Alfred, who was governor of Bath. The same year was concluded the peace at Hitchingford, as King Edward decreed, both with the Danes of East-Anglia, and those of Northumberland; and Chester was restored.

Raphael Holinshead (writing in the 1570's) also mentions the same, adding that this was when the walls were extended by Æthelflæd - daughter of Alfred and sister to the King:

  • Not without good reason did king Edward permit vnto his sister Elfleda the gouernment of Mercia, during hir life time: for by hir wise and politike order vsed in all hir dooings, he was greatlie furthered & assisted; but speciallie in reparing and building of townes & castels, wherein she shewed hir noble magnificence, in so much that during hir government, which continued about eight yéeres, it is recorded by writers, that she did build and repare these Tamwoorth was by hir repared, Eadsburie and Warwike towns, whose names here insue: Tamwoorth beside Lichfield, Stafford, Warwike, Shrewsburie, Watersburie or Weddesburie, Elilsburie or rather Eadsburie, in the forrest of De la mere besides Chester, Brimsburie bridge vpon Seuerne, Rouncorne at the mouth of the riuer Mercia with other. Moreouer, by hir helpe the citie of Chester, which by Danes had beene greatlie defaced, was newlie repared, fortified with walls and turrets, and greatlie inlarged. So that the castell which stood without the walls before that time, was now brought within compasse of the new wall.

The dates here are important. Alfred has his first major fight with the Danes (under Guthrum) in 871-875 at the time that the remains of St Werbergh were tranferred to Chester. Alfred has his second major fight with a fresh wave of Danes in around 894, just after Guthrum's death. In 900 Alfred died and his son Edgar the Elder was consecrated at Kingston-upon-Thames by the archbishop of Canterbury, Plegmund (of St Plegmund's Well fame). In 902, Alfred's daughter Æthelflæd is effectively ruling Mercia and a Hiberno-Norse community settles in Wirral after its expulsion from Dublin. In 907 Chester was "rebuilt" by Æthelflæd. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records:

  • "A.D. 913 ... This year by permission of God, went Aethelfleda, Lady of Mercia, with all the Mercians, to Tamworth and built the borough there in the early summer, and afterwards, before Lammas, that at Stafford. Then afterwards in the next year, that at Eddisbury in the early summer and later in the same year, in the early autumn, that at Warwick, then afterwards in the next year, after Christmas that at Chirbury and that at Wearyg (Warburton), and in the same year before Christmas, that at Runkhorn (A.D. 915)."

So if Æthelflæd was the one who rebuilt Chester why is she not better known? In the 12th century, Henry of Huntingdon declared Æthelflæd to be:

  • "so powerful that in praise and exaltation of her wonderful gifts, some call her not only lady, but even king".

Henry of Huntingdon praised her (with perhaps unintended irony) as "worthy of a man’s name" and even "more illustrious than Caesar". So how did she get written out of Anglo-Saxon history?

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle

Æthelflæd in the thirteenth century Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings.

Almost all of what is known of the history of Æthelflæd's times comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of annals in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The original manuscript of the Chronicle was created late in the 9th century, probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899). Multiple copies were made of that one original and then distributed to monasteries across England, where they were independently updated. Nine manuscripts survive in whole or in part, though not all are of equal historical value and none of them is the original version. The oldest seems to have been started towards the end of Alfred's reign, possibly on his own instructions, while the most recent was written at Peterborough Abbey after a fire at that monastery in 1116. Almost all of the material in the Chronicle is in the form of annals, by year; the earliest are dated at 60 BC (the annals' date for Caesar's invasions of Britain), and historical material follows up to the year in which the chronicle was written, at which point contemporary records begin. There are also places where the different versions contradict each other. Taken as a whole, however, the Chronicle is the single most important historical source for the period in England between the departure of the Romans and the decades following the Norman conquest.

The earliest extant manuscript, the Parker Chronicle, was written by a single scribe up to the year 891, late in the reign of Alfred. The scribe wrote the year number, DCCCXCII, in the margin of the next line; subsequent material was written by other scribes. This appears to place the composition of the chronicle at no later than 892; further evidence is provided by Bishop Asser's use of a version of the Chronicle in his work "Life of King Alfred", known to have been composed in 893, but left unfinished. The Chronicle has a clear bias in favour of Wessex and in particular the house founded by Ecgbert, grandfather of Alfred. Any victory by Wessex is played up, while events in rival state Mercia are either downplayed, skimmed over or not mentioned at all. Chester has its own version of the Chronicle, although it is not clear exactly how this relates to the original and the Chester version is an extremely corrupt derivation of whatever its original was.

Æthelflæd is almost ignored in the standard West Saxon version of the Chronicle, in what one historian (Frederick Threlfall Wainwright) described as a "conspiracy of silence". Brief details of her actions were preserved in a pro-Mercian version of the Chronicle known as the "Mercian Register" or the "Annals of Æthelflæd" which covers the years 902-924; although the original text of that work is now lost, and all that remains are elements which were incorporated into several surviving versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle derived later. The insertion is rather crude, and the manuscript B of the Chronicle contains two completely different versions of events for the years 902–924. The first version is similar to that found in Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscript A, and focuses on the deeds of the West Saxon King Edward the Elder (reigned 899–924) as he conquered lands controlled by the descendants of Viking raiders. Immediately after those annals, the scribe copied a group of annals for the same years from the ‘Mercian Register". These preserve details of the part played in campaigns against Scandinavian and Welsh forces by Ealdorman Æthelred of the Mercians, and his wife Æthelflæd. A comparison of the two texts (see the links below) shows the striking differences between these two accounts of the same period of history.

Information about Æthelflæd's career is also preserved in the Irish chronicle known as the Three Fragments. According to Wainwright, it:

  • "contains much that is legendary rather than historical. But it also contains, especially for our period, much genuine historical information which seems to have its roots in a contemporary narrative."

Æthelflæd was praised by later Anglo-Norman chroniclers such as William of Malmesbury and John of Worcester. Several theories have been proposed as to why Æthelflæd was effectively written out of history. One is a monastic tradition, particularly in Wessex, of seeing women only as either saints or as queens standing in the shadow of some king, and often up to no good. Another is that she was the effective ruler of Mercia, the great rival of Wessex and the Wessex scribes did not want to encourage any thoughts of Mercian independence but rather continue their official myth that it was Wessex alone that saved England from the Vikings. This is a little unfair, given that Æthelflæd was Alfred's oldest child and so firmly a member of the Wessex royals.

Early Life

Æthelflæd was born around 870, the oldest child of King Alfred the Great and his Mercian wife, Ealhswith, who was a daughter of Æthelred Mucel, ealdorman of the Gaini, one of the tribes of Mercia. Ealhswith's mother, Eadburh, was a member of the Mercian royal house, probably a descendant of King Coenwulf (796–821). Æthelflæd was thus half-Mercian. Ealhswith is very obscure in contemporary sources. She did not witness any known charters, and Bishop Asser did not even mention her name in his "Life of King Alfred". In accordance with ninth century West Saxon custom, she was not given the title of queen. According to what King Alfred supposedly related to Asser, this was because of the infamous conduct of another former queen of Wessex called Eadburh, who managed to accidentally poison her own husband, although this was to be of great benefit of Alfred's grandfather Ecgbert and the Wessex scribes may have distorted the history of what actually happened. Asser had another reason for down-playing the role of queens of Wessex - Judith of Flanders married the elderly King Æthelwulf of Wessex (Alfred's widowed father) as an adolescent and was crowned queen in contravention of the custom in Wessex. After Æthelwulf's death in 858, Judith married his son and successor, Æthelbald (Alfred's brother). Her marriage with her stepson was considered scandalous by her contemporaries.

Æthelflæd’s name (spelled "Æþelflæd"), a rare mention in the B-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, f. 30r.

According to Asser in his "Life of King Alfred", Alfred's son Edward ("the elder") and Edward's younger sister Ælfthryth were educated at court by male and female tutors, and read ecclesiastical and secular works in English, such as the Psalms and Old English poems. They were taught the courtly qualities of gentleness and humility, and Asser wrote that they were obedient to their father and friendly to visitors. This is a rare case of an Anglo-Saxon prince and princess receiving the same upbringing and it is not unlikely that Æthelflæd recieved, despite the troubled times, at least some similar standard of education. Edward was a child throughout the early wars his father fought with the Danes but was more of a soldier than also a scholar like his father. By 892, in his teens, Edward was commanding part of the Anglo-Saxon army. Whereas his father appears to use more diplomacy, Edward appears to favour a military approach to resolution of issues.

Alfred became king in April 871 although his notable efforts to revive learning did not really get underway until the 880's. This revival entailed the recruitment of clerical scholars from Mercia, Wales and abroad to enhance the tenor of the court and of the episcopacy; the establishment of a court school to educate his own children, the sons of his nobles, and intellectually promising boys of lesser birth; an attempt to require literacy in those who held offices of authority; a series of translations into the vernacular of Latin works the king deemed "most necessary for all men to know"; the compilation of a chronicle detailing the rise of Alfred's kingdom and house, with a genealogy that stretched back to Adam, thus giving the West Saxon kings a biblical ancestry. Alfred recruited scholars from the Continent and from Britain to aid in the revival of Christian learning in Wessex and to provide the king personal instruction. Grimbald and John the Saxon came from Francia; Plegmund from Chester, Bishop Werferth of Worcester, Æthelstan, and the royal chaplains Werwulf, from Mercia; and Asser, from St David's in southwestern Wales.

In her first few years Æthelflæd's parents were under considerable threat from the Vikings. In 876, when she was aged about 6, three Viking leaders Guthrum, Oscetel and Anwend, and their troops slipped past the Saxon army and attacked and occupied Wareham in Dorset. Alfred blockaded them but was unable to take Wareham by assault. He negotiated a peace that involved an exchange of hostages and oaths. The Danes broke their word, and after killing all the hostages, slipped away under cover of night to Exeter in Devon. Alfred blockaded the Viking ships in Devon, and with a relief fleet having been scattered by a storm and wrecked, the Danes were either forced to submit or again paid off. The Danes withdrew to Mercia. On Epiphany, 6 January 878, Guthrum made a surprise night-time attack on Alfred and his court at Chippenham, a royal stronghold in which Alfred had been staying over Christmas:

  • "and most of the people they killed, except the King Alfred, and he with a little band made his way by wood and swamp, and after Easter he made a fort at Athelney in the marshes of Somerset, and from that fort kept fighting against the foe"

The Victorian historians and the chroniclers of Wessex tell a particular version of what happened at Chippenham, but some historians see this as somewhat detatched from the possible truth. Justin Pollard argues that Alfred was not a popular king amongst his church and nobles at the time. He had lost his first battle as king, paid-off the Vikings, debased the coinage and taxed to recover the money. He suffered from an infirmity which could have been seen a divine curse. He had been criticised by Archbishop Æthelred of Canterbury who accused Alfred (around 877) of interference with ecclesiastical affairs. Pollard argues that Æthelred of Canterbury possibly had the support of the Pope (John VIII) for a coup against Alfred. Asser's "Life of Alfred" misses out a whole year (and a whole chapeter) between the Vikings fleeing to Exeter and the attack on Chippenham - notably omitting any mention of the destruction of the Viking fleet. Asser is possibly trying his best to conceal the fact that from paying the Vikings off in 871 to the attack at Chippenham in 876 Alfred had done little if anything to improve the defences of Wessex.

According to Victorian historians, Alfred spent the winter as a fugitive at Athelney before a spectacular come-back. It is unclear whether Æthelflæd and his wife were with him, but it is possible there was no other place of safety for them. Tradition holds that Alfred ordered that his troops should gather at Ecgbert's stone, the very same spot where his grandfather was reputed to have made an oath to return while heading for exile in Francia. The Victorians depicted the subsequent Battle of Edington as a great victory, wheras in fact it led to something of a stalemate.

At almost the same time as Alfred's victory over the Vikings in 878 at the Battle of Edington, Ceolwulf II of Mercia defeated and killed Rhodri ap Merfyn (c. 820–878), later known as Rhodri the Great (Welsh: Rhodri Mawr), king of the north Welsh territory of Gwynedd. War with Wales, which typically involved fighting over and raiding each others border lands was a long-standing tradition for the Mercians. In 881 Rhodri's sons defeated the Mercians at the Battle of the Conwy, a victory described in Welsh annals as "revenge of God for Rhodri". The Mercian leader was, according to the Welsh histories, "Edryd Long-Hair", almost certainly Ceolwulf's successor as Mercian ruler, Æthelred. As for Ceolwulf's fate, history is silent. By 883 he had been replaced by Æthelred but how this came about is not known - Ceolwulf simply disappears.

The Battle of the Conwy is often said to have ended the traditional hegemony of Mercia over north Wales and probably contributed to Æthelred's decision to accept the lordship of King Alfred of Wessex. This united under Alfred the Anglo-Saxons who were not living under Viking rule, and was a significant step towards the creation of the Kingdom of England. However, as will be discussed below, the rulers of North Wales would later submit to Æthelflæd and the end of Mercia is a little more complex than is often supposed.

Marriage

Mercian defence strategy. The green areas are occupied by the Hiberno-Norse, while the blue are occupied by the Danes. The line of fortifications from Chester to Manchester is intended to prevent a flank/rear attack on Tamworth, the Mercian political center and protect the Dee Valley. The approximate boundaries of England for 917, 920 and 927 are shown. The establishment of a major religious and military center at Chester does seem to be part of a concerted plan. The extent to which Æthelflæd is involved needs to consider that she died in 918.

The alliance between Wessex and Mercia was sealed by Æthelflæd's marriage to Æthelred, sometime between 885 and 887. Æthelred's descent is unknown. Richard Abels describes him as "somewhat of a mysterious character", who may have claimed royal blood and been related to King Alfred's father-in-law, Ealdorman Æthelred Mucel. In the view of Ian Walker: "He was a royal ealdorman whose power base lay in the south-west of Mercia in the former kingdom of the Hwicce around Gloucester". Alex Woolf suggests that he was probably the son of King Burgred of Mercia (who had been driven out by the Vikings) and King Alfred's sister Æthelswith, although that would mean that the marriage between Æthelflæd and Æthelred was uncanonical, because Rome then forbade marriage between first cousins. When Plegmund became archbishop the "sins" of the English nobles in intermarrying had been pointed out to him, but he appareently did little to oppose it. They are mentioned in Alfred's will, which probably dates to the late 880s. Æthelflæd, described only as "my eldest daughter", received an estate and 100 mancuses, and Æthelred was left a sword. Mancus (sometimes spelt mancosus or similar) was a term used in early medieval Europe to denote either a gold coin, a weight of gold of 4.25g, or a unit of account of thirty silver pence. Æthelflæd was first recorded as Æthelred's wife in a charter of 887, when he granted two estates to the see of Worcester "with the permission and sign-manual of King Alfred" and the attestors included "Æthelflæd conjux". The marriage may have taken place earlier, perhaps when he submitted to Alfred following the recovery of London in 886. Tradition records that on the way to her wedding, she was attacked by the Danes. This may have been an attempt to prevent the alliance between Wessex and Mercia. Æthelflæd is said to have used an old trench as a fortress and her party defeated the attackers.

During the early years of their marriage the young couple appear to have settled in London, the city that had been entrusted to Æthelred’s care by Alfred after it was recovered from the Danes. Æthelflæd seems to have taken after her father – she was a strong, brave woman and is often regarded more as a partner to Æthelred than a meek, obedient wife. Records show that couple jointly presided over provincial courts. Æthelred was much older than Æthelflæd and they had one known child, a daughter called Ælfwynn (born sometime between 886 and 889). William of Malmesbury claimed the lack of more children was due to Æthelflæd’s avoidance of sexual relations, possibly due to a fear of dying in childbirth, having had a very difficult first birth. Malmesbury (whether he is to be believed or not) writes that she was:

  • "so much astonished at the pain, that ever after, she refrained the embraces of her husband for almost forty years, protesting often, that it was not fit for a king's daughter to be given to a pleasure that brought so much pain along with it; and thereupon grew an heroic virago, like the ancient Amazons, as if she had changed her sex, as well as her mind"

Wessex had adjusted to a change in ruler when Æthelflæd’s father died in 899 and was succeeded by her younger brother, Edward "the Elder", whose three wives and large number of children led to a number of succession issues. Æthelstan, the eldest son of Edward the Elder and future king of England, was brought up in their court, possibly for his own safety as Edward had re-married and thus created the possibility of yet another contested succession of the type so common in Wessex. It is even possible that there were attempts on Æthelstan's life.

Somewhere early in the 10th century, maybe as early as 902, Æthelred fell very ill and was for much of the time unable to perform an active role in either war or government.

Widowhood

In 911, Æthelred died and Edward took control of the Mercian lands around London and Oxford. This should have been the end of Æthelflæd’s leadership. And Edward very probably hoped for that. But Æthelflæd had clearly proved her right and ability to rule; and for the Mercian nobility, she offered the only chance to avoid extinction at the hands of the West Saxons. And so remarkably, Æthelflæd ruled in her own right. She was identified as "Myrcna hlœfdige" – Lady of Mercia. The language is important, as this was the precise equivalent of Æthelred’s habitual title of "Myrcna hlaford" (Lord of Mercia). This indicates that the Mercian rulers’ assembly did not draw any distinction between her authority to rule and that of her late husband.

The reconquest of the Danelaw continued with Edward and Æthelflæd constructing fortresses to guard against Viking attacks and protect territory captured from them. In November 911, Edward constructed a fort on the north bank of the River Lea at Hertford to guard against attack by the Danes of Bedford and Cambridge. In 912, he marched with his army to Maldon in Essex, and ordered the building of a fort at Witham and a second fort at Hertford, which protected London from attack and encouraged many English living under Danish rule in Essex to submit to him. In 913 there was a pause in his activities, although Æthelflæd continued her fortress building in Mercia. In 916 she led an expedition into Wales to avenge the murder of Mercian abbot Ecbryht and his companions, and succeeded in burning the palace of king Tewdr of Brycheiniog at Llangorse Lake and taking the queen and thirty-three others captive. Edward the Elder issued coinage with novel reverses of extraordinary designs, and it is speculated that this series of coinage was for circulation in the part of Mercia under the rule of Edward and his sister, with the design of the coinage perhaps showing the influence of Æthelflæd. No coins were actually issued with the name of Æthelred or Æthelflæd on them.

Æthelflæd and Chester

Æthelflæd had a major impact on Chester, which does not contain any memorial to her. Her connection with the city is established through her husband Æthelred who fought against the people of North Wales in the region, and possibly besieged the Vikings at the Amphitheatre. She was involved with the settlement of Vikings on the Wirral, refortified the town into a burh and extended the City Walls. She may have fought Vikings here and helped to establish the cults of Werburgh and Oswald in the city. In terms of architectural and cultural development she may have had more impact on the city than anyone else.

Amphitheatre

In 892 (or 893) a new wave of Danes again attacked Britain in force. Finding their position in mainland Europe (on the French coast) precarious as a previously civil war torn Francia began to get its act together, this new horde crossed to England in 330 ships in two divisions. They entrenched themselves, the larger body, at Appledore, Kent and the lesser under Hastein, at Milton, also in Kent. The invaders brought their wives and children with them indicating a meaningful attempt at conquest and colonisation. One of their moves was a foray round the coast and the occupation of Exeter, something which must have been of much concern to Alfred given the trouble that his grandfather Ecgbert had with the Viking/Cornwall alliance. After some confused fighting a force of Vikings made a sudden dash across England and occupied Chester. The following account appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

  • Þa hie on Eastseaxe comon to hiora geweorce. 7 to hiora scipum. þa gegaderade sio laf eft of Eastenglum, 7 of Norðhymbrum micelne here onforan winter 7 befæston hira wif, 7 hira scipu, 7 hira feoh on Eastenglum, 7 foron anstreces dæges 7 nihtes, þæt hie gedydon on anre westre ceastre on Wirhealum, seo is Legaceaster gehaten; Þa ne mehte seo fird hie na hindan offaran, ær hie wæron inne on þæm geweorce; Besæton þeah þæt geweorc utan sume twegen dagas, 7 genamon ceapes eall þæt þær buton wæs, 7 þa men ofslogon þe hie foran forridan mehton butan geweorce, 7 þæt corn eall forbærndon, 7 mid hira horsum fretton on ælcre efenehðe. 7 þæt wæs ymb twelf monað þæs þe hie ær hider ofer sæ comon. (As soon as they came into Essex to their fortress, and to their ships, then gathered the remnant again in East-Anglia and from the Northumbrians a great force before winter, and having committed their wives and their ships and their booty to the East-Angles, they marched on the stretch by day and night, till they arrived at a western city in Wirral that is called Chester. There the army could not overtake them ere they arrived within the ramparts: they besieged the ramparts though, without, some two days, took all the cattle that was thereabout, slew the men whom they could overtake outside the ramparts, and all the corn they either burned or consumed with their horses every evening. That was about a twelvemonth since they first came hither over sea.)
"Urnes" style runic inscription at St Johns. This is possibly graffiti originally carved on the wall of the Amphitheatre during the Viking raid of 894. As the stone is in the very base of the wall this possibly indicates significant rebuilding after 894, but quite when and for what reason is uncertain.

The Vikings possibly set up camp at the Amphitheatre, as later historians describe them as occupying the castle:

  • The Danes, the following and more terrible invaders, who had been allowed by Alfred the Great to settle in Northumberland, next assailed Chester, and seized the fortress, which was circular and of red stone...

There are several things wrong with this quote, the Vikings in question were not from Northumbria, and Alfred never let them settle there, although the Vikings in Essex were re-inforced by a contingent from Northumbria. It also appears to be a propogation of the myth that Chester had a castle prior to the Normans. In later years stone from the round, red sandstone amphitheatre was robbed-out for use in the building of St Johns and it is possible that some of the re-used stone is marked with a runic inscription which the Vikings may have left behind. The reason why the Vikings made for Chester is unclear (see: Amphitheatre for a further discussion), but these Danish Vikings may have been trying to make contact with the Norwegian Vikings of Dublin. If that was the case the result could have been a desparate situation for Alfred, especially of the Vikings could establish a permanent base at Chester, occupying the Roman defences with a usable port as they had done at Exeter. If the military importance of Chester as an Irish Sea port had not been apparent to Alfred previously then it must have become so at that time. Just who led the forces opposing the Vikings is unclear and it may not have been Alfred himself. One possibility is that it was Æthelred or possibly even Æthelflæd. It could have been Æthelflæd's brother, the future king Edward the Elder (who was to die at Farndon after a later fight at an often disputed Chester) but the fact that the Wessex choniclers did not mention who was in charge, or even whether the Vikings were ousted by forces from Wessex or Mercia, suggests that it was Mercian forces who relieved Chester.

The dates of the following events are at times somewhat confusing. We can be reaaonably sure that the sequence starts with the arrival of Ingimund in the Wirral in 902 and ends with the Battle of Tettenhall in 910, but the dates of the events at Chester between these are only roughly known. This is in a large part due to the silence of the Wessex chronicles on the acts of the Mercians. Another unsolved historical mystery is the precise status of Chester before 902 and the much debated question as to whether it was inhabited or not. The history around the Battle of Chester, the Werburgh "legend" and the supposed history of St Johns suggests a continuous occupation by at least a religious community since an early date. But this seems irreconcilable with the fact that the Vikings were able to overwinter there without any mention of any ecclesiastical community being disturbed in any way.

Ingimund

Ingimund was a Viking who had been expelled from Ireland on 902 and had attempted to settle in north Wales where he came into immediate conflict with the Welsh. According to the Welsh Annals, Ingimund came to Anglesey and held "Maes Osmeliaun", whilst the Welsh vernacular chronicle reports that Ingimund held "Maes Ros Meilon". The site itself appears to have been located on the eastern edge of Anglesey, perhaps near Llanfaes (effectively the later site of Beaumaris) if the aforesaid place names are any clue. Another possibility is that Ingimund was settled near Llanbedrgoch, where evidence of farming, manufacturing, and trading has been excavated at a Viking-age settlement. There is reason to suspect that the Llanbedrgoch site formed an aristocratic power centre, and that it may have originated as an informal Viking trading centre just prior to Ingimund's attempted colonisation. The centre itself could have provided an important staging post between the Welsh and other trading centres in the Irish Sea region. The Welsh attacked Ingimund and he fled to the Wirral. The conflict with the Vikings is well-attested in the Welsh records but Ingimunds subsequent move to the Wirral is only based on fragmentary evidence. However, when this is seen in the context of events happening elsewhere a possible reason why the Vikings were allowed to settle on the Wirral emerges.

What is known from the Wessex version of the Chronicle is that in 902 Edward the Elder was on the point of civil war. As usual, the Wessex succession was not uncomplicated, and when Alfred died the possible claimants were Edward (Alfred's son) and Æthelwold the younger of two known sons of Æthelred I, King of Wessex from 865 to 871. Æthelwold and his brother Æthelhelm were still infants when their father the king died while fighting a Danish Viking invasion and Alfred had become king. After Alfred's death in 899, Æthelwold disputed the throne with Alfred's son, Edward the Elder. Alfreds will did not help matters as it brought up the question in the preamble:

  • "When we now heard many disputes about the inheritance, I brought King Æthelwulf's will to our assembly at Langandene, and it was read before all the councillors of the West Saxons. When it had been read, I urged them all for love of me – and gave them my pledge that I would never bear a grudge against any one of them because they declared what was right – that none of them would hesitate, either for love or fear of me, to expound the common law, lest any man should say that I had treated my young kinsmen wrongfully, the older or the younger. And then they all pronounced what was right, and said that they could not conceive any juster title, nor could they find one in the will. "Now everything has come into your possession, and you may bequeath it or give it into the hand of kinsman or stranger, whichever you prefer"

As senior ætheling (prince of the royal dynasty eligible for kingship), Æthelwold had a strong claim to the throne. He attempted to raise an army to support his claim, but was unable to get sufficient support to meet Edward in battle and fled to Viking-controlled Northumbria, where he was accepted as king. In 901 or 902 he sailed with a fleet to Viking-controlled Essex, where he was also accepted as king. The following year Æthelwold persuaded the East Anglian Danes to attack Edward's territory in Wessex and Mercia, one of Edward's most important allies, as far as Cricklade, in Wiltshire. The prospect of an attack must have been evident to Edward for some time.

Werburgh's shrine at the Cathedral shown here while converted to the bishop's throne.

A hostile Viking landing on the Wirral was the last thing that Edward needed as he would be faced with enemies on two fronts. The solution may have been for Æthelflæd to come to a deal with Ingimund, alowing him to settle. This may have also involved a payment by Ingimund's Vikings, who had been engaged in the slave trade in Dublin and had possibly escaped from Ireland with their treasury. The mint in Chester appears to have been kick-started to a new level of production about this time, but the details of any deal are unknown. What is known is that Edward now retaliated with a raid on East Anglia, ravaging as far north as the Devil's Dyke and the River Wissey and forcing the enemy to return home in order to protect their own lands. When Edward withdrew the men of Kent lingered and met the East Anglian Danes at the Battle of the Holme (13 December 902). The Danes were victorious but suffered heavy losses, including the death of the "rebel" Æthelwold and of Eohric, the Viking King of East Anglia. Kentish losses included Sigehelm, father of Edward the Elder's third wife, Eadgifu of Kent. With Æthelwold dead, Edward's throne was somewhat more secure. The West Saxon chronicler who gave the fullest account of the battle was at pains to explain why Edward and the rest of the English were not present, as if this had been a subject of criticism.

Werburgh

A late tradition holds that Æthelflæd promoted the cult of Werburgh at Chester. Chester already had connections with Werbergh: St Johns was possibly founded in her time and her remains were relocated in Chester during the time of the first major Danish invasion. According to Henry Bradshaw (writing c.1513), Æthelflæd, enlarged the original church that is now the Cathedral in honour of St. Werburgh and transferred the original dedication to Peter and Paul to a new parish church in the centre of the city, but Bradshaw also mentions that a tablet in St John's church ascribed the foundation of the house of canons to Æthelflaed's nephew, Edmund (921-946). King Athelstan has also been credited with the foundation, since Higden (in his Polychronicon) states that there were secular canons serving St. Werburgh at Chester from the time of Athelstan until the arrival of the Normans. Of the three rival founders Æthelflæd, who, with her husband Ethelred, restored the city in 907, is the most likely, although there is no definite evidence of the existence of a church of canons dedicated to St. Werburgh at Chester before 958. In that year Edgar the Pacific, then king of the Mercians, granted to "the familia of St. Werburgh" 17 hides of land in Hoseley (Flints.), Cheveley, Huntington, Upton, Aston, and Barrow.

The problem with the re-location of Werburgh is that while it is mentioned by Bradshaw, it is not mentioned in either the brief biography written by Florence of Worcester (died 1118) nor by Goscelin, her hagiographer (who was alive in 1106). This was not Werbergh's first post-mortem journey. She died at Trentham (3 February, 699 or 700) and, according to some, was originally buried there. Existence of this nunnery is disputed and a connection with Saint Werburgh is also disputed. As for a leter Chester connection Trentham became an Augustinians monastery house from the 1150s, under the patronage of Ranulph De Gernon, Earl of Chester.

There are two versions of what followed Werbergh's burial. In the first Werburgh had apparently decided on Hanbury as her final resting place but happened to be at Trentham when she died. The nuns at Trentham refused to give up the body and even instituted security arrangements to prevent its removal. Despite this an expedition from Hanbury succeeded in "miraculously" recovering her remains. According to the second version her brother decided that Werburgh should be moved to the more important site at Hanbury. The shrine of St Werbergh remained at Hanbury until the threat from Danish Viking raids in the late 9th century prompted their relocation to within the walled city of Chester. As recorded in the Annales Cestriensis:

  • In the same year, when the Danes made their winter quarters at Repton after the flight of Burgred, king of the Mercians, the men of Hanbury, fearing for themselves, fled to Chester as to a place which was very safe from the butchery of the barbarians, taking with them in a litter the body of S Werburgh, which then for the first time was resolved into dust.

The men of Hanbury may not only have feared the violence of the Vikings at Repton but may also have been concerned about the fact that the Vikings were dropping like flies from what may well have been a plague in their winter quarters.

The various people thought to be depected on the Werburgh shrine at Chester Cathedral, with blue for Mercian rulers, green for Kentish and the women in yellow. The identification of Werburgh's mother Saint Eormenhild, daughter of Ercombert, King of Kent, and his wife Saint Sexburga is somewhat speculative and in part based on the fact that many related saints are believed to be depicted.

Æthelflæd's choice of Werbergh is explainable in several ways. Historians have noted the remarkably high incidence of princess saints and abbesses descended from the Mercian line. It appears that the promotion of cults of members of the royal house was part of the Mercian policy for strengthening control of the satellite provinces. Æthelflæd's mother was Mercian and may have transmitted knowledge of how the Mercian court worked. Even the name of the saint was apt, for Werburgh in Anglo-Saxon means "Protectress of the Burh". While Werburgh's relics were traditionally believed to have already been at Chester when Æthelflæd began to promote her cult it is possible that some or all of the story of her translation to Chester is a myth.

Oswald

Oswald (who had died near Oswestry) was the other saint who, together with Werburgh, Æthelflæd promoted the cult of at Chester. A late tradition holds that the cult of St. Oswald was introduced at Chester when the minster was refounded by Æthelfiæd and re-dedicated to St. Werburgh and St. Oswald in 907. It is odd to think that Werbergh, whose grandfather Penda slew Oswald in 641 at Oswestry, should come together again in this strange way. The foundations of St Oswald's church forms part of the Cathedral but nothing is known of the fabric of the Anglo-Saxon minster, except that it was beautified by Earl Leofric of Mercia (d. 1057) and his his better-known wife Godiva, who eclipsed her husbands historical deeds by simply taking off her clothes in Coventry.

Æthelflæd organised a five-week campaign against Lindsey in 909, when she successfully captured the relics of Saint Oswald of Northumbria from Bardney Abbey. Bede relates that Bardney Abbey (which he called Beardaneu) was greatly loved by Osthryth, queen of Mercia, and in about 679 she sought to move the bones of her uncle, the very pious St Oswald, to there. However, according to legend, when the body was brought to the Abbey the monks refused to accept it, because the Abbey was in the Kingdom of Lindsey, and Oswald, when king of Northumbria, had once conquered them. The relics were locked outside, but during the night a beam of light appeared and shone from his bier reaching up into the heavens. The monks declared that it was a miracle and accepted the body, hanging the King's Purple and Gold banner over the tomb. Osthryth appears in the stained glass at St Johns. Oswald's remains ended up in Gloucester (the Roman Glevum and later the Romano-British Caer Gloui) at the renamed St Oswald's Priory. This had previously been St Peter's Abbey, founded in Gloucester about 679 by Osric, ruler of the Hwicce. Several important Mercian rulers appear to have had roots in the area.

In 910 the Danes retaliated against the English attack of the previous year by invading Mercia, raiding as far as Bridgnorth in Shropshire. On their way back they were caught by an English army in Staffordshire and their army was destroyed at the Battle of Tettenhall (sometimes called the Battle of Wednesfield or Wōdnesfeld), opening the way for the recovery of the Danish Midlands and East Anglia over the next decade. The Viking dead at the battle may have included Ingmundir. Whether Æthelflæd fought in the battle is not known, although her already ill husband appears to have fought in the battle and may have been killed either at the battle or died as a result of injuries sustained. The deaths of their two kings, Halfdan and Eowils, in the battle of Tettenhall left the Scandinavian kingdom of York without a ruler. This created the opportunity for Ragnall, the grandson of Imar, a king of Dublin, to seize control by a coup in 911. Ragnald had just enough time to issue some coins in his own name before the Christian Danes opposed to his paganism drove him out. This group tried to organise an alliance with Æthelflæd, but their attempt was cut short by her death in 918.

Walls

Roman Chester - overlaid on a map of the city prior to the building of the Inner Ring Road. The extension of the City Walls by Æthelflæd is shown as a dotted line.

The walls of Roman Chester enclosed a smaller area than the current walls. Chester was re-established as a place of importance by the 10th century through the convergence of three circumstances:

  • First, it was garrisoned again towards the end of the Dark Ages in the early 10th century during the course of Æthelflæd's military campaigns designed to secure the northern frontier of Mercia against the Vikings.
  • Second, in reoccupying Chester, Æthelflæd made it a centre of government, one of the fortified towns which later in the 10th century developed into the central places of the newly established Mercian shires. Cheshire was thus Chester's shire, and indeed was often known as "Chestershire" until the 15th century.
  • Third, the city became a centre of trade for the Irish Sea region, with a small Hiberno-Norse quarter between the remains of the Roman fortress and the River Dee. The quarter housed St Olave and huts excavated in Lower Bridge Street have been interpreted as of the bow-sided type especially associated with Scandinavian sites in England. The dedications of the two churches in the area, St Bridget and St. Olave, were also appropriate for a Hiberno-Norse community. The settlement may well have extended across the river into Handbridge, which in 1086 was assessed for tax in "carucates" rather than the hides normal in Cheshire. Carucates occurred elsewhere in the county in association with Scandinavian place-names, and appear to be evidence of Scandinavian settlement.

The "burh" system seems to have the initiative of Æthelflæd's father Alfred. He sprang into burh building after recovering from his near-disaster at Chippenham in an about turn of doing little to fortify Wessex. The were not simply fortresses but fortified communities placed at the junction of trade routes. If each burh was a market town on a trade route it would generate the wealth needed for its upkeep. Before Alfred there was much less urban living in England, with a few exceptional examples being trading ports on the coast. The Anglo-Saxons may well have even feared the ruins of the Romans. The creation of the Burh would in turn create the "Burgher" the new middle-class of citizen with independent wealth created through trade. The length of walls kept in a defensible state seems to have been consonant with a formula recorded for Wessex in the "Burghal Hidage", which stated that every hide of land assigned to the maintenance of a burh sufficed to provide one man, and that every pole (c. 5 metres) of fortress wall required four men to defend it. The formula probably applied to Chester, whose reeve in the mid 11th century used to call up one man from each hide of the county to repair the walls and bridge. Cheshire was probably notionally assessed at 1,200 hides, suggesting that the early medieval defences were c. 1,524 metres long. Though those measurements do not tally with the length of the Roman walls they would fit quite well with the postulated L-shaped arrangement. This would mean that around 1200 men would be needed to fully staff the walls. Legend has it that Bonewaldesthorne's Tower is named after an officer in the army of Æthelflæd. A Saxon watchtower most likely have stood here, but very little of the defences of that period remain above ground today, and the structure seen now is of medieval origin. "Bonewaldesthorne", may be a compound of the elements "beorn" (young warrior), "wald" (rule) and "thorn" (thornbush).

The tower at south-east corner of the City Walls, probably dates from the 13th century, was damaged 1644-6 during the Civil War, converted to a feature of the raised promenade of the wall walk in 1702-8 and repaired during various periods. It is known as Barnaby's Tower and it's predecessor would have stood at the southernmost extension of Æthelflæd's walls (as Bonewaldesthorne's Tower stood at the western) and its name may (possibly) be of Old Scandinavian origin, and/or a locational name from the hamlet of Barnaby near Guisborough (the "Guisborough Helmet" was found at Barnaby) in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Recorded as "Bernodebi" in the Domesday Book of 1086, and as "Bernaldeby" in the "Cartularium prioratus de Gyseburne", dated 1231, the place was so called from the Olde English pre 7th Century male given name "Beronwald", a compound of the elements "beorn", young warrior, and "wald", rule, and the Old Norse "byr", enclosure, settlement. The similarity between "Bonewald -" and "Beronwald" is interesting given that both towers possibly share being the end points of Æthelflæd's walls.

Æthelflæd's refortification of Chester was part of a larger strategic intent. At the time the Danes had occupied much of the North Sea coast and were in a position to threaten the Mercian political center at Tamworth. Meanwhile the Hiberno-Norse had settled in parts of Wirral and invaded much of coastal Lancashire and Cumbria. The Cheshire plain offered an easy line of approach to Tamworth assuming landings along the Dee and Mersey estuaries, so Æthelflæd and her brother built a line of "burhs" (fortified sites) at Chester, Eddisbury, Runcorn and Manchester. Upon succeeding her husband, she began to plan and build a series of fortresses in English Mercia, ten of which can be identified: Bridgnorth (912); Tamworth (913); Stafford (913); Eddisbury (914); Warwick (914); Chirbury (915); Runcorn (915). Three other fortresses, at Bremesburh, Scergeat and Weardbyrig, have yet to be located. At Chester and Manchester this involved the use of Roman fortifications, whereas at Eddisbury an Iron-Age hill-fort was re-used. The reality of the danger was emphasized in 920 when a Norse army from Dublin landed and penetrated as far as Davenport in Cheshire. With her northwest flank secure Æthelflæd was able to take part in the campaigns against the Danes who hand been driven out of much of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire by the time of her death.

A Battle at Chester

In 905 (some sources say 912), the Norsemen who had settled in Wirral revolted and attempted to take the city of Chester. The opening of the story involve a certain amount of treachery:

  • At first, the Saxon inhabitants of Chester placed a force outside the city gates and then staged a mock retreat. The Norse followed and the gates were closed behind them, trapping them in the city where a great number were slain.
  • Following this, the Saxons came to an arrangement with the Irish, who were "no friends of the Saxons but hated the Norsemen more" to meet with the Norse and propose to betray Chester. Unfortunately this was a double-cross and the Norse that came (unarmed) to the meeting were also slain.
Æthelflæd appeara only briefly in Asser's "Life of king Alfred". He calls her the first-born child of Alfred and his Mercian bride. The bride is not actually named and certainly not called "queen".

Their subsequent Norse attempt at taking the city took on all the elements of a farce:

  • The first Norse attack upon the walls was driven off by dropping rocks upon them. The Norse answer to this was to protect their heads with wooden hurdles supported by wooden beams;
  • The Saxon answer to the hurdles was to pour boiling beer on the Vikings (which of course ran through the hurdles). The Norse response to this was to cover the hurdles with animal skins;
  • Fire would have been the next Saxon weapon, and the Vikings would have countered this by protecting their assault on the wall with soaking-wet sails from their ships;
  • Unfortunately for the Vikings the Saxons has a secret weapon - they threw at the Vikings "all the beehives of the town". For the Vikings, trapped inside their heavy, soaking wet, hide and sail-covered siege shelters - now also filled with very agitated bees - that was enough, and the attempt on the city was abandoned.

"Ingamunds saga" (and the "Three Fragments" of the "Annals of Ireland") repeat the story as follows:

  • "..But the other forces, the Norsemen, were under hurdles piercing the walls. What the Mercians and the Irish who were among them did was to throw large rocks so that they destroyed the hurdles over them. What they did in the face of this was to place large posts under the hurdles. What the Mercians did was to put all the ale and water of the town in the cauldrons of the town, to boil them and pour them over those who were under the hurdles so that the skins were stripped from them. The answer that the Norsemen gave to this was to spread hides on the hurdles. What the Mercians did was to let loose on the attacking force all the beehives in the town, so that they could not move their legs of hands from the great number of bees stinging them. Afterwards they left the city and abandoned it. It was not long before they returned."

The story of this "Battle of Chester" poses a particularly difficult historical problem, especially when taken together with the suggestion that the city have been "waste" a few years before. Taken at face value the city seems to have robust defences with walls and gates both being mentioned in the accounts. That these walls form a complete defence seems suggested by the siege tactics used by the Vikings. Once again, the problem here is that Wessex simply did not wish to record any victory of the Mercians. The story of the battle is known only from the "Three Fragments" (Fragmentary Annals of Ireland - of which there are actually five parts), which only survive as copies of copies, and it is not mentioned at all in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.

St Barnabus and St John

On Church Lane in Bromborough, Wirrral, at the south-side beside the church porch, stands the 10th century St Barnabas Churchyard Cross, a heavily re-constructed Anglo-Saxon wheel-head cross. There are apparently some other carved stones, possibly of Saxon origin, in the garden of the nearby parsonage - but some of these appear to have been lost or incorporated into rockeries. Early chronicles suggest that the first church, and quite possibly [the monastery] were founded by Æthelflæd, sometime around 912 AD. The cross was put together from three fragments of Saxon stones that originally resided inside the church, having been found in 1863, and was re-erected beside the porch in the churchyard in 1958.

Bryant's map of Wirral gives particular emphasis to the estuary of the Dibbin, showing that it was a recognised inlet. The chapel at "Brunburgh" is one of very few religious establishments referred to as such on the map.

Bromboough is a major contender for being the later site of the Battle of Brunanburh, which was at the time pssibly the biggest battle yet fought in England. The English forces were led by Æthelflæd's foster son, and later king, Æthelstan (c.894 – 27 October 939). It is possible, but by no means proven, that Bromborough may have been the site of the "lost" burgh of "Bremesburh". Given the trouble that Edward and his sister had with Ingimund, it seems entirely reasonable that they should locate a fort close to the edge of the Viking land on the Wirral simply to keep an eye on things. The is also a record that in 912:

  • "A monastery, dedicated to St. Barnabas, was likewise founded by the 'Lady of Mercia', at Brunnesburgh, [In Cheshire.] that year, which shortly after fell to decay"

Barnabas was a noted missionary and the purpose of establishing a monastery in his name close to the possible fort of Brunanburh could well have been to assist in the conversion of the Viking population of the Wirral.

Tradition ascribes the founding of an "Abbey" at St Johns to Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians in 906, although there is considerable scope for historical records to have been confused by the separate tradition which ascribes the foundation of St. John's to a much earlier Æthelred, king of Mercia (674–704), in 689. Fragments of several crosses, probably memorials dating from the 10th century, were recovered from St. John's churchyard and among the rubble of the collapsed tower in the late 19th century. Cccording to the "cross-factory" theory, the crosses, and others from Wirral and North Wales, were probably made at a workshop based on St. John's, using stone from the nearby quarry (now the bowling green down the hill). Indeed Bailey 2010 reports an unfinished cross at Chester. Such evidence suggests that St. John's was an important church in later Anglo-Saxon Chester. Links between the Chester crosses and those from Neston and Hilbre Island can be seen in that the circle diameter of the crosses are similar as are the interlace patterns. The crosses have been described as follows (by a past Bishop of Bristol):

  • "It is more easy to describe these crosses negatively rather than positively. They are un-Anglican, un-Scottish, un-Irish, un-Scandinavian, they resemble most closely a head of one of the few great crosses made in Wales, known as Maen-Ach-Wynfan and the head of a cross at Diserth."

Concerning the cross heads, a printed sign in the Church says :

  • "These stone crosses are reputedly from the workshop established in the quarry of St Johns by Irish - Norse traders who settled in Chester during the 10th Century. Similar crosses thought to have been from the same workshop have been found over a wide area as shown on the map."

No firm conclusion has been reached as to the relation between the "cross factory" at St Johns and the crosses located around Cheshire, especially those in areas which were subject to Viking settlement. The fact that Æthelflæd has a cross named after her at Bromborough, close to the border with the Viking settlement area and that her husband is associated with St Johns and the founding of an "abbey" on the site of the said cross factory may be co-incidence, based on folk-takes, or may indicate that Æthelflæd and her husband were trying to convert the Vikings. However, stone monuments such as crosses need to be seen in their original context and the possibility that some of these monuments have been relocated cannot be excluded. In Cheshire, very few remain in situ and reuse is high and widespread. There is also the added complication that some may have been destroyed leaving a "biased sample" behind.

Death

With a defensive line of burh's established in the north west of Mercia, Æthelflæd and Edward could now concentrate on rolling-up the Danes in the Midlands and on the east coast.

Æthelflæd in the window at St Barnabas, Bromborough.

According to some accounts the decisive year in the war against the Danes was 917. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as usual, concentrates on the activities of Edward. In April Edward built a fort at Towcester as a defence against the Danes of Northampton, and another at an unidentified place called Wigingamere. The Danes launched unsuccessful attacks on Towcester, Bedford and Wigingamere. The Danes had built their own fortress at Tempsford in Bedfordshire, but at the end of the summer the English stormed it and killed the last Danish king of East Anglia. The English then took Colchester, although they did not try to hold it. The Danes retaliated by sending a large army to lay siege to Maldon, but the garrison held out until it was relieved and the retreating army was heavily defeated. Edward then returned to Towcester and reinforced its fort with a stone wall, and the Danes of nearby Northampton submitted to him. The armies of Cambridge and East Anglia also submitted, and by the end of the year the only Danish armies still holding out were those of four of the Five Boroughs, Leicester, Stamford, Nottingham, and Lincoln.

Æthelflæd is hardly mentioned in the Wessex version of history, but 917 saw Æthelflæd retake Derby:

  • "This year Æthelflæd, lady of the Mercians, with the help of God, before Lammas [1st August], 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" (Mercian register in the entry for 917)

In 918 she retook Leicester without a fight and the Vikings of York offered their submission to her:

  • "This year Æthelflæd got into her power, with God's assistance, in the early part of the year, without loss, the town of Leicester; and the greater part of the army that belonged thereto submitted to her. And the Yorkists had also promised and confirmed, some by agreement and some with oaths, that they would be in her interest..." (The Mercian Register in the entry for the year 918)

For a brief moment, she had authority not just over her own territory in Mercia, but over the Welsh, the Scandinavian East Midlands and possibly part of Northumbria, making her perhaps one of the three most important rulers in mainland Britain – the others being her brother and ally Edward the Elder king of the Anglo-Saxons and Causantín mac Áeda, (Constantine II) King of the Scots, with whom she may have also allied. Historians consider it unlikely that she was present at the Battle of Corbridge (918), but she may have sent a contingent to the battle.

Seemingly she was unstoppable, but whatever future awaited her was not to be, on June 12, 918, with Scandinavian York about to pay homage, Æthelflæd "Lady of the Mercians" took her last breath:

  • "... But 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" (William of Malmesbury)

Nobody knows how Æthelflæd died. She may have been wounded in battle, exhausted from many years' campaigning or simply succumbed to one of the many common diseases which were fatal at that time. The only detail that we have is that her body was carried the 75 miles to Gloucester and there laid beside Æthelred. Not as Malmesbury says in St Peter's (which was the older minster) but in St Oswald's Priory - refounded in 909 by Æthelflæd and Æthelred. The priory was suppressed in 1536, and became the parish church of St Catherine, but this was destroyed in a Civil War siege in 1643. Today, only ruins remain. Her tombstone is now displayed in Gloucester City Museum.

"Eithilfleith, famosissima regina Saxonum, moritur" (Æthelflæd, most famous queen of the Saxons, died) from the Annals of Ulster record for 918 TCD MS 1282 f.46v. The inclusion of the death of an Anglo-Saxon royal in the Irish annals may have been due to Ӕthelflӕd’s position as an opponent of the Norse-Gael leader Ragnall Ua Ímair (d.920/921), one of the Vikings expelled from Dublin in 902. The fragmentary Annals of Ireland, (Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale 5301-5320) also suggest that she allied herself with Constantín Mac Áeda, King of Scotland, against Ragnall at the Battle of Corbridge in Northumberland in the year of her death.

She led the Mercians so successfully that on her death in 918, her daughter, Ælfwynn, was also accepted as her successor (albeit for only six months). The uncontested transference of power from one female ruler to another was unprecedented, and it would not be repeated for another six-hundred years, when the English throne passed from Mary I to Elizabeth I in 1558. In 919, the year following the death of his sister Æthelflæd, Edgar the Elder usurped the rule of Mercia from Æthelflæd's daughter Ælfwynn. What happened to Ælfwynn after this is unknown, and it is presumed she was sent away to a convent.

By this time the northern boundary of England stretched from the Humber to the Mersey. In 919 Edgar the Elder built a new fortress at Thelwall on the Mersey some miles upstream from Runcorn. In the following years he further strengthened the line of fortifications from Chester to Manchester.

  • "Kynge Edwarde made a cite at Thelewall in [th]e northe parte of [th]e Marches, nye the water of Mersee, where he put certeyne knyghtes." -Higden's Polychronicon
  • "A.D. 923. This year went King Edward with an army, late in the harvest, to Thelwall; and ordered the borough to be repaired, and inhabited, and manned. And he ordered another army also from the population of Mercia, the while he sat there to go to Manchester in Northumbria, to repair and to man it. This year died Archbishop Plegmund; and King Reynold won York." -Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

In 924, Edgar the Elder died at Farndon on the River Dee just south of Chester. It appears his death was associated with some form of revolt at Chester, but the details remain unclear. It is possible that relations with the Welsh had soured since his recent construction of a burh at Cledematha/Cledemutha (believed to be Rhuddlan - and later possibly reused by Edward I) at the mouth of the River Clwyd, and that this had led to a local revolt. The ruler of Gwynedd at the time was Idwal Foel (Idwal the Bald; died c. 942) who had inherited the throne on the death of his father Anarawd around 916, but little is known of his relations with Edward. The burh at Rhuddlan (excavated in 1979-82) appears to have been a failure and was possibly an attempt to extend the teritory of Wessex/Mercia westwards into Wales.

Edward was succeeded by his son Æþelstān, notwithstanding the usual dispute over the succession. Æþelstān would also remain involved with events in the area around Chester and probably fought the Battle of Brunanburh on the Wirral, quite close to where his foster-mother's cross and religious house once stood.

Æthelflæd appears in the Genealogical chronicle of the English Kings created in the first quarter of the 14th century, before 1308, probably in East Anglia. Her daughter is not mentioned although the many children of her brother Edward are.

Legacy

According to the Parker Chronicle (Manuscript A of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), which was strongly sympathetic to Edward:

  • "all the people in the land of the Mercians who had been subject to Æthelflæd turned to him; and the kings among the Welsh, Hywel and Clydog and Idwal, and all the Welsh people sought to have him as their lord".

Hywel Dda was king of Dyfed in south-west Wales, Clydog ap Cadell probably king of Powys in the north-east, and Idwal ab Anarawd king of Gwynedd in the north-west. Hywel in particular would play a major part in the subsequent history of Wales. Significant parts of south-east Wales were already under West Saxon lordship, but in the view of historians this passage shows that the other Welsh kingdoms in north and mid Wales were under Mercian control until Edward took direct power by deposing Ælfwynn. Perhaps the Welsh can hardly be blamed for defecting to Edward, as Ælfwynn lacked the prestige and military reputation of Æthelflæd.

Even today some historians consider that Æthelflæd was nothing more than a loyal pawn in the service of her brother, Edward. Some, such as Wainwright credit Edward the Elder for almost all of the successful Mercian and West-Saxon military cooperation against the Danes. He views Edward's annexation of London and Oxford as a confirmation of Æthelflæd's acceptance of a subordinate role, and he considers Edward's 919 A.D. annexation of Mercia as a logical conclusion to this relationship. Seen another way, Edward taking control of London, Oxford and the land between the two makes military sense as this would give him a direct border with the Danelaw and mean that Mercia had a much shorter border to defend and troops from Wessex would not have to move through a relatively thin strip of Mercia.

As regards the eventual annexation of Mercia by Edward, Æthelflæd presented a serious constitutional issue and England had no way of dealing with a queen due to the laws at the time. On the one hand a woman's property generally became that of her husband, on the other, church law prevented the marriage of close relatives, although the rulers of Wessex often ignored that. One way to re-unite Wessex and Mercia would have been to marry Æthelflæd's daughter Ælfwynn back into the royal family of Wessex, but marriage between cousins was forbidden and even if that were ignored the best candiate was Æthelstan (c.894 – 27 October 939) who was of a similar age, but for reasons which have been much debated did not have any relations with women. Æthelstan probably became Edward's effective sub-ruler in Mercia when Ælfwynn was usurped. There is also some suggestion that Edward originally agreed with the transfer of power to Ælfwynn the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records Edward’s presence in Tamworth, a major Mercian royal centre, at the same time in the summer of 918.

Bernard Cornwell’s novels and the related BBC series The Last Kingdom are somewhat cavalier with the historical facts about both Æthelflæd and her relatives. Although each has the benefit of bringing to wider public notice a figure who had been written out of the historical narrative. One notable inaccuracy in the series is that Æthelflæd was never captured by the Vikings (as she was in the series) and many other details and characters are changed for dramatic effect.

Summary

Æthelflæd played a key role in the establishment of a burh at Chester, strengthening the church organisation with her promotion of the cults of Oswald and Werburgh and extending the City Walls to their present size. She was a formidable military leader and did much to help her brother Edward recover the Danelaw from Danish rule. As she was ruler of Mercia, and possibly because she was a woman, her role was downplayed in the official version of history written by the scribes of Wessex (see the comparison in the links below). She lived just as the "Dark Ages" were beginning to brighten in Chester and while much is known of her links to the city there are still gaps and possibly much is clouded by myth and folk-tales. However the main factor in her obscurity is the deliberate generation by chronicle-writers of the "Wessex Myth" that it was her father Alfred, her brother Edward the Elder and later descendents of Ecgbert who "saved England" from the Vikings.

Her arrangement with the Vikings who settled on the Wirral may have been vital in ensuring that her brother Edward could defeat his cousin Æthelwold in yet another contested succession. She died at the hight of her power, at the very point when the Scandinavian Kingdom of York was apparently considering effective surrender to her. Had she been a lesser ruler or lived just a few years longer the history of the 10th Century would have developed in a very different way, possibly with a much earlier reunion of Northumbria and York. Scandinavian York would not be reunited with the rest of England until 954 and only after long and bloody conflict.

An Alternative View

Historian Tony Sharp in The Foundation of the Chester Burh in the Tenth Century: When and by Whom? presents an alternative view to the consensus discussed above. He contends that Æthelflæd and Æthelred reconquered Chester and that the Burh was built not to protect an existing Mercian population but to defend territory which was newly acquired. He even suggests that the Burh may not have been built by Æthelflæd at all, but was re-use of Roman Chester by some combination of the Welsh, local Saxons or the Hiberno-Norse. There is some evidence that "common burdens" to maintain fortified places and bridges seem to have been universal in Mercian charters by the end of the 8th century, a century before the time when Alfred is supposed to have originated the concept.

The "truth" can only be determined by filling in the remaining blanks in the historical gap between Ecgbert's raid on Chester in 828 and Edward the Elder's death at Farndon almost a century later in 924.

Sources and Links

Further information can be found under "Related Pages" below.

Exploring the History

Æthelflæd has no personal monument in Chester, although without her the extension of the City Walls to the south and west of the original scope of Roman Chester would not exist. The Cathedral contains the much altered shrine of St Werburgh which is dated from well after Æthelflæd's time and is decorated with figures which would have been familiar to her, while the large south transept was once the semi-independent church of St Oswald. The Amphitheatre where the Vikings overwintered can still be seen, and Viking runes can be found in the stonework at St Johns, presumably robbed-out from the Amphitheatre and re-used.

Chronicles

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: 911-918: On Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians - the sections shown in brackets are the "Mercian Register" entries.

Chronology with links

  • 867: Alfred (later ‘the Great’) marries Ealhswith of Mercia. This was possibly a political marriage made in response to the Danish conquest of Northumbria the same year;
  • 868: Alfred and his brother King Æthelred I go to the aid of Burgred of Mercian against a great Danish army that had invaded East Anglia;
  • 870: Birth of Æthelflæd, eldest child of Alfred and his wife Ealhswith of Mercia;
  • 871: Danes invade Wessex. In January, a force led by Alfred and his older brother Æthelred were defeated by the Vikings at the Battle of Reading. At the Battle of Ashdown a few days later, Alfred and Aethelred led their army to victory over the Vikings. Towards the end of January Alfred and Aethelred suffered another defeat by the Vikings at the Battle of Basing. In March, after a long and bloody battle, Alfred and King Aethelred are defeated by a Viking force at the Battle of Meretun (Marton). Æthelred died and Alfred succeeded him as Æthelred’s two sons, Aethelwold and Aethelhelm, were too young at the time to effectively rule. After the Battle of Wilton in May, the Danes were finally bought off by Alfred on the condition that they immediately left Wessex and didn’t return;

Alfred the Great(23 April 871 — 26 October 899)

  • 874: The Danes force King Burgred of Mercia into exile and take control of Mercia by installing a "puppet" king Ceolwulf.
  • 876: Vikings at Repton (possibly with plague). Remains of St Werburgh translated to Chester;
  • 877: The Danes enforce the partition of Mercia and occupy Gloucester for some months;
  • 878: In mid winter the Danes leave Gloucester and carry out a surprise attack, capturing Chippenham. Alfred is staying at Chippenham at the time and is forced to flee. In May the West Saxons defeat the Danes at the battle of Edington – they surrendered and their king, Guthrum, was forced to accept baptism and peace terms;
  • 879: Death of Ceolwulf of Mercia. Aethelred of Mercia becomes ruler of ‘English’ Mercia – the south and the west;
  • 886: Alfred captures London from the Danes. However, as London is technically Mercian territory Alfred puts the city in the control of Ealdorman Aethelred of Mercia;
  • 887: Æthelflæd marries Aethelred at some point between 885 and 887 – she would have been 15 - 17. Aethelred’s age is not known – but he is likely to have been notably older;
  • 889: Worcester is fortified as a burh, likely on the orders of Aethelred and Æthelflæd;
  • 890: Aethelstan (Guthrum), dies. Plegmund becomes Archbishop of Canterbury;
  • 891: The Anglo Saxon Chronicle is begun;
  • 892: Hastein arrives with new wave of Vikings;
  • 894: Æþelstān born, Vikings raid Chester;
  • 895: A son, Aethelstan, is born to Aethelflaed’s brother, Edward and his first consort, Ecgwynn;
  • 900: Alfred dies, Plegmund crowned his son Edward the Elder as king;

Edward the Elder

  • 900: Alfred the Great dies, Edward the Elder becomes king of Wessex, Constantine II becomes king of Alba;
  • 902902: Æthelwold persuades the East Anglian Danes to attack Edward the Elder's territory in Wessex and Mercia. Irish Norsemen, under Ingimund expelled from Dublin, establish colonies on The Wirral, at around this time Æthelred's health collapsed and Æthelflæd became the effective ruler of Mercia;
  • 904: Egill Skallagrimsson born;
  • 905:
  • 906: Abbey of St John the Baptist (St Johns) possibly re-founded by Æthelred;
  • 907: Chester refortified by Æthelflæd;
  • 908: Plegmund visits Rome;
  • 909: Edward the Elder despatches an Anglo-Saxon army to attack the Northumbrian Vikings and ravages Scandinavian York, Æthelflæd recovers Oswald's relics from Bardney. Asser dies;
  • 910: Battle of Tettenhall: Edward the Elder, allied with the forces of Mercia, defeats a Northumbrian Viking army; Eowils and Halfdan and Ingwær, kings of Northumbria, are killed;
  • 911: Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, dies and his wife Æthelflæd takes over rule as Lady of the Mercians. Æthelflæd surrenders London and Oxford and all the lands between them, frontier territory at the time, to her brother Edward of Wessex;
  • 912: Chester attacked by Vikings under Ingimund; "A monastery, dedicated to St. Barnabas, was likewise founded by the 'Lady of Mercia', at Brunnesburgh, [In Cheshire.] that year, which shortly after fell to decay". Mercia under Æthelflæd captures and fortified Scargeat (location unknown) and Bridgnorth;
  • 913: Edward is unable to take any offensive action during this period as he is attacked by Danish forces based at Northampton and Leicester. Æthelflæd captures and fortifies Tamworth, the historical capital of Mercia, and Stafford.
  • 914: Æthelflæd fortifies Eddisbury and Warwick;
  • 915: Æthelflæd fortifies Runcorn and built three further burhs on the Welsh border, including Chirbury, and likely Hereford and Shrewsbury;;
  • 916: Æthelflæd sent an army against Tewdr, King of Brycheiniog (in south Wales) to avenge against the murder of a Mercian abbot and his companions. Her men destroyed the Royal crannog and captured the queen and court. Tewdr survived and made his submission soon afterwards. Aethelflaed probably held the overlordship of at least three of the Welsh Kingdoms;
  • 917: Vikings retake Dublin. Æthelflæd captured Derby, a major Danish base;
  • 918: The Danes of Leicester – now surrounded and isolated - surrender. Æthelflæd of Mercia enters negotiations with the Danes of York (who were threatened by the unpopular Norwegian pagan Ragnall, but dies at Tamworth; Edward the Elder takes control of her kingdom;
  • 919: Ragnall ua Ímair seizes control of the Kingdom of York, Edward the Elder fortifies Thelwall and Manchester;;
  • 920: Norse Vikings under Sitric Cáech attack Cheshire. Constantine II of Scotland, and the kings of Strathclyde, York, and Northumbria meet with Edward the Elder the Elder at Bakewell;
  • 921: Edward the Elder fortifies Cledematha (Rhuddlan) at the mouth of the River Clwyd, Edmund born;
  • 923: Plegmund dies;
  • 924: Chester joins a Welsh revolt against English rule, Edward the Elder dies at Farndon and is succeeded by Æþelstān, Ælfweard dies;

Related Pages

An old postcard of Chester, as seen from the North. This shows the walls as extended by Æthelflæd. The cross-shapped set of streets mark the layout of Roman Chester.

Online

Popular Histories

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  • Margaret Jones, "Founder, Fighter, Saxon Queen: Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians" (2018);
  • Tim Clarkson, "Aethelflaed: Lady of the Mercians" (2018);
  • Jane Wolfe, "Æthelflæd : royal lady, war lady", (Chester: Fenris, 2001);
  • Joanna Arman, "The Warrior Queen: The Life and Legend of Aethelflaed, Daughter of Alfred the Great" (2017);
  • Don Stansbury, "The Lady who Fought the Vikings" (1993);