Æthelflæd, England’s Founding Mother
Born around 870, in the midst of the Viking invasion of Anglo-Saxon Britain, Æthelflæd was the eldest child of King Alfred “The Great” of Wessex and his wife Ealhswith. The young Æthelflæd would have spent most of her childhood witnessing her father’s long campaigns against the Danes. Alfred eventually succeeded in forcing the Vikings out of Wessex and Mercia, and back into the kingdom of East Anglia, which would be known as The Danelaw.
As the eldest daughter of a powerful Anglo-Saxon king, Æthelflæd would have expected to be married to another equally powerful ruler. But as the daughter of Alfred the Great, she was also destined for greatness. Æthelflæd was wed to Aethelred, King of Mercia, in around 886. She bore only one known child, a daughter called Ælfwynn. Æthelflæd and Aethelred are known to have acted jointly when they fortified the city of Worcester and issued charters. Æthelflæd and her husband became the guardians of her nephew, her brother Edward’s son, the future king Æthelstan. Young Æthelstan likely came to live in his aunt and uncle’s court in order to learn the ways of kingship and combat from their example. Aunt Æthelflæd proved an ideal teacher.
After King Alfred’s death and her brother’s succession to the throne of Wessex as King Edward the Elder, Æthelflæd’s husband fell ill and later died. Once Aethelred’s health began to decline, Æthelflæd took his place as ruler of Mercia. She became known as Myrcna hlædige, or “Lady of the Mercians.” Though she lost some of her territory in return for her brother Edward acknowledging her as the rightful ruler of Mercia, Æthelflæd was a force to be reckoned with. She joined with her brother in an effort to expel the Vikings and take back the Danelaw. Æthelflæd and her army were responsible for the capture of the city of Derby, the first of the five boroughs of the Danelaw to fall to her forces. She later took Leicester as well. By the end of 917 the East Anglian Danes had submitted to Edward and Æthelflæd. In 918 many of the leading men around York promised to pledge their loyalty to Æthelflæd, but she died on June 12 before she could accept them.
Queen Æthelflæd has been all but lost to modern popular history, though a statue of her was erected in Tamworth, the location of her death. She is overlooked between two kings, her father Alfred and brother Edward. Though her daughter Ælfwynn ruled Mercia after her death, she was deposed and the kingdom was taken by Edward the Elder. Æthelflæd’s legacy rests with her nephew, King Æthelstan. Æthelstan, the boy who received an education in ruling from Æthelflæd, would be the first king to rule a united England and call himself King of the English. A feat which could not have been accomplished without the unification set in motion by Æthelflæd.