Who was Lady Aethelflaed and what did she do?

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, was an exceptional warrior and leader. She endowed churches and founded towns, and ruled unchallenged until her death. This is the astonishing story of Lady Aethelflaed, the most powerful ruler you’ve probably never heard of.

History Rulers
3 May 2023

Aethelflaed, a formidable ruler whose name has been overshadowed by time, stands as a testament to the power and influence wielded by exceptional leaders throughout British history, even in the tumultuous Anglo-Saxon era.

Alongside her brother Edward, they laid the foundations of a unified Kindom of England, including developing the structures of a centralised government, driving out Viking invaders and establishing England as a power base throughout Europe. This is the story of Aethelflaed, an often forgotten powerhouse of English history and a key figure in the unification of England.

The Early Life of Lady Aethelflaed

King Alfred the Great (Photo: mikroman6 via Getty Images)

It’s believed Aethelflaed was born around 870 as the eldest child of Alfred the Great and his wife, Ealhswith. While specific details of her early life remain scarce, her upbringing as a member of the royal family likely exposed her to matters of governance, politics, and warfare, preparing her for her future role as a member of the ruling dynasty.

It is recorded that at the age of seventeen she wed Aethelred, Lord of the Mercians. The marriage brought together Wessex and Mercia, the last two great kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon Britain.

The information we have on Aethelflaed, sometimes known as Ethelfleda – meaning ‘noble beauty’ in Old English – is mostly derived from a Mercian version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Wessex version almost entirely overlooks her life, preferring to concentrate its attention on her father Alfred and brother, Edward the Elder.

Many historians believe that she was a brave, strong-minded leader who was more a partner to her husband than a bit-part player in his life. After Aethelred took ill in the early years of the tenth century, Aethelflaed assumed many of his regal duties and responsibilities. He died in 911 and she became the sole ruler of Mercia. She became known as Myrcna hlædige, otherwise known as Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.

Aethelflaed: The Warrior Queen

Warwick Today (Photo: Leonid Andronov via Getty Images)

Ethelfleda was an outstanding military strategist and a fine leader. Following in her father’s footsteps, she constructed fortifications to solidify the Mercian border against the Danes and from where to launch attacks.

Indeed these fortifications were more than just structures from which to defend a position. They were carefully-planned towns based on Roman designs, with four intersected main streets running north-south and east-west with smaller, side streets. Many grew into towns in their own right, some of which – such as Tamworth and Warwick – still thrive today.

As a general and leader, she directed victorious military campaigns against the Welsh and the Danes. Over the course of her rule, Lady Aethelflaed and her brother King Edward fought a number of skirmishes and battles with the Vikings.

In one such decisive victory at Derby in 917, Æthelflæd demonstrated her strategic prowess by leading her forces to capture the Viking-occupied city. This triumph not only solidified her reputation as a skilled military leader but also marked a crucial turning point in the unification of Anglo-Saxon England.

Next, her forces captured the Danish stronghold of Leicester in 918, where she is said to have distributed alms as she made her way through the city. Not only was this a magnanimous thing to do, it was also a clever powerplay. This act helped to garner support from the defeated population and facilitated a smoother transition to her rule by sparing those who submitted.

Twelfth century chronicler William of Malmsbury described Ethelfleda as ‘a powerful accession to [Edward’s] party, the delight of his subjects, the dread of his enemies, a woman of enlarged soul who protected her own men and terrified aliens’.

Death & Legacy

Tamworth views (Photo: Adrian Newton via iStock)

Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians died suddenly in June 918 in Tamworth. It’s believed her body was carried to St Oswald’s Minster in Gloucester where she was buried next to her husband.

Æthelflæd dominated politics in Mercia and in no small part helped to pave the way for the unification of England. In fact her nephew Aethelstan, the first king of England, learned much of his military and diplomatic skills at her court.

Aethelflaed is known as one of Britain’s greatest Anglo-Saxon leaders, who influenced the course of history in a profound way.

Aethelflaed, The Last Kingdom

Anglo-Saxon Manuscript (Photo: Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

The Last Kingdom is a TV show based on Bernard Cornwell’s book series “The Saxon Stories” which is set in the ninth century. Aethelflaed, The Last Kingdom character – and her husband Aethelred – are loosely based on the actual Mercian rulers, however most of the stories in the show are fictional.


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