“Why Æthelflæd? Well, I had wanted to write a book-length study of her for quite some time, mainly because she is my favourite person from the entire early medieval period. Her life and political career have always fascinated me, more so than those of any of the kings whose deeds I have written about. For me, Æthelflæd stands out from the crowd.”
WHAT: “The narrative incorporates my usual focus on political history with an emphasis on warfare. It considers the military campaigns not only of Æthelflæd but also those of her father Alfred the Great and of her brother Edward the Elder. Hence there are frequent mentions of battles, fortresses, treaties and alliances. But there is much more to Æthelflæd than the Anglo-Saxon warrior queen visualised in modern artworks. She was an educated, literate woman with strong religious beliefs. She had a keen interest in saints – especially Mercian ones – and actively promoted their veneration by establishing new cult-centres in various parts of her domain. She was also adept at what we now call ‘urban planning’ and has left her mark on the modern street-pattern in a number of west midland towns.”
WHO: “Tim Clarkson graduated with a PhD in medieval history in 2003. His dissertation’s title was ‘Warfare in Early Historic Northern Britain’. Prior to this he gained an MPhil in archaeology with a research thesis entitled ‘The Solway Region AD 400-650 and the Kingdom of Rheged’. Since completing his doctoral thesis Tim has continued to pursue his interests in early medieval history as an “independent scholar”.”
Why “The Lady of the Mercians”?
This book was a slight departure from my usual track, my previous books having had a focus on Scotland. But it fitted with the broad theme of early medieval rulership that runs through my Scottish books. The main difference is that it switches the focus to England. Why Æthelflæd? Well, I had wanted to write a book-length study of her for quite some time, mainly because she is my favourite person from the entire early medieval period. Her life and political career have always fascinated me, more so than those of any of the kings whose deeds I have written about. For me, Æthelflæd stands out from the crowd. In an early medieval context she was a rare individual: a powerful female ruler in an era when high-level politics was seen as a male preserve. The land she ruled was western Mercia, basically the west side of the English midlands, which includes my home county of Cheshire. So, being a modern-day Mercian myself, I felt it would be good to pay homage to one of the greatest rulers of my ancient homeland by writing a biography of her.
Was the historical Æthelflæd at all concerned with her father’s vision of a united English kingdom?
Hard to say, but the question is an important one. It would be useful to know what was in Æthelflæd’s mind when she was planning her campaigns against the Viking armies who had occupied eastern England. As a princess of Wessex and a daughter of its famous king Alfred the Great, she can be seen on the one hand as continuing her father’s policy of reclaiming the conquered lands and bringing them back under English control. Wessex and Mercia were close allies in this task. On the other hand, we know that she worked hard to restore a sense of Mercian identity – by vigorously promoting the cults of Mercian saints, for example – so perhaps her guiding principle was Mercia first, England second. This is the scenario I’m inclined to go with. I suspect her main priority was putting the old pre-Viking kingdom of Mercia back together again, strengthening its frontiers and making sure its people felt safe, before giving any thought to a grand strategy of unifying all the English.
Many towns and churches claim an association with Æthelflæd, but are there any places, any buildings in particular, we know for certain she was present at?
A lot of what we think we know about early medieval history is based on informed guesswork rather than absolute certainty. Even when we have a contemporary account saying that a particular person was in a particular place at a particular time, we can rarely take it at face value. The writer may have had a personal (or political) reason for wanting the reader to believe that something happened in a particular way. In Æthelflæd’s case, we have a few instances where a contemporary document puts her in a specific location and is probably telling the truth. One such document is a charter which recorded a gift of land from Æthelflæd and her husband Lord Æthelred to a monastery at Much Wenlock in Shropshire. The charter was issued after a meeting of the Mercian ‘witan’ (a council of senior nobles and clergy) at Shrewsbury in the year 901. It says that Æthelflæd attended the meeting, so this is one instance where we can, with a fair amount of confidence, say she was in a specific place. The exact site of the meeting is, however, unknown.
If you could possess one item described in your narrative, what would it be?
In my book I mention that Æthelflæd’s tomb lay at St Oswald’s Priory in Gloucester. After her death at Tamworth in June 918, her body was taken to St Oswald’s to be entombed alongside her husband Æthelred who had died seven years earlier. Together they had founded the priory as their personal church and mausoleum. It was built around a shrine to the seventh-century Northumbrian king and martyr Oswald whom they both greatly revered. Unfortunately, the priory is now just a ruin and nothing survives of the shrine. Whatever graves lay at the site have been obliterated, except for part of a tenth-century sculptured stone that looks like it came from a high-status tomb. Some people like to believe the tomb in question was Æthelflæd’s but there’s no proof of that. So, if I could obtain one object mentioned in my book, it would be a piece of Æthelflæd’s real tombstone. I’d take a few photos of it for my blog, then hand it over to the city museum at Gloucester (where the aforementioned fragment is kept).
What’s the one thing we don’t know for sure about Æthelflæd that you wish we did?
I would like to know if she ever referred to herself as a queen. Contemporary English sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle call her the Lady of the Mercians and we can probably assume she was happy to be addressed by this title. But non-English sources like the Irish annals refer to her as a queen, so I’d like to know what she thought about that. She was the ruler of Mercia, one of the ancient English kingdoms. Its last king had still been around when Æthelflæd was in her teens. Yet her husband Æthelred was known as the Lord of the Mercians after he took control of the kingdom. Why not ‘King of the Mercians’? The usual explanation is that Alfred the Great, Æthelflæd’s father, didn’t want any more kings in England other than himself and his heirs. This may be true, but I can’t imagine the people of Mercia feeling too happy about it. Perhaps Lord Æthelred, and Æthelflæd herself, weren’t too happy about it either? I have often wondered if they really didn’t mind if someone addressed them as King and Queen, but I would like to know if they went as far as using these titles openly.
If you could tell Æthelflæd one thing and see her reaction, what would it be?
In the twelfth century, 200 years after Æthelflæd’s death, an English monk and historian called William of Malmesbury wrote about her in his book on the rulers of England. He included a curious tale in which Æthelflæd tells her husband that she won’t be having sex any more because, despite being briefly pleasurable, sexual intercourse ultimately leads to the pain of childbirth. She had given birth to one child, a daughter, and apparently didn’t intend to put herself through it again. It’s a strange little episode and William of Malmesbury is the only writer who mentions it. Is it based on truth? One theory suggests that there might be some historical basis to the tale, perhaps rooted in tenth-century dynastic politics, with Æthelflæd telling her husband that she didn’t want any more children in case one of them was an ambitious son who might decide to break the alliance with Wessex.
I’m not convinced by this explanation, mainly because I can’t imagine a powerful ruler like the Lord of the Mercians agreeing to abandon the chance of producing a male heir. So maybe the tale is nothing more than fiction, created simply to portray Æthelflæd as a woman of pure morals – like a nun or saint. We know William of Malmesbury sometimes got his facts wrong and wasn’t averse to making things up, so is he letting his imagination run away with him here? I’d be interested to see what Æthelflæd thought of it. I would quietly and very politely mention the story to her and see how she reacted. My guess is that her eyebrows would furrow deeply and she’d say something like ‘Do people actually believe this stuff?’
What’s the one thing you wish every school child knew about Æthelflæd?
That she existed. That she was a powerful female ruler, on a par with Boudicca and Elizabeth I, even if (unlike those two women) she doesn’t receive much attention in today’s history textbooks. Also, whenever the school curriculum turns to the Vikings and their raids on England, it would be good to point out that not all of the heroic leaders who stood against them were men. A question likely to pop up at this point is ‘Did Æthelflæd fight in battles?’ The answer is ‘probably not’ but it would be an interesting topic to discuss in class.
You get to spend 6 months back packing around England in Æthelflæd‘s time (without changing the timeline), what’s on your bucket list of things to see and do?
First, I’d go to Cheshire, to the places where I spent my childhood, just to see how they looked 1100 years ago. Next, I’d travel to the north-west border of English territory, to the frontier with the Kingdom of Strathclyde. I wrote a book on Strathclyde some years ago and supported a theory that the kingdom’s tenth-century border lay near Penrith in what is now the county of Cumbria. I’d be curious to visit this area, to see if the theory is right or wrong. Another destination on my list would be a large urban settlement with a bustling marketplace. This would give me a real taste of what life was like for ordinary folk in those times.
My books tend to focus on high-status people like kings and bishops (and Æthelflæd herself) but I think it would be good to see what went on lower down the social hierarchy: the day-to-day existence of the majority population. It’s something I don’t usually write about, so it would give me a different perspective on the whole era. After that, I would probably stay at a monastery for the rest of my trip, offering to work in the fields as payment for my accommodation. I’m not a deeply religious person but I’ve written about the important role of monasteries in early medieval times and I’d like to see how one of these places operated. I’d visit the monastic library every day, to peruse the manuscripts, even though some people might say I was wasting an opportunity (‘What? You were given the chance to travel anywhere in tenth-century England and you just sat in a library?’).
Can you still picture Æthelflæd without conjuring an image of Millie Brady in your mind?
Yes and no. Yes, because I don’t know what Æthelflæd looked like. So, whenever I imagine her, the image isn’t a clearly drawn portrait. It’s indistinct, almost as if she’s standing outside the light: a hazy figure in the shadows, forever out of reach. But, at the same time, I think Millie Brady did a fantastic job of bringing Æthelflæd to life, depicting her as a serious yet charismatic individual who commanded respect and devotion from the Mercian elite. I’m sure the way Millie stole every scene she was in has helped to ensure that more people than ever before are now aware of Æthelflæd .
What are you currently working on?
A book on the Isle of Man in the early medieval and Late Norse periods (AD 400 to 1265). It will be published in 2023.
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