Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Æthelflæd, ‘Lady of the Mercians’ (d. 918)

If you stand at the top of the Cathedral Tower and look out over Worcester today, you cannot help but notice the number of new buildings and developments appearing on the horizon.  But did you know that the basic shape of the town was established by an Anglo-Saxon warrior queen, whose rule paved the way for Worcester’s commercial and ecclesiastical development?  Who was this woman, depicted sword in hand in the stained glass of the Cathedral cloister?  What is the story of Æthelflæd, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’?

Æthelflæd, the daughter of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, was born in the early 870s.  As Alfred’s eldest child, she was destined to play a leading role in the political life of Anglo-Saxon England.  Inheriting the kingdom of Mercia (an largely corresponding to the English Midlands) on her husband’s death, Æthelflæd fortified a number of towns and raised her armies against Viking invaders in the east.  She was one of only a handful of Anglo-Saxon women to wield this kind of power, maintaining the loyalty and devotion of her forces until her death.

Little is known of Æthelflæd’s early years, but by 890 she was married to Ealdorman Æthelred, ruler of Mercia.  In Æthelred’s time the eastern part of the kingdom was controlled by Danish occupiers as part of the ‘Danelaw’.  Æthelflæd’s marriage to Æthelred meant that Mercia came under the influence of Wessex, with Alfred claiming overlordship of both kingdoms in return for helping Æthelred reconquer the Danelaw.  When her husband fell ill, Æthelflæd and her brother Edward assumed nominal control of the Mercian forces.  Æthelred died in 911, leaving the kingdom to Æthelflæd.  Unusually, Edward did not have a claim to the Mercian seat.  However, he used his sister’s position to extend his influence, arranging for his son, Athelstan, to be brought up in Æthelflæd’s court.  Athelstan would later go on to become the first king of all England.

Æthelflæd and Edward were both intent on reconquering the Danelaw and reclaiming land for the Anglo-Saxon rulers of Mercia.  One of the ways in which they did this was by building a system of fortified towns (burhs), from which to launch attacks on the Danes.  It was her father, Alfred, who devised the programme of burh construction, so Æthelflæd must have been familiar with them from an early age.  At some point between 889 and 899 Worcester was fortified as a burh.  The charter recording its foundation is one of the best pieces of evidence of its kind in England.  It reads:

At the request of Bishop Wærfirth, their friend, Ealdorman Æthelred and Æthelflæd ordered the burh of Worcester to be built for the protection of all the people [...] and they now make it known, with the witness of God, in this Charter, that they will grant to God and St. Peter, and to the Lord of that Church, half of all the rights which belong to their lordship whether in the market or the street, both within the fortifications and outside [...] except that the wagon-shilling and load-penny at Droitwich go to the King as they have always done. Otherwise, land-rent, the fine for fighting, or theft, or dishonest trading, and the contribution to the borough wall and all the [fines for] offences which admit compensation, are to belong half to the Lord of the Church.

Æthelflæd clearly understood the commercial as well as strategic importance of the burhs.  In 904, in addition to the trade revenue allotted to them by the charter, she and her husband were granted a haga (an enclosure) by Bishop Wærfirth, which represented a significant portion of the burh.  It included a river frontage which could be used to land men and goods.  This demonstrates Æthelflæd’s power over the burhs – a picture repeated across western Mercia.

In 917, the Vikings of East Anglia submitted to Edward’s army.  Unfortunately, Æthelflæd never saw the reconquest of the southern Danelaw three years later; she died in Tamworth in 919.  Her daughter Ælfwynn inherited the rulership of Mercia, but after six months was stripped of her authority by Edward and taken to Wessex.  This highlights Æthelflæd’s fortitude in keeping her brother’s ambitions in check under her rule.  Edward’s desire to unite the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia was eventually realised by his son, Athelstan, who ruled the lands as ‘England’.  Æthelflæd’s unyielding defence of the Anglo-Saxon territories against the Danes, and the union of Wessex and Mercia effected by her marriage and subsequent leadership, shows she was instrumental to the formation of the English nation.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Beastly Books: Ornithology and Zoology in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Francis Willoughby (1635-1672)

Two of the most influential books in the world of British ornithology and zoology sit on the shelves of Worcester Cathedral Library.  The first, Ornithology, was written by Warwickshire naturalist Francis Willoughby, and published posthumously in 1676.  Willoughby was a studious young man, and developed an interest in the fields of mathematics and taxonomy, botany and natural history.  Although in poor health for most of his life, he travelled the Continent and collected many specimens for documentation and categorisation.

Ornithology was put together by the naturalist John Ray, Willoughby’s long-time friend and mentor.  The edition of 1676 contains some remarkable engravings of birds, from the commonplace to the exotic.  The images below depict firstly the golden eagle and sea eagle, and secondly the eagle owl, horned owl and little horned owl.

Thomas Pennant (1726-1798)

When he was twelve years old, Thomas Pennant (the son of a Flintshire landowner) was given a copy of Francis Willoughby’s Ornithology.  The book ignited a passion for natural history which would turn the young man into one of Britain’s leading zoologists of the eighteenth century.  Pennant pursued the subject with what he called ‘constitutional ardor’, travelling around Britain and the Continent collecting fossil specimens and observing wildlife.  He corresponded with a number of eminent figures in the field including the Cornish naturalist William Borlase and the Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus.

Pennant is best known for British Zoology, the first volume of which was published in 1766.  The completed work comprised four volumes, which dealt with quadrupeds, birds, reptiles and fish.  Printed in a compact octavo form, the second and subsequent editions met with considerable success.  The Cathedral Library has the fourth edition from 1776.  This book typifies the Enlightenment enthusiasm for the ‘modern systems’ of categorisation and taxonomy.  Indeed, it is generally agreed that its importance lays in its organisation and synthesis rather than in its literary merit.  Each section begins with the etymology of the animal’s name.  This is followed by a general description of its character and physiology.  The example of the sheep can be seen below (I particularly like the appearance of the word ‘fleecy’ in the margin!).

Despite its arrangement, British Zoology is neither dry nor discouraging.  In the Preface, Pennant expressed his hope that the work would inspire ‘sedentary’ readers to leave the house and explore the wonders of nature.  To that end it contains entertaining stories about the eradication of wolves and bears from the British Isles, poems and fishermen’s incantations, and insights into the medicinal uses of the viper’s flesh and the electric ray.  The book also reveals a less than scientific standpoint on the moral worth of particular creatures.  For example, Pennant had a very low opinion of the pig, which reflected popular notions of the time.  He called it ‘useless and rapacious’, ‘stupid, inactive and drowsy’ with ‘sordid manners’ and a ‘more than common brutality’.  The reader is warned that the pig’s ‘intestines have a strong resemblance to those of the human species; a circumstance that should mortify our pride’.

Other descriptions are more familiar to us, however, such as that of the cat: ‘a useful, but deceitful domestic; active, neat, sedate, intent on its pray.  When pleased it purres and moves its tail: when angry spits, hisses, and strikes with its foot.  When walking it draws its claws: it drinks little: is fond of fish: it washes its face with its fore-foot’.