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.