Æthelflæd was the daughter of King Alfred the Great of England, the king who in the late 9th century defended that nation from conquest by a Viking army and promoted literacy and learning. Æthelflæd proved to be just as great as her illustrious father. Her marriage to Æthelred of Mercia may have been intended only to secure an alliance with Alfred’s Wessex, and unite the two major English kingdoms, but Æthelflæd soon took on far more than a token role in Mercia’s administration – by all accounts, she became the de facto ruler of that kingdom.
After her father’s death, Æthelflæd’s brother Edward acceded to the throne of Wessex. Brother and sister then embarked upon a program of strengthening their twin realms, building strongholds called burhs at strategic locations, defending against further Viking incursions, and retaking much of the land that had fallen under Danish rule. There are some indications of Æthelflæd leading Mercia’s forces into battle herself, though some historians doubt the reliability of these sources. Nevertheless, her leadership was strong enough that when her husband died, she succeeded as sole ruler of Mercia with little or no opposition, and became known as the ‘Lady of the Mercians’.
She and Edward continued their coordinated campaigns to recapture the regions of England under Danish control, right up to Æthelflæd’s death in 918. Shortly before her death, even the Danes of York, who had stoutly resisted all English attempts at reconquest, offered to submit to her in exchange for protection from Norse raiders – but after her death, they retracted their offer. The Mercian noblemen chose Æthelflæd’s daughter Ælfwynn to succeed her, but Edward took the opportunity of his sister’s death to assume direct control over Mercia, putting Ælfwynn in a nunnery.
Æthelflæd has appeared in several works of historical fiction, most notably Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Saxon Tales’ series and its BBC/Netflix adaptation, The Last Kingdom, where she is portrayed quite splendidly by Millie Brady. Much as I enjoy seeing one of my favorite historicak personages on-screen, however, I must say that if anything, The Last Kingdom undersells how remarkable Æthelflæd was by making her share credit for many of her achievements with the series’ main character, the fictional Uhtred.
Have a good day thread, and perhaps tell us about some of your favorite under-known historical figures.