Æþelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians

In the Library is an eighteenth century printed copy of an eleventh century collection of charters, documents that record land and privileges given to the church at Worcester and leases given by them to others. The church at Worcester in these early charters refers to the Cathedral and its community. The monks who copied these charters into collections, which are called cartularies, did us a great service since the original individual charters have, with few exceptions, long since disappeared. Two of these charters have a special claim to our interest this year because they both name Æþelflæd as a principal and 2018 sees the 1100th anniversary of her death at Tamworth.


A depiction of Aethelflaeda in a stained glass window in the cloisters of Worcester Cathedral. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).


Æþelflæd was the daughter of King Alfred. She was married to Æþelred who ruled the kingdom of Mercia under Alfred, and she seems to have inherited both her father’s determination that the Danes should not overrun England and also his strength of character. She and Æþelred fortified many towns in the Midlands, took an active part in the resistance to the Danes, and after Æþelred’s death in 911 she ruled alone until her death in 918. Few women wielded power at that date, and those that did were able to mainly as leaders of nunneries, or because of their learning: women ruling kingdoms or provinces were very rare. Only slightly less uncommon is the appearance of women as a principal in charters of the period, but both of the charters discussed include Æþelred and Æþelflæd as conjoined in power and lordship. This has a value for historians beyond its interest for the history of Worcester: ‘an authentic charter text shows that Worcester had been forified by Æþelred and Æþelflæd by 901. Since Worcester is the only western Mercian see with an archive which survives from this period, it is unsurprising that this charter affords the sole direct record of their entire programme of building defences.’[1]


A depiction of Aethelred. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).


The charters which include her as a principal are unusual, too, because both are predominantly in the vernacular Old English rather than the Latin which was generally used for official documents. They also suggest that Æþelred andÆþelflæd had plenty of business sense. The first, which is dated sometime between 884 and 901, records that Æþelred and Æþelflæd have fortified Worcester at the request of ‘their friend’ Bishop Wærferth. This led to the charter which establishes the right of the bishop and the church at Worcester to half of the revenues of the town, which otherwise belong to ‘their lordship’, that is Æþelred and Æþelflæd; the Old English uses the plural form of the word for ‘their’, both here and in the reference to Wærferth, making it clear that the lordship is vested in both of them, not just Æþelred, which would be the more usual custom of the period. These revenues are specified in the charter as ‘land-rent, the fine for fighting or theft or dishonest trading and contributions to the borough-wall and all the fines for offences which admit of compensation.’[2] The significance to this division of revenues is that previously it appears that the bishop alone had jurisdiction over Worcester: ‘following the foundation of the see, successive bishops evidently exercised lordship over all the area of the city’ so the admittance of another, secular, lordship, was an innovation.[3] It was also a productive move on the part of Æþelred and Æþelflæd since the new defences evidently resulted in a larger and more prosperous town: ‘Worcester became important as both an economic and a secular population centre only after the building of the “burh” in the 890s.’[4] A burh was a fortified town. The fortification of Worcester and the subsequent division of revenues can thus be seen as a successful investment by Æþelred and Æþelflæd, as well as a means of protecting their people from Danish incursions.


A depiction of Bishop Waerferth. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).


The bishop and the church at Worcester were either very cognisant of a debt to them or possibly were reminded of it, since in 904 another charter was issued by Wærferth and his community of monks. This one grants lands to Æþelred and Æþelflæd personally, for their lives and also for that of their daughter, Ælfwyn, after which it is to revert to the church at Worcester. It is a large amount of land: a meadow to the west of the Severn, and 72 other acres of land (probably arable) in and around Barbourne. The most significant piece of land however is in Worcester itself. This is an enclosure which, from the specifications in the charter, includes nearly all of the river frontage inside the city wall, and hence carries with it the trading dues which come from goods carried up and down the river. That carries more importance than is obvious today: before the arrival of tarmacked roads and heavy goods vehicles, the river was the main means by which goods were transported, so rights over the main quays were valuable. Again, Æþelflæd is not an adjunct to her husband but an equal partner: by the charter the Worcester community grants both rights and land to them jointly as ‘Æþelred and Æþelflæd heora hlafordum’ that is to Æþelred and Æþelflæd, their lords.

Æþelflæd clearly earned her title of ‘the Lady of the Mercians’ but we should be much less aware of the strength of her position and the power she wielded if these charters had not been recorded and later printed. So it is thanks to the eleventh century monks and the antiquarian Hearne in the eighteenth century that this year we can commemorate Æþelflæd as a powerful and astute woman, who vigorously defended her land against the Viking incursions.

Mary Ward

[1] Steven Bassett, ‘Anglo-Saxon Fortification in Western Mercia’ Midland History, 36 (2011), 1-23, p.11.

[2] Translation from R. Allen Brown, The Norman Conquest (London: Edwin Arnold, 1984), p.127.

[3] Nigel Baker and Richard Holt, ‘The City of Worcester in the Tenth Century’ in St. Oswald of Worcester: Life and Influence ed. by Nicholas Brookes and Catherine Cubitt, (Leicester: University of Leicester Press, 1996), pp.129-146, p.130.

[4] Baker and Holt, p.130.


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