Monday, March 13, 2006

Medieval Women I Adore - Installment 1: Aethelflaed

Full Disclosure: This new series is out-and-out idea thievery. Natalie Bennett at Philobiblion has been blogging about women's history for quite some time. Every time I read one of her wonderfully informative entries about a woman in history, I think to myself, "Self," I think, "somebody really oughta blog about the medieval women who don't get much recognition in the modern world." Then I generally "tsk" and go back to reading, because I don't want to be a big cheater. Well, I've decided these women deserve whatever attention anybody can give them, cries of "cheater!" be damned. And so here begins the Heo Cwaethian series of medieval women whose history should be known.

We'll start with the As, or ascs if you want to be technical about it.

Æðelflæd (Aethelflaed) - "The Lady of the Mercians" - The eldest child of the famous King Alfred of Wessex and Ealhswyth, his noble Mercian wife, Aethelflaed was born about 869 CE, two years before her father ascended to the throne of Wessex - then the most powerful of the English kingdoms. Like her younger siblings, Aethelflaed learned to read and write in English and Latin, memorized the Psalms, and learned the seven liberal arts. She was considered intellectually gifted in her schooling, and beyond.

She married King Aethelred II of Mercia (not Unraed, he was later) in 884, as part of a political deal. Aethelred accepted the overlordship of Alfred and demoted himself from cyning (king) to ealdorman ( earl), but in return had the security of connection to the Wessex royal family. In this marriage, at least, it seems as if Aethelflaed was acting in the stereotypically feminine capacity of peace-weaver. Aethelflaed was not a subservient wife, however, nor was she demonstrably peaceful. She immediately began working with Aethelred in developing military strategies, and joined with him in the fights against Viking invaders.

From 888 CE -- the year Aethelred was struck with a debilitating illness-- until his death in 911 CE , Aethelflaed wielded the royal power in her marriage. Unlike her mother, Ealhswyth, Aethelflaed did not retire to a monastery at the death of her husband, but continued the control she had wielded over her kingdom until her own death in 918 CE. It was she who invaded and conquered part of Wales, built defensive burhs in Mercia, refortified several fortresses, and fended off the Vikings. In her refortification efforts, Aethelflaed rebuilt the Roman walls at Gloucester, and developed a city plan. Gloucester still bears the mark of Aethelflaed's plan today; the roads that are in the city are where they are because Aethelflaed put them there. When Aethelred died in 911 CE, Aethelflaed continued to rule, joining with her younger brother Edward to put down rebellions to the north, create political alliances with other kings, and (surprise!) fight off Viking invaders. She defeated the Danes of York, who then submitted to her overlordship in 918 CE in return for defense from the Norse in Ireland.

When Aethelflaed died in the same year (918 CE), her kingdom of Mercia was nominally left in control of her 20 year-old daughter Aelfwynn. However, Aelfwynn was almost immediately brought to the court of Edward, her maternal uncle, by reason of her "minority" and Wessex annexed Mercia.

Not quite a damsel in distress, was she? Whenever some dipstick decides to inform me of the "natural incapacity of women to rule," I remind myself of women like Aethelflaed. A fierce fighter, skilled politician, gifted intellectual, and capable ruler, she was able to defend not only her own kingdom of Mercia, but also her brother's kingdom of Wessex from invasion, all while expanding and fortifying her own power. For me, the willingness of the Danes of York to submit to her rule in return for defense when they had the choice to seek Edward's protection suggests that she was recognized as a better general than her brother. That Edward waited until after her death to annex Mercia, and did so with the public purpose of protecting Aethelflaed's daughter confirms it for me.


Bardiac said...

Great idea, and a great first choice!

Word verification: saxwp. Fits, somehow!

Gillian Polack said...

I am blogging madly for Women's History month also. Might I link to your posts?

HeoCwaeth said...

Bardiac, thanks! BTW, I've decided your word verification means Saxon woman-person.

Gillian, thanks to you too. Please feel free to link here. (Unless you're making fun of me. Then just don't tell me about it)

Gillian Polack said...

I didn't make fun of you. Truly.

L.N. Hammer said...

Interestingly, I just read last week a young-adult novel about the coming of age of Aethelflaed. Or sort of read it -- while she was interesting in the abstract, the book wasn't. The details of daily life in King Alfred's court caught more of my attention than Flaed did.

(My verification word, btw, is "qhpzqvnc," which sounds like monastic Latin for a tattletale. Speaking of which, here via Gillian.)


Tara said...

Wow, great post. Medieval history is pretty much a big blank for me, and I had never heard of Aethelflaed or any of the people connected to her, but I feel like I *need* these stories and thanks so much for sharing them!!

Bardiac said...

I didn't even ask permission to link, just did it. Naughty Bardiac!! (Hope that's okay. I figured it was.)

HeoCwaeth said...

I was just being a little silly. Guess it didn't come through in print. I didn't think you would ask permission just to make fun of me.

Hi L.N., and welcome. I guess I'm just so excited that there's a book about Aethelflaed that I don't even care if it isn't good. Now I want to read it.

Tara, Hi and welcome.

Bardiac, Of course you can link without permission. I do it all the time with others, including you, I think. Although I wasn't completely joking about people not telling me when they link to make fun of me. I like the surprise of finding the fun-making sight when I check my e-mail.

Gillian Polack said...

Sorry - I did get the joke and was making one in return. If I grovel will you forgive me?

Holly said...

Extremely cool post! I look forward to the future installments in the series.

Word verification: ofylqfnf. Also seems apt.

Natalie Bennett said...

Thanks for the kind words - and a great first post, and first central character. I look forward to reading more...!

Anonymous said...

Aethelflaed is a character in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Series. I expect she'll be a prominent character in the next few books in the series. She's a child in the second and third.

Anonymous said...

If you want to know more about Aethelflaed, there is
the book by Jane Wolfe: Aethelflaed: Royal Lady,War Lady
You'll find it at English Heritage or Amazon

Anonymous said...

What a fascinating blog! I've always had an interest in medieval history, and yet i hadn't heard of Aethelflaed until i stepped inside a tiny museum last week. Naturally, i had to find out more. Thanks =^-_-^=
word verification: boyotpul. by some stretch of imagination...?

Mayv said...

Great info! And I love the description of Aethelflaed you wrote at the end.

I'm writing a bio of her for and citing you as one of my sources. Many thanks and kudos!

Gin Akasarahsmom said...

Is there a physical description of Aethelflaed? Blonde, Brunette, tall, short... etc..

I'm writing a story and want to get the details correct.

Please let me know or direct me to a site with the description. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I am not a feminist and dislike feminism. However, if I were a woman, I would probably be a feminist.

Having said that, Aethelflaed is a feminist hero - but also an English and Christian hero, 2 aspects that many feminists may find un-PC.