FINDING ÆTHELFLÆD, Lady of the Mercians

Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians may have been written out of history, but today we can find evidence of her life and achievements in many places.

CHESTER – the burh that Æthelflæd defended with bees against a Viking attack

Chester, once an important Roman fortress town, fell into disrepair in Anglo-Saxon times and was even used as a camp by raiding Vikings during the reign of Alfred the Great. It was his daughter, Æthelflæd, who restored and revitalized the town when she became Lady of the Mercians in the early 10th century. Recognising its strategic importance close to the Danes to the east and the Welsh in the west, Æthelflæd rebuilt the old town as a fortified ‘burh’. She laid it out in the criss-cross pattern found in the town centre today, and extended the ancient walls down to the Dee so that the river could add further protection. Æthelflæd’s work turned the ruined town into a thriving community with its own mint making local coins.

A coin minted by Æthelflæd in Chester showing a tower symbolic of her building programme and possibly illustrating the church she built there.

As described in my book, King Alfred’s Daughter, Chester soon needed its defences. When Norwegian Vikings under Ingimund were expelled from their base in Dublin, they asked Æthelflæd for permission to settle and farm in the Wirral, claiming they had forsaken their raiding roots. She agreed, no doubt believing they would provide her with a useful mercenary force against other invaders. For a few years, the agreement held, and the settlers lived in peace, but as Chester prospered, the Vikings found the temptation too great. They allied with neighbouring Danes and attacked the town. 

According to a contemporary account, Æthelflæd used imaginative tactics to defend the city walls – including deploying the local bees! (I won’t give too much away here as I have used this version as the basis of my description in King Alfred’s Daughter). The influence of Scandinavian settlers can still be seen in Chester to this day – for example in St Olaf’s Church in Lower Bridge St.

As part of her restoration programme, Æthelflæd bestowed the relics of St Werburgh on the main church, now the town cathedral. A stained-glass image of ‘Ethelfleda’ in the west window honours her as the original founder.

Detail of the West Window of Chester Cathedral showing ‘Ethelfleda’ (the Victorian version of Æthelflæd) designing fortified towns

This how is Æthelflæd describes beginning the defence of Chester in the novel, King Alfred’s Daughter:

Time was short and I ordered every available man, woman, and child to help with the re-building effort. I had the great hall emptied and bade local farmers to bring in their cattle and stores. Women dug up vegetables and picked fruit from beyond the defences to store inside the town. Everything was done not only to build up our own stocks but also to deny food to the attackers.

On the third day, Æthelred’s foot soldiers arrived and filled the town with their tents, weapons, cooking utensils and bad language. I calculated that our defenders now numbered four hundred, but informants in the Wirral had reported news of three separate warband encampments. I needed more men if I was to stand a chance of holding the makeshift stronghold.” 

Excerpt from my new book ‘King Alfred’s Daughter’, chapter 11 published by The Book Guild.

Read more here…