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.

DERBY – a significant but costly victory

Derby was one of the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw, created when King Alfred made peace with Viking invaders towards the end of the 9th century. His daughter Æthelflæd lead Mercian forces against the Danish forces based there in 917AD. Her victory and recapture of the town was one of her most significant military achievements. But it was achieved at a cost, as recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles (Mercian Register): “Four thegns who were dear to her were slain there within the gates”.

The re-taking of Derby was clearly a bloody affair; there is also an account that a Welsh king had fled there and was killed by the Mercian forces. The Danish defeat made a significant impact on the morale of other settlers in the Danelaw. It was quickly followed by the surrender of Leicester, another of the Danish Five Boroughs, to Æthelflæd, this time without bloodshed.

Æthelflaed’s name (spelled Æþelflæd), in the ‘Mercian Register (B-text) of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, courtesy of the British Library.

Historians today acknowledge that Æthelflæd, the heroine of the historical novel, King Alfred’s Daughter, was one of the most influential leaders of the Anglo-Saxon era. Yet she was almost written out of the contemporary historical records by those anxious to promote their own power and legacy. If manipulating the media sounds all too familiar to us today, back then it was even easier to control the communication channels as the written word was confined to an educated religious elite subservient to powerful kings.

Fortunately, we can now piece together Æthelflæd’s achievements because many related to specific places. As ‘Lady of the Mercians’, she founded many well-known towns that populate the East Midlands today. By building a chain of fortified towns on the River Severn and along the boundary of the Danelaw which roughly followed a line between London and Chester, she helped fulfil King Alfred’s dream of a united England. Today, these towns and the churches she founded within them, stand as monuments to her campaign to provide havens for the Anglo-Saxon people.