Lord of the Mercians
879 ? – 911 Æthelred
King Ceolwulf II is allotted a five year reign in a Mercian king-list from Worcester (British Library MS Cotton Tiberius A xiii, folio 114v, early-11th century), by which token he ceased to rule in 879. Ceolwulf’s successor, the final name on the list, is Æthelred. Actually, Ceolwulf disappears from the record in 877 (when the Danes partitioned Mercia) and Æthelred does not appear until 883. Furthermore, when he finally does surface (S218), Æthelred is ruling English Mercia (roughly speaking, the western half of Mercia), not as a king, but as an ealdorman, with Alfred (Alfred the Great), king of the West Saxons, as his overlord. Æthelred, though, had greater status than an ordinary ealdorman. He is given various titles in different sources, even ‘king’ occasionally, but he is generally known by the description he receives in the Mercian Register: ‘lord of the Mercians’.
In 878, the king of Gwynedd, Rhodri Mawr, had been, say the Annales Cambriae: “killed by the Saxons.”[*] Presumably “the Saxons” in question were the Mercians. Three years later, i.e. in 881, the Annales record: “The battle of Conwy. Vengeance for Rhodri at God’s hand.” If the Worcester king-list is right, Ceolwulf II should take credit for the victory that resulted in Rhodri’s death, whilst Æthelred suffered the subsequent defeat at Conwy. At any rate, as reported by Asser, King Alfred’s biographer and a Welshman himself, by about 885 the rulers of southern Wales had submitted to Alfred’s overlordship:
… King Hyfaidd, with all the inhabitants of the region of Dyfed, compelled by the violence of the six sons of Rhodri, had submitted to the dominion of the king [Alfred]. Hywel also, son of Rhys, king of Glywysing, and Brochfael and Ffernfael, sons of Meurig, kings of Gwent, compelled by the violence and tyranny of Ealdorman Æthelred and of the Mercians,[*] of their own accord sought out the same king, that they might enjoy rule and protection from him against their enemies. Elise, also, son of Tewdwr, king of Brycheiniog, driven by the violence of the same sons of Rhodri, of his own accord sought the lordship of the aforesaid king; and Anarawd, son of Rhodri, with his brothers, at length [by 893] abandoning the friendship of the Northumbrians [i.e. the Vikings of York], from whom he had received no good, but rather harm, came into King Alfred’s presence, and eagerly sought his friendship. The king received him with honour, adopted him as his son by confirmation from the bishop’s hand, and bestowed many gifts upon him. Thus he became subject to the king with all his people, on condition that he should be obedient to the king’s will in all respects, in the same way as Æthelred with the Mercians. Nor was it in vain that they all gained the friendship of the king. For those who desired to augment their worldly power obtained power; those who desired money gained money; those who desired his friendship acquired his friendship; those who wished more than one secured more than one. But all of them had his love and guardianship and defence from every quarter, so far as the king, with all his men, could defend himself.Vita Alfredi §§80–81
Numismatic evidence tends to suggest that the Mercian town of London had remained in English hands – that coins in the names of both Ceolwulf and Alfred were minted there, and that Alfred’s coins continued to be produced there after Ceolwulf’s rule ended. It seems that the Danes captured it in 883, but that English forces soon retook it. In 885 a Viking force from the Continent was active in the vicinity of the Thames estuary, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that, in the next year, 886: “King Alfred occupied Lundenburh”.[*] A burh, from which the modern word ‘borough’, is a fortified site, and Lundenburh is the fortified Roman city of London (as distinct from Lundenwic, the trading settlement to the west of the city). Asser, in his equivalent entry (§83), says that: “after the burning of towns and the massacre of people, [Alfred] honourably restored the city of London and made it habitable”. The Chronicle concludes its annal: “and all the English race turned to him [Alfred] that were not in the bondage of the Danish men; and he then committed the burh [of London] to the keeping of Ealdorman Æthelred.”
It may well be that an extant treaty agreed by Alfred and Guthrum, the Danish king of East Anglia, which famously defines the border between their territories, dates from 886[*].
By 889, Ealdorman Æthelred had married Alfred’s daughter, Æthelflæd – Asser says (§75) only that the marriage took place: “when she arrived at a marriageable age”.[*]
In 892 a new Viking “great army” landed in Britain[*].
Alfred died in 899. In his will, he gifted: “to Ealdorman Æthelred a sword worth 100 mancuses.”
In 902 the East Anglian Danes ransacked English Mercia and northern Wessex, incited by the rebel Æthelwold, cousin of Alfred’s son and successor, Edward. During the ensuing reprisals, Æthelwold and the Viking king of East Anglia, Eohric, were amongst those killed, as was one “Beorhtsige, son of Beorhtnoth the ætheling”, who was also on the Dane’s side.[*] Given the propensity for noble families to favour alliterative names, Beorhtnoth and Beorhtsige could well have belonged to a branch of Mercian royalty that had provided previous kings: Beornred (757), Beornwulf (823–826), Beorhtwulf (839–852) and Burgred (852–874).
The Mercian Register entry for the year 907 simply says: “In this year Chester [i.e. the derelict, walled, Roman city] was renovated.” A story found in an Irish source, the Three Fragments (as it is often called), suggests that this refortification was necessitated by the arrival of large numbers of Hiberno-Norse Vikings in the Wirral[*]. According to the Three Fragments, Æthelred was, by this time, incapacitated by the illness which would eventually kill him, and his wife, Æthelflæd, sister of King Edward, was holding the reins of government.
In 909, Edward sent a combined force of West Saxons and Mercians on a five week campaign against the Danes in Northumbria: “and they made very great ravage on the north army, both in men and in every kind of cattle, and slew many of the Danish men”.[*] The Danes were apparently obliged to agree terms, but the next year, 910, as reported by Æthelweard (IV, 4): “the barbarians broke the peace with King Edward, and with Æthelred, who then ruled the Northumbrian and Mercian areas. The fields of the Mercians were ravaged on all sides by the throng we spoke about, and deeply, as far as the streams of the Avon, where the boundary of the West Saxons and Mercians begins. Then they were transported across the river Severn into the west country, and there they ravaged great ravagings.” According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Northumbrian Danes felt secure in raiding so far from their home because they believed most of Edward’s forces were on board ships off the south coast, headed to Kent where Edward was waiting for them. This proved to be a serious misjudgement on the Danes’ part, as the Chronicle records: “When the king learned that they were gone out to ravage, he sent his force, both from the West Saxons and from the Mercians, and overtook the army [i.e. the Danes] when it was returning homewards, and fought against them and put the army to flight, and slew many thousands of them”. The Mercian Register simply states, s.a. 910: “the English and the Danes fought at Tettenhall, and the English gained the victory.” Æthelweard says the battle took place on the 5th of August, but he places it at Wednesfield (Woden’s field), some three miles east of Tettenhall. (Both Tettenhall and Wednesfield are now suburbs of Wolverhampton.) It is, though, as the ‘battle of Tettenhall’ that the engagement is usually known, and the English victory there turned out to be a knockout blow from which the Northumbrian Danes never fully recovered.[*]
In 911, the year after Tettenhall, Æthelred died, and according to Æthelweard: “was buried in peace in the fortress known as Gloucester.” The Chronicle notes that: “King Edward succeeded to London and to Oxford and to all the lands which thereto belonged.”
Lady of the Mercians
911 – 918 Æthelflæd
Daughter of King Alfred the Great, sister of King Edward the Elder and widow of Ealdorman Æthelred, lord of the Mercians.
And here, indeed, Æthelflæd sister of the king and widow of Æthelred, ought not to be forgotten, as she was a powerful accession to his party, the delight of his subjects, the dread of his enemies; a woman of an enlarged soul, who, from the difficulty experienced in her first (or rather only) labour, ever after refused the embraces of her husband, protesting that it was unbecoming the daughter of a king to give way to a delight, which after a time produced such painful consequences. This spirited heroine assisted her brother greatly with her advice; she was of equal service in building cities, nor could you easily discern whether it were more owing to fortune or her own exertions, that a woman should be able to protect men at home, and to intimidate them abroad.William of Malmesbury (GR II §125).
Æthelflæd’s efforts were vital to the success of her brother’s campaigns against the Danes,[*] but her contribution is completely ignored by the authors of the main entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Her career is, however, chronicled in the terse reports of the Mercian Register, which gives her the title by which she is usually called: ‘lady of the Mercians’.
Æthelflæd apparently wielded considerable power in Mercia even before the death of her husband, who was in poor health towards the end of his life. A story in the Three Fragments, an Irish source, tells how she allowed one Ingimund, a Hiberno-Norse chieftain, to settle in the vicinity of Chester, and then had to see to the defence of the walled Roman town when the ungrateful Ingimund organized Viking forces to capture it[*].
The Mercian Register reports that Chester “was renovated” (i.e. the old Roman fortifications were refurbished) in 907, although it makes no mention of Æthelflæd’s involvement. It does, however, report that she built “the burh” at a site called Bremesbyrig (possibly Bromesberrow, near Ledbury, Herefordshire) in 910.[*] “Then in the year next after [i.e. in 911], died Æthelred, lord of the Mercians.” In 912: “Æthelflæd, lady of the Mercians, came to Scergeat [unidentified], on the holy eve of the Invention of the Holy Cross [i.e. on 2nd May], and there built the burh; and in the same year that at Bridgnorth.” In 913: “Æthelflæd, lady of the Mercians, went with all the Mercians to Tamworth, and built the burh there, in the early summer; and before the following Lammas [1st August], that at Stafford. Then in the year after this [i.e. in 914], that at Eddisbury [an Iron Age Hillfort in Cheshire], in the early summer; and afterwards in the same year, late in harvest, that at Warwick. Then in the next year [i.e. in 915], after Midwinter, that at Chirbury [in Shropshire] and that at Weardbyrig [unidentified]; and that same year, before Midwinter, that at Runcorn.”
On 16th June 916, a “guiltless” Abbot Egbert, and “his companions” were killed – evidently by the Welsh. The redoubtable Æthelflæd took prompt action. Three days later, she: “sent a force into Wales, and broke down Brecenanmere, and there captured the king’s wife as one of four-and-thirty.”[*]
In 917, Edward’s offensive against Danish held territory began in earnest. Æthelflæd played her part: “In this year Æthelflæd, lady of the Mercians, God aiding her, before Lammas [1st August], got possession of the burh which is called Derby, with all that belonged thereto; and there also were slain four of her thegns, within the gates, whose loss was a great sorrow to her.” The following year (918): “In this year, with the aid of God, in the early part of the year, she got into her power peacefully the burh at Leicester; and the greatest part of the army [i.e. the Danes] which belonged thereto became subjected to her. And the people of York had also promised her, and some given a pledge, and some confirmed by oaths, that they would be at her disposal. But very soon after they had agreed thereon, she died at Tamworth, 12 nights before Midsummer [i.e. on 12th June 918], in the eighth year from the time she rightfully held the lordship over the Mercians; and her body lies in Gloucester, in the east porch of St Peter’s church.”
The Three Fragments feature an account of a battle fought between English and Viking forces that might equate with a battle fought at Corbridge, Northumbria, in 918. The story is obviously embroidered, but its claim (recorded nowhere else) that Æthelflæd entered an alliance with the “men of Alba”, i.e. the Scots,[*] and the Strathclyde Britons to counter the Hiberno-Norse invaders is very credible[*].
According to the Three Fragments, Æthelflæd, “the Queen”, achieved great renown as a result of her military success. The death of “Queen Æthelflæd” is recorded in the Annales Cambriae, and amongst the entries for 918 in the Annals of Ulster, following its account of the battle mentioned above,[*] is the comment: “Æthelflæd, most famous queen of the Saxons, dies.”
918 – 919 (918?) Ælfwynn
Daughter of Æthelred and Æthelflæd.
Manuscript A of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that, after Æthelflæd, lady of the Mercians, died at Tamworth on 12th June 918, her brother and overlord, King Edward: “took possession of the burh at Tamworth; and all the people in the Mercian’s land, who had before been subject to Æthelflæd, submitted to him; and the kings of the North Welsh, Hywel, and Clydog, and Idwal, and all the North Welsh race, sought him for lord. He then went thence to Nottingham, and reduced the burh, and ordered it to be repaired, and peopled, both with Englishmen and with Danish. And all the people who were settled in the Mercian’s land submitted to him, both Danish and English.”[*] Presumably as a gesture to Mercian independence, Æthelflæd’s daughter, Ælfwynn, was, at first, allowed to rule in her mother’s stead. However, the entry for 919 in the Mercian Register says: “In this year also the daughter of Æthelred, lord of the Mercians, was deprived of all power in Mercia, and conveyed into Wessex, three weeks before Midwinter. She was called Ælfwynn.” Edward assumed direct control of Mercia.