At the base of Tamworth Castle can be seen the statue of an armed woman protectively holding a child. The child is Athelstan but the woman is not his mother. Her name is Aethelflaed (Æthelflæd), and she was one of the greatest warrior-leaders in Anglo-Saxon history.
The daughter and eldest child of Alfred the Great, Aethelflaed was born around 870. At her father’s instigation, she was married to Aethelred, Earldorman of Mercia. Her brother, Edward the Elder, sent his son, Athelstan, to be brought up in their court. When Aethelred led a series of military campaigns to take Mercian lands back from the Danes (who at that time occupied half of England, known as the Danelaw), it is likely that his wife was behind the successful strategy.
After Aethelred’s death in 911 (after a long period of ill health), Aethelflaed became known as Myrcna hlæfdige, the “Lady of the Mercians”. She became the ruler of Mercia (albeit under West Saxon overlordship) and led its army. She immediately formed a partnership with her brother, the King of Wessex, the two siblings sharing a vision of a free and united England. It was this partnership that would underpin the successful reconquest of the Danelaw.
After repairing the defences of Chester, she planned and built a series of new fortresses to guard against the Danes. These included Stafford, Bridgnorth, Warwick and Tamworth. The castles at Tamworth and Warwick that can be seen today are later constructions, but are built on the sites that Aethelflaed first fortified. From this network of fortifications, and in conjunction with the West Saxon forces led by her brother, she was able to launch a Mercian fight-back against the Danes.
Between them, Aethelflaed and Edward began to drive the Danes out of the South and the Midlands. Aethelflaed led a series of campaigns into Wales too, in 916-17, and many Welsh kingdoms came to acknowledge Mercian rule at this time. She moved north to retake Derby and Leicester in 918 before advancing as far as the River Humber. The city of York pledged allegiance to her but she died in Tamworth that same year. The cause of her death is unknown.
Though Aethelflaed was succeeded by her daughter and only child, Aelfwynn, the girl was soon deposed by Edward, who took Mercia under his personal control. Athelstan would eventually succeed his aunt and his father to become the first king of all England, building on the herculean work that they had done.
Written for Sheroes of History by Mark Furnival. Mark has a lifelong passion for history, with Early Mediaeval Britain being a particular interest. He lives in the UK where, in his spare time, he writes fantasy and gothic fiction.
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Why not visit Tamworth Castle yourself and see Aethelflaed’s statue?
Here’s a handy timeline of Aethelflaed’s life.
Watch this short video which is a dramatisation of part of Aethelflaed’s life: