By Alex Burghart
BBC History Magazine (July 2011)
Introduction: Anglo-Saxon history is full of forgotten heroes. This year marks the 1100th anniversary of the accession of one of the most forgotten and, in some ways, one of the most remarkable. In 911, Æthelflæd, daughter of King Alfred the Great (871-99), succeeded her husband, Æthelred, as ruler of the midland realm of Mercia. In doing so she became one of the only Anglo-Saxon women to rule in her ownright, and a key player in the period that would shape the formation of England.
Rarely has British politics been so turbulent as it was in the late ninth and early tenth centuries. In 866 a huge Danish force had landed in eastern England and started, systematically, to occupy regions and kill kings. By 877 roughly all the territories to the east of Watling Street – the kingdoms of Essex and East Anglia, East Mercia (the east Midlands), Lindsey (Lincolnshire) and Northumbria – lay in Danish hands. Nor were they the only hostile power. From early in the ninth century Norse Vikings (from Norway and no friends to the Danes) had established bases in Ireland and were using them as springboards to launch forays on mainland Britain, attacking and sometimes allying themselves with the Welsh kingdoms. Anglo-Saxon England appeared to be on the brink of becoming Anglo-Scandinavian England.
It was under these pressures – and others from the Welsh kingdoms to the west – that, in about 879, Æthelred, the new leader of the remaining Mercians, chose to submit to King Alfred of Wessex. Asser, Alfred’s biographer, says that Æthelred agreed ‘that in every respect he would be obedient to the royal will’, and it seems that he was as good as his word. In our sources, Æthelred is never called ‘king’ only ‘ealdorman’ or ‘lord’ – there was to be one king: Alfred, and it is his name alone which appears on the royal charters and coins of the time.
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