Annie Whitehead and Helen Hollick are two amazing historians and authors, so I was thrilled when Annie told me about their joint blog tour. Saxon England may be a little distant for some of my readers, but, trust me, it's worth the trip!
A Guest Post by Annie Whitehead
I’m delighted to be Samantha’s guest today as part of the Stepping Back into Saxon England tour with Helen Hollick. Recently I was talking to someone about the enduring popularity of the Tudors and why it should be so. I think the fascination is partly to do with two things: a king executing his queens is unique in English history, and women succeeding women to the throne is something which had never happened before and has not happened since, unless you count Anne’s succeeding William and Mary.
Well, I say it hadn’t happened before. It did, once, albeit briefly.
I’ve written a great deal about Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, in my novel To Be A Queen, and both my nonfiction books, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom and Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. She was the daughter of Alfred the Great, and she was born at a time when ‘Viking’ incursions were not only a major nuisance, but had already seen two kingdoms - East Anglia and Northumbria - fall pretty much permanently under Danish control. Only the very top part of Northumbria, some of Mercia and the whole of Wessex were still under English rule. Alfred, and later his son, Edward, began working alongside Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians and, when a concerted joint effort pushed the invaders out of London, the alliance was sealed by the marriage of Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd to Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians.
We don’t have much information for the early years of their marriage, except the details of the continuing campaign against the Danes. Around the year 902, however, the chronicles stop mentioning Æthelred’s name and the Irish annals make it clear that he was suffering from some kind of illness, which prevented him from fighting but did not stop him giving strategic advice to his wife. This gives me the impression that by this stage, this was one amazing power couple, happy to support and protect each other - she looking after him while he was ill and he being happy to delegate to a ‘mere’ woman.
History records - and yes, it’s a bit of a spoiler - that after this protracted illness she ended up ruling alone. That’s also worth a moment’s pause. Only once before had a woman ruled an English kingdom, and it didn’t end well. Seaxburh, queen of Wessex, was the only Anglo-Saxon woman to be included on a regnal list. She ruled for somewhere between one and two years in the seventh century but as a later chronicler said, the men of the kingdom would not go to war under the leadership of a woman. I think ‘war’ is the clue here. It’s likely that she was actually ruling as regent for her son during a time of conflict over the succession. At any rate, her rule was not long, and was not successful.
Æthelflæd, on the other hand, ruled Mercia for seven years on her own and in that time she worked in partnership with her brother Edward to wrest occupied Mercia out of Danish hands, building defensive towns called burhs, and famously taking Derby with her troops and losing in the fighting ‘four thegns who were dear to her.’ Derby was one of the strategically important ‘Five Boroughs’ of the Danelaw (the other four being Lincoln, Stamford, Nottingham and Leicester). By the time she died at Tamworth, their work was almost done.
From beyond the grave though, she pulled off another remarkable feat. Her daughter Ælfwynn succeeded her.
We know virtually nothing of Ælfwynn’s life, not even her year of birth, but we do know that she witnessed a charter of her mother’s, issued at Weardbyrig (unidentified but possibly in Shropshire) in 915, when Æthelflæd was in the midst of her intense burh-building programme. Even if Ælfwynn had been born late in the marriage – and it seems unlikely that she would have been conceived after her father fell ill in around 902 – she probably wouldn’t have been on campaign with her mother if she was still tiny. Most likely she was a young adult at the very least. Given that it would have been far safer for her to remain in the Mercian heartland, there could well have been a specific reason for her presence at Weardbyrig, that of watching and learning from her mother, with the intention that one day she would take over.
But if she was already a young woman, why had she remained unmarried? Again, I think it might be because she was being groomed to take over the country and keep it in Mercian hands. It’s said that her mother raised the future King Athelstan in Mercia but she clearly didn’t consider him her heir and, when she died, the Mercian council declared for Ælfwynn. We know this because, like Seaxburh all those years ago, her tenure was short-lived. Her uncle Edward, who’d been happy for his sister to rule, wasn’t so accommodating when it came to her daughter and according to the annal known as the Mercian Register, she was ‘deprived of all authority’. Thus they clearly believed that she was rightful ruler.
We don’t know what happened to her after that, other than that she was probably taken into Wessex. A later charter speaks of a holy woman called Ælfwynn, but there is no proof at all that this was the same woman. Like so many before and after, she simply disappeared off the pages of history.
But we should not overlook that very important point. In Mercia in 918 a remarkable thing happened: a woman ruler was succeeded by a woman ruler. This would not happen again until the time of the Tudors.
About the Author:
Annie has written three novels set in Anglo-Saxon England. To Be A Queen tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. Alvar the Kingmaker is set in the turbulent tenth century where deaths of kings and civil war dictated politics, while Cometh the Hour tells the story of Penda, the pagan king of Mercia. All have received IndieBRAG Gold Medallions and Chill with a Book awards. To Be A Queen was longlisted for HNS Indie Book of the Year and was an IAN Finalist. Alvar the Kingmaker was Chill Books Book of the Month while Cometh the Hour was a Discovering Diamonds Book of the Month.
As well as being involved in 1066 Turned Upside Down, Annie has also had two nonfiction books published. Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (Amberley Books) will be published in paperback edition on October 15th, 2020, while her most recent release, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England (Pen & Sword Books) is available in hardback and e-book.
Annie was the inaugural winner of the Dorothy Dunnett/HWA Short Story Competition 2017.