Why is Æthelflæd, King Alfred’s daughter, such an exceptional Anglo-Saxon woman?
Women played significant roles in Anglo-Saxon society. Females had more power during Æthelflæd’s time than they would enjoy in the later medieval period after the Norman conquest. They were considered to be full members of the state and their rights were protected by law. They were ‘oath worthy’ so they could bear witness to agreements. Even an unmarried girl could conduct business in her own right, and they could refuse to marry someone they disliked. Women were considered to be heads of households and could own land in their own right and bequeath it in their will. Some rose to prominent positions, like Æthelflæd’s mother and sister, who became heads of religious establishments as Abbesses.
However, political and military power was very much the domain of the men in Anglo-Saxon society. According to King Alfred’s biographer, Asser, women were deliberately excluded from the highest echelon of power because of an unattributed bad experience:
“West Saxons do not allow a queen to sit beside the king, nor to be called a queen, but only the king’s wife [because of] a certain obstinate and malevolent queen [from Mercia], who did everything she could against her lord and whole people.”
The key political role for a high-born woman was as ‘peace weaver’ or deal maker though marriage to a neighbouring leader. Ealhswith, Æthelflæd’s mother, was sent by the royal family of Mercia to marry a young ætheling, Alfred of Wessex, to cement an alliance between the two states. Æthelflæd was herself sent for the same reason in the opposite direction, and as a tender teenager married a much older warlord, Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians.
We might have heard little more of her, had these been normal times. But circumstances thrust her into a position of political power. Æthelflæd became a war-leader and a town-builder, the only time that an Anglo-Saxon woman played such a role. Historians now recognise that she played a vital role in the creation of an independent England. As a young wife of a Mercian lord, she was active in government and helped hold together the alliance that was crucial to her father’s success. When her husband became ill, she increasingly took on more responsibility in leading Mercia. Find out more about how she used her position to play a crucial part in the counterattack against the Danes who controlled much of Mercia and how that laid the foundations for the first king of all England within a decade of her death.