10 English Reconquest

aethelflaedThe story of a brother and a sister – edward-the-elderÆthelflæd and Edward, and their bid to reclaim the lands of the Danelaw, the north and east of England being settled by the Danes. The map below gives an idea of the Danish kingdoms. Northumbria (marked on the map as the Kingdom of York) had it’s own problems with migration of Norse from Ireland. Throughout Mercia, you can see on the map the chain of Burghs Æthelflæd and Edward built.

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Last time we got to the end of Alfred, which brings us to the 10th Century, which is surely on of the most forgotten period of English history, though I confess that I‘m not sure how you measure these things. But it’s odd, because this is the time when England is finally formed. And another thing, why is it that Edward the Elder, the King we are going to talk about today, doesn’t warrant a number? He quite clearly should be Edward 1st…so what’s that all about? I have sought answers – there are effectively none, though there are plenty of attempts.

But before we launch into all the monarchs and all the death and destruction, blood and sweat and all that, why don’t we settle back and think a bit about what’s been going on in the conquered lands, the region that would become known as Danelaw. We have the same question as we had all those centuries ago when the Angles, Saxons and Jutes came to visit; what was the depth of settlement? Are we talking genocide, or merely a change in culture from the top down? And in fact was there a new culture –  sort of Anglo Scandinavian society?

In trying to answer the question, we have all the same tiresome old problems we had last time round. The types of data to be used are very similar – place name evidence, burials, settlement archaeology, genetics. And the type of limitations are exactly the same; such as culture doesn’t define ethnicity – meaning that an Angle might well adopt the dress and habits of his or her Scandinavian boss. And genetic analyses are pretty difficult to fit into a chronology – you might identify different DNA groups, but you don’t know when they happened.

However, what becomes reasonably clear is the complexity of the mix and all that. By and large, Danes were the largest single grouping within the Viking invasions; but heterogenous they were not. S for example, do you remember the dramatic burials at the ancient home of Mercia at Repton? There were 3 high status burials slap bang in the middle of the new Viking enclosure, in addition to the maybe it’s Ivar complex., 2 appear to be Danish, 1 appears to be Swedish. I don’t think I’ve mentioned a Swede in England once – so you take my point – we are talking Norwegians, Danes Swedes, and who know if there aren’t a few Frisians and Franks; and what about Irish Norwegiany types? It’s complicated.

Secondly then what also becomes clear is that, partly because of that, what we have is something new. It’s not Denmark transported over the North Sea to England, there is a new, Anglo Scandie society forming. Clean lines, wood laminated flooring, large, flat pack furniture stores, that sort of thing

Politically, there are also similarities with the Anglo Saxon settlement – i.e. it’s chaos. Like the formation of planets from cosmic clouds of dust, we saw the chaos of the original settlement begin slowly to form into something more coherent, onto which we imposed the name Heptarchy; the Anglo Scandinavians are going to have less time to allow that to happen, because the West Saxons are coming to get them.

But there is something of the original cosmic chaos. It might be that there is some order in there we can’t see – we just don’t have the information, just a bunch of names for the most part. Coins are issued, with a vast number of rulers’ names. Which is interesting; so clearly not terribly coherent or unified politically, but on the other hand the business of issuing coins goes on – though this doesn’t appear to be the case in East Anglia.

The tempting conclusion is that political control was, as in early AS days, very loose. That individual war leaders, like those original Saxon Warbands, settled down with the land and lordships they’d won, and started to settle down. The ASC puts it like this when Halfdan finally gave up trying to beat up Wessex and went home; Halfdan it says:

Shared out the land of the Northumbrians and they proceeded to plough and support themselves

It’s hardly definitive, but it sounds like sharing out a bunch of land between broadly equals to make their own way. Having said that, some of the faultlines of the old Anglo Saxon structure appears to be adopted. So broadly what you end up looks a bit like this, accepting that it’s a description which probably gives a far to coherent feel for what really happened on the ground.

The Anglo Scandie part of the country is broadly speaking divided into 3 regions. The oldest and furthest north is the Kingdom of Northumbria, centred on Eoforwic – i.e. York; and there seems therefore to still be that basic separation of South and Northumbrians. However, don’t forget Bernicia, the ancient kingdom centred on Bamborough, which is still Anglo Saxon would you believe.

Then you have East Anglia which also appears to have a King; Eohric after Guthrum but for the most part obscure, if it even had any coherent single political leadership. This is the problem of accepting the previous set up as the template. Because where East Anglia ends and the 3rd broad area starts is anyone’s guess, which is the midlands. There are a number of independent settlements in the southern and south eastern midlands, including what become called the 5 boroughs, centre on 5 towns. These are Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, Stamford and Derby. So in summary, it’s a bit of a mess – it really needs a map, so go and look at the resources on the website, where a map is duly provided.

My message is though, that it is highly likely that the real political map would look a good deal more complicated – a shifting pattern of lordships and allegiances.

When it comes to thinking about where the Anglo Scandinavians settled, the biggest set of data is in place names. And secretly, of course it is the most fun, but that’s just me. When it comes to using place name evidence, there are some complications which need to be dealt with; one particular one is that estates get split up and very fragmented in the later 10th century, which muddies the waters. Another is the timing of the reconquest we are about to hear about – the earlier than happens the less likely it is that the old Scandinavian name will have survived. So the southern areas of Danelaw for example, are recaptured much earlier – and surprise surprise, there are very few Scandinavian place names there.

I can’t remember how much we went into it, but there are distinctive suffixes in Old English and Scandinavian which give an idea of the kind of settlement. So for example -tun on the end of a word is an old English generic suffix which means settlement. The Scandinavian equivalent is words which end in by, B-Y, which means a settlement, and usually a primary settlement. You find place names all over the north of England which end in by – Kirby Stephen, just for example. Another very common generic suffix is -thorpe – from a Scandinavian word meaning a secondary, outlying settlement – so, the fine town of Grimesthorpe, for example. So these place names give an indication of the breadth of Scandianvian settlement. And what you see is a pretty dense occurrence of these kind of place names in the East Midlands, eastern England and the North East. You get a very significant density in East Anglia; and a reasonable level in the North West. They give a pretty clear indication that the level of migration was at least significant.

One interesting wrinkle is something called the Grimston Hybrid. What happens there is that you get Old English and Scandinavian words combining. The theory is that these give a glimpse of the timing of the Scandinavian settlement; the hybrid placenames indicate the earlier settlement, where the higher grade agricultural land is taken over by the invaders. Where placenames are more purely Scandinavian, the theory runs these are due to later expansion.

So place names tell us that something significant certainly went on; when combined with the rather troublesome DNA data, this is very much confirmed. It even appears that in some places, the impact of the Scandinavian invasion may have had more impact than the original Anglo Saxon one. But they don’t really tell us much about what the society was like, or about genocide vs assimilation argument.

On that front, the similarities between the original AS migrations and this new phase seem striking – firstly the difficulty of interpreting the data, which often seems to conflict. But what is clear is that there is a re-assertion of pagan burial practices in some places; though equally there are far fewer obviously Scandinavian burial sites than Anglo Saxon. There is some evidence in artefacts – in jewelry and decorative motifs; that there is a combination of Anglo Saxon and Scandinavian styles. This suggests that the new society was not just the imposition of a new aristocracy with its own culture; it speaks of a process of assimilation. Where the Anglo Saxon population for sure took up many of the practices and styles of their new masters but the new landowners also adopted Anglo Saxon culture as well – to create something new. I came across one of these in the aforementioned Kirky Stephen, after recovering from the first half of the Coast to Coast walk with my son. In the church we found a Loki Stone. It’s a carving of the devil – using the form of Loki as the devil. In survivals like this there’s evidence of the existing, Christian population representing their culture in a form that the new arrivals would understand.

The long and short of all of this is that it’s impossible to be hard and fast, but the evidence points pretty clearly to assimilation not genocide; but that the migration was significant in number, and certainly shows DNA links with Scandinavia; and that in the North and East, there was the creation of a distinctive Anglo Scandinavian culture.

Okally Dokally. So let us return to the politics; and to the new king of Wessex, Alfred’s eldest son, Edward. Edward’s experience would have been forged in an atmosphere of impending disaster and the threat of Wessex’s extinction, and this does appear to have formed his thinking, because his reign, and those of his sons Athelstan and Edmund, were dominated by the reclamation of the older English kingdoms, and the creation of the new political institution of England.

Edward’s reign did not start easily though.  To explain why, I need to take you back a bit. You’ll remember that in 871, Wessex was on the brink of disaster, under constant assault from the Great Heathen Army. On the death of Athelred I, the Witan, or council of leading men, had 2 choices; they could make the King’s 3 year old son, Athelwold, king; or they could make 22 year old Alfred, brother to the King, victor of the battle of Ashdown, King.

Hhmm, tricky.

So of course they chose Alfred; and indeed as we’ve seen, the concept of primogeniture is not part of AS government – any royal prince had a perfectly legitimate right.

So obviously, this was a good decision at the time, and the rest off Alfred’s reign is history . . . But it came back to bite them on the AS bum in 899. Alfred had 5 children. The eldest was Athelflaed, who was married to Earldorman Athelred of Mercia, and of whom we’ll hear more. Then there was Edward, who now fully expected to be King. And then Aethelgifu, Aethelfrith and Athelweard, who need not trouble us much.

On the death of Alfred, Edward was declared King, according to the ASC.  But Aethelwold was not happy with the idea, and there’s no doubt he had a reasonable claim. He’d been passed over once, he did not want to be passed over again. So Aethelwold set up his standard at Wimborne, which is very close to the South coast in Dorset. The relevance of Wimborne was not only that it is in the Wessex heartland, but also that is was the site of the death and burial of his father, Athelred. Aethelwold hoped that thegns and men would support his claim, and clearly had a group of supported with him – but not enough more did come. Edward occupied the nearby ancient iron age fort, Badbury Rings, and sat and waited.

Aethelwold knew he didn’t have the grunt to take Edward on – and legged it. There’s an odd reference to a nun that he had captured, and who was then left behind – I’m sure there’s a good story there if we did but know it. Thus far, thus reasonable really – you can’t really blame Athelwold for having a go, in a way we‘ve seen throughout Wessex‘s history; Edward was not consecrated king until 8th June next year, so the affair hardly even registers as a rebellion.

But Aethelwold didn’t stop there, and was to earn himself the bitterly-bestowed name of ‘King of the Pagans’. Because Aethelwold fled to the Danes of Northumbria, and set up shop with them. According to one version of the ASC he is accepted by them as their King; but more likely this is ‘accepted as a King’, since the Danes were given to giving the title of King to all sorts.  So here was a king of the West Saxons teaming up with the arch enemy – I leave you to imagine how this would have gone down with the West Saxons.

2 years later, in 901, Athelwold was back with a fleet of his Danish friends, and he appeared in Essex, just as the Danes had in their last campaign. We know nothing else of what he did that year, but in 902 he managed to persuade Eohric, Guthrum’s successor as King of East Anglia, to undertake a raid into northern Wessex. There they found as Hasten had done 10 years ago, that Alfred’s Burgh system stopped them from taking towns, but they were able to ravage away in traditional Viking fashion.

Edward now showed that understood that the relationship between Danes and English had changed in another way; for rather than simply react to the raid and seek to throw them out, he organised his own attack deep into East Anglian territory. Because now the Danes had their own property to defend; now the WS did not have to sit back and watch while he Danes took the initiative.

The Danes were forced to react, and turned to defend their homes. Edward seemed to be content with what he achieved, and he ordered the retreat back to Wessex.  But the fyrd of Kent disobeyed, eager to revenge the beatings they’d taken before at the hands of the Danes. At the resulting battle of the Holme, the Danes defeated the Kentishmen. But they paid a heavy price, with the death of Eohric and of Aethelwold himself. So despite a nominal victory the real winner was without doubt Edward, who was now the undisputed King.

We know very little of the next 7 years, which led up to the launch in 909 of the campaign to bring the Danish kingdoms of England into West Saxon hands. It might be worth a quick recap of the state of play at the time, and the issues that drove Edward’s strategy. So broadly, England was split into two – the northern half was Danish, with a line from London to the Mersey splitting old Mercia in two. The Southern, including London, is English. There are exceptions to this and other factors. The Welsh are also an active part of the political soup; and there remains an English kingdom in then far north, centred on Bamburgh.

One of the stories of the Anglo Saxon reconquest is that of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great; of the delicate balance between Wessex and Mercia, and the vision Edward had inherited from his father of a united land of the English.

As we heard previously, the last king of Mercia, Coelwulf, had died, maybe in 881. He had been succeeded by Aethelred, a man of whose background we know little; but who had been a good ally to Alfred. Somewhere around 890, Alfred demonstrated his confidence in Aethelred by giving him his daughter Aethelflaed in marriage; we don’t know her age, but it’s probable that she was around 20 years old. Her new husband must have been considerably older than she.

The standard story, as reflected in the Anglo Saxon chronicle is about Edward, to be known to history as Edward the Elder. Given that the ASC was written for the glorification of the West Saxons, their story is one of Edward’s glory and leadership, and Mercian support – and subservience. It is a story that has stuck – but which in more recent years has begun to be unpicked rather more, and a new story emerges; of a proud kingdom in Mercia that aspires to retain its independence and proud history; of a great leader in Aetheflaed who may well have come to share their aspiration in favour of her father’s vision, and who certainly felt no need to be her brother Edward’s servant. And of a powerful dominant Wessex determined to lead the new England, which had no role for a king of Mercia. We are helped in this by the survival of a chronicle called the Mercian Register, otherwise known as the Annals of Æthelflæd. Mostly, this has been destroyed; but fragments of it have survived incorporated into versions of the ASC. Almost uniquely then, these fragments take a Mercian view, rather than that of the West Saxons.

Aethelred’s attitude is difficult to fathom since there is so little information. There is the odd reference to him as king of the Mercians; but generally he is referred to only with the title of Lord of the Mercians. But despite his affinity with Alfred and then Edward, we do know that he was careful to rule in Mercia at the head of a Mercian court and Witan; that under his leadership and that of his wife, the city of Gloucester was re developed and rebuilt as a kind of new Mercian capital. In particular, they built a new abbey church which was a major centre of their patronage. This could of course all be the normal business of a lord and his people – but the likelihood is that Aethelred fostered and at least pandered to the independent pride of his thegns. But eitherway, and some point in the early 9-naughties, maybe 902, Aethelred fell ill; and effective leadership fell to his wife, Æthelflæd.

Æthelflæd’s leadership after 902 and up to the death of her husband in 911 is quite remarkable. There really almost no template for a woman as the head of state in Anglo Saxon England; and yet that is what in practice Æthelflæd became, as the Lady of the Mercians, as she later became known. Now maybe the convenient fiction was that she ruled in her husband’s name, but still her leadership was accepted in Mercia.

So as Edward and his sister Aethelflaed faced their task in 909, they would probably faced it with some confidence. There is no doubt that the energy and dynamism of the Viking invasions had dissipated somewhat, as the Vikings turned to settle. There was very limited no unity of purpose between the different Danish Kingdoms, although on occasion they would support each other and work together. Northumbria was the fulcrum. It was there that the oldest and richest Danish Kingdoms existed, and until Northumbria was English the conquest would not be complete. And finally, they would reflect on the success of Alfred’s burghal system; the use of the burghs to defend and consolidate land regained; but they would also begin to see the potential of the burghs as a place from which to launch invasion – as an offensive measure. The early focus in these years of the reconquest of the Danelaw was on the extension of the system of Burgh’s Alfred had started into Mercia; for example,  Æthelflæd built a burghs at a lost location called ‘bremesbugh’ and at Worcester early in the 900’s.

Edward and Æthelflæd during this time also appeared to have been pursuing a more subtle road to reconquest rather than the all out war that would follow; there are references to peace agreements Edward makes with the Danes; a suggestion that Edward encouraged his thegns to buy land in the Danelaw; maybe this was a precursor to a more aggressive approach – a way of gaining local influence behind the line.

In 909, hostilities opened, with a major Anglo Saxon raid into Northumbria; the objective doesn’t appear at this point to have been conquest and settlement, more to destabilise, make the Danish lords question the power of their king to protect them. But one of the objectives appears to have been to take the bones of the revered royal saint Northumbrian, St Oswald from the monastery at Bardney in Lincolnshire; in which objective the raid was successful. And with great ceremony, it was to Gloucester that Æthelflæd took the bones, and in her new minster that they were laid. Which suggest that maybe it was Æthelflæd who had ordered or led this raid.

The following year, Edward and Æthelflæd may well been planning an invasion by sea, since we know that he was in Kent, collating a fleet from all parts of Wessex. But they were forestalled. The Danish kings of Northumbria combined forces and attacked into Mercia, using ships to transport their army into the heart of Mercia, via the River Severn; they expected a slow response from the English, given that Edward was in Kent and his army on board ship. But Edward moved quickly, and his army first cut off the Danish invaders from their fleet, forcing them to retreat northwards, heading for home.

But again it was Æthelflæd and the Mercians who appear to made the decisive intervention. On 5th August, the Danes were caught and bought to battle at Tettenhall in the West Midlands by the Mercian and Wessex army, described as a place called Wednesfeld, Woden’s field. At the resulting battle 3 Danish kings were cut down and numerous leaders killed.  Strategically Æthelflæd had achieved an utterly crucial victory. Danish Northumbria had been the centre, the leader of Danelaw. She never recovered from this defeat; while the Danidsh kingdom of Northumbria would survive for many years, and an offensive supporter of the East Anglian Danes and Danes of the 5 counties Northumbria was a spent force – the southern Danish Kingdoms were on their own.

In 911, Aethelred finally gave up the ghost. There can be little doubt about what would have been expected to happen. Whatever the realities of the situation, Æthelflæd’s rule surely depended on the legal and traditional basis of her husband’s authority; with that taken away, no woman would be able to maintain her position. With no clear succession, this was surely Edward’s moment; Æthelflæd and Aethelred’s only child was a girl Aelwynn. What happened next is in its way as remarkable event as any in English history – it was Æthelflæd that became the undisputed leader of Mercia.

Now it’s complicated. You could look at this more than one way; you could say this was a family deal – the House of Wessex carving things up, no need to rock the boat. Or you could argue that there has to be something going on here – the charisma of Æthelflæd, the leader who had p[roved her worth, who had called her thegns and Earldormen in her letters and communications her ‘friends’, who had proved her piety and right to rule – and in any case was the only thing standing between Mercia and effectively extinction as an independent political force. Ether way, the result was extraordinary – Æthelflæd from this point is referred to as Myrcna hlæfdige, the Lady of the Mercians – just as Aethelred had been Myrcna hlaford, Lord of the Mercians.

Whatever the reasons for Æthelflæd’s triumph, there does seem to have been some kind of deal involved; Edward gained direct control over Oxford and London; but although a heavy price, it was maybe not an unreasonable price for Æthelflæd and the ealdormen and thegns of Mercia to pay for independence.

912 to 917 is a story of advance and the slow garrotting of the southern Danish kingdoms. Whatever Æthelflæd’s attitude towards her brother, there’s ample evidence that they cooperated very closely. The years saw a combination of raiding and burgh building, creating an iron girdle to squeeze the life from the Danish kingdoms. In 912, Æthelflæd had burhs built to prevent crossings of the Severn. At the same time, Edward constructed two at Hertford to protect southern Mercia, and one at Witham in Essex. In 913 Æthelflæd fortified Tamworth and Stafford to create obstacles for Danish raiding parties into Wessex as well as Mercia; and then together Wessex and Mercia created a chain in 913 in 914, when Edward had two burhs built at Buckingham, and Æthelflæd one at Warwick. With burhs at Eddisbury, Wirral, Runcorn and Chirbury, Æthelflæd consolidated her grip in the north of Mercia, while Edward built in Bedford, and protected Essex from seaborne attack with a burh at Maldon.

While Edward slowly built the pressure on East Anglia, Æthelflæd was also leading Mercian  armies into Danelaw and against the Welsh, and fortifying her existing Mercian town – Hereford and Gloucester in particular. Together, Æthelflæd and Edward’s advance follows a very clear pattern of fortress building to both form a base for operations, to further secure Wessex and Mercia from attack. Æthelflæd was also occupied elsewhere; in 916 she, launched a raid into the welsh kingdom of Brycheiniog, in outraged response for the murder of a Mercian Abbot, capturing the wife of the Welsh King in the process.

In a way though you might say that Æthelflæd and Edward’s progress had been slow. After 5 years of fighting, all they had to show for it was a few fortresses and the one Danish Lordship of Bedfordshire. But 917 was to be decisive. The campaign started with Edward’s attack on a powerful Danish lordship in the midlands, in the 5 boroughs, by taking the town of Towcester, and building a fortress further into Danish territory at a place called Wigingamere. The war at this point became general; the Danish armies of Northampton and Leicester combined and attacked Towcester, without success, and then expended their frustration on pointless raiding to the south of the town. They then tried again, attacking the English fortress at Wigingamere, but again without success. Meanwhile, the Danish armies of Huntingdon and East Anglia invaded Bedfordshire, and built a fortress at Tempsford for forward operations. They then attacked Bedford, but were driven off by the English garrison. The English then attacked the new Danish fortress at Tempsford with complete success – killing all the defenders and, crucially, the Danish King of East Anglia.

But it was Æthelflæd who made the first big breakthrough, and it came at one of the 5 boroughs; though to be honest, Æthelflæd’s success will have owed much also to Edward’s activity further south. The centre of one of the Danish 5 boroughs was at Derby; and quite probably, the Vikings main military centre there was at an old Roman fort of Derventio. While the town was denuded of defenders, away helping the war effort against Edward, Æthelflæd send an army to attack Derby. The attack was a complete success; though an echo of sadness and regret reaches us from Æthelflæd through Annals of Æthelflæd; it notes that she lost ‘four of her thegns, who were dear to her’. I may be reading too much into it, but together with the way she called her thegns her friends, the regret at the loss of her leaders in the battle at Derby; there’s an echo of the charisma that must have been part of her extraordinary success.

With increasing desperation, the Danes made one more attack by land and sea against the English Fortress at Maldon. Their defeat signalled the end of their offensive operations, and attempt to break out of the ring of English fortresses. In the early Autumn, Thurferth, the Danish Earl of Northampton had had enough, and submitted to Edward – and so another lordship was absorbed, to be swiftly followed by the fall of Huntingdon. The pack of cards was now falling. Edward captured Colchester and build a fortress there, in preparation for an assault on the lordship of Cambridge and Kingdom of East Anglia. But the Danes were finished, and both submitted to Edward’s authority before the end of the year.

So, by the start of 918, the tide of the war had turned decisively in favour of the English. South of the Humber, 4 boroughs remained to the Danes – Leicester, Stamford, Nottingham and Lincoln. Leicester was the first to go, without any fighting when they submitted to Æthelflæd. Meanwhile, Edward moved against Stamford, and again the Danes submitted without a fight.

There may have been one further triumph for Æthelflæd. There is a story, from a later and slightly dodgy source, but corroborated to an extent by the annals of Æthelflæd, that in this year Æthelflæd’s Mercians also fought against the Viking king in Northumbria, Raegnald. I probably need to explain this a bit – so let’s back up a small step…

While all this was going on, Northumbria was undergoing major changes. Since the early years of the century, it seems that the Scandinavian settlers of Ireland were arriving in some numbers on the North Western coast of England, and causing major issues for the Danish kingdom. At the same time, the Kingdom of Strathclyde probably took back the land between the Solway firth and Penrith, which had always been part of the English Northumbrian kingdom.

The threat from the Norse raiders intensified with the arrival of a viking called Raegnald. Ragnald was one of the most powerful Norse ruler of the period, as overlord of the Irish sea area from the Hebrides, Isle of Man and Waterford. Cast your mind back a few episodes to the leader of the Great Heathen Army, Ivarr the Boneless. After taking part in the English invasions of the GHA, Ivarr had gone to Ireland, and before he had died had founded the Ua Imair dynasty of which Ragnald was part – Ivar’s grandson in fact.

Ragnald first appears in England 913 or 915, attacking the English kingdom of Bernicia, which is the surviving English Kingdom in the far North East, centred on the great fortress at Bamburgh. Bamburgh was ruled by a man called Ealdred, who held the title of High Reeve. The attack was not a surprise to Ealdred, who was joined by the Scottish King, Constantin. It is to this battle that Æthelflæd probably sent an army as part of an agreement with Scots and Picts as well as Bamborough. But despite her help, it was Ragnald that won the day at Corbridge.

However, the very defeat opened a great opportunity for Æthelflæd; because York asked for her help and agreed to submit to her. This was an enormous opportunity, a success that would rival anything her brother achieved in East Anglia and the Midlands.

But sadly, Æthelflæd was out of time; because on June 12 918, she died at the ancient capital of Mercia, Tamworth. Her death again brings up the central question – were Æthelflæd and Edward working together to the greater glory of Wessex; or had Æthelflæd effectively thrown in her lot with Mercia, and sought from beyond the grave to keep Mercian independence alive?

The bald facts are that for a few short months in 918 it appears that Alfwynn assumed the leadership of Mercia. Alfwynn was Æthelflæd and Aethelred’s only child, a woman of probably about 30 at the time. It was not until 919 that Edward forcibly removed Alfwynn to a nunnery, and no more is heard of her, Edward became the direct ruler of Mercia, and Mercian autonomy was dead forever.

It is impossible to know if Æthelflæd had worked actively for Mercian independence. On the one hand, she very clearly stands against her brother on Aethelred’s death; it is possible that she had Aelfwynn accepted by the Mercian lords as her successor before she died. And She built Gloucester as a new capital of Mercia, a new symbol of her personal and Mercian power – and indeed she was buried at the new church she’d founded alongside her husband.

But on the other hand; Æthelflæd clearly worked tirelessly with Edward to fight against the Danes. Actually, it’s an impressive relationship; how easy it would have been for the two to have squabbled over the body of Mercia, leaving the Danes free. But they continued to work together. Also, Edward’s first son, Aethelstan was sent to Æthelflæd to be looked after and was brought up there; it again speaks of collaboration, not conflict. In this scenario, Aelfwynn could very easily have been a pawn of the Mercian Earldormen and thegns, eager to retain their independence.

Either way, it was not to be. Alfwynn and Mercia were not strong enough to resist Edward and the West Saxons; and in 919, the long history of an independent Mercia came to an end. Edward the Elder also received the submission of the Welsh princes as well; it’s not clear exactly why this is, but it may have something to do with the pressure on them from the Norse in Ireland.




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