Friday Giant 4: Island Girl(s)

Editor’s Note: this post in part is a celebration of Yule tomorrow, and in part of my returning to regular internet access after a six-month involuntary detox. That’s also why it’s a little longer than average. Regular service on this blog will resume in the new year. Have a happy holidaymass, everybody.

Princess of Wessex

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

Anyone with a passing familiarity with the British Isles has heard of Æthelflæd’s father. Alfredus Magnus, Ælfred the Great, pious scholar, cunning warrior, and skilful statesman. He’s mostly famous for founding the Royal Navy and being a really bad cook. Oh yeah, and uniting the Saxons and the English to kick the Danes back out of the country. Or at least, that’s the Ladybird version. [1] If one is broadly familiar with early medieval history one might know that Alfred died of chronic malaria and religious exhaustion with the job only half done. Mercia was an ally but the Anglias and the Kingdom of York were in vigorous Danish hands, and Strathclyde was a Welsh kingdom hungry for more land. Northumberland was stuck on his rock at Bamburgh and couldn’t do much. At this point Edward, King of Wessex steps into the limelight of history. He is credited with leading an alliance between Mercia, Wessex and, as liberated, the Anglias which ended the Danish kingdoms in England (for a hundred years or so, anyway). The campaign is relatively well-documented, and by all accounts Edward was both a talented soldier and a brave one, being at least as good a warrior as he was a general. Alfred and Edward between them created one of the defining cultural myths which allowed the modern English to come into existence.

What is largely invisible from this narrative is the role played by Edward’s sister. His steadfast ally, Æthelred Ealdorman of the remaining English Mercians, who covered the western flank while Edward rampaged up the east coast, was so steadfast in large part because he was married to Æthelflæd. And he was also dead from the second year of the actual campaign.

Trained by his father, Edward was a methodical and careful planner. It took the West Saxons and the West Mercians nearly ten years to adequately prepare for a campaign to recapture the rest of Mercia and the Anglias. Æthelred and Edward work effectively together throughout that time, but by the muster to war in 909 Æthelred is already to ill to ride. Edward commands the West Mercian forces through Æthelflæd. She had spent the previous six years riding around the midlands with her husband as part of the process of fortifying some key strategic points. When Æthelred dies in 911, Æthelflæd calmly takes over control of the country and the war, being confirmed by the Witan under the title “Lady of the Mercians”. She fortifies Tamworth, Stafford and Warwick (thus beating William the Bastard to the punch by a hundred and fifty years): in fact, over six years she builds ten strategic fortifications, the last four being built while fighting her way steadily up country against marauding and increasingly desperate Danes.

Lady of Mercia

While her brother prosecuted the ‘main’ war on the east coast, Æthelflæd retakes and consolidates her hold on Mercia; fights off raids in the west from Dublin, Wales and the Strathclyde Welsh; takes Derby after a savage fight and then sees the Vikings of Leicester surrender to her banner without offering battle; all the while administering the kingdom as law-giver and ring-giver. When Edward’s campaign links up the southern forces with a sally from Northumberland it is Æthelflæd to whom the Viking King of York sends messages of surrender and alliegance.

She’s not done yet, either. The one thing that could have ended Alfred’s vision of a united England at the second generation was a strong heir of Æthelred’s body, who would thus not be a member of the house of Cerdic but would almost certainly be confirmed King by the Witan. Æthelflæd, just like Edward, has been trained from the cradle to the Great Work of her sainted father: unite England, under the house of Cerdic. And she did: she guaranteed Æthelred never had a son.

English legend and history are full of empowered women doing exactly the same things as their men were doing. Women, according to recent osteological surveys from battlefield and other graves, made up somewhere between 15% and 30% of the average Anglo-Saxon land force (ship crews were more likely to be all or nearly all male). Women owned land, goods, stock, ships and slaves: women traded, sued men and one another, spoke in the Witan, stood as law-givers and ring-givers, served in the Varangian Guard, were regents for their minor children, were taken as hostages and ransomed as prisoners of war, raised and fought in armies, went viking and were outlawed.

The earliest English girl in legend appears in the Rhinegold Saga. She spends much of the plot disguised as a boy (for political, not social, reasons: it’s part of a long-con on Attila the Hun himself), is trained to battle as a prince, and ends up breaking out, having a complicated relationship with her two best friends at once and becoming a general of the Roman Empire with a box of gold bigger than her head. [2]. The first documented historical English girl successfully invaded France because her betrothed changed his mind for political reasons (she not only gets her wedding, she ends up ruling Queen of the relevant tribe and a significant general in the armies of Bellisarius during the Byzantine attempts to reconquer the Roman Empire). [3] And all this without mentioning goddesses, or the valkyries.

Island Girls

The main heroic archetypes for women in Anglo-Saxon England were Shield-maiden and Peace-weaver. Just as there were a lot more fighting women around than our Frenchified modern sensibilities like admitting to, Saxon Peace-weavers weren’t just alliance marriage stock. It was a daily job; they were politically crucial diplomats. [4] In legend we see this responsibility skilfully discharged in the speech of Wealhþeow when she presents the guest cup to Beowulf at the feast. But Æthelflæd is a real woman. That extended working relationship between Æthelred and Edward which was discussed earlier is the result of her daily skill and dilligence as an ambassador for over a dozen years, beginning at seventeen. And we can read of one of the personal costs of her peace-weaving in a memory of her own words.

Her first child, conceived to seal the alliance, was a daughter named Ælfwynn. The Queen then on her own recognisance abstains from sex for the rest of her marriage. This had an obvious political coup attached: there would never be a male Mercian heir to challenge the sons of Cerdic. But in explaining her decision to her husband, she put it like this, according to the family records seen by William of Malmesbury, and in his words:

She was a woman of great soul, who from the first labour experienced great difficulty and ever after refused the embraces of her husband, saying that it was unbecoming of the daughter of a king to give way to a private delight which in time produced such painful consequences.

Not only is this 9th century woman telling her royal husband, in effect, “I have decided that you are never going to have a male heir”, which he apparently accepts without demur. Her stated reason for doing it is that sex is lots of fun but she is too busy to risk being crippled by birth trauma again.

In case you were wondering about Ælfwynn, she held Mercia from her mother’s death until the end of the war brought sufficient security for Edward to ‘inherit’ Mercia officially from his sister. She then departed to a distinguished career as an Abbess in England and Germany.

Æthelflæd. Wealhþeow. Elizabeth (either one). Ælfwynn. Empress Mathilde. Procopius’ Island Girl. Victoria, and the recipient of The Husband’s Message. It doesn’t start with the Saxons, either: Boadicea beat them to the punch by four hundred years. Myth or history, England’s heritage is built by great women. Our ancestors provided two remarkable archetypes to aspire to in the Shield-maiden and the Peace-weaver: Æthelflæd exemplified both. Yet our modern England is as prejudiced as any Levantine culture. This Friday’s giant is a memory and an exhortation: we should do more to recognise and remember our ancient traditions of feminine empowerment.

[1] For Americans, read ‘Cliff Notes’, though that implies high school whereas Ladybird implies elementary.

[2] Her name was Hildegyð, and she’s quite marvellous.

[3] Her name is lost to history because Procopius was prejudiced, and referred to her throughout The History of the Wars as simply The Island Girl.

[4] For reasons that make fairly good sense but take a long time to explain, Anglo-Saxon culture and politics operated on reputation: gaining or losing face. Generosity, integrity and honour were all virtues, but so was pride. The job of the peace-weavers was to manage things so that this didn’t degenerate into playground wars with real casualties.


December 2013
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Per Argument Ad Astra

Politics, history, economics and rampant speculation from a victim of the Great Recession, currently at large in the West Midlands.

"When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters."
                -- Adam Smith


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