Part Three[*]

Lord of the Mercians

879 ? – 911  Æthelred

King Ceolwulf II is allotted a five year reign in a Mercian king-list from Worcester (British Library MS Cotton Tiberius A xiii, folio 114v, early-11th century), by which token he ceased to rule in 879. Ceolwulf’s successor, the final name on the list, is Æthelred. Actually, Ceolwulf disappears from the record in 877 (when the Danes partitioned Mercia) and Æthelred does not appear until 883. Furthermore, when he finally does surface (S218), Æthelred is ruling English Mercia (roughly speaking, the western half of Mercia), not as a king, but as an ealdorman, with Alfred (Alfred the Great), king of the West Saxons, as his overlord. Æthelred, though, had greater status than an ordinary ealdorman. He is given various titles in different sources, even ‘king’ occasionally, but he is generally known by the description he receives in the Mercian Register: ‘lord of the Mercians’.

In 878, the king of Gwynedd, Rhodri Mawr, had been, say the Annales Cambriae: “killed by the Saxons.”[*]  Presumably “the Saxons” in question were the Mercians. Three years later, i.e. in 881, the Annales record: “The battle of Conwy. Vengeance for Rhodri at God’s hand.”  If the Worcester king-list is right, Ceolwulf II should take credit for the victory that resulted in Rhodri’s death, whilst Æthelred suffered the subsequent defeat at Conwy. At any rate, as reported by Asser, King Alfred’s biographer and a Welshman himself, by about 885 the rulers of southern Wales had submitted to Alfred’s overlordship:

… King Hyfaidd, with all the inhabitants of the region of Dyfed, compelled by the violence of the six sons of Rhodri, had submitted to the dominion of the king [Alfred]. Hywel also, son of Rhys, king of Glywysing, and Brochfael and Ffernfael, sons of Meurig, kings of Gwent, compelled by the violence and tyranny of Ealdorman Æthelred and of the Mercians,[*] of their own accord sought out the same king, that they might enjoy rule and protection from him against their enemies. Elise, also, son of Tewdwr, king of Brycheiniog, driven by the violence of the same sons of Rhodri, of his own accord sought the lordship of the aforesaid king; and Anarawd, son of Rhodri, with his brothers, at length [by 893] abandoning the friendship of the Northumbrians [i.e. the Vikings of York], from whom he had received no good, but rather harm, came into King Alfred’s presence, and eagerly sought his friendship. The king received him with honour, adopted him as his son by confirmation from the bishop’s hand, and bestowed many gifts upon him. Thus he became subject to the king with all his people, on condition that he should be obedient to the king’s will in all respects, in the same way as Æthelred with the Mercians.
Nor was it in vain that they all gained the friendship of the king. For those who desired to augment their worldly power obtained power; those who desired money gained money; those who desired his friendship acquired his friendship; those who wished more than one secured more than one. But all of them had his love and guardianship and defence from every quarter, so far as the king, with all his men, could defend himself.
Vita Alfredi §§80–81

Numismatic evidence tends to suggest that the Mercian town of London had remained in English hands – that coins in the names of both Ceolwulf and Alfred were minted there, and that Alfred’s coins continued to be produced there after Ceolwulf’s rule ended. It seems that the Danes captured it in 883, but that English forces soon retook it. In 885 a Viking force from the Continent was active in the vicinity of the Thames estuary, and in the next year, 886, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that: “King Alfred occupied Lundenburh”.[*]  A burh, from which the modern word ‘borough’, is a fortified site, and Lundenburh is the, by this time pretty ruinous, fortified Roman city of London (as distinct from Lundenwic, the Anglo-Saxon trading settlement to the west of the city). Asser, in his equivalent entry (§83), says that: “after the burning of towns and the massacre of people, [Alfred] honourably restored the city of London and made it habitable”.  The Chronicle concludes its annal:

… and all the English race turned to him [Alfred] that were not in the bondage of the Danish men; and he then committed the burh [of London] to the keeping of Ealdorman Æthelred.

It may well be that an extant treaty agreed by Alfred and Guthrum, the Danish king of East Anglia, which famously defines the border between their territories, dates from 886[*].

By 889, Ealdorman Æthelred had married Alfred’s daughter, Æthelflæd – Asser says (§75) only that the marriage took place: “when she arrived at a marriageable age”.[*]

In 892 a new Viking “great army” landed in Britain[*].

Alfred died in 899. In his will (S1507), he gifted: “to Ealdorman Æthelred a sword worth 100 mancuses.”

In 902 the East Anglian Danes ransacked English Mercia and northern Wessex, incited by the rebel Æthelwold, cousin of Alfred’s son and successor, Edward. During the ensuing reprisals, Æthelwold and the Viking king of East Anglia, Eohric, were amongst those killed, as was one “Beorhtsige, son of the ætheling Beorhtnoth”, who was also on the Dane’s side.[*] Given the propensity for noble families to favour alliterative names, Beorhtnoth and Beorhtsige could well have belonged to a branch of Mercian royalty that had provided previous kings: Beornred (757), Beornwulf (823–826), Beorhtwulf (839–852) and Burgred (852–874).

The Mercian Register entry for the year 907 simply says: “In this year Chester [i.e. the derelict, walled, Roman city] was renovated.”  A story found in an Irish source, the Three Fragments (as it is often called), suggests that this refortification was necessitated by the arrival of large numbers of Hiberno-Norse Vikings in the Wirral[*].  According to the Three Fragments, Æthelred was, by this time, incapacitated by the illness which would eventually kill him, and his wife, Æthelflæd, King Edward’s sister, was governing in his stead.

In 909, Edward sent a combined force of West Saxons and Mercians on a five week campaign against the Danes in Northumbria: “and they made very great ravage on the north army, both in men and in every kind of cattle, and slew many of the Danish men”.[*]  The Danes were apparently obliged to agree terms, but the next year, 910, as reported by Æthelweard (IV, 4):

… the barbarians broke the peace with King Edward, and with Æthelred, who then ruled the Northumbrian and Mercian areas. The fields of the Mercians were ravaged on all sides by the throng we spoke about, and deeply, as far as the streams of the Avon, where the boundary of the West Saxons and Mercians begins. Then they were transported across the river Severn into the west country, and there they ravaged great ravagings.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Northumbrian Danes felt secure in raiding so far from their home because they believed most of Edward’s forces were on board ships off the south coast, headed to Kent where Edward was waiting for them. This proved to be a serious misjudgement on the Danes’ part, as the Chronicle records:

When the king learned that they were gone out to ravage, he sent his force, both from the West Saxons and from the Mercians, and overtook the army [i.e. the Danes] when it was returning homewards, and fought against them and put the army to flight, and slew many thousands of them …

The Mercian Register simply states, s.a. 910: “the English and the Danes fought at Tettenhall, and the English took the victory.”  Æthelweard says the battle took place on the 5th of August, but he places it at Wednesfield (Woden’s field), some three miles east of Tettenhall. (Both Tettenhall and Wednesfield are now suburbs of Wolverhampton.) It is, though, as the ‘battle of Tettenhall’ that the engagement is usually known, and the English victory there turned out to be a knockout blow from which the Northumbrian Danes never fully recovered.[*]

In 911, the year after Tettenhall, Æthelred died, and according to Æthelweard: “was buried in peace in the fortress known as Gloucester.”  The Chronicle notes that: “King Edward succeeded to London and to Oxford and to all the lands which thereto belonged.”

Lady of the Mercians

911 – 918  Æthelflæd

Daughter of King Alfred the Great, sister of King Edward the Elder and widow of Ealdorman Æthelred, lord of the Mercians.

And here, indeed, Æthelflæd, sister of the king and widow of Æthelred, ought not to be forgotten, as she was a powerful accession to his [King Edward’s] party, the delight of his subjects, the dread of his enemies; a woman of an enlarged soul, who, from the difficulty experienced in her first (or rather only) labour, ever after refused the embraces of her husband, protesting that it was unbecoming the daughter of a king to give way to a delight, which after a time produced such painful consequences. This spirited heroine assisted her brother greatly with her advice; she was of equal service in building cities, nor could you easily discern whether it were more owing to fortune or her own exertions, that a woman should be able to protect men at home, and to intimidate them abroad.

Æthelflæd’s efforts were vital to the success of her brother’s campaign against the Danes of south-Humbrian England,[*] but her contribution is completely ignored by the authors of the main entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Her career is, however, chronicled in the terse reports of the Mercian Register, which gives her the title by which she is usually called: ‘lady of the Mercians’.

Æthelflæd apparently wielded considerable power in Mercia (i.e. English held, western, Mercia) even before the death of her husband, who was in poor health towards the end of his life. A story in the Three Fragments, an Irish source, tells how she allowed one Ingimund, a Hiberno-Norse chieftain, to settle in the vicinity of Chester, and then had to see to the defence of the walled Roman town when the ungrateful Ingimund organized Viking forces to capture it[*].

The Mercian Register reports that Chester “was renovated” (i.e. the old Roman fortifications were refurbished) in 907, although it makes no mention of Æthelflæd’s involvement. It does, however, report that she built “the burh” at a place called Bremesbyrig (unidentified) in 910.[*] “Then in the year next after [i.e. in 911], died Æthelred, lord of the Mercians.”

In 912:

… Æthelflæd, lady of the Mercians, came to Scergeat [unidentified], on the holy eve of the Invention of the Holy Cross [i.e. on 2nd May], and there built the burh; and in the same year that at Bridgnorth.

In 913:

… Æthelflæd, lady of the Mercians, went with all the Mercians to Tamworth, and built the burh there, in the early summer; and before the following Lammas [1st August], that at Stafford.
Then in the year after this [i.e. in 914], that at Eadesbyrig [Eddisbury, an Iron Age Hillfort in Cheshire], in the early summer; and afterwards in the same year, late in harvest-time, that at Warwick.
Then in the next year [i.e. in 915], after Midwinter, that at Cyricbyrig [Chirbury, in Shropshire] and that at Weardbyrig [unidentified]; and that same year, before Midwinter, that at Runcorn.

On 16th June 916, a “guiltless” Abbot Egbert, and “his companions” were killed – evidently by the Welsh. The redoubtable Æthelflæd took prompt action. Three days later, she: “sent a force into Wales, and broke down Brecenanmere, and there captured the king’s wife as one of four-and-thirty.”[*]

In 917, Edward’s offensive against Danish held territory began in earnest. Æthelflæd played her part:

In this year Æthelflæd, lady of the Mercians, God aiding her, before Lammas [1st August], got possession of the burh which is called Derby, with all that belonged thereto; and there also were slain four of her thegns, who were dear to her, within the gates.

The following year (918):

In this year, with the aid of God, in the early part of the year, she got into her power peacefully the burh at Leicester; and the greatest part of the army [i.e. the Danes] which belonged thereto became subjected to her. And the people of York had also promised her, and some given a pledge, and some confirmed by oaths, that they would be at her disposal. But very soon after they had agreed thereon, she died at Tamworth, 12 nights before Midsummer [i.e. on 12th June 918], in the eighth year from the time she rightfully held the lordship over the Mercians; and her body lies in Gloucester, in the east porch of St Peter’s church.

The Three Fragments feature an account of a battle fought between English and Viking forces that might equate with a battle fought at Corbridge, Northumbria, in 918. The story is obviously embroidered, but its claim (recorded nowhere else) that Æthelflæd entered an alliance with the “men of Alba”, i.e. the Scots,[*] and the Strathclyde Britons to counter the Hiberno-Norse invaders is very credible[*].

According to the Three Fragments, Æthelflæd, “the Queen”, achieved great renown as a result of her military success. The death of “Queen Æthelflæd” is recorded in the Annales Cambriae, and amongst the entries for 918 in the Annals of Ulster, following its account of the battle mentioned above,[*] is the comment: “Æthelflæd, most famous queen of the Saxons, dies.”

918 – 919 (918?)  Ælfwynn

Daughter of Æthelred and Æthelflæd.

Manuscript A of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that when Æthelflæd, lady of the Mercians, died at Tamworth on 12th June 918, her brother and overlord, King Edward, promptly broke-off from his operations against the Danes of eastern Mercia, and:

… took possession of the burh at Tamworth; and all the nation in the Mercians’ land, who had before been subject to Æthelflæd, turned to him; and the kings of the North Welsh, Hywel, and Clydog, and Idwal, and all the North Welsh race, sought him for lord. Then he went from there to Nottingham, and conquered the burh, and ordered it to be repaired and occupied, both with Englishmen and with Danish. And all the folk who were settled in the Mercians’ land turned to him, both Danish and English.[*]

There was evidently some doubt whether, following Æthelflæd’s death, the leadership of English (i.e. western) Mercia would be content to continue to play second fiddle to a West Saxon king, so Edward had acted quickly to establish his personal control of English Mercia. It would seem, though, that he was obliged to allow his niece, Ælfwynn, the daughter of Æthelred and Æthelflæd, some degree of authority. This arrangement, however, turned out to be a temporary expedient. The Mercian Register, s.a. 919, states:

In this year also the daughter of Æthelred, lord of the Mercians, was deprived of all power in Mercia, and conveyed into Wessex, three weeks before Midwinter. She was called Ælfwynn.
Northumbrian Struggles
Part Two.
A burh (dative: byrig) – from which the modern word ‘borough’ – is a fortified site.
Alfred married Ealhswith, a Mercian noblewoman, in 868, and Æthelflæd was their first child.
Æthelflæd features alongside Æthelred in a charter dated 889 (S346), in which Æthelred is titled subregulus et patricius (sub-king and patrician) of the Mercians, and Alfred rex Anglorum et Saxonum (king of the Angles and the Saxons). In another charter (S217) Æthelflæd is specifically said to be Æthelred’s wife, but there are contradictory dating indications. It is dated 880, but is given the Indiction number 5, which would suggest a date of 887 (see Anno Domini). 880 is too early for Æthelflæd to have been married, so 887 is the preferable date of the two. In S217 Æthelred is titled dux et patricius (ealdorman and patrician) of the Mercians.
See Northumbrian Struggles I.
The Battle of 918?
In Manuscript C of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is one year ahead of true date at this time, this entry appears s.a. 887 instead of 886. (It is a peculiarity of Manuscript B that after 652 the year-number is generally omitted.)
Æthelweard (IV, 3) says: “the city of London was besieged by King Alfred” – apparently a misreading of the Old English gesette, i.e. ‘occupied’, ‘settled’, as besette, i.e. ‘besieged’.
The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum
The Invasion of 892
Æthel (Æþel) means ‘noble’ (it features as an element of many Anglo-Saxon names) – Æthelred is a compound of æþel and ræd, meaning ‘noble counsel’. An ætheling is a male of royal blood; an eligible candidate for the throne.
The annal featuring “Beorhtsige, son of the ætheling Beorhtnoth” appears s.a. 905 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle proper. (It is not in Manuscripts E and F, which have only a few desultory annals during the whole period of Edward’s reign.) However, the battle where Beorhtsige etc. apparently fell is dated 902 by the Mercian Register in Manuscript C, and by Æthelweard (IV, 4).
The Story of Ingimund
Though appearing s.a. 910 in the Chronicle (not in Manuscripts E or F).
The Mercian Register entry for the same year, i.e. 909, states: “St Oswald’s body was conveyed from Bardney into Mercia.”  Oswald’s remains (some of them anyway) had been interred at Bardney – then in Lindsey (which had just been permanently taken into Mercian ownership), now in Lincolnshire – by his niece, the wife of Mercian king Æthelred (675–704). By 909, however, Bardney was in Danish Mercia, so presumably the returning English army took the opportunity to liberate Oswald’s relics, which were actually taken to Gloucester.
In the main chronicle (Manuscripts A, B, C and D), these events appear s.a. 911 (undated in B as usual), but the battle site is not named. Æthelweard implies the events took place in 909, and gives the battle site as Wednesfield. The Mercian Register (Manuscript C) provides the accepted date, 910, and places the battle at Tettenhall. In Manuscript D the Mercian Register entry is added to the main chronicle entry s.a. 909 – with the extra information that the battle took place on 6th August, though Æthelweard says it was on the 5th. Manuscripts E and F do not have the main chronicle annal, but Manuscript E, and also Manuscript D, have an entry s.a. 910 which simply mentions a battle at Tettenhall between the English and the Danes, with no further detail. Manuscript D has, therefore, recorded the battle three times – in 909, 910 and 911.
Æthelweard names three Danish kings who were killed: Halfdan, Eowils, and Ivar. Manuscript A of the Chronicle mentions only one: Eowils. Manuscripts B, C and D name two, Eowils and Halfdan. Florence of Worcester, however, says, s.a. 911, that the English: “slew their two kings, Eowils and Halfdan, brother[s] of King Ivar” (the Latin is abbreviated, and it is not clear whether ‘brother’, i.e. just Halfdan, or ‘brothers’, i.e. both Eowils and Halfdan, is meant).
See Edward the Elder.
This annal is believed to refer to the destruction of royal buildings standing on the crannog (artificial island) that still exists in Llangorse Lake, near Brecon.
In contemporary records, the combined kingdom of Picts and Scots is Pictland (Latin: Pictavia) until the year 900, when the Gaelic name Alba (Latin: Albania) comes into use – Pictish identity simply fades away and all its people become Scots.
‘North-West Mercia, A.D. 871–924’, Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire & Cheshire Vol. 94 (1942), freely available online.
Æthelred and Æthelflæd had clearly been fortifying population-centres for some time prior to this. An undated (though issued before King Alfred died on 26th October 899) charter (S223, written in Old English) states that: “Ealdorman Æthelred and Æthelflæd ordered the burh at Worcester to be built for the protection of all the people”; and a charter of 901 (S221, written in Latin, and which, incidentally, speaks of “Æthelred and Æthelflæd, holding by the assisting grace of God the monarchy of the Mercians and governing and defending them in honourable manner”) refers to Shrewsbury as a ‘city’ (in civitate Scrobbensis), which suggests that it had been fortified.
Manuscript A is the only Chronicle manuscript to report Edward’s later (915–920) campaigns. As a result of tampering by later scribes, however, these annals are dated four years in advance of the true year. The entry for 918, therefore, appears s.a. 922.
The North Welsh are the Welsh proper, i.e. the Britons living in what is now Wales, as distinct from the Cornish Britons (the West Welsh).
The standard unit of Anglo-Saxon coinage at this time was the silver penny (see Shillings and Pence). Ælfric ‘the Grammarian’ (c.955–c.1010) says that thirty pennies were worth one mancus. In the law-code of Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan (r.924–939), an ox is valued at one mancus.
In the surviving text, Æthelred is wrongly called Eadred here. Asser, writing in Latin, does not give him the English title ‘ealdorman’. Latin-writers employed old Roman titles – usually dux (plural: duces; genitive singular: ducis), source of the modern English word ‘duke’, or, as here by Asser, comes (plural: comites; genitive singular: comitis), source of the modern English word ‘count’ – to represent the vernacular title.
The Annals of Ulster also report Rhodri’s killing “by the Saxons”, and provide the date 878.
s.a. = sub anno = ‘under the year’.
Anglo-Saxon charters are referred to by their number in Sawyer’s catalogue.
Available online: The Electronic Sawyer.
In Manuscripts B and C of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, after the entry for 915, is inserted a block of material, covering the years 902–924 and chiefly concerned with Mercian affairs, known as the Mercian Register. In Manuscript D, a not entirely successful attempt has been made to integrate this material with the rest of the Chronicle. It is a peculiarity of Manuscript B that after 652 the year-number is generally omitted, though two entries are dated in the Mercian Register section (904, 905), and these agree with the dates in Manuscript C. The chronology of the period the Register covers is somewhat confused in the main chronicle, but the dates provided by Manuscript C’s version of the Register are generally considered to be reliable. (Incidentally, the Mercian Register apparently begins its year at Midwinter, i.e. Christmas.)
Gesta Regum Anglorum
(Deeds of the Kings of England).
Anglo-Saxon England Third Edition (1971),
Chapter 10 (p.324).