FROM DOT TO DOMESDAY Early Medieval The Birth of Nations: England
section three *
Lord of the Mercians
879 ? – 911  Æthelred
King Ceolwulf II is allotted a five year reign in a Mercian regnal list from Worcester (British Library MS Cotton Tiberius A xiii), 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, it would appear), 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, so-called, ‘Mercian Register’: Lord of the Mercians. Around the mid to late 880s, Æthelred married Alfred's daughter, Æthelflæd – Asser, Alfred's contemporary and biographer, says (§75) only that the marriage took place: “when she arrived at a marriageable age”.*
In 878, the king of Gwynedd, Rhodri Mawr, had been, says the ‘Annales Cambriae’: “killed by the Saxons.”  Presumably “the Saxons” in question were the Mercians. In 881, the ‘Annales’ record: “The battle of Conwy. Vengeance for Rhodri at God's hand.”  If the Worcester regnal 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, himself a Welshman, 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, restrained 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, compelled 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.” (§§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 the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ reports that, in the next year, 886: “King Alfred restored Lundenburh [i.e. the fortified Roman city of London]; and all the English race turned to him that were not in the bondage of the Danish men; and he then committed the burh [of London] to the keeping of the ealdorman Æthelred.”*
InBritish Archaeology’ (Issue 44, May 1999), Dr John Schofield writes: “Of all the periods in London's history, the Saxon has produced the most surprises from excavations of recent years... The most important advance has been the discovery over recent years of the 7th/8th century trading settlement of Lundenwic west of the Roman city walls. Within the city itself, however, evidence remains meagre from the collapse of the Roman administration in 410 until the late Saxon reoccupation under King Alfred in the 9th century.  The extent to which the city was occupied during these intervening centuries, with its great Roman buildings slowly crumbling, remains one of London's – as yet – great unsolved mysteries... Until the mid-1980s, nobody knew the location of Lundenwic, the London described in the 8th century by Bede as “a mart of many peoples coming by land and sea”. Then, the plotting of finds from many previous sites suggested that Lundenwic lay around Aldwych, west of the Roman city.  Subsequent excavations have produced evidence for a riverside settlement with buildings, lanes, pits, ditches, and much environmental material such as large amounts of butchered animal bone. Lundenwic was flourishing by 700, and was possibly earlier in origin than similar trading places at Ipswich and Hamwich (Southampton).  It extended from the west side of the Roman city round the river bank south and west to Westminster, and north to present-day Oxford Street. It was a point of entry from mainland Europe into the Mercian kingdom of central England – imported pottery includes pieces from France and the Rhineland... Why Lundenwic was founded outside the city walls remains a matter of debate. Some say the surviving Roman buildings may have acted as an obstacle to town planning; others emphasise a Saxon ‘mistrust’ of former Roman towns. There is contemporary documentary evidence of a possible Mercian palace in the Roman fort at Cripplegate, suggesting perhaps a royal and religious focus within the city with a trading settlement outside, but no hard evidence for the palace has come to light.  In the late 9th century the area within the Roman walls was extensively resettled and the extramural settlement apparently abandoned. This was perhaps as a result of Viking attack – a great slaughter at London is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 842.  With the notable exception of the town walls and associated gates, it seemed until recently that the development of the late Saxon town was little affected by the earlier Roman urban topography. But examples have come to light where substantial Roman buildings, or roads, survived to form points of continuity. One recent example was at Number 1, Poultry, where a late Saxon building was constructed against the wall of a ruined Roman building; and there have been several others.  The archaeological and documentary evidence suggest that in the late 9th and 10th centuries a series of north-south streets was laid out between the Thames and what later became the market streets of Eastcheap and Cheapside. It is possible that the new settlement was at first only on the western of London's two hills, Ludgate Hill. The first market and harbour was established at Queenhithe, upstream of the former London Bridge, as mentioned in charters of 889 and 899. Tree-ring dating of recently excavated waterfront structures at Bull Wharf immediately to the east is of this period.”
It seems reasonable to suppose 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.
In 892, however, a new Viking “great army” landed in Britain.
Alfred died in 899. In his will, 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 Beorhtnoth ætheling”, 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, often called the ‘Three Fragments’, 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, sister of King Edward, was holding the reins of government.
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 of the Danes fought at Tettenhall, and the English gained 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 took possession of London, and Oxford, and all the lands which thereto belonged.”
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 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.”
William of Malmesbury (‘GR’ II §125).
Æthelflæd's efforts were vital to the success of her brother's campaigns against the Danes,* 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 even before the death of her husband, who was in poor health towards the end of his life. A story found 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 site called Bremesbyrig (possibly Bromesberrow, near Ledbury, Herefordshire) 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 Eddisbury [an Iron Age Hillfort in Cheshire], in the early summer; and afterwards, in the same year, towards the end of autumn, that at Warwick. Then in the next year [i.e. in 915], after Midwinter, that at Chirbury [in Shropshire] and that at Weardbyrig [unidentified]; and that same year, before Midwinter, that at Runcorn.”
Frank Stenton: “The record of the fortresses which she built for the protection of Mercia shows that she had an eye for country, and the ability to forecast the movements of her enemies. It was through reliance on her guardianship of Mercia that her brother was enabled to begin the forward movement against the southern Danes which is the outstanding feature of his reign.”
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, within the gates, whose loss was a great sorrow to her.”  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’ say that Æthelflæd achieved great renown as a result of her military success. Certainly, her death is recorded in the ‘Annales Cambriae’, and the ‘Annals of Ulster’ comment: “Æthelflæd, a very famous queen of the Saxons, dies.”
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.
918 – 919 (918?)  Ælfwynn
Daughter of Æthelred and Æthelflæd.
Manuscript A of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ reports that, after Æthelflæd, lady of the Mercians, died at Tamworth on 12th June 918, her brother Edward, king of Wessex: “took possession of the burh at Tamworth; and all the people in the Mercian's land, who had before been subject to Æthelflæd, submitted to him; and the kings of the North Welsh, Hywel, and Clydog, and Idwal, and all the North Welsh race, sought him for lord. He then went thence to Nottingham, and reduced the burh, and ordered it to be repaired, and peopled, both with Englishmen and with Danish. And all the people who were settled in the Mercian's land submitted to him, both Danish and English.”*  Presumably as a gesture to Mercian independence, Æthelflæd's daughter, Ælfwynn, was, at first, allowed to rule in her mother's stead. However, the entry for 919 in the ‘Mercian Register’ says: “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.”*  Edward assumed direct control of Mercia.
Northumbrian Struggles    
Asser ‘Vita Alfredi’ by Albert S. Cook
‘Annales Cambriae’ by James Ingram
‘Chronicle of Æthelweard’ by A. Campbell
‘Annals of Ulster’ by S. Mac Airt & G. Mac Niocaill
‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ by Benjamin Thorpe (adapted)
Florence of Worcester ‘Chronicon ex Chronicis’ by Thomas Forester
William of Malmesbury ‘Gesta Regum Anglorum’ by John Sharpe, revised by Joseph Stevenson
In the interests of clarity, the spelling of personal names, most of which are found in several forms, has been standardized. Those names which have survived into modern times are given their familiar spelling.
Back to: section two.
A burh (dative: byrig) – from which the modern word ‘borough’ – is a fortified site.
Æthelflæd was Alfred's eldest surviving child, and Alfred himself was born in 849. Æthelflæd features alongside Æthelred in a charter dated 889 (S346), in which Æthelred is titled subregulus et patricius (sub-king and patrician) of Mercia, 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 five, 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 of Mercia.
Dux (plural: duces), in the Late Roman Empire, was the title of a high-ranking military commander, and is the source of the modern English word ‘duke’. The equivalent in Anglo-Saxon terminology was ‘ealdorman’, from which the modern term ‘alderman’ is derived.
The Old English word is gesette, which will bear various interpretations – the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon dictionary has: To set, put, fix, confirm, restore, appoint, decree, settle, possess, occupy, place together, compose, make, compare, expose, allay. In the Thorpe translation here (of 1861), Alfred “restored” the city, but in Dorothy Whitelock's (1961) and Michael Swanton's (1996) translations, Alfred “occupied” London, and this seems to be the preferred modern reading. However, Asser's equivalent entry says (§83), unequivocally, that Alfred: “after the burning of towns and the massacre of people, honourably restored the city of London and made it habitable”.
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.)
The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum
The Invasion of 892
Ætheling: a male of royal blood; an eligible candidate for the throne.
The annal featuring “Beorhtsige, son of Beorhtnoth ætheling” 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.
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, King Ivar's brothers”.
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.
The statement: “In this year also” is perhaps an odd way to begin an annal.  F.T. Wainwright suggests that the date 919 may have been wrongly inserted after the ‘Mercian Register’ was originally composed, and that the entry dated 919 actually concludes annal 918. As it stands, annal 918 ends with Æthelflæd's death “12 nights before Midsummer”, and the only entry for 919 is the deposition of Ælfwynn “three weeks before Midwinter”, so 919's entry could, very nicely, tag onto the end of annal 918. Wainwright admits that his is a rather dangerous argument, since it impugns the chronology of the ‘Mercian Register’, which, as he says, “is generally considered to be above reproach”, but it has the undoubted merit of providing a context for Ælfwynn's deposition – linking it to the submission of both the English and Danish population of Mercia to Edward in late-918, as reported in Manuscript A of the ‘Chronicle’ – and it seems to have gained a considerable following.
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) 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, 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”, which tends to suggest that it had been fortified.
Manuscript A is the only version of the ‘Chronicle’ 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. In consequence, the entry for 918 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’. Neither does he use the Latin dux. Instead he uses another Late Roman title, comes, which is translated into modern English as ‘count’.
s.a. = sub anno = ‘under the year’.
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.
In a paper of 1942 entitled ‘North-West Mercia’ – re-published in an anthology of F.T. Wainwright's papers, ‘Scandinavian England’, in 1975.