Women of the Anglo-Saxon Period

Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

Æthelflæd/Ethelfleda was born around AD 870, the eldest child of King Alfred the Great of Wessex and Ealhswith. Alfred was known for championing literacy among his people, so it's reasonable to assume Æthelflæd was well educated. She must have spent much time following the campaigns of her father against the encroaching Danish Vikings.

When she was of age, she played the role of peaceweaver (though she didn't turn out to be very peaceful) by marrying Ethelred, ruler of the neighboring kingdom of Mercia. The marriage cemented the alliance between Wessex and Mercia, and Ethelred was given the title of Ealdorman of Mercia under Alfred. One story says that Danes fearing the alliance attacked her marriage party en route, and that she led her thegns even then to fight the Vikings off.

Æthelflæd seems to have been not much the maternal type. After the birth of her only child, daughter Ælfwynn, she allegedly gave up the marriage bed, not wishing to risk repeating an experience she believed undignified for a king's daughter.

After Alfred's death in 899, Æthelflæd's brother Edward became King Edward the Elder, and he continued his father's program of defense against Viking raiders, raising armies and building fortified burhs in strategic areas. Mercia followed suit.

Ethelred didn't die until 911, but he was sick at least ten years before that. Consequently, Æthelflæd had already shown her administrative and strategic skills. That, and the fact that Edward knew he could trust her were likely reasons she was allowed to keep the rule of Mercia in a time when dowagers usually retired to convents. She shared rule with her daughter Ælfwynn for seven years. In 918, on the eve of making a truce with one of the parties of Danes, she died. It likely says something about her reputation that the Danes wished to treat with her and not with her brother.

Æthelflęd intended Ælfwynn to succeed her as "Lady of the Mercians," but Edward didn't allow Ælfwynn to rule long. He seized control of Mercia and carried her away captive into Wessex a few months later. Nothing more is known for sure about her.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions Æthelflæd a handful of times, but her influence on English history shouldn't be underestimated. Her marriage resulted in a more unified England. She expanded the borders of Mercia. She supervised the building of several burhs, most notably at Stafford, and at Tamworth, where she died. She refortified several cities and rebuilt the Roman defenses at Gloucester, where she is buried. She led her countrymen into battle on numerous occasions. (For example: in retaliation for what she perceived as Welsh culpability in the death of an Anglo-Saxon clergyman, she marched into Wales and took the queen and over three hundred of the Welsh royal household captive.) She fostered one of Edward's sons, Æthelstan, who later succeeded his half-brother as ruler of both Wessex and Mercia. He went on to lead his forces to victory over the Danes and the Welsh at the decisive battle of Brunanburh, no doubt having learned much about leadership and battle from his aunt. Æthelflæd's name appears in Welsh and Irish records that ignore her contemporaries. It's unfortunate that at present so little is generally known of this remarkable woman.

Good Queen Maud

This English queen was born in A.D. 1080 to King Malcolm III of Scotland and Margaret Ætheling. At birth she was given the name Edith. It's said that when she was baptized, she grabbed at the royal headdress of her godmother Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror, and put it on her own head, an action seen as portentous in retrospect. Her godfather was William and Matilda's son Robert Curthose

Queen Margaret, who was later canonized, was highly educated and was influential in her own right. She ensured her children were educated as well. Edith received her formal education at the convent at Romsey, and later Wilton, a girls' school.

Edith's father first promised her in marriage to Alan the Red, but Alan ran off instead with her cousin Gunnhilda (and died shortly thereafter).

History indicates that there was genuine affection between Edith and Henry Beauclerc, besides the obvious political advantages of such a match. Henry's older brother, William Rufus, had just died without and heir. The next in line for the throne, Edith's godfather Robert, was away, and Henry took the opportunity to seize the throne. By marrying a descendant of both the Scottish and English royal houses, he legitimized his claim with the natives. For her part, Edith knew that the blood of said houses would dwindle away if not joined to the Normans.

They were married on November 11, 1100. It's unclear exactly why, but it was at this time she changed her name to Matilda; perhaps in honor of her godmother now mother-in-law, or perhaps because it was a popular name among the Normans and was good public relations. She needed them. The Normans as a whole weren't very pleased with the marriage. They called the couple derisively Godric and Godiva.

Queen Matilda II took and active role in government from the very first. She was present at Henry's councils, as evidenced by the presence and placement of her signature on Henry's charters. It was always second, right under her husband's, followed by those of numerous councilors. (It came third once, when the second spot was given to her brother who had succeeded their father as King of Scotland.) She ruled alone and with increasing autonomy during Henry's frequent visits to Normandy. As she gained confidence, she made laws and conducted transactions on her own initiative, even appointing her own councilors.

Matilda had a knack for mediating disputes. When Robert Curthose returned form crusading, he immediately set out to take the throne from his younger brother. Matilda was in childbed at the time, and when he found this out, he refused to attack the castle where his goddaughter was laid up. It was due to their close relationship that she was able to persuade him to relinquish his claim to the throne, and later, even the allowance of 3000 silver a year Henry had promised him.

Another man she was close to had a disagreement with Henry: Bishop Anselm of Canterbury. The two men feuded over the issue of lay investiture, the practice of kings appointing clergy. Rome was against it, and Anselm sided with them. Henry sent him into exile. Matilda went to work, writing letters to Anselm and Rome and urging her husband to compromise. A compromise was reached, and when Anselm returned, Matilda went personally with a large retinue to meet him.

Matilda was also known for her charity and patronage. She founded and funded a hospital for lepers at St. Giles, and was known to nurse them herself. Music, art and literature flourished under her, and Henry and Matilda's court became known for its sophistication, despite what the Normans initially thought of her. She went from being unfavorably compared to Lady Godiva to being remembered as "Good Queen Maud."

Of her three children, one survived to adulthood: a girl, also named Matilda. She was married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V for a time and was called Empress Matilda ever after, despite never having the title officially. After his death, she returned to England and married one Geoffrey of Anjou, nicknamed Plantagenet. She claimed the throne at the death of her father as his only surviving legitimate offspring. She never succeeded in her fight for it, but her son Henry II was later king. Thus it was that through the two Matildas, the English throne continued to be kept by the descendents of Alfred the Great.

Some Web sources:








Huneycutt, Lois L. Matilda of Scotland: A Study in
        Medieval Queenship. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK
        Rochester, NY : Boydell Press, 2003.

Thiebaux, Marcelle. The Writings of Medieval Women,
        2d ed. New York, NY; London,
        UK: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994..