Book Review: Æthelflaed, The Lady of the Mercians by Tim Clarkson

By Catherine Capel

The ever-growing field of queenship has brought to light many queens and noblewomen who have been largely ignored in historical scholarship or have been misunderstood, with their narratives shrouded in stereotypes of cruelty, disillusions of power, and sexual scandal. One such royal woman who has been garnering renewed attention is Æthelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great and his wife Ealhswith, the wife of Æthelred Lord of the Mercians and most commonly known as ‘Lady of the Mercians’. Tim Clarkson’s book evaluates her life and the political and military epochs within which she lived, paying close attention to how she interacted with the world around her.

Clarkson has approached his narrative from a chronological perspective, but the chapters have been grouped together thematically making it easy to follow the timeline he is establishing and highlighting the key aspect that will be discussed. The book covers a considerable timeframe in a wider chronological context, with the second chapter creating a framework for understanding the evolution of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms up until the period in which Æthelflaed is ruling Mercia. This chapter is particularly useful as it provides a history of key figures, alliances, and rivalries which shaped the political and military landscape of the ninth and tenth centuries. The chapters which delve into the primary subject of Clarkson’s book are entitled; ‘Princess’, ‘A New Mercia’, ‘Kinsmen’, ‘Losses and Gains’, ‘Frontierlands’, ‘The Final Years’, and ‘Legacy’. Each title is indicative of a primary aspect of her rule, first considering her life and education as a princess of Wessex (‘Princess’), then her time as a ruler alongside her husband and independently as Lady of the Mercians (‘A New Mercia’, ‘Kinsmen’, ‘Losses and Gains’, ‘Frontierlands’, ‘The Final Years’), before finally considering the impact Æthelflaed had on contemporary events and her representation in medieval and modern depictions (‘Legacy’). In doing so, Clarkson has provided a well-rounded examination of the life of this particular Anglo-Saxon ruling woman, considering the influence of political and military paradigms on Æthelflaed’s image and reception as a ruler. 

The themes which are most prevalent in this book are political and military, with included discussions of archaeological excavations that have uncovered areas of great importance to Æthelflaed, her husband and their kingdom. In his introduction, Clarkson provides an explanation of particular terminologies that are often complicated and have many different definitions. In doing so, he has outlined specifically how they relate to the arguments in his book. For example, his clarification of using the term ‘English’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ as synonymous of each other is rooted in the fact that he classified Æthelflaed as an English woman who spoke Old English. However, this differed from term ‘England’ which Clarkson argued was not a solidified concept in the ninth and tenth centuries. Furthermore, there is a distinction made between the use of ‘Welsh’ and ‘Vikings’ to clarify the groups of people being referred to despite contemporary origins and implications of the words. Included in this section is also an explanation of the Anglicised versions of names to make the reader aware of how the names would be spelt throughout the book and how they appeared in primary sources. This is again useful for audiences who are new to the events of the Anglo-Saxon period and wish to explore further themselves in contemporary narratives and documentary sources. These primary sources are also clearly outlined and discussed for the information they provide specifically for the rule of Æthelflaed and the issues with them as a source base. 

Whilst the focus of this book is a royal woman, one who fulfilled the roles widely associated with that of a female ruler or queen, gender, and queenship theory are not the predominant branches of analysis. That is not to say that there is no consideration by Clarkson as to the impact of gender on Æthelflaed’s position in both the court of her father in Wessex and that of her husband in Mercia, the roles royal women played within royal courts across the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, nor the gendered implications of her being accepted as Lady of the Mercians. In chapter four, a section entitled ‘women and power’ discusses and examines the implications of queenship as a model throughout the Anglo-Saxon period and examines they manner within which royal women executed power across the kingdoms. Clarkson has highlighted that there is a difference surrounding the expectations of behaviour for royal women in Wessex, her parental kingdom, and Mercia, her marital kingdom. Whereas her mother’s role in Wessex was primarily symbolic, particularly with regards to her religious practices, Æthelflaed’s role in Mercia held political significance, as evidenced by her witnessing of charters, and mentions in chronicle sources of her as political agent, a builder of burhs and churches, and her presence on campaign. These occurred alongside her fulfilling her role as a patron. His examinations of these gendered aspects of rulership remain present in his arguments in the following chapters but are not the main theoretical branch of analysis.

Through a multitude of theoretical underpinnings and a clear methodological approach, Tim Clarkson has written a well-rounded account of the life of Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, covering the major elements of her rule with a focus on her political and military leadership, her role as a patron and her building programmes. His attention towards primary sources and archaeological findings highlighted that her presence as a ruler was evident through many lenses and solidified her as a powerful female ruler.           

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