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Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

Updated: Jun 12

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, stained glass church window

Æthelflæd, has been described as 'our greatest woman-general', she was born around 864, the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, King of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, & his wife, Ealhswith.

Her mother Ealhswith who was married to King Alfred in 868, was the daughter of Æthelred Mucel, Alderman of the Hwicce, an area which mainly covered modern Herefordshire, by his wife Eadburh, probably a descendant of King Coenwulf (796–821). Æthelflæd born around the year 870, was thus half-Mercian & the alliance between Wessex & Mercia was sealed by her marriage to Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians.

She married Æthelred, Ealdorman of Mercia, who was perhaps the grandson of Ethelred Mucel & Edburgh through their son Ethelwulf, who was her mother Ealhswith`s brother. The Kingdom of Mercia then covered a huge area of the middle England, which name derived from the Old English word 'Mierce' meaning border people.

They are mentioned in Alfred's will, which probably dates to the 880s. Æthelflæd, described only as "my eldest daughter", received an estate & 100 mancuses, while Æthelred, the only ealdorman to be mentioned by name, received a sword worth 100 mancuses. Æthelflæd was first recorded as Æthelred's wife in a charter of 887, when he granted two estates to the see of Worcester "with the permission & sign-manual of King Alfred" & the attestors included "Æthelflæd conjux". The marriage may have taken place earlier, perhaps when he submitted to Alfred following the recovery of London in 886. Æthelred was much older than Æthelflæd & they had one known child, a daughter called Ælfwynn. Æthelstan, the eldest son of Edward the Elder & future king of England, was brought up in their court.

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Æthelred's descent is unknown. Richard Abels describes him as "somewhat of a mysterious character", who may have claimed royal blood & been related to King Alfred's father-in-law, Ealdorman Æthelred Mucel. In the view of Ian Walker: "He was a royal ealdorman whose power base lay in the south-west of Mercia in the former kingdom of the Hwicce around Gloucester". Alex Woolf suggests that he was probably the son of King Burgred of Mercia & King Alfred's sister Æthelswith, although that would mean that the marriage between Æthelflæd & Æthelred was uncanonical, because Rome then forbade marriage between first cousins.

Mercia was the dominant kingdom in southern England in the eighth century & maintained its position until it suffered a decisive defeat by Wessex at the Battle of Ellandun in 825. Thereafter the two kingdoms became allies, which was to be an important factor in English resistance to the Vikings. The kingdom was constantly under attack from the Vikings.

In 883 Æthelred granted privileges to Berkeley Abbey & in the 890s he & Æthelflæd issued a charter in favour of the church of Worcester. This was the only occasion in Alfred's lifetime when they are known to have acted jointly; generally Æthelred acted on his own, usually acknowledging the permission of King Alfred. Æthelflæd witnessed charters of Æthelred in 888, 889 & 896. In 901 Æthelflæd & Æthelred gave land & a golden chalice weighing thirty mancuses to the shrine of Saint Mildburg at Much Wenlock church.

At the end of the ninth century, Æthelred & Æthelflæd fortified Worcester, with the permission of King Alfred & at the request of the Bishop Werferth, described in the charter as "their friend". They granted the church of Worcester a half share of the rights of lordship over the city, covering land rents & the proceeds of justice, & in return the cathedral community agreed in perpetuity to dedicate a psalm to them three times a day & a mass & thirty psalms every Saturday. As the rights of lordship had previously belonged fully to the church, this represented the beginning of transfer from episcopal to secular control of the city. In 904 Bishop Werferth granted a lease of land in the city to Æthelred & Æthelflæd, to be held for the duration of their lives & that of their daughter Ælfwynn. The land was valuable, including most of the city's usable river frontage, & control of it enabled the Mercian rulers to dominate over & profit from the city.

Æthelflæd built the new Saxon 'burh' of Chester. Bonewaldesthorne's Tower, on the Chester city walls, is rumoured to have been so named after an officer in her army. She rebuilt Chester's walls in around 907 A.D. extending them to the edge of the river on the South & Western sides of the old Roman fortress, to establish Chester at the centre of a line of burghs, stretching from Rhuddlan in North Wales to Manchester, to protect the northern frontier of Mercia.

Æthelred's health probably declined at some stage in the decade after Alfred died in 899, & Æthelflæd may have become the de facto ruler of Mercia by 902. According to the Three Fragments, the Norse (Norwegian) Vikings were expelled from Dublin & then made an abortive attack on Wales. When this failed they applied to Æthelflæd, her husband being ill, for permission to settle near Chester. Æthelflæd agreed & for some time they were peaceful.

The Norse Vikings then joined with the Danes in an attack on Chester, but this failed because Æthelflæd had fortified the town, & she & her husband persuaded the Irish among the attackers to change sides. Other sources confirm that the Norse were driven out of Dublin in 902 & that Æthelflæd fortified Chester in 907. Æthelflæd re-founded Chester as a burh & she is believed to have enhanced its Roman defences by running walls from the north-west & south-east corners of the fort to the River Dee. Simon Ward, who excavated an Anglo-Saxon site in Chester, sees the later prosperity of the town as owing much to the planning of Æthelflæd & Edward. After Æthelflæd's death, Edward encountered fierce resistance to his efforts to consolidate his control of the north-west & he died there in 924, shortly after suppressing a local rebellion. Æthelred was well enough to witness charters at a meeting of Edward's court in 903, but he did not witness any later surviving charter.

In 909 Edward sent a West Saxon & Mercian force to the northern Danelaw, where it raided for five weeks. The remains of the royal Northumbrian saint Oswald were seized & taken from his resting place in Bardney Abbey in Lincolnshire to Gloucester. In the late ninth century Gloucester had become a burh with a street plan similar to Winchester, & Æthelred & Æthelflæd had repaired its ancient Roman defences. In 896 a meeting of the Mercian witan was held in the royal hall at Kingsholm, just outside the town. The Mercian rulers built a new minster in Gloucester &, although the building was small, it was embellished on a grand scale, with rich sculpture. It was initially dedicated to St Peter but when Oswald's remains were brought to Gloucester in 909, Æthelflæd had them translated from Bardney to the new minster, which was renamed St Oswald's in his honour. The relics gave the church great prestige as Oswald had been one of the most important founding saints of Anglo-Saxon Christianity as well as a ruling monarch, & the decision to translate his relics to Gloucester shows the importance of the town to Æthelred & Æthelflæd, who were buried in St Oswald's Minster.

Mercia had a long tradition of venerating royal saints & this was enthusiastically supported by Æthelred & Æthelflæd. Saintly relics were believed to give supernatural legitimacy to rulers' authority, & Æthelflæd was probably responsible for the foundation or re-foundation of Chester Minster & the transfer to it of the remains of the seventh-century Mercian princess Saint Werburgh from Hanbury in Staffordshire. In 910 the Danes retaliated against the English attack of the previous year by invading Mercia, raiding as far as Bridgnorth in Shropshire. On their way back they were caught by an English army in Staffordshire & their army was destroyed at the Battle of Tettenhall, opening the way for the recovery of the Danish Midlands & East Anglia over the next decade

On her husband's death in 911, Æthelflæd became Myrcna hlædige, "Lady of the Mercians". Ian Walker describes her succession as the only case of a female ruler of a kingdom in Anglo-Saxon history & "one of the most unique events in early medieval history".

In Wessex, royal women were not allowed to play any political role; Alfred's wife was not granted the title of queen & was never a witness to charters. In Mercia, Alfred's sister Æthelswith had been the wife of King Burgred of Mercia; she had witnessed charters as queen & had made grants jointly with her husband & in her own name. Æthelflæd benefited from a Mercian tradition of queenly importance, & was able to play a key role in the history of the early tenth century as Lady of the Mercians, which would not have been possible in Wessex.

When Æthelred died, Edward took control of the Mercian towns of London & Oxford & their hinterlands, which Alfred had put under Mercian control. Alfred had constructed a network of fortified burhs in Wessex, & Edward & Æthelflæd now embarked on a programme of extending them to consolidate their defences & provide bases for attacks on the Vikings.

According to Frank Stenton, Æthelflæd led Mercian armies on expeditions, which she planned. He commented: "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".

Æthelflæd had already fortified an unknown location called Bremesburh in 910 & in 912 she built defences at Bridgnorth to cover a crossing of the River Severn.

She founded Tamworth Castle, as a burh to defend against the Danes in Leicester, & in Stafford to cover access from the Trent Valley, a statue dedicated to her, with her young nephew, Athelstan, dating to 1913 - & the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of the castle stands outside.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records:- '913: Here, God granting, Ethelflaed Lady of the Mercians fared with all the Mercians to Tamworth & there built the fortress early in the summer & after this, before Lammas, the one at Stafford'.

Tamworth served as a residence of the Mercian kings, to which Edward took his mistress Egwynna. His two eldest illegimate children were born there, probably his daughter first, who remained unnamed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, & then his eldest son Aethelstan, who was a great favourite of his grandfather, Alfred the Great, who ennobled him & presented him with a mantle of royal purple, a girdle set with precious stones & a Saxon seax (sword) in a golden scabbard.

Æthelstan presenting a book to St Cuthbert, the earliest surviving portrait of an English king. Illustration in a manuscript of Bede's Life of Saint Cuthbert presented by Æthelstan to the saint's shrine in Chester-le-Street. He wore a crown of the same design on his "crowned bust" coins. (pictured above)

Ethelfleda brought up her nephew & his sister at Tamworth. She feared her brother Edward, whom she was not always on the best of terms, would soon marry & Athelstan would be placed in danger if more sons were born to Edward. Fears that later materialised when Aethelstan was left out of the succession, & unsuccesful attempts were made on his life. Æthelflæd worked towards her nephew gaining the crown, who was eventually recognised as King of England.

In 914 a Mercian army drawn from Gloucester & Hereford repelled a Viking invasion from Brittany, & the Iron Age Eddisbury hill fort was repaired to protect against invasion from Northumbria or Cheshire, while Warwick was fortified as further protection against the Leicester Danes. In 915 Chirbury was fortified to guard a route from Wales & Runcorn on the River Mersey. Defences were built before 914 at Hereford, & probably Shrewsbury & two other fortresses, at Scergeat  & Weardbyrig, which have not been located.

In 917 invasions by three Viking armies failed as Æthelflæd sent an army which captured Derby & the territory around it. The town was one of the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw, together with Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham & Stamford. Derby was the first to fall to the English; she lost "four of her thegns* who were dear to her" in the battle.

* The term thegn, from Old English þegn, ðegn, "servant, attendant, retainer", "one who serves", is commonly used to describe either an aristocratic retainer of a king or nobleman in Anglo-Saxon England.

Tim Clarkson, who describes Æthelflæd as "renowned as a competent war-leader", regards the victory at Derby as "her greatest triumph". At the end of the year, the East Anglian Danes submitted to her brother king Edward. In early 918, Æthelflæd gained possession of Leicester without opposition & most of the local Danish army submitted to her. A few months later, the leading men of Danish-ruled York offered to pledge their loyalty to Æthelflæd, probably to secure her support against Norse raiders from Ireland, but she died on 12 June 918, before she could take advantage of the offer. No similar offer is known to have been made to Edward.

According to the Three Fragments, in 918 Æthelflæd led an army of Scots & Northumbrian English against forces led by the Norse Viking leader Ragnall at the Battle of Corbridge in Northumbria. Historians consider this unlikely, but she may have sent a contingent to the battle. Both sides claimed victory but Ragnall was able to establish himself as ruler of Northumbria. In the Three Fragments, Æthelflæd also formed a defensive alliance with the Scots & the Strathclyde British, a claim accepted by Clarkson.

No coins were issued with the name of Æthelred or Æthelflæd on them, but in the 910s silver pennies were minted in west Mercian towns with unusual ornamental designs on the reverse & this may have reflected Æthelflæd's desire to distinguish specie issued under her control from that of her brother. After her death, west Mercian coin reverses were again the same as those on coins produced in Wessex. No charters of Edward survive for the period between 910 & his death in 924, whereas two survive in Æthelflæd's sole name, S 224, possibly dating to 914 and S 225, dated 9 September 915, issued at Weardbyrig, one of the burhs she built at an unidentified location.

Map of England in 912

She was buried beside her husband, Ethelred, at St Peter's Church (now St Oswald's priory) in Gloucester alongside the bones of St Oswald a former Christian king of Northumbria. Her tombstone is now displayed in Gloucester City Museum.

Mercia was inherited by Æthelflæd's daughter Ælfwynn for a few months. Ælfwynn submitted to her uncle, King Edward the Elder, who took her captive, after which Mercia was annexed to Wessex & thus Edward solidified his control over most of England.

After Æthelflæd's death

To the West Saxon version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Æthelflæd was merely King Edward's sister, whereas for the Mercian Register she was Lady of the Mercians. Irish & Welsh annals described her as a queen & the Annals of Ulster, which ignore the deaths of Alfred & Edward, described her as famosissima regina Saxonum (renowned Saxon queen).

She was also praised by Anglo-Norman historians such as John of Worcester & William of Malmesbury, who described her as "a powerful accession to [Edward's] party, the delight of his subjects, the dread of his enemies, a woman of enlarged soul". He claimed that she declined to have sex after the birth of her only child because it was "unbecoming of the daughter of a king to give way to a delight which, after a time, produced such painful consequences". According to Nick Higham, "successive medieval & modern writers were quite captivated by her" & her brother's reputation has suffered unfairly in comparison.

In the twelfth century, Henry of Huntingdon paid her his own tribute:

Heroic Elflede! great in martial fame,

A man in valour, woman though in name:

Thee warlike hosts, thee, nature too obey'd,

Conqu'ror o'er both, though born by sex a maid.

Chang'd be thy name, such honour triumphs bring.

A queen by title, but in deeds a king.

Heroes before the Mercian heroine quail'd:

Caesar himself to win such glory fail'd.

Some historians believe that Æthelred & Æthelflæd were independent rulers. In the Handbook of British Chronology, David Dumville refers to "Q. Æthelflæd" & comments, "The titles given her by all sources (hlæfdige, regina) imply that she wielded royal power & authority". Alex Woolf concurs & Pauline Stafford describes Æthelflæd as "the last Mercian queen", referred to in charters in such terms as "by the gift of Christ's mercy ruling the government of the Mercians". Stafford argues that Æthelred & Æthelflæd exercised most or all of the powers of a monarch after Alfred's death but it would have been a provocative act formally to claim regality, especially after Æthelwold's rebellion. Stafford sees her as a "warrior queen", "Like ... Elizabeth I she became a wonder to later ages."

According to Charles Insley, The assumption that Mercia was in some sort of limbo in this period, subordinate to Wessex & waiting to be incorporated into "England" cannot be sustained ... Æthelred's death in 911 changed little, for his formidable wife carried on as sole ruler of Mercia until her death in 918. Only then did Mercia's independent existence come to an end.

Wainwright sees Æthelflæd as willingly accepting a subordinate role in a partnership with her brother & agreeing to his plan of unification of Wessex & Mercia under his rule. Wainwright argues that he probably sent his oldest son Æthelstan to be brought up in Mercia, to make him more acceptable to the Mercians as king; Æthelflæd does not appear to have tried to find a husband for her daughter, who must have been nearly thirty by 918. In Wainwright's view, she was ignored in West Saxon sources for fear that recognition of her achievements would encourage Mercian separatism:

[Æthelflæd] played a vital role in England in the first quarter of the tenth century. The success of Edward's campaigns against the Danes depended to a great extent upon her cooperation. In the Midlands and the North she came to dominate the political scene. And the way in which she used her influence helped to make possible the unification of England under kings of the West Saxon royal house. But her reputation has suffered from bad publicity, or rather from a conspiracy of silence among her West Saxon contemporaries.

Simon Keynes points out that all coins were issued in Edward's name, & while the Mercian rulers were able to issue some charters on their own authority, others acknowledged Edward's lordship. In 903 a Mercian ealdorman "petitioned King Edward, & also Æthelred & Æthelflæd, who then held rulership & power over the race of the Mercians under the aforesaid king". Keynes argues that a new polity was created when Æthelred submitted to Alfred in the 880s, covering Wessex & English (western) Mercia. In Keynes's view, "the conclusion seems inescapable that the Alfredian polity of the kingship 'of the Anglo-Saxons' persisted in the first quarter of the tenth century, & that the Mercians were thus under Edward's rule from the beginning of his reign". Ryan believes that the Mercian rulers "had a considerable but ultimately subordinate share of royal authority".

In Higham's view, Keynes makes a strong case that Edward ruled over an Anglo-Saxon state with a developing administrative & ideological unity but that Æthelflæd & Æthelred did much to encourage a separate Mercian identity, such as establishing cults of Mercian saints at their new burhs, as well as reverence for their great Northumbrian royal saint at Gloucester: There must remain some doubt as to the extent to which Edward's intentions for the future were shared in all respects by his sister & brother-in-law, & one is left to wonder what might have occurred had their sole offspring had been male rather than female. Celtic visions of Æthelred & Æthelflæd as king & queen certainly offer a different, & equally valid, contemporary take on the complex politics this transition to a new English state.

In June 2018, Æthelflæd's funeral was re-enacted in front of a crowd of 10,000 people in Gloucester, as part of a series of living history events marking the 1,100th anniversary of her death.

The new Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians statue outside Tamworth Railway Station, erected to commemorate 1,100 years since her death in Tamworth. Her spear points visitors towards the town centre and Castle.

The new Aethelflaed statue outside Tamworth Railway Station, erected to commemorate 1,100 years since her death in Tamworth. Her spear points visitors towards the town centre & Castle. (above)


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Anglo-Saxon England

Anglo-Saxon England was early medieval England, existing from the 5th to the 11th centuries from the end of Roman Britain until the Norman conquest in 1066. It consisted of various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms until 927 when it was united as the Kingdom of England by King Æthelstan (r. 927–939). It became part of the short-lived North Sea Empire of Cnut the Great, a personal union between England, Denmark & Norway in the 11th century.

The Anglo-Saxons were the members of Germanic-speaking groups who migrated to the southern half of the island of Great Britain from nearby northwestern Europe. Anglo-Saxon history thus begins during the period of sub-Roman Britain following the end of Roman control, & traces the establishment of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 5th & 6th centuries (conventionally identified as seven main kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex, & Wessex), their Christianisation during the 7th century, the threat of Viking invasions and Danish settlers, the gradual unification of England under the Wessex hegemony during the 9th & 10th centuries, & ending with the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066.

Anglo-Saxon identity survived beyond the Norman conquest, came to be known as Englishry under Norman rule, & through social & cultural integration with Celts, Danes & Normans became the modern English people.



Old English: Miercna rīce; was one of the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. The name is a Latinisation of the Old English Mierce or Myrce (West Saxon dialect; Merce in the Mercian dialect itself), meaning "border people" (see March explanation below). Mercia dominated what would later become England for three centuries, before going into a gradual decline while Wessex eventually conquered & united all the kingdoms into the Kingdom of England. The kingdom was centred on the valley of the River Trent & its tributaries, in the region now known as the English Midlands. The kingdom did not have a single capital. The 'capital' was effectively wherever the king was at any given time. Early in its existence Repton seems to have been the location of an important royal estate.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it was from Repton in 873–4 that the Great Heathen Army deposed the King of Mercia. Slightly earlier, King Offa seems to have favoured Tamworth. It was there where he was crowned. For 300 years (between 600 & 900), having annexed or gained submissions from five of the other six kingdoms of the Heptarchy (East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex & Wessex), Mercia dominated England south of the River Humber: this period is known as the 'Mercian Supremacy'. The reign of King Offa, who is best remembered for his Dyke that designated the boundary between Mercia & the Welsh kingdoms, is sometimes known as the "Golden Age of Mercia".

Mercia was a pagan kingdom; King Peada converted to Christianity around 656, & Christianity was established in the kingdom by the late 7th century. The Diocese of Mercia was founded in 656, with the first bishop, Diuma, based at Repton. After 13 years at Repton, in 669 the fifth bishop, Saint Chad, moved the bishopric to Lichfield, where it has been based since. The current bishop, Michael Ipgrave, is the 99th since the diocese was established.

At the end of the 9th century, following the invasions of the Vikings & their Great Heathen Army, much of the former Mercian territory was absorbed into the Danelaw. At its height, the Danelaw included London, all of East Anglia & most of the North of England. The final Mercian king, Ceolwulf II, died in 879; the kingdom appears to have thereby lost its political independence. Initially, it was ruled by a lord or ealdorman under the overlordship of Alfred the Great, who styled himself "King of the Anglo-Saxons". The kingdom had a brief period of independence in the mid-10th century, & again very briefly in 1016; however, by this time, it was viewed as a province within the Kingdom of England, not an independent kingdom. Mercia is still used as a geographic designation, & the name is used by a wide range of organisations, including military units, public, commercial & voluntary bodies.

The Kingdom of Wessex

Wessex (Old English: Westseaxna rīce, the 'Kingdom of the West Saxons') was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the south of Great Britain, from 519 until England was unified by Æthelstan in 927.

The Anglo-Saxons believed that Wessex was founded by Cerdic & Cynric, but this could be a legend. The two main sources for the history of Wessex are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle & the West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List, which sometimes conflict. Wessex became a Christian kingdom after Cenwalh was baptised & was expanded under his rule. Cædwalla later conquered Sussex, Kent & the Isle of Wight. His successor, Ine, issued one of the oldest surviving English law codes & established a second West Saxon bishopric.

During the 8th century, as the hegemony of Mercia grew, Wessex largely retained its independence. It was during this period that the system of shires was established. Under Egbert, Surrey, Sussex, Kent, Essex, & Mercia, along with parts of Dumnonia, were conquered. He also obtained the overlordship of the Northumbrian king. However, Mercian independence was restored in 830. During the reign of his successor, Æthelwulf, a Danish army arrived in the Thames estuary, but was decisively defeated. When Æthelwulf's son, Æthelbald, usurped the throne, the kingdom was divided to avoid war. Æthelwulf was succeeded in turn by his four sons, the youngest being Alfred the Great.

Wessex was invaded by the Danes in 871, & Alfred was compelled to pay them to leave. They returned in 876, but were forced to withdraw. In 878 they forced Alfred to flee to the Somerset Levels, but were eventually defeated at the Battle of Edington. During his reign Alfred issued a new law code, gathered scholars to his court & was able to devote funds to building ships, organising an army & establishing a system of burhs. Alfred's son, Edward, captured the eastern Midlands & East Anglia from the Danes & became ruler of Mercia in 918 upon the death of his sister, Æthelflæd. Edward's son, Æthelstan, conquered Northumbria in 927, & England became a unified kingdom for the first time. Cnut the Great, who conquered England in 1016, created the wealthy & powerful earldom of Wessex, but in 1066 Harold Godwinson reunited the earldom with the crown & Wessex ceased to exist.

Old English

Old English (Ænglisc, Anglisc, Englisc, or Anglo-Saxon, is the earliest historical form of the English language, spoken in England & southern & eastern Scotland in the early Middle Ages. It was probably brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers in the mid-5th century, & the first Old English literary works date from the mid-7th century. After the Norman conquest of 1066, English was replaced, for a time, as the language of the upper classes by Anglo-Norman, a relative of French. This is regarded as marking the end of the Old English era, as during this period the English language was heavily influenced by Anglo-Norman, developing into a phase known now as Middle English.

Old English developed from a set of Anglo-Frisian or Ingvaeonic dialects originally spoken by Germanic tribes traditionally known as the Angles, Saxons & Jutes. As the Anglo-Saxons became dominant in England, their language replaced the languages of Roman Britain: Common Brittonic, a Celtic language, & Latin, brought to Britain by Roman invasion. Old English had four main dialects, associated with particular Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish & West Saxon. It was West Saxon that formed the basis for the literary standard of the later Old English period, although the dominant forms of Middle & Modern English would develop mainly from Mercian. The speech of eastern & northern parts of England was subject to strong Old Norse influence due to Scandinavian rule & settlement beginning in the 9th century.

Old English is one of the West Germanic languages, & its closest relatives are Old Frisian & Old Saxon. Like other old Germanic languages, it is very different from Modern English & difficult for Modern English speakers to understand without study. Within Old English grammar nouns, adjectives, pronouns & verbs have many inflectional endings & forms, & word order is much freer. The oldest Old English inscriptions were written using a runic system, but from about the 8th century this was replaced by a version of the Latin alphabet.


The Danelaw, also known as the Danelagh; Old English: Dena lagu; Danish: Danelagen), as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is a historical name given to the part of England in which the laws of the Danes held sway & dominated those of the Anglo-Saxons. Danelaw contrasts with West Saxon law & Mercian law. The term is first recorded in the early 11th century as Dena lage. Modern historians have extended the term to a geographical designation. The areas that constituted the Danelaw lie in northern & eastern England.

The Danelaw originated from the Viking expansion of the 9th century, although the term was not used to describe a geographic area until the 11th century. With the increase in population & productivity in Scandinavia, Viking warriors, having sought treasure & glory in the nearby British Isles, "proceeded to plough & support themselves", in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 876.

Danelaw can describe the set of legal terms & definitions created in the treaties between the King of Wessex, Alfred the Great, & the Danish warlord, Guthrum, written following Guthrum's defeat at the Battle of Edington in 878. In 886, the Treaty of Alfred & Guthrum was formalised, defining the boundaries of their kingdoms, with provisions for peaceful relations between the English & the Vikings. The language spoken in England was also affected by this clash of cultures with the emergence of Anglo-Norse dialects.

The Danelaw roughly comprised 15 shires: Leicester, York, Nottingham, Derby, Lincoln, Essex, Cambridge, Suffolk, Norfolk, Northampton, Huntingdon, Bedford, Hertford, Middlesex, & Buckingham.


Mancus (sometimes spelt mancosus or similar) was a term used in early medieval Europe to denote either a gold coin, a weight of gold of 4.25g, or a unit of account of thirty silver pence.

March (Territory);

In medieval Europe, a march or mark was a border between realms, &/or a neutral/buffer zone under joint control of two states, in which different laws might apply. In both of these senses, marches served a political purpose, such as providing warning of military incursions, or regulating cross-border trade, or both. Just as counties were traditionally ruled by 'counts', marches gave rise to titles such as marquess (masculine) or marchioness (feminine) in England.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

- is a collection of annals in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The original manuscript of the Chronicle was created late in the 9th century, probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899). Multiple copies were made of that one original & then distributed to monasteries across England, where they were independently updated. In one case, the Chronicle was still being actively updated in 1154.

Nine manuscripts survive in whole or in part, though not all are of equal historical value & none of them is the original version. The oldest seems to have been started towards the end of Alfred's reign, while the most recent was written at Peterborough Abbey after a fire at that monastery in 1116. Almost all of the material in the Chronicle is in the form of annals, by year; the earliest are dated at 60 BC (the annals' date for Caesar's invasions of Britain), & historical material follows up to the year in which the chronicle was written, at which point contemporary records begin. These manuscripts collectively are known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The Chronicle is not unbiased: there are occasions when comparison with other medieval sources makes it clear that the scribes who wrote it omitted events or told one-sided versions of stories; there are also places where the different versions contradict each other. Taken as a whole, however, the Chronicle is the single most important historical source for the period in England between the departure of the Romans & the decades following the Norman conquest. Much of the information given in the Chronicle is not recorded elsewhere. In addition, the manuscripts are important sources for the history of the English language; in particular, the later Peterborough text is one of the earliest examples of Middle English in existence. Seven of the nine surviving manuscripts & fragments reside in the British Library. The other two are in the Bodleian Library at Oxford & the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.


The Witenaġemot (Old English: witena ġemōt)"meeting of wise men"), also known as the Witan (more properly the title of its members), was a political institution in Anglo-Saxon England which operated from before the 7th century until the 11th century. The Witenagemot was an assembly of the tribe whose primary function was to advise the king & whose membership was composed of the most important noblemen in England, both ecclesiastic & secular. In England, by the 7th century, these ancient folkmoots had developed into convocations of the land's most powerful & important people, including ealdormen, thegns, & senior clergy, to discuss matters of both national & local significance.

Anglo-Saxon king with his witan. Biblical scene in the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch (11th century), portraying Pharaoh in court session, after passing judgment on his chief baker and chief cupbearer.

Image: Anglo-Saxon king with his witan. Biblical scene in the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch (11th century), portraying Pharaoh in court session, after passing judgment on his chief baker & chief cupbearer.


Anglo-Saxon status

Cyning (sovereign)

- Germanic kingship is a thesis regarding the role of kings among the pre-Christianized Germanic tribes of the Migration period (c. 300–700 AD) & Early Middle Ages (c. 700–1,000 AD).

Ætheling (prince)

- Ætheling (also spelt aetheling, atheling or etheling) was an Old English term (æþeling) used in Anglo-Saxon England to designate princes of the royal dynasty who were eligible for the kingship.

Myrcna hlædige, "Lady of the Mercians".

The title used by Æthelflæd.


- was a term in Anglo-Saxon England which originally applied to a man of high status, including some of royal birth, whose authority was independent of the king.

Image: A mention of ealdormen in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle


- High-reeve (Old English: hēahgerēfa) was a title taken by some English magnates during the 10th & 11th centuries, & is particularly associated with the rulers of Bamburgh. It was not however only used by rulers of Bamburgh; many other places used the title; e.g. there was an Ordulf "High-Reeve of Dumnonia"

Reeve (bailiff)

- Originally in Anglo-Saxon England the reeve was a senior official with local responsibilities under the Crown, e.g., as the chief magistrate of a town or district. Subsequently, after the Norman conquest, it was an office held by a man of lower rank, appointed as manager of a manor & overseer of the peasants.


The nobles titles thegn, also thane, or thayn in Shakespearean English, comes from the Old English þegn, "servant, attendant, retainer". In Anglo-Saxon England, it was commonly applied to aristocratic retainers of a king or senior nobleman. The office of ealdormen, or high-reeve were purely political & administrative, neither were noble titles at the time. It was also used in early medieval Scandinavia for classes of the greater nobility.


- A housecarl (Old Norse: húskarl, Old English: huscarl) was a non-servile manservant or household bodyguard in medieval Northern Europe. The institution originated amongst the Norsemen of Scandinavia, & was brought to Anglo-Saxon England by the Danish conquest in the 11th century. They were well-trained, & paid as full-time soldiers. In England, the royal housecarls had a number of roles, both military & administrative, & they fought under Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings.

Churl (free tenant)

- A churl (Old High German karal), in its earliest Old English (Anglo-Saxon) meaning, was simply "a man" or more particularly a "husband", but the word soon came to mean "a non-servile peasant", still spelled ċeorl, & denoting the lowest rank of freemen. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it later came to mean the opposite of nobility & royalty, "a common person". Says Chadwick: we find that the distinction between thegn & ceorl is from the time of Aethelstan the broad line of demarcation between the classes of society.

Villein (serf)

- A villein, otherwise known as cottar or crofter, is a serf tied to the land in the feudal system. Villeins had more rights & social status than those in slavery, but were under a number of legal restrictions which differentiated them from the freeman.

Image: Medieval illustration of men harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks, on a calendar page for August. Queen Mary's Psalter (Ms. Royal 2. B. VII), fol. 78v.

Cottar (cottager)

- Cotters occupied cottages & cultivated small land lots. The word cotter is often employed to translate the cotarius recorded in the Domesday Book, a social class whose exact status has been the subject of some discussion among historians, & is still a matter of doubt. According to Domesday, the cotarii were comparatively few, numbering fewer than seven thousand people. They were scattered unevenly throughout England, located principally in the counties of Southern England. They either cultivated a small plot of land, or worked on the holdings of the villani. Like the villani, among whom they were frequently classed, their economic condition may be described as free in relation to every one except their lord. A cottar or cottier is also a term for a tenant who was renting land from a farmer or landlord.

Þēow (slave)

- Slavery & enslavement are both the state and the condition of being a slave, who is someone forbidden to quit their service for another person (a slaver), while treated as property. Slavery typically involves the enslaved person being made to perform some form of work while also having their location dictated by the slaver.


The Great Heathen Army

A depiction of a Viking warship
A depiction of a Viking warship

The Great Danish Army, or the Viking Great Army, known to the Anglo-Saxons as the Great Heathen Army (Old English: mycel hæþen here), was a coalition of Norse warriors, originating in Denmark but including warbands from Norway & Sweden, who came together under a unified command to invade the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that constituted England in AD 865.

Since the late 8th century, the Vikings had primarily engaged in "hit-&-run" raids on centres of wealth such as monasteries. The Great Heathen Army was distinct from these raids in that it was much larger & formed to occupy & conquer large territories.

The name Great Heathen Army is derived from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 865. Legend has it that the force was led by four of the five sons of Ragnar Lodbrok, including Hvitserk, Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn Ironside & possibly Ubba. The campaign of invasion & conquest against the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms lasted 14 years. Surviving sources give no firm indication of its numbers, but it was amongst the largest forces of its kind.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not mention the reason for this invasion, perhaps because Viking raids were fairly common during that period of time. The Tale of Ragnar's Sons, on the other hand, mentions that the invasion of England by the Great Heathen Army was aimed at avenging the death of Ragnar Lodbrok, a legendary Viking ruler of Sweden & Denmark. In the Viking saga, Ragnar is said to have conducted a raid on Northumbria during the reign of King Ælla. The Vikings were defeated & Ragnar was captured by the Northumbrians. Ælla then had Ragnar executed by throwing him into a pit of venomous snakes. When the sons of Ragnar received news of their father's death, they decided to avenge him.

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