Women’s History Month guest, Annie Whitehead

Today I have the joy of introducing someone whose writing I need to read. Helen Hollick introduced me to her work. Writers know other writers no other writers. We never run out of amazing discoveries to make. Annie ‘s work is set in the Early Middle Ages according to my own Medievalist mind (there are as many definitions as there are Medievalists), which means her post is going to be particularly interesting to those of you know know that period particularly well. I want to say, in a dramatic voice, “You know who you are,” but there is no real drama in it. In this case the discovery is extra-useful, for Annie Whitehead shares a non-fiction publisher with me. It’s a lot of fun when an historian and a fiction writer are the same person. This means you share my joy, and my curiosity about her approach to the Middle Ages. Gillian

Shining Lights: Women of the ‘Dark Ages’ and How to Find Them

A line was drawn across history in 1066. Not only did William the Conqueror defeat the last Anglo-Saxon king, but he and his Norman court changed the way of life in England. Even though we often call the ‘Dark Ages’ the ‘Early Medieval Period’ now, we cannot assume that what was true of Anglo-Norman and later medieval life was true before the Conquest, and this particularly applies to women’s lives.  

In general, a woman’s lot in England pre-1066 was (in theory and law) a relatively happy one. Looking at marriage contracts we can find evidence that, far from the women being sold by their fathers to their prospective husbands, the bridegroom paid the money (morgengifu), to the woman herself, giving her financial security and independence within marriage. 

A marriage agreement from the later part of the period confirmed that the groom gave his bride some land to give and to grant to “whomsoever she pleased during her lifetime or after her death.” It was clearly hers to bequeath and deal with as she liked.

King Cnut’s laws decreed: “A widow is never to be consecrated as a nun too hastily”  and, “neither a widow nor a maiden is ever to be forced to marry a man whom she herself dislikes.” 

Of course, life was slightly different for those in the ruling classes, for the freedom to marry where they liked was not always extended to them and some royal wives might not have retired to monasteries through choice.

One woman about whom I’ve written in fiction and nonfiction, is Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great of Wessex. Her marriage was indeed an arranged one, made to strengthen the alliance between Wessex and its neighbour, Mercia. There is actually very little mention of Æthelflæd in the chronicles, yet we have enough in the documented history about her husband to make deductions about her, and we have the Mercian Register*, which details her activities (until her death in 918) from 902. Her husband, Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, having been mentioned fighting alongside Alfred and his son Edward, abruptly disappears from the record at this time, and in 907 we are told that ‘Chester was restored’ (i.e. wrested from Viking control) but not by whom. 

If it was Edward (Alfred’s successor, by now king of Wessex), or Æthelred, why not say so? It seems strange that at this pivotal time, a woman was allowed to lead, yet it’s hard not to conclude that Æthelflæd was in charge of Mercia at this time, and that her husband was ill. 

An – admittedly unreliable – fragmentary annal from Ireland known as the Three Fragments tells us that when Chester was overrun, messengers were sent to the ‘King of the Saxons [Æthelred] who was in a disease and on the point of death’ and suggests that Æthelflæd was in charge, acting on his advice. Itdoes seem likely that she was the de facto ruler of Mercia from 902 onwards. Though he died in 911, there is no mention of Æthelred’s being present at the battle of Tettenhall, deep in Mercian territory, in 910. In 909, it was his wife who was credited with building a fortress at a place called Bremesbyrig. So it’s probably safe to conclude that he was indeed ill, and for some time.

When Æthelred died, Edward took London and Oxford under the direct control of Wessex, but left Mercia ‘proper’ to his sister. He was facing Viking threats, and rebellion from within, so perhaps couldn’t control Mercia too. But why not appoint an ealdorman to rule the province in his name? A woman leader was not unique but was rare. Edward didn’t allow Æthelflæd’s daughter to succeed, so perhaps this speaks of both women’s personal qualities. 

We don’t know that Æthelflæd wielded a sword, however. The Mercian Register focuses on her building programme, rather than the fighting, with Edward building five fortresses and Æthelflæd building nine. The campaigns were strategic and coordinated. 

In addition, the Mercian Register tells us that in 916 she sent an army into Brycheiniog in Wales to avenge the death of an abbot. The following year she took control of Derby and in 918 the Three Fragments says that she directed a battle against the Dublin-Norse, ordering her troops to cut down the trees where the ‘pagans’ were hiding, suggesting (though this is the only source that says so) that she was conducting her own campaign against the Norse. 

On 12 June 918, Æthelflæd died. Six months later, her daughter was taken into Wessex. The Mercian Register complains that she was ‘deprived of all authority’. Why was Edward content to let his sister govern Mercia, but not her daughter; did the daughter not match the mother in terms of ability? Timing may be a factor here; by this stage, Edward had adult sons, who needed more inheritance than could be provided by Wessex alone. But that Edward left his sister in charge, firstly after her husband’s incapacitation, and then again after his death, when he could have marched in and brought Mercia under his direct control, surely tells us a lot about her and their relationship, especially bearing in mind that he did exactly that once she’d died. It speaks to me of her personal strengths.

Æthelflæd wasn’t a queen and her husband, though leader of a kingdom, wasn’t a king. Their status as a couple is anomalous; unique. She continued her husband’s quest, she worked closely with her brother, was succeeded albeit briefly by another female ruler, and it’s clear she was a remarkable woman. 

Remarkable, yet barely remarked upon; we really can fit what we know about her into a few short pages. The paradox is that those few short pages can easily be expanded to fill an entire novel. Her strength of character, fascinating to the historian, also appealed to me as a novelist. When writing To Be A Queen, I could easily imagine the close bond which must have existed between brother and sister, and her challenges in persuading the Mercians to accept her rule. Warrior woman or not, what she achieved was astonishing.

She’s far from the only one, however. My book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England will be published by Pen & Sword Books in May. It includes around 150 named women: women who influenced royal successions, educated bishops, left detailed wills, exhibited high levels of literacy, and ruled as regents for their sons. With law codes, charters and chronicles (and again, reading between the lines where necessary), it is possible to reconstruct their lives. They didn’t always have a say about whom they married, but some did. They didn’t always rule in their own right, but a few did. One razed a town to the ground, perhaps in support of her son’s claim to the throne (she preceded Æthelflæd by nearly 200 years). A number of these women remained powerful at court even after their husband the king had died, either as regents, or respected mothers of kings. It was a rewarding challenge to bring their stories into the light.

*The Mercian Register is a series of entries contained within the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle concentrating exclusively on Æthelflæd, recording her death with the words ‘the eighth year in which she had held power with right lordship’. There are only two mentions of Æthelred. There may have been a lost annal, one in which Æthelred played a much more prominent role but, if there were such a chronicle, it’s lost to us. The focus as we have it now, is very much on Æthelflæd’s role as ruler. Even so, typed out, it still only covers one A4 sheet of paper. I know; I’ve done it!

Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon Mercia: To Be A Queen, Alvar the Kingmaker, and Cometh the Hour. Her first nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is published by Amberley. Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is available for pre-order now.

1 comment

    • Annie Whitehead on 24 March 2020 at 02:50
    • Reply

    Thanks so much for inviting me to your blog Gillian. I’m thrilled to be part of this celebration of women’s history.

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