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Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia - The First Diplomatic, Merciful, AND Bad Ass (Unofficial) Queen of England :)

So in preparation for the fifth season of The Last Kingdom, we've been re-watching the first four.

Other than inserting Uhtred the Bold - who was a real person -  into these historic events 100 years before he actually existed (and creating an entirely fictional character/story around him) - the historical accuracy of the events of the original formation of the United Kingdom (within England itself) is supposedly as accurate as we understand them to date.

In this way, the show is much like "The Crown, The Medieval Years," in that it takes actual events and noted quotes and personality documentation and creates a story from them.

One of the most glaringly apparent parallels with our culture today is how much one group hated and feared the other based on region, race, and/or faith - and the same is true today - just swap the names of groups, faith, and color of skin.

Because nowadays, we no longer hate and fear the Vikings - which were three separate "sons" of the same mythology - Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian - or even people from the North or South regions within our own country - we now hate and fear Muslims and people of color.

(*Sigh* - it makes one fear if we will ever grow up.  Some progress has been made, but mostly, we just trade groups to demonize.)

Enter Uhtred, who in the show, was born of Saxon noble birth, but raised by "pagan" Danes (initially a slave, then an adopted Dane son), after a raid on his ancestral land resulted in a deal where Uhtred's uncle sold him into slavery, along with a load of silver, to the Danes, in exchange for keeping his lands and claiming himself the heir.

Thus, Uhtred is forever tested by both Saxons and Danes on both his loyalty to their cultures and their faiths, though he doesn't necessarily believe fully in either (though he has been through both baptism and coming-of-age religious rituals in both cultures), because he feels horrible atrocities are committed on both sides in the name of God or Gods and country, and that there is little difference in the groups overall - that there are pockets of bad people in every country, culture, and faith, as well as good.

However, his main goal is to get his ancestral Saxon lands back - but considering he is also a highly intelligent, skilled warrior, Alfred continues to put carrots in front of his nose to get his land back in exchange for promises to serve him in battle, by putting him in repeated Catch-22 situations (which Uhtred manages to still exert his own will upon anyway, without being a traitor, though he walks a fine line lol).

In reality, although he did battle with his uncle for his ancestral lands, and though he did sometimes side with certain Dane factions based on atrocities committed, moral lines crossed, or principles, the rest is  entirely fiction -  and as mentioned previously, none of the events of King Alfred, his son, King Edward the I, his daughter, Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia, happened in Uhtred's lifetime - they happened a century earlier.

In researching a little bit on the actual history, I was astonished to find that the story about King Alfred's daughter, Aethelflaed, was astonishingly true - she was, for all intents and purposes, the first Queen of England, though tradition prevented her from being called that.

Though supposedly very pretty, delicate and feminine in appearance, nurturing, and educated in the usual tasks of women in the day, she was also educated intellectually alongside men, as well as taught swordsmanship along with men.

This is because her father, Alfred - who by all accounts was an incredibly intelligent, forward-thinking (but somewhat faith-intolerant) man - believed women should be subservient to men - BUT - also believed she should be able to converse knowledgeably with others, as well as protect and defend herself  - because noblewomen and noble daughters were the first thing enemy tribes and kingdoms went after during raids.

Most importantly, without her actions, her father's dream of a united England  may have never have been realized, and England may very well have been now been a part of Scandinavia  :).

Well, at least she shared the kingdom with her brother, King Edward I - but it was her foresight, brilliance, diplomacy-with-close-backup-force that united the tribes of England in a crucial 917 battle that saved England and helped realize her father's dream of a United Kingdom :)

Now - if you read the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is widely regarded as the most detailed account history of the times - begun by Alfred,  King of Wessex (thus, heavily biased in favor of Wessex-kingdom history)  - she is barely mentioned.  

However, if you read the Mercian Register - which now exists as a sort of addendum to the AS Chronicle - or the Annals of Aethelflaed - Edward is barely mentioned.

This discrepancy is less about a gender (though it is one ingredient), and more about Wessex and Mercia being two separate kingdoms of Saxons, at the time, biased in over-crediting themselves solely for victories (because as we know, history is always told from the perspective of the victors or by their own native-son accounts, regardless of objective accuracy) -  plus add in a dash of sibling rivalry, and Edward's jealousy that his sister, Aethelflaed, was more beloved by the people and better able to negotiate with surrounding Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.  

Whereas Edward saw only threats, Aethelflaed, like her father, saw  not only threats, but opportunities :)

Regardless, how did a woman somehow obtain that kind of power, during that time?

Regardless of "lust for power" theories, which although is true in some women, is also true of some men (the same sort of men and women who often project their own lust for power onto all women in  power as in deflection) - the truth is, this happened the way it usually happened historically, of course - through some combination of untimely death of a male ruler and not having a male heir-apparent that was yet of age - in other words, out of necessity :)

At the time, Vikings - a term that can mean three separate sons of Viking "pagan" faith and culture - Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian - wanted more fertile land and more silver, as they didn't have enough to support their people.

Instead of trade, at the time, the Vikings (especially Danes and Norwegians) had a nasty habit of conquering other people in other lands to accomplish this, largely due to their religious/mythological beliefs that death in battle, with a weapon in your hand, was the only way to Valhalla (Viking heaven).

Thankfully, both Scandinavian and English descendants have (mostly) evolved from that "conquering" mentality since then, though we all still need to deal with the remnant rot of colonialism.

Americans and Russians?  

Though, as I said, the remnant rot of our colonialism still exists, we should really pay more attention to how much these countries have evolved since those days - and how much some of our/your leaders - have not.

 Nevertheless, at the time, the many tribes and kingdoms within what is now England - when not battling each other - were under constant attack from the three groups of Vikings, and thus King Alfred of Wessex felt the best way to avoid total Viking conquest was to unite all of the tribal kingdoms of England against them.

He was unable to accomplish this in his lifetime, but what he did do was seal an alliance between Wessex and Mercia by marrying off his daughter, Aethelfled, to Mercia's prince, Aethelred.

(Not the prettiest or most sonorous of names, I agree, and confusing - but it helps if you understand that "Aeth" or "Aethling" in Old English means "noble" or "one of noble birth." )

Thus, his male heir, Edward, would become the future King of Wessex, while his daughter would become the consort of the Aethelred, the King of Mercia.

HOWEVER - King Aethelred became sickly and died with only one heir - a young girl.

Thus, Aetheflaed increasingly resumed his duties out of necessity, and was so well beloved and did such an accomplished job, the Mercian (and Wessex) people began to elevate her title themselves, from "King's Consort" to "Lady of Mercia" (but not Queen, as she could not be officially).

Though I won't take time to list all of the battles against the Vikings that she presided over  - and debatably participated in herself, wielding a sword -   I will mention her most important achievements - which were validated not just by the Mercian Register and the Annals of Aethelflaed, but by Danelaw history.

So - initially, she ceded part of northern Mercia to the Danish Vikings to help their people with food (especially their children, as she supposedly was especially a champion for all children) - in exchange for peace - as an effort to encourage  a system of trade for needed goods rather than war.

This was a significant departure from both her father and brother's attitude towards Vikings, who were completely intolerant of anyone who was not Christian and showed no mercy unless they converted to Christianity.

HOWEVER - although she may have been more tolerant and merciful towards those of differing cultures/beliefs - she was not stupid.

Thus, knowing that conquest and battle is part of Viking religious belief, she knew the peace would not last.

Thus, she used this time during what she knew would be a temporary peace to strengthen forts, the size and training of her military, the number of spies on all sides of the ceded lands to the Danes, and most importantly, created alliances with the varying tribes of England to be called up should the Danes attack again.

Which, of course, they did.

Thus, her final accomplishment in 917 was not only expelling the Dane Vikings out of Mercia completely, but recapturing Derby - one of the five Danish boroughs in England - after the Vikings violated the peace and once again attacked Saxons on Mercian soil.

She accomplished this not only by using the time during her negotiated peace in preparation for further attack, as mentioned above -  but also by successfully negotiating and uniting most of the tribes of England against a common threat, which included not only her brother's kingdom of Wessex, but even the Welsh to join forces (which her brother, Edward, was unable to do, because he kept treating them as inferiors and potential subjects).

In other words, her diplomatic actions resulted in the very first example that her father's dream of a United Kingdom -  where they stopped fighting each other to unite against a common threat -  was a possible reality :)

Like I said in my title, she was diplomatic when she needed to be AND a bad-ass, when she needed to be - out of necessity, not power hunger.

Unfortunately, when she choose her successor and transferred her  power to her only heir, her daughter Aelfwynn, now as "Queen," King Edward I (Aethelflaed's brother) stripped her of this title, saying it did not exist, and claimed Mercia now under his rule as well as Sussex.

We assume he did so under force, but in fact, we don't not know - because apparently, the AS Chronicle doesn't detail how this was accomplished despite Mercian acceptance of Aelfwynn, probably because the way this was accomplished was likely something they'd rather sweep under the rug ;)

Well, that's another way to unite the kingdoms ... I guess?

And yet statues, plaques, and stained-glass windows still exist all  over former Mercian lands, as well as former recaptured Danelaw boroughs throughout England -  to tell the tale of their beloved Lady of Mercia, daughter of King Alfred - (Queen) Aethelflaed :)

Though many tales include her actually fighting on the battlefield, it is unknown whether she actually participated in battles or not or just directed and observed them - but what we do know is that her father did have her trained in swordsmanship to protect herself - and that she was on the battlefield dressed in armor, even if just in observation - because she believed ordering men to their deaths on her command, without her own participation, was cowardly.

Regardless, she is one of the few existing artistic depictions of women holding a sword from that time period - sometimes with her other reassuring, motherly hand on her young nephew's head :)


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