Aethelflaed: Celebrating Gloucester’s warrior queen
- Credit: Candia McKormack
This month the city of Gloucester is celebrating the life of one very powerful women; an Anglo Saxon queen who sent enemies packing with boiling beer and bee hives, and fearlessly fought off Viking invaders
Dating back to Roman times, the cathedral city of Gloucester is delving into its historical roots this month (June) with celebrations marking the 1100th anniversary of the death of Aethelflaed.
“Aethel-who?”, I hear you cry. It’s a name with which many might not be familiar, but that’s the point of several days of celebration: to make residents and visitors aware of the debt the city owes to this Anglo-Saxon ruler, and to restore her to her rightful place as a heroine of Gloucester.
Aethelflaed was a warrior queen, the only female ruler of a kingdom in Anglo-Saxon history. The daughter of Alfred, King of Wessex, (better known as Alfred the Great), she was born in 870 AD and brought up at a turbulent time when England was divided into several kingdoms, each ruled by a powerful lord, and beset by Viking raiders from Denmark.
Alfred aimed to defeat the Danes by uniting the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and his daughter’s marriage to Aethelred of Mercia was one step in joining two powerful areas. Aethelflaed didn’t just marry, Aethelred, however: she became joint ruler of Mercia and went on to be revered as one of the most important women in English history.
Records of the time fail to make much mention of our heroine – in fact, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (the main source) pretty well ignores her. But a West Mercian version of the work gives mention of her exploits and her name lives on in legend.
During her time in Gloucester, Aethelflaed is thought to have lived in a royal palace at Kingsholm and built on the Roman development of the city, laying out the street plan and fortifying settlements against Viking raids.
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The story goes that, together, Aethelred and Aethelflaed oversaw the building of a chain of fortified towns, or ‘burhs’, and harried the Viking invaders, winning a notable victory at Tettenhall near Wednesbury, killing three Danish kings.
Aethelred’s health appears to have declined before his death in 911, after which Aethelflaed, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’, became sole ruler of the kingdom. Her operations ranged far and wide: she is credited with beating back those who laid siege to Chester by the ingenious tactic of dropping boiling beer and bee hives onto the would-be attackers, while she also played a part in sending an expedition to Bardney, deep in Danelaw, to regain the relics of Oswald, a warrior saint of Northumbria: these were brought back to Gloucester and enshrined in the new minster which was renamed St Oswald’s in his honour.
In her later years, Aethelflaed continued to build defences and to attack the Viking invaders. Her exploits included the capture of Derby in 917, and Leicester in 918, and the leaders of York were about to offer her their loyalty when she died: her body was carried 75 miles to Gloucester where she was buried alongside her husband in St Oswald’s Minster.
At the time of her death, the kingdom of Mercia stretched from the Mersey to Wessex. Eminent historian Michael Wood credits her as a diplomat and leader without whom ‘England might never have happened’. If you’re inspired to find out more, she’s even on Facebook...
The cathedral city of Gloucester contains an impressive mixture of old and new, with wide ancient streets providing spectacular townscapes, modern shops next to Georgian homes next to medieval buildings, plus alleys and hidden corners to explore.
To honour Aethelflaed, a programme of events including theatre, music, poetry and living history will celebrate her life and achievements. One of the highlights will be the recreation of an Anglo-Saxon funeral procession, when the coffin of the Lady of the Mercians will arrive by boat then be carried through the streets of the city to St Oswald’s Priory.
The aim of the festival programme is for people to learn about Aethelflaed and to get a taste of life in Anglo-Saxon times, whether that’s through listening to music and poems, quaffing Aethelflaed Ale, sampling the sounds and smells of the era, or learning the facts from leading historians.
A living history encampment at St Oswald’s, complete with wooden stockade and gateway, will offer the chance to see how the Anglo-Saxons lived, listen to poetry, theatre and music, and use hi-tech equipment to carry out geo-physical surveys.
Nick Brookes, Chairman of Gloucester Business Improvement District (Gloucester BID), which is funding the celebrations, said: “Gloucester owes a great debt to Lady Aethelflaed. After the Romans, Aethelflaed played a hugely important role in laying the foundations of the Gloucester we see today. We hope that the public will join us in celebrating her life and achievements.”
Those who fall under the spell of Aethelflaed might also like to pay a visit to St Andrew’s Church at Churchdown which has its own tribute to the warrior queen in the form of a rather splendid stained-glass lancet window. The Lady of Mercians was, by local tradition, owner of the Barony of Churchdown in Saxon times: her window faces one representing St Oswald, the Northumbrian king, saint and martyr, one of whose relics was regained from the Danes by Aethelflaed and enshrined in the Priory in Gloucester.
In April, Gloucestershire Arts Council announced plans for a statue to celebrate ‘Gloucester’s most famous and dynamic woman from history’.
A design has been created by Pascal Mychalysin, head of Gloucester Cathedral’s team of stone masons, and the result will be a giant head, around 8 feet tall. Pascal said: “Aethelflaed was one of the most important women in the history of this island but not many people know about her, so this anniversary is a good opportunity to correct that. I chose a giant head for the concept to ensure she will never be forgotten again, and I hope the statue could be placed at the Quays, with a view towards the Cathedral, to ensure maximum exposure.”
Phil McCormick, chair of Gloucestershire Arts Council, said: “Pascal has come up with a design that’s a thing of beauty but, more importantly for us, it’s unique. We wanted to keep it as a locally-manufactured statue, and we think we’re going to create something that will draw in people with an interest in history, and those who come to see a unique piece of art in Gloucester.
“I’m now engaging with the other organisations that need to be on board with this and help raise the £75,000 to pay for it – the Civic Trust, the City Council via Marketing Gloucester, and the Women’s Institute - then we start on the commercial sector.”
He adds: “The idea is to draw people into the city and to the historic site, raising Aethelflaed’s profile because, without her, there wouldn’t be a Gloucester.”
Tuesday, June 12
Evensong dedicated to Aethelflaed, Gloucester Cathedral, 5.30pm
Saturday, June 9 to September 15. Museum of Gloucester exhibition celebrating ‘Britain’s Greatest Woman General’.
Saturday, June 9 onwards – Anglo-Saxon Christus Revealed. The Cathedral’s oldest piece of stonework, an Anglo-Saxon carving of Christ which dates from the 800s, goes back on display in the Bridge Chapel.