Saturday Snapshots of a Warrior Queen

I took this picture of Tamworth Castle a couple of years ago,
and some of the trees have been cut back, but it shows the
mound (said to have been built by Ethelfleda) fairly clearly.

I am feeling sad today, because my elder daughter left this morning to set up a home of her own with her boyfriend in Plymouth, which is around 225 miles away from us. She has arranged to do her final placement as a student in a hospital down there, and has been lucky enough to get a nursing job, which she can start in September, when her training is complete and she will, hopefully, be fully qualified. Obviously, I am tremendously proud of her, but I shall miss her, and Devon seems a long way from Staffordshire.

So, to cheer myself up, today’s Saturday Snapshots are about a feisty warrior queen, whose story is very stirring. Ethelfleda, known as the Lady of the Mercians, was born around 869 and was the daughter of Alfred the Great (the one who burnt the cakes, but that’s another tale altogether). After the death of her husband Ethelred – not the Unready, but an earlier king of the same name – she became ruler of Mercia and embarked on a ferocious campaign against the Danes, beating them back to Watling Street, the old Roman road. People to the north of the route had to pay the Danegeld, which sounds less like a tax, and more like the kind of protection racket run by American gangsters during Prohibition. But, thanks to Ethelfelda, people living on the southern side were free Saxons – although personally given the social set-up of the day, I think the word ‘free’ may be open to question.

The Ethelfleda Monument in Tamworth.

Anyway, Ethelfleda built a string of defensive fortresses across the Midlands, including the one she established here in Tamworth in 913. It is thought she raised the mound on which the present Castle stands so, presumably, her fortress (which would probably have been an earth rampart and wooden stockade) was on the same site. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicles: 

This year by the permission of God went Ethelfleda, lady of Mercia, with all the Mercians to Tamworth; and built the fort there in the fore-part of the summer; and before Lammas that at Stafford: in the next year that at Eddesbury, in the beginning of the summer; and the same year, late in the autumn, that at Warwick. Then in the following year was built, after mid-winter, that at Chirbury and that at Warburton; and the same year before mid-winter that at Runkorn.

In AD916 she led an army into Brecknock, in Wales, where she captured the king’s wife and 34 other people. She fought her last battle at Derby in 918, where the Chronicles record that:
This year Ethelfleda, lady of the Mercians, with the help of God, before Laminas, conquered the town called Derby, with all that thereto belonged; and there were also slain four of her thanes, that were most dear to her, within the gates. And the annals go on to explainBut very shortly after they had become so, she died at Tamworth, twelve days before midsummer, the eighth year of her having rule and right lordship over the Mercians; and her body lies at Gloucester, within the east porch of St Peter’s church.

Floral Fighter: This Saxon soldier
was created last year.

There is nothing to indicate whether she died from a wound, from illness, or old age. She was about 50, which doesn’t sound that old, but I have no idea what the average expectancy was in those days. Her tomb, apparently, can still be seen in the church she endowed, which is now known as St Oswald’s Priory. I keep promising myself that one of these days I will visit the city to pay homage to a local heroine. Her daughter Elfwyn succeeded her as Lady of the Mercians, but the following year was ‘deprived of all dominion over the Mercians, and carried into Wessex‘ (the Anglo Saxon Chronicles again). It was Ethelfleda’s nephew Athelstan, whom she had fostered, who eventually took the reins of power and became king, not just of Mercia, but of all England. 

A statue of Ethelfleda, sheltering the young Athelstan with one arm while wielding a sword with the other, stands beneath the walls of Tamworth Castle.  It was created for the town’s Millenary Celebrations of 1913, marking the 1,000th anniversary of the year when Ethelfleda, Lady of the Mercians, freed Tamworth from the Danes and fortified the town. By the way, if you want to know where Watling Street was, find a road map and look for the A5: it more or less follows the old route where it ran from London to Wales. And if you don’t know much about Mercia, it covered most of Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire.

A view of the whole statue.

For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice’s blog

48 thoughts on “Saturday Snapshots of a Warrior Queen

  1. I've appreciated how you present in-depth historical background with all your snapshots. Thanks for all the research and write-up… info I wouldn't have known otherwise. I don't have a Sat. Snapshot this time, but have posted my exploration in books and DVD's a historical period also… WWI. All due to Downton Abbey.


  2. Sometimes we do have to commemorate the brave and courageous characters in history when our loved ones fly the coop.

    225 miles seems like a great distance…and I have one kid who lives about 350 miles away. But the oldest lives thousands of miles away in Berlin…so I remind myself that Skype can fill in, sort of.

    Good luck with the absence in your home, but not your heart. Thanks for visiting my blog.


  3. Thank you Laurel-Rain. I don't think that the British cope with distances as well as you do in America, which is odd when you consider how small Britain is!

    I have Skype, and emails, and the mobile for texts, so really I am lucky.


  4. She is a wonderful daughter, and so is my younger daughter, who left home last year, but lives in Birmingham, which is near enough to meet for coffee and browse around the shops, or the market, or the museum and art gallery. I am really proud of them both.


  5. That's a terrific story! She was a courageous woman. I wonder why her daughter didn't succeed? Wasn't made of the same stern stuff?

    Good luck to your daughter with her nursing studies!


  6. What a wonderful idea to post on these strong historical women! I love that you took the time to include some history with each photo too! Best wishes to your daughter and to you. I know how odd and sometimes lonely it feels to see a child leave home.


  7. It was wonderful reading about Ethelfleda – I had no idea! I would think 50 might have been pretty old back then. On the other hand I'm 59, and I feel downright ancient myself some days.
    This must be a very poignant time for you – being proud of your daughter and her accomplishments but probably wishing those accomplishments didn't take her so far away. It sounds like she will be about a four hour drive which isn't so terrible…just right for a weekend visit.


  8. That's some fascinating history that I'd never heard of. I'll have to see if my daughter is familiar with this story. She loves European history and always finds a way to link our family to all the important rulers! Sorry you are blue that your daughter has moved away. With 3 teenagers in the house right now, I'm kind of looking forward to those days.
    Here's Mine


  9. Amazing story, I had never heard it before! And now I know why you're missing the sun, as you live on England. Texans rarely get that opportunity to miss the sun, but I'm okay with that 😉


  10. I would assume the daughter wasn't the same sort of character, or perhaps she was too young – there doesn't seem to be much information about her. Athelstan was actually a very strong and able king, but he too seems to have been forgotten – I think the Normans effectively 'wrote-out' England's Saxon heritage when they came to power. 11th centuring spin-doctoring I guess!


  11. Shirley, that's very kind of you. It does seem very strange – sounds silly, but our younger daughter moved into a flat last year, so now it's just the two of us my husband and I feel as if we are getting to know each other again.


  12. What an entirely fascinating story of this queen from past ages! Hope you're doing okay with the separation thing! I have three kids who have moved away from home … it's hard, but gratifying to know they can function on their own! You've done your job well if she feels confident to live on her own! Good job, Mom!


  13. I recently read Sarah Foot's biography of Athelstan which gave me more information about this period of history which I don't know well enough. The photos are beautiful. Hope it cheered you up a little.


  14. I have been trying to get this book from the library. It is such a fascinating period, yet is not well known at all. People have this idea that between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Normans, the English were savages, and it's not true at all.


  15. Thankfully my other daughter is quite close. It's funny, you think you're all alone when they go, but everyone goes through this, and it is a chance for my husband and I to regain our 'two-ness'!


  16. This is the type of history that we just don't learn much about in the US (unless taking specific history classes in college – and I wasn't a history major). I love learning about strong women leaders and have never heard of Ethelfleda before.


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