It is often quoted that Britain has an issue with a lack of diversity among its statues, with most of them being of white men. There is also an often held erroneous belief that impressive women who changed society in Britain appeared in our history in the mid nineteenth century, with many being hard pressed to name a woman from before 1800 who had an impact on our history other than perhaps Elizabeth I. Of course, there are many women who played a significant part in our nation’s development, like Empress Matilda, Dido Belle, Bess of Hardwick, Margaret Brotherton or Eleanor of Aquitaine. Among these great figures is Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia, who ruled the great kingdom of Mercia 1100 years ago and of whom a new statue has been unveiled in Tamworth.
Æthelflæd was the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex. Soon after her birth in 870, the vikings captured much of England, including East Anglia, Northumbria and parts of Mercia. In 878, Alfred defeated the army of Guthrum, king of th Danish Vikings, at the battle of Edington, leading to the treaty of Wedmore, or the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, which defined the boundaries of the areas of control. Alfred declared himself King of The Anglo Saxons, and Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, recognised Alfred’s overlordship. His predecessors were the kings of Mercia, he was the Lord. Alfred arranged for Æthelred to be married to his daughter, Æthelflæd. Wary of the situation with the Viking kingdoms, the couple fortified Worcester and built St Oswald’s Priory in Gloucester. Æthelred’s health deteriorated and Æthelflæd took an increasingly large role in ruling Mercia.
Alfred’s son, Edward, became king of the Anglo Saxons in 899 as Edward the Elder, and Æthelred died in 911. Æthelflæd continued to rule as Lady of the Mercians, and she and Edward started to fortify the burhs that had been built by Alfred. Bridgnorth, Tamworth, Stafford, Warwick, Chirbury and Runcorn all were developed, and in 917, Æthelflæd sent an army to capture Derby. The Viking influence is so strong in the area that we still use the name Derby, from the Viking for “Place of deer”. Place names in England ending in -by are generally derived from Viking names.
Derby became the first of the five boroughs of the Danelaw – the others being Leicester, Nottingham, Stamford and Lincoln – to fall to English control. In 918, Leicester surrendered without a fight, and then the vikings Of York offered their loyalty. However, Æthelflæd died on 12th June 918.
Æthelflæd was succeeded by her daughter, Ælfwynn, who ruled Mercia for six months before Edward fully absorbed it into the nascent kingdom of the Anglo Saxons, or as we call it today, England.
Æthelflæd’s influence was remarkable in the early 10th century, and it is notable that not only did she rule Mercia as a woman, but was able to pass it to her daughter, albeit for a short while. She is one of the great figures in British history who has become somewhat obscured by the fog of time.
It is fantastic, then, that Tamworth Council have marked the 1100th anniversary of her death with a statue, called “Our Aethel”, appropriately on the junction of Offa Drive and Saxon Way. If you find yourself at Tamworth train station, have a look at the roundabout just outside.
The town is planning other events to mark the occasion, but for now, the new 6m high statue is hard to miss.