Warring kingdoms and Viking raids
After the Romans left Britain in AD 410, Angles, Saxons and Jutes overran the remnants of the Empire, pushing the Britons back far into the west and north of the country. Many small warring kingdoms developed. Eventually, larger regional kingdoms formed. By the start of the 8th century, three leading Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had emerged in the land that would eventually be England.
Northumbria, Mercia & Wessex
In the north, Northumbria ruled all the lands north of the River Humber, at times right up to Edinburgh. Mercia was a powerful kingdom based in the centre of what is now England. However, its rule extended across East Anglia (once a powerful kingdom in its own right), down to the Thames Valley (and included London), and west as far as the Welsh Border. A famous king of Mercia, Offa (reigned 757-796), built a long embankment as a defence against the wild Welsh tribes who raided his subjects from time to time. Wessex was a much smaller kingdom which was based in the south west of England; during the 7th and 8th centuries it was busy conquering the Britons of Cornwall. The situation changed with the coming of the Viking raids.
Scandinavian (Norse) Vikings had for many years explored Europe using its oceans and rivers. The Viking raiders consisted of people from Denmark, Sweden and Norway but are often collectively known as Vikings or Danes. It was in the 8th century that the Scandinavians began to build ships of war and send them on raiding expeditions. The Viking long boats were strong and fast, ideal for surprise attacks.
Raids on the English Coast
One of the earliest Viking raids took place on the north east coast when the abbey of Lindisfarne was suddenly attacked by a small group of Norse raiders in 793.
"...on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter."
(Entry for the year 793 in the Anglo Saxon chronicle.)
Thereafter, raids came in increasing numbers, targeting towns and abbeys near the coasts. These were terrifying for the victims - who were often monks. The abbeys had, by the 9th century, become storehouses for a great deal of moveable wealth, in the form of gold and silver ornaments and treasuries full of money. These buildings, therefore, offered tempting targets for Viking raiders.
The Vikings Come to Settle
However, these raids did not really change how any of Britain was run until 865, just a few years before Æthelflæd was born. Then the raiders became colonizers and everything changed. Many of the previous hit and run raids may have been to gather intelligence as well as to plunder. With England, Wales and Ireland divided into many different warring kingdoms, the internal disarray must have made them seem easy prey. In 865, a Great Army arrived from Denmark in hundreds of ships, rather than the more usual three or four vessels. This was no raid; it was a conquest.
The Kingdoms Fall
In 866, Northumbria was conquered. By 870, East Anglia, which had been part of Mercia, was occupied by the Vikings. In 871, the invasion was reinforced by another Army, and three years later the kingdom of Mercia had been virtually wiped off the map. The Danes now ruled most of England from the Thames Valley northward, including London, and this was now called the Danelaw. Only Wessex was left of the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
Alfred the Great
By now, Wessex was under the rule of the young King Alfred, Æthelflæd's father, and Æthelflæd was a very young child. In 876, the Danish leader Guthrum launched a surprise attack on Wessex and utterly defeated Alfred's Army. Alfred and as many as could, fled from the attack and took refuge in the stronghold of Athelney which was an island in the Somerset Levels (Marshes). It is very likely that his family, including the young Æthelflæd, was with him here. We can only guess at how this terrifying time may have shaped the future 'Lady of Mercia'. From here he harassed the Danes whilst he secretly built up his own forces.
The Battle of Edington
In 878, Alfred launched a surprise attack of his own and completely defeated the Danes at the battle of Edington. King Alfred also captured London from the Danes and then returned the city to the Mercians, forming an alliance with the Kingdom which was cemented by the marriage of his daughter Æthelflæd to Æthelred, ruler of the remaining Mercia. Æthelred acknowledged Alfred as his overlord. This period signalled the end of one of the worst periods for the Saxons.
Fighting back - the battle for power
By 890 King Alfred had won a respite for his kingdom. The Viking leader Guthrum agreed a treaty and was baptised as a Christian. Alfred realised he could not send the Danes out of all of Britain, and so was content for them to leave Wessex and West Mercia and return to where the Danelaw already was. However near disaster had left its mark on the king and he introduced a new defence policy.
Defending Saxon Territory
Alfred undertook a radical reorganisation of the military institutions of his kingdom, ringing Wessex with some 30 garrisoned fortified towns, known as burhs. Many of these would later grow into major towns. He also constructed new and larger ships for the royal fleet. The cost of building the burhs and their upkeep was expensive but vital in securing the kingdom.
The burhs consisted mainly of massive earthworks: large earthen walls surrounded by wide ditches. Inside the ditch were wooden palisades, later these would be made of stone. Inside the walls were the garrison towns or buildings. The burhs also served as places of refuge for the populations of the surrounding countryside. They were designed to operate in conjunction with a mobile Army that could be rapidly summoned. No part of the kingdom was more than 20 miles, a day's march, from a fortified centre. An extensive beacon system was used to warn of approaching Viking fleets and armies.
The Defence Holds
It was a successful policy. When the Vikings attacked again in 892 they found a kingdom defended by a standing, mobile field Army and a network of garrisoned fortresses that commanded the navigable rivers and linked the Roman roads. It was dangerous for the Vikings to leave a burh intact but it was equally dangerous to attempt to take one. This presented an obstacle for Viking invaders. Alfred, however, was still unable to drive out the invaders and was forced, instead, to ‘make peace' with them.
By the time of Aethelflaed's marriage, there were many threats to Mercia. In the north east, the Danes that had come to occupy York were spreading across the neighbouring areas. They were fighting the Saxons and the Irish-based Vikings, who were starting to settle in the north west (in the area that is now the Wirral). To the west were the Welsh (a loose confederation of states) often at war with each other, as well with as the Saxons and Vikings. A good leader needed to be not only brave but also a clever tactician and skilled negotiator.
An alliance between brother and sister
Æthelflæd and her husband jointly led the Mercian battles against the Danes in the Midlands and the North. Meanwhile, Alfred and his son, Edward continued to battle, consolidate and gain new territory in the South and West. In 899, King Alfred the Great died and Edward succeeded to the throne. The united fight against the Danes continued. From 902, Æthelflæd took charge after her husband became very ill. When he died Edward insisted on taking London, the only loss of land during her rule. To contest this would have split the alliance. Æthelflæd realised that this would be disastrous for the Anglo-Saxons and concentrated her efforts instead on protecting and expanding her territories to the north and west. It was here that the greatest threats existed.
Æthelflæd learnt well from her father and when she and the Mercians fought and won territory back from the Danes, she also built new burhs and strengthened existing forts and towns. She threw a protective border all around Mercia. Like her father she also realised the importance of strengthening alliances to provide a broad front of opposition to any threats, particularly those from the north, where there was a new powerful Viking, Lord Ragnull, in Northumbria. This included engaging in alliances with the Celtic kingdoms of Alba (Scotland) and Strathclyde.
Expanding Mercian Territory
Saxon and Viking wars were fierce. Both sides formed shield walls to protect against the launching of missiles. When going to war, only the Saxon nobility used shields (made of iron with steel edges), and swords which were less than a metre long. These were preferred to spears for fighting at close quarters. The Vikings also used axes as a main battle weapon. Many deaths came from the javelin throwers and other missiles launched at the enemy. Ælthelflæd personally led her troops in some of the most important battles. She was described as a clever tactician. She won back land that had been lost to the Danes including Chester, Derby and Leicester. It is reported that the Danes were also willing to surrender York when she died.
Living in a Saxon world
How people live each day is decided by their position in society. In Anglo-Saxon society, the basic division was between free people and slaves. Even so, the life of the rich and noble differed greatly from the life of the ordinary peasant (ceorl) or artisan.
The nobility/rulers were the kings and thegns, who owned lands and slaves. Æthelflæd came from this class. Below them were the ceorls, who usually owned some land, and the artisans (blacksmiths, potters etc). Below them were freed slaves, who owned nothing but their own labour, and then the slaves themselves.
Slave or Freeman
Slaves could be prisoners of war, debtors, criminals, children of slaves or even people who had sold themselves or their children into slavery in times of hardship, so they could eat. Slaves could become free and even get rich: their relatives could buy them out or they may be freed in their owner's will. Debtors could be freed when they had worked off their debt.
When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain, they did not like to settle in the abandoned Roman towns but in small villages. Most settlers cleared forest for houses and farming land. The village was built with one-room houses, with square shaped timbers and a thatched roof surrounding a larger hall, the mead hall - aA very important part of Saxon Life. Villages had kitchen-gardens and barns and pens for livestock and there may also have been workshops for the artisans.
Walled Towns and Burhs
Later walled towns like London or Chester were seen as a useful fortress and wooden houses were built inside the Roman walls. By Ætheflæd's time, the value of fortresses (burhs) along kingdom borders was recognied as an important means of defence, and supported housing within the fortress. Althelflade herslef created many of these and rebuilt the walls of Gloucester from the Roman remain, laying out the current street plan.
Most people were farmers. The Anglo-Saxons brought with them a heavy, wheeled plough that was able to cut through the thick clay soils of the fertile lowland valleys. This made arable farming easier in areas that had once been woodland. At first most of the farms were owned by the ceorls, who worked together, sharing the cost of a team of oxen to plough the large common fields in narrow strips that were shared out fairly, so that each family had an equal share of good and poor land. Men, women and children all worked on the farm. Men chopped down trees to clear land for ploughing and sowing crops. Children herded cattle and sheep, with the help of dogs, keeping a lookout for wolves - which still roamed at that time.
Artisans and Craftsmen
Artisans had special skills. The smith made iron tools, knives and swords. Others worked with wood, making bowls, furniture, and carts. Potters made bowls and pots. A cobbler made shoes and other people made the metal brooches (that held the clothes), and sometimes beads and gold ornaments for rich people. In war the common weapon, for the ordinary fighter, was the spear which was about 2 metres long and made from ash with an iron head. It was thrown or used to jab the enemy at close quarters. Shields were round and made of wood covered with leather.
The whole family lived together in the one-roomed house. In the room there would be a fire which was used for cooking and also for heat and light. For light they also made candles from tallow, but they were smoky and smelly. A metal cooking pot would have hung above the fire. The food was simple but wholesome: bread and vegetables stews with occasional fish or meat.
Anglo-Saxons valued both their sons and their daughters equally. Boys and girls would have started, when they were young, to help collect sticks for firewood and bring water from a well or nearby stream. The girls learnt to weave, cook, make cheese and brew ale. Boys learnt to chop trees, plough and hunt - and also how to use a spear. Only a few children, like Æthelflæd, learnt to read or write. By the age of 12, they were considered grown up and could marry and go to war or look after inherited property. There were also laws to provide for orphaned children.
What they Believed
The early Anglo-Saxons believed in many gods. Their names, for example, Twi, Woden and Thor, give us the days of our week. Anglo-Saxons were superstitious and believed in charms to protect them from evil spirits or sickness. In AD 597, the Pope sent a monk called Augustine to persuade the king to become a Christian. Over the next 100 years, many Anglo-Saxons turned to Christianity. New churches and monasteries were built. By Æthelflæd's time, the monasteries had often become stores of considerable wealth, attracting the attention of the Vikings.
Crime and punishment
The Anglo-Saxons didn't have prisons. People found guilty of crimes were either executed, usually by hanging, or punished. Punishments could be fines or mutilation, eg losing a hand for stealing. The punishment was meant to be understood and seen by everyone. If a person killed someone, they paid money to the dead person's relatives. Every person had their 'wergild' (death price) depending on their social standing. The idea was to stop 'blood feuds' between families.
Born to be a royal warrior
As daughter of King Alfred, Æthelflæd was born into the very top layer of Anglo-Saxon society.
In the early years each king only ruled over a relatively small area or kingdom. As the larger kingdoms developed some kings became more important than others and were known as Bretwalda (overlord of several kingdoms). The areas that had formerly been independent became earldoms. After the Viking invasion things changed. In most areas there were no longer Saxon rulers and Alfred, King of the West Saxons, was the first king to style himself "King of the Anglo-Saxons".
The Role of the King
Anglo-Saxon kings were essentially war leaders. They had originally been expected to provide opportunities for battle glory and plunder for their followers - until the Vikings arrived, when their main duty was to protect their people against the enemy. The attacks from the Vikings had meant that smaller Anglo-Saxon communities had been glad to join together to make larger groups who could successfully defend their land from the Vikings. Alfred, Æthelflæd's father, was the leader of the Anglo-Saxons of Wessex, but his vision was to unite the whole of England. It was a vision that Æthelflæd pursued throughout her life.
Below the king were the thegns, or noblemen, and, by Alfred's time, senior churchmen such as bishops. The thegns were men that levied taxes and led the armies in battle when the king could not be present. A man could only be a thegn if he owned at least five hides of land (each hide was the amount of land needed to provide for one family).The richer thegns lived on their own estates, with a main rectangular hall surrounded by outbuildings for various work and storage purposes. Inside the hall, a thegn might show how important he was by his rich wall hangings or even paintings. The thegn would provide his overlord or king with men to fight.
By the 8th century, trade was flourishing and small towns like Ipswich had started to develop. This could only happen because society was getting more orderly. Trade across the North Sea saw increasing amounts of imports and exports to Britain. The kings governed with the help of a ‘witan' - a council of leading men. These assemblies were held to resolve disputes and provide judgments and discuss policies, laws, taxes and defence. A new king had to be approved by the witan.
Rules and Law
The kings and the witan also implemented the law code. King Æthelbert of Kent drew up the first Saxon law code around 597, which outlined the financial compensation that should be paid by the culprit to the victim, or their family, for various kinds of violent acts. Other law codes followed, such as that of King Offa of Mercia, who ruled in mid 8th century.
Administering the Law
The Anglo-Saxon kings created shires, to raise taxes and administer the laws, which were controlled by a royal officer called a 'shire reeve', or sheriff. The shires sometimes had fortified strongholds at their centres, which became the shire or county towns of today. The shires themselves were sub-divided into hundreds of 'wapentakes.
Children of Nobility
The children of Anglo-Saxon noble families learnt reading and writing, the use of arms, military strategy, and tactics and diplomacy. They were often sent to other ‘courts' or halls, to get their education and training. Æthelflæd's brother, Edward, sent his son, the future king Athelstan, to the court at Mercia to be trained by Æthelred and Æthelflæd. This gave the young people a wider outlook and cemented the relationships between the various nobles. In young Athelstan's case, it would have encouraged the vision of a united England and probably equipped Athelstan with the diplomacy for which his aunt was renowned and which eventually helped him to make his grandfather's vision a reality.
Adornments & Pursuits
The clothing worn by the nobility consisted of loose, flowing garments, sometimes of embroidered silk. The clothes would have been marked by colourful dyes and exotic borders. Their brooches were likely to be made with precious metal and jewels. Glassware was also only for the rich; the ordinary folk drinking from leather or wooden vessels. Their sword hilt was often elaborately carved and contained jewels. It was also often inscribed with good luck symbols. At times of leisure between wars (not a lot of it), the nobility enjoyed hunting, racing, falconry and hawking, feasting, music making and storytelling. Entertainers at the courts might include jugglers and harpists and storytellers.
The Mead Hall
Keeping the loyalty of the men that would fight for you was very important for a king or thegn if they wanted to retain power. In return for fighting for the lord or king, the free men would be invited to feast in the mead hall. The hall also acted as a meeting place and communal living space. Courts and hearings would be held in the hall and it was the centre of a lord's power. The mead hall was a very important part of Anglo-Saxon life; to be banned from the Mead Hall was a great dishonour. It was the centre for feasting, merrymaking, music and storytelling. It helped bind the community together.
A hard life - but valued and equal
The differences in Anglo-Saxon society were much more of position than of gender.
But there were different role expectations. In many parts of the daily work, men and women would have worked alongside each other, for example in the fields, but women were expected to produce the clothes and linen for the household and the men were expected to hunt. The preparation and cooking of food would have been shared, but women prepared and served the drinks.
Value in Society
Anglo-Saxon men and women had a fair degree of equality. For example, the penalty for murdering a man was the same for a woman, but increased if a woman was pregnant. Both girl and boy children were equally valued. In noble households, the children would be educated to read and write and also in weaponry, military tactics, diplomacy and other leadership skills. Æthelflæd's intelligence would have shown itself in an education like this and she would also have absorbed her father's vision for a united England.
Women were free to choose their own marriage partners and could not be forced to marry without their consent, although Noble women like Aethelflaed would have had less choice and both sexes often married to seal alliances. With Æthelflæd's background and education, she would have seen the important benefits of an alliance with Mercia and the positive work that she could do as the wife of Æthelred. She was able to help and support her husband in trying to drive out the Danes and reinforce their territories, and keep Mercia content to have Wessex as an overlord.
This was more unusual, however there was no law against females taking on this role. As Æthelred became ill, Æthelflæd took on more of the responsibility, signing documents as well as planning and carrying out campaigns. No one regarded this as strange or unwomanly. In fact, the diplomacy and trustworthiness she brought to negotiations, made the enemy more likely to surrender to her than to her brother.
Documents and Estates
Women of the nobility did not need consent to sign documents or own estates. Æthelflæd was free to make her own decisions, as this quote indicates: "In this year by the grace of God, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, went with all the Mercians to Tamworth, and built the fortress there in early summer, and before the beginning of August, the one at Stafford." (The Mercian Register.)
Goods and Property
In marriage, the husband paid a 'morning gift' to his wife in goods, money or land and this then belonged to her to do with as she wished. When a woman married, the money, goods or land she brought to the partnership remained hers - they did not become the husband's (as they did in later times). The finances within the marriage were owned jointly by husband and wife. If a woman left her husband, taking the children, she had a right to half the property, as long as she was not deceiving him. Women were not to be blamed for their husband's wrongdoings.
A Hard Life
Despite all this, women's lives were not easy. They still often needed friends and family to help them defend their rights. They had a high rate of mortality, mainly because of childbirth. Indeed Æthelflæd had had a difficult time giving birth to her daughter, and it is presumed that it had left her unable to have further children. For posterity this was just as well, as she would probably not have achieved what she did, and the solid foundations for the birth of 'England' would not have been laid so efficiently.
Sadly, 200 years later, with the coming of the Normans, the lives and rights of women to their own indepedence changed radically for the worse and it was nearly 1,000 years before women again became as equal in society as they had been in Anglo-Saxon times.
Terms and Conditions