Æthelflæd, eldest daughter of Alfred “the Great,” has gone down in history as an enigmatic and almost legendary figure. To the popular imagination, she is the archetypal warrior queen, a Medieval Boudicca, while in fiction she has also been cast as the mistreated wife who seeks a Viking lover, and struggles to be accepted as a female ruler in a patriarchal society. The sources from her own time, and later, reveal a more complex and fascinating image of the “Lady of the Mercians.” A skilled diplomat who forged alliances with neighboring territories, she was a shrewd and ruthless leader willing to resort to deception and force to maintain her power. Yet she was also a patron of learning, who used poetic tradition and written history to shape her reputation as a Christian maiden engaged in an epic struggle against the heathen foe.
It is quite difficult to write about a woman who lived so long, that little records remain of her life. Joanna Arman’s new book on Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great and Lady of Mercians, is a daring attempt at trying to piece together the life of an extraordinary woman who ruled Mercia in her own right after the death of her husband. Yet, I cannot help but feel that we remain distant from the real Aethelflaed, so much of the information consists of what-ifs and possibilities. This is not the author’s fault, but simply the reality of women in history. Otherwise, it is a wonderfully written book and well worth a read.