Aethelflaed, Saxons, Danes, and The Last Kingdom

Over the last few weeks, it seemed like almost everyone I knew was watching or had watched The Last Kingdom: a British television series based on Bernard Cornwell’s historical novels The Saxon Stories. It is set in Britain in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, when Alfred the Great* (and his adult children) defended their kingdoms against Norse invaders.

Several people mentioned that Aethelflaed, the Lady of Mercia whom I discussed in Women Warriors, enters the story in season two. They also mentioned that they were finding it hard to keep the underlying history of the Danes and the Saxons straight. Allow me to help, with an emphasis on Aethelflaed, whose role in the story is often not given a fair share of attention and is sometimes left out all together.

Beginning in 793, Viking raiders arrived in England each spring, as regularly as robins, and attacked the coasts and inland waterways of the British Isles. Over time, Viking raids evolved into permanent Danish settlements. By the end of the ninth century, the area known as the “Danelaw” covered a significant portion of England, from the north of Yorkshire to the Thames.

Alfred the Great (who reigned from 871-899) successfully defended the kingdom of Wessex against Viking attackers, but realized he could not drive them out of England entirely. In 886, he negotiated a treaty with the Danes, which left northern and eastern England under Danish rule and returned West Mercia and Kent to Anglo-Saxon control. I suspect you will not be surprised to learn that neither side honored the treaty, though it did slow down action across the border for a few years.

At the same time that he negotiated a treaty with the Danes, Alfred also  built alliances with his Saxon neighbors. His most important ally was Aethelred, Lord of Mercia. In order to strengthen the alliance, Alfred arranged for his daughter and eldest child, Aethelflaed, to marry Aethelred.

We know little about Aethelflaed’s life until the first years of the tenth century, when Aethelred became ill. With no direct male heir waiting to inherit Aethelred’s crown, Aethelflaed became the effective ruler of Mercia during her husband’s illness. When he died in 911, she succeeded him without opposition—the only female ruler in the Anglo-Saxon period in England and one of only a handful of women in early medieval Europe who ruled in their own right rather than as a regent for an underaged son or brother. (The fact that Aethelfaed’s mother, Ealhswith, was a daughter of the royal house of Mercia may have played a role in the Mercians accepting her as their ruler.***) Aethelflaed was the Lady of the Mercians, just as Aethelred had been Lord of the Mercians before her. (Don’t let the title fool you. Aethelflaed was a ruling queen by any standard.)

In 917, the conflict between Anglo-Saxons and Vikings intensified. The West Saxon chronicles tell us that Aethelflaed’s younger brother, Edward the Elder, who had succeeded their father as the King of Wessex, occupied the Danish border town of Towcester, in modern Northamptonshire, shortly before Easter. In July, a Danish force counterattacked. By year’s end, the Viking armies of Northampton and East Anglia surrendered to Edward.

The West Saxon chronicles leave out the fact the Edward had more than a little help from his big sister.  Aethelflaed, who was already experienced in warfare, led her own offensive against the Vikings. With Danish forces focused on her brother’s army, Aethelflaed took Derby in a savage battle; it was the first of the five great strongholds of the Danelaw to fall to Anglo-Saxon forces. The following year she led her troops against the important Danish fortress of Leicester, which surrendered without a fight. Danish Christians in York, apparently tired by being ruled by a non-Christian Viking from Dublin who had seized control of their region in 911, approached Aethelflaed (not King Edward) with a formal promise of allegiance. Before she was able to finalize the treaty, Aethelflaed died unexpectedly on June 12, 918, leaving Edward to win the final victory against the Danes and the place in the history books.



*I am sure you’ve heard of  Alfred the Great even if you don’t know anything about him other than his name. I must admit, until a few years ago the only thing I knew about him was this story:

Taking shelter in the woods after being defeated once again by the Danes, the exhausted king stumbled into a herdsman’s hunt. The herdsman’s wife, who did not recognize him,** invited the hungry and tired man, whom  she believed to be a simple soldier ,into her home. She put some oat cakes into the embers of the fire to bake and told him to keep an eye on them while she went out to get more firewood, or perhaps a bucket of water. As soon as she left the king fell asleep, no doubt soothed by the warmth of the fire and the smell of the cooking oat cakes. When the woman came back, she found burning cakes and a snoring soldier. Rightly incensed, the woman not only gave the soldier a tongue-lashing, she boxed his ears or perhaps beat him with her broom. (Different versions vary on the details.) Either way, King Alfred accepted his beating and apologized, without admitting who he was.

My guess is that this story is the medieval English equivalent of George Washington cutting down the cherry. As such it is a fine example of what I like to call “comic book history”: historical stories that are emotionally satisfying but factually untrue.

Just to bring this back to the main topic of this post: I have no idea whether this episode occurs in The Last Kingdom. Anyone?

**And how would she? She probably had not even seen a coin with his portrait. Even if one of the "Alfred coins"  had passed through her hands, the “portrait” would not have been useful for identification.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

*** Even if you know something about Alfred the Great, you probably haven’t heard of Ealthswith unless you’re a medievalist because we tend to leave mothers out of royal family trees. When you add the missing mothers--and grandmothers, and aunts and sisters, etc— back in, you often find unexpected connections. And sometimes even answers.




The Free and Independent Republic of West Florida

And speaking of short-lived, mostly forgotten nations, as I believe we were, allow me to go back into my notes from our road trip in 2015, and dig up a story that never got the blog post it deserved. *

The Free and Independent Republic of West Florida made the Free State of Fiume look like it had a long and venerable history.

West Florida, which at its height included much of what is now Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, became a diplomatic football between Britain, France, Spain, and eventually the United States at the end of the eighteen and beginning of the nineteenth century. Possession of the region was passed from France, to Spain, to Britain. In 1783 it was returned to Spain in the treaty that ended the American Revolution. Spain subsequently ceded Louisiana to Napoleon in 1800. ***

When the United States bought the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, Spain insisted that the ceded territory did not include the area known as West Florida, which extended from the Perdido River in Alabama across Missisipi and Louisiana to the Mississippi River. Rather than confronting Spain over the issue, first President Jefferson and then president Madison let the matter slide.

Meanwhile, British and American colonists in West Florida became increasingly disgruntled with the Spanish colonial government. On September 23, 1810, a small group of settlers “attacked” Fort San Carlos in Baton Rouge by walking through the open gate and firing a single volley of shots at the Spanish soldiers who held it. They then raised a new flag—a single star on a blue ground—and declared the foundation of the Free and Independent Republic of West Florida. They quickly established a capital in St. Francisville, in modern Louisiana, adopted a constitution, and established a supreme court and a two-house legislature.

It was clear from the beginning that the founders of the new republic were hoping to become part of the United States. And seventy-four days later, on December 10, that is exactly what happened. The United States claimed possession by a simple proclamation. The Lone Star flag came down—though it would rise again when American colonists in Texas revolted against Mexican rule.

* I n 2015 we set out to spend three weeks on the Great River Road,** with the plan that we would drive south from Memphis and then head back north as far as we could go. We spent two days in Memphis, three days in New Orleans, and then drove north along the Mississippi without a schedule, stopping at anything that caught our imaginations. We didn’t last the full three weeks. And we only got as far north as Vicksburg because we made lots of stops–between us we are interested in just about everything. Since then we’ve been following the river in shorter stints, ten days to two weeks at a time. You can follow our adventures, and others, in the category “Road Trip Through History.”

** Which, like the Silk Road, is not a single road but a conglomeration of 3,000 miles of local and state roads that roughly follow the course of the Mississippi.

***If you are interested in knowing more about the colony of West Florida, as opposed to the republic, I strongly recommend reading Kathleen Duval’s Independence Lost.

The Free State of Fiume

And speaking of oddities in the Versailles Peace Treaty, as I believe we were, allow me to introduce you to the Free State of Fiume.

I stumbled across the story while I was working my way through old articles in the Chicago Tribune, trying to untangle a messy problem of chronology, when I ran across this opening line in an article dated August 23, 1919: “Fiume, child of trouble since History began…” Despite myself, I read on.*

The headline, in case any one is interested, read “Grazioli May Be Italy’s Goat for Fiume Riot: Witnesses Agree Italians Began Massacre of the French.” It was the 1919 equivalent of click bait. While there were indeed riots, and French troops were indeed massacred, the heart of the story was the conflicting claims of the relatively new country of Italy (1861) and the even newer country of Yugoslavia (December 1, 1918) over the Adriatic port of Fiume (aka Rijeka). Up and down the Dalmatian coast from Cattaro to Trieste, the general opinion was that the longer the old men in black coats at Versailles delayed making a decision the more likely it was that there would be another riot in the streets of Fiume.

I had to know more. And down the rabbit hole I went.

The Great Powers came up with a solution that probably satisfied no one: the establishment of the port as an independent buffer state between the competing claimants. Woodrow Wilson suggested that it could serve as the home for the League of Nations, making it an independent buffer state for the whole world. All eleven square miles of it.

The Free State of Fiume existed from November 12, 1920 through the end of 1923. Instead of being an emblem of peace it was a tiny version of the Wild West. The first election was immediately contested. Governments came and went, sometimes in a matter of a few days. The Nationalists, Fascists, the smallest Communist party in the world, and the Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, who had occupied the city for fifteen months beginning in September 1919,** all seized power and were overthrown in turn. In January 1924, the Kingdom of Italy and Yugoslavia signed the Treaty of Rome, in which they agreed that Fiume would become part of Italy and its suburb of Su sak, became part of Yugoslavia.

(If you are reading this in an email and you want to see the newsclip, click through to your browser.)

After World War II, Fiume, now called Rijecka, became part of Yugoslavia. It is now part of Croatia.

*I am trying to sort out which Tribune correspondents were in Berlin between 1919 and 1926. And the job  would go much faster if I limit myself to reading the by-lines, datelines, and occasionally relevant headlines—which gave me all the material I needed. But I keep getting sucked into stories. And really, wouldn’t you want to know more if you read an opening like that one? (The complete sentence, for anyone who’s curious, read: “Fiume, child of trouble since History began, is as quiet now as a Dearborn street soft drink dispensary.”)

**If you do the math, you’ll find that he held the city-state for almost a month after its creation, until he was expelled by the Italian Army in what became known as the “Bloody Christmas” campaign.