Warmongering in Warwick
Looking like a sperm whale vomiting out Gloucestershire, the county of Warwickshire sounds like England’s most bellicose region. Wick, in old English means ‘dwelling place’, so it is of little surprise that this county is also home to
It just so happens that Warwickshire was instrumental in forming the country that is now recognised world-wide as England, which itself is a country that ought not to be confused with Britain, and most definitely not to be assumed to be the same as the United Kingdom. Even though they frequently are assumed to be one and the same, it is mostly the Northern Irish that such oversight offends. And also the Scottish, and most definitely the Cornish. The Welsh will always side with them, and The Yorkshire Ridings might just pipe up too. And as for those pesky Channel Islands…
Nonetheless, once upon a Mediaeval time, Warwickshire formed the western boundary of the imposing region of Mercia, one quarter of the four significant kingdoms in existence during this period, the others being: Northumberland, Wessex and East Anglia. There were also three minor ones, but even calling them that is likely to get me lynched.
It was during this era that some Norseman, but mostly Danish ones, came a-pilfering by invading much of these fair isles. From 865 onwards there was a great deal of warfare as these Great Heathen Armies set about dismantling many of our monasteries in their atheistic quests, amongst other acts of effrontery.
Led by Ivar the Boneless, these Vikings, as they are better known, crossed the Midlands into Northumbria, and captured York. In 871, they joined forces with a second Danish wave of battalions, those ones called The Great Summer Army. This second lot of Scandinavian interlopers were led by Guthrum, whose name means “Battle-snake”.
The Boneless wonder and his posse marched north and the Danish summer holidaymakers, led by Guthrum, naturally headed south where the weather was said to be much more favourable. Around this time, Halfdan took command of the northern venturers, largely the consequence of The Boneless Wanderer’s untimely demise.
Subsequently many of the northern regions capitulated, which is how Halfdan came to claim a good chunk of the country-not-yet-known-as-England for himself.
On the other hand, Guthrum The Battle Snake, slithered into Wessex whereupon he came a-cropper. His dastardly aspirations were out-thwarted by Alfred the Great, then King of Wessex. Rather than fight the good fight until the bitter death, the two noblemen agreed to carve up the land yet to be known as England into two halves. Danelaw controlled the east and north, and Alfred the Great, anointing himself King of the Anglo-Saxons, took charge of the West and South.
This put an end to the merciless warmongering, and completely separated the natives from their wannabe European overlords. Except for those that remained in the East obviously.
It was a veritable Brexit-Sexit-Vexit and, not dissimilar to recent times, a trade agreement between the two neighbours was hammered out, albeit Guthrum had to submit to a christening so that he could rule those trapped within his realms just as capably as he had his pagan brethren.
This treaty put the Kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia in close alliance albeit slightly subject to the whims of Wessex. To strengthen this Anglo-Saxon versus the Vikings era, Alfred the Great of Wessex had his eldest daughter married off to Æthelred, Lord, some say King, of Mercia.
In between these scrimmages, Alfred the Great had fathered five or six children, no one really knows but one of them was called Edward the Elder, which has one presuming there was an Edward the Younger. Still, it was Edward the Elder who went on to become the next King of the Anglo-Saxons upon his father’s death in 889.
Thus, we have a pretty ordinary example of how history has always been recited: a story of one man slaying another, claiming the crown and then procreating a lineage. Thereafter the rest of men, calling themselves historians, wrote about it, sometimes many years later for the rest of us to learn in our school years. Those periods of confinement in which are forcibly readied for the world of work, whether we like it or not.
Students who paid attention to such everyday classroom events would therefore know this era is most commonly referred to as the “Middle Ages”. It is the time period during which a woman is suddenly struck invisible: commencing when the woman enters her forties and lasts until she becomes elderly, whereupon she dies.
This global phenomenon of female dematerialisation is largely attributed to one of two explanations. Firstly, the data collection of metrics on health, employment, assets and domestic violence, takes a downturn at the ripe old age of forty-nine. This significant decline in interest just so happens to coincide with the ceasefire of their menses: an event which similarly occurs at the mean average age of 49.
Having started careers, just like the other half of the population, by the age of 49, most women will have battled through a world mired in discrimination, sexism and harassment, whilst simultaneously acquiring those skills necessary to knuckle down and do the job that they were employed to execute. Thus, the arrival of the middle-ages is the period where women can be finally left to get on with it, whatever ‘it’ is, without any distractions. Except for children, who can be a tremendous distraction when the mood takes them. But by and large, most offspring are in the process of escaping the home for quests of their own by the time their mothers hit their middling years.
It is just unfortunate that a woman’s time to shine coincides with the moment they go “poof!”.
Naturally, it is women who ultimately decide whether or not to partake in the baby-making requirements of the role of human being and this contribution to maintaining the human race sometimes has them exit stage left from the world of work and marketable shag-ability.
So, that’s why men are traditionally left to do the work. If if they are not employed directly in the world of work, they remain to record both quantitatively and qualitatively any work that has been done. The Mediaeval period was no different from any other period in that regard. English Annals such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, written in the late ninth century, refer only to King Edward’s sister. To our Welsh and Irish cousins, she is recorded as being the most renowned Saxon Queen. Their accounts have not only named her as Æthelflæd, but they also revered her for her courageous, capable leadership and defence against the Vikings. It was she who oversaw the establishment of the fortified town of Warwick. One of thirteen attributed to her.
Incidentally, like many in Mediaeval towns, men were required to practise archery each and every Sunday at the butts. Hence this is why so many towns of the region formerly of Mercia still have lanes, roads and streets of Butts. At least, they can all claim to be the arse end of somewhere, but I digress.
Æthelflæd went on to become a prolific urban designer: founding churches, as well as arranging the granting of lands and issues to kith, kin and religious bodies, from as far south as Gloucester to the north of Chester. It was she who maximised cooperation amongst the Anglos and the Saxons in the face of their mutual Scandinavian enemy.
She also heavily promoted book learning amongst the gentrified elite, like her father had, considering it essential for both girls and boys. And she also managed to find time to administer the counties’ affairs. Between these commitments, she popped out one child whilst also maintaining the guardianship of her father’s first-born son, Edward the Elder, from the age of three. Her father had married his second wife, wife number one’s whereabouts being uncertain, and wife number two felt no duty to bring up the youngster herself. Presumably Albert the Great was missing in action across Wessex fighting wars in Essex, just like his daughter was in Northumberland.
It was Æthelflæd who organised for the erection of a string of fortifications along the entire edge of western boundary of Mercia. She later used them to launch the offences to reclaim Derby and Lincoln. Leicester, it transpires, simply rolled over, thought of England, and acquiesced without much ado. Perhaps, though, they had already been informed of Æthelflæd’s highly evolved war strategies.
Her most robust defence took place in northern Mercia at the fortification of Chester. The Northman, or Norwegian pagans, had recently been ousted from Ireland. Their leader, the Viking Ingimund, asked for land upon which he and his followers might build barns and dwellings for refuge. Quietly, he was eyeing up the flourishing town of Chester. Collaborating with the Danes, and some fosterlings from Ireland, he plotted his next acquisition.
Ingimund had numbers on his side, and a thirst for retribution: now doubt still licking his wounds following his ignominious ousting from Ireland. Rather than hiding behind Chester’s formidable walls, Æthelflæd’s army opened the gates of Chester and welcomed in their foe’s first brigades. Unexpectedly, but most definitely planned, the portcullis dropped, trapping his men inside. With nowhere to flee, Iguimiud’s soldiers fought for their lives and all to a man they perished. The Mercians showed no mercy, and their bodies left to wrox, which is old English for ‘rot’.
It transpires Æthelflæd had anticipated his attack and by doing so had already relocated her most esteemed, battled-hardened battalions. Alas, Ingimund’s army was vast. Next, she wrote to the Irish fosterlings accompanying the Vikings. “Life and Health to you from the King of the Saxons, who is ill, and from the Queen, who holds all authority over the Saxons, and they are certain that you are true and trustworthy friends to them. Therefore you should take their side.” And with that, the Irish switched sides and assisted her blindsiding her Scandinavian nemeses.
Still Ingimund’s army, much depleted, remained sizable. By now, probably quite incensed by her unwillingness to yield, he arranged for his army to mount an attack on Chester’s walls, hoping to destabilise them.
They constructed covered defences to stave off the rocks, javelins and arrows pelting down. In response, the Mercians boiled their ale, their water, and probably their piss too, and then poured it over the walls. The skin of Chester’s attackers peeled off them.
Ingimund still refused to relinquish his ambitions so the Mercians moved on to the source of their mead: the bees and their hives, lobbing them down to force a retreat. Hundreds and thousands of very pesky, very irritated displaced swarms savaged the Norsemen. The little twerps of the insect world easily scour a way into through the crevices of their armour. Not even fleeing would spare them.
Æthelflæd’s husband, ill for most of their union, died in 911, and she continued to rule. History would ordinarily have dictated that Mercia would be subsumed by Wessex. Her husband was supposed to be much older than his wife, who was somewhere late-teens when they had been betrothed. So how, in English history, is she remembered?
Well, the first time an Englishman recognised her role in history, the historian claimed she declined to have sex after the birth of her only child because it would “be unbecoming of the daughter of a king to give way to such a delight!” And if that were not enough, it was also claimed she sought chastity due to the “painful consequences of giving way to such a delight.”
Yup, according to William of Malmesbury, England’s foremost historian of the twelfth century, some three hundred years after she died, without any supporting evidence, he concluded she was a coward who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take the pain of a second child. Still, at least he recognised a portion of her not insignificant legacy in England’s history, which is more than the Saxon writers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle did, where she was merely King Edward’s sister.
If one wishes to learn more without first becoming well-versed in Old Irish, Welsh or Gaelic, there are just three podcasts available where historians have done the work for us. Discussing her life and times in great detail, one is near-instantly instructed in her attitude to sex, with significantly less time dedicated to her considerable career accomplishments.
Her wedding night is depicted in glorious dramatic detail early in Radio 4’s own documentary podcast. Producers saw it essential to insert an entirely fictionalised scene whereby the husband accuses his wife of putting it about a bit. Eventually, the woman broadcaster points out that for much of her marriage, her husband was near death’s door. Then men quickly changed the subject. Quite frankly, with whatever he had, she probably wished to preserve her own life as much as her husband’s, because no one likes lying back, thinking of England, and being…
He was, in all likelihood, just too unwell to perform the job. But for all that historians recorded, the Lord of Mercia could well have been just a ...
But its appears to be most unseemly to speculate about men’s sexual behaviours.
Æthelflæd is, as they say, the most influential woman that English history has forgotten. She continued to rule Mercia long after her husband’s death, and was the first queen to be succeeded by another queen, her daughter. Yet, to the broadcaster’s collective bafflement, no one could fathom why instead of being a Mediaeval myth, Æthelflæd became nothing but a middle-aged ghost.
She died around about the age of 49.