Lady of the Mercians
The story of Good "Queen" Ethelfleda

Everyone knows of the Runcorn-Widnes railway bridge, but of the thousands who cross it, few will know that it is officially the “Queen Ethelfleda Viaduct”, because the LNWR when bbuilding the bridge discovered the foundations of her ninth century castle.

Ethelfleda’s name is also spelt Ethelflaed, Ethelfrida and Aelfred. This “Lady of the Mercians” was the daughter of Alfred the Great, of Wessex, sister of King Edwrad and wife of Ethelred, Earl of Mercia. She was a formidable character in English history, with many Cheshire connections.
Little is known about her personally, because of the shortage of documents written in the so-called “Dark Ages”, but also for another reason.

Her brother, Edward the Elder, did not like his enemies to know he was dependant upon his sister to hold the North West for him.

His chroniclers therefore tended to ignore, or belittle his efforts.

In the ninth century, neither Cheshire nor England existed as political entities. England was divided into various Saxon kingdoms, whilst Wales was a loose confederation of statelets, and both were under threat from Norse invasion.

Eborcorum became Danish Yorvik in 867AD. From York the Danes spread across the neighbouring parts of the country.

What is now Cheshire was then in the centre of all these factions. To the west were the Irish -based Vikings, already starting to settle in the Wirral, and the Welsh, who used their energies fighting each other and everyone else.

To the north and east were the Danes of York, who fought the Saxons and the Irish Vikings. To the south was Saxon Wessex, leading the Anglo Saxon revival against the Vikings, but also involved in fighting other Saxon kingdoms. The King of Wessex was Alfred, father of the English language and nation, and Ethelfreda.

Alfred gaver her in marriage to Ethelred of Mercia around 880AD, in an attempt to make an alliance between Wessex and Mercia, which was the Earldom, later the Kingdom, centred upon the Midlands. Its name may derive from the Saxon for border. The River Mersey is so called because it was the border between Mercia and Northumbria.

Apart from the warfare with the Welsh, who defeated the Mercians at Conwy in 881, the Earldom remained quiet until 893-896, when a Danish force swept across southern Britain, from Essex to Chester, in a long campaign.

After devastating Wessex, the Danish army entered Mercia, to be defeated by Earl Ethelred in a battle near Welshpool. However, the Danes regrouped and with reinforcements from Denmark attacked Mercia again. They encamped at Chester and the Mercians laid waste to the countryside around the town.

In Wessex, Alfred devised a plan to stop the Danish raids. He built burhs, or fortresses, along the likely routes of attack. When he died in 899 many had been built in Wessex and Mercia and his son, Edward, and Ethelfleda, went on to construct even more.

Ethelfleda and Earl Ethelred remade the walls at Chester, circa 907, following a rebellion by some Irish Vikings. These were the descendants of the Norsemen who had settled in Ireland and founded several towns, including Dublin.

In 909 the Vikings and their allies began rampaging again but a major raiding party was met and destroyed in a major battle at Tettenhall, near Wednesbury in Staffordshire. This battle broke the Danish power and opened the way for the Saxon reconquest of the Midlands.

Ethelred fell ill and died in 911 and Ethelfleda became not the Queen or Duchess of the land, but the “Lady of the Mercians”, an odd title never properly explained. She faced the threat of renewed Viking attack and was said to have created a burh a year, in such places as Bridgenorth, Worcester and Tamworth.

In Cheshire she remade the old Iron Age hill fort at Eddisbury,overlooking Delamere Forest. The following year, in 915, she founded a new burh to control the Mersey crossing in Cheshire. This eventually became Runcorn.

Ethelfleda and her borther, Edward the Elder, staged a concerted campaign against the Danes in 917. She captured Derby and Leicester and the Danes of York promised her an alliance. Nothing came of the plan because in 918 she died at Tamworth.