A recent interview by Dame Hilary Mantel, of Wolf Hall fame, has generated a number of discussions in the historical fiction community on how women have been portrayed in the past. Dame Mantel went on to say women writers who write about women in the past “can’t resist retrospectively empowering them.”
The discussion got me thinking about Æthelflæd, daughter of King Albert of Wessex, who led an army of Mercians into Wales. I first learned about Æthelflæd by reading the novel To Be a Queen, written by Annie Whitehead. I loved her portrayal of Æthelflæd and found her to possess leadership and a natural strength.
I’ve asked Annie to drop by and talk to us about Æthelflæd and how she gave her a voice. Welcome Annie…
In her speech, Dame Mantel also said, “Many writers of historical fiction feel drawn to the untold tale. They want to give a voice to those who have been silenced.” How have you given Æthelflæd a voice?
Annie: As I’ll explain later, I wasn’t initially drawn to her as a subject, but I soon realised that here was a remarkable woman whose story has seldom been told, certainly not in a full-length novel. She had been silenced, but only because of the bias of what little documentary evidence we have for her. Thus, simply by writing her story, I gave her a voice. I didn’t set out deliberately to empower a woman from history, more to write a story about a period which has been overlooked. The fact that she was a de facto queen at a time when women were not usually permitted to be rulers, was such an interesting story that it needed to be told.
Æthelflæd led an army of Mercians so it’s hard not to see her as a warrior queen, and yet is she? Would you consider her empowered and if not why/why not?
Annie: It’s a really interesting question. It’s easy, I suppose, for historians to imagine what life was like in the past. We know about the politics, and about the costumes, cutlery, crockery, diet, and mode of transport for most eras. However, do we always consider the prevalent mindset of the day? As novelists, we have to flesh out the characters, make them whole, give them emotions – these things don’t jump out at us from the chronicles, so that’s where our imagination is best utilised. In so doing, though, do we project our own sensibilities onto our characters?
Writing historical fiction gives us licence to read between the lines, and fill in the gaps. But we must be mindful of those gaps: do we have any direct evidence that Æthelflæd wielded a sword? She led an army into Wales, yes, and we infer that she defended Chester from Viking siege, but I suspect that she was, in truth, a nominal leader, a figurehead. I doubt that she was ever taught to fight, (hence the reluctance: mine to show her fighting, and hers in having to do it!) and it is probably best to view her as a peace-weaver, that is to say a woman of extreme political importance, yes, but a woman of her time, nevertheless.
What were women’s roles like in Saxon England? Did they have a voice? What power if any did they wield? How did that shape your Æthelflæd?
Annie: Most women had a fair say in what happened to them. There were written laws which protected the rights of women – widows in particular – and a document which we think dates from around this period states that “If a man wishes to betroth a maiden or a widow, and it so pleases her and her kinsmen…” suggesting that the woman herself had to accept the suitor before the betrothal could proceed. Women owned land, and were free to dispose of it in any manner they saw fit. Yes, this applies only to the nobility, but female servants and/or slaves were mentioned, and to an extent protected, in the law codes.
Æthelflæd’s situation was unusual, of course, in that she was the daughter of a king. But I think that I knew, when writing about her, that she was far from the down-trodden, ‘chattel’ that we perhaps have become used to when thinking about early medieval women. The main difference for her, of course, was that she was destined for a diplomatic marriage. I knew, as she did, that duty would have to come first.
What inspired you to write about Æthelflæd?
Annie: I was initially more interested in her enigmatic husband, introduced to me by my university tutor, who told me that ‘nobody knows exactly where he came from.’ And it’s true. He wasn’t royalty, and yet the Mercians were happy to be led by him and Alfred was happy to treat with him. He must have been possessed of some very unusual qualities. When it came to writing historical fiction, however, the story of his wife just jumped up, begging to be told. The daughter of a king, a queen in all but name, yet virtually erased from the history books? I simply couldn’t not write it. And I was amazed that no-one else had! CB: I have to say, I really enjoyed the depth you gave to Æthelred.
What were some of your challenges in writing Æthelflæd?
Annie: What I said before, really – that she was virtually erased from the history books. Generally as one goes through the Anglo-Saxon period, the body of extant material grows larger. A king in the 6th or 7th century will be mentioned in very few texts and charters. As we move towards the time of the Conquest, the written material expands. Yet there is very little about Æthelflæd, less still about her husband. Why? A lot of it will have been burned; the Viking armies damaged Mercia more so than Wessex and we will never know how much was lost. Another factor is that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, our main source of information, was commissioned by Alfred the Great and written by monks from Wessex. Their job was to ‘big-up’ Alfred, not his allies…
The other challenge might have been that which lies at the heart of this discussion, I suppose: how to portray a woman who was exceptional for her time, and yet keep her firmly in her time? I have to admit that it actually wasn’t a huge challenge. It never occurred to me to paint her as anything but an Anglo-Saxon lady, and I simply told her story as best I could. I do think she was remarkable; she must have been, in order to inspire an erstwhile kingdom to follow her and allow her to be their leader. Yet she was always going to be restricted by the world in which she lived, and I pictured her as a dignified woman, rather than a feisty one. She was a princess – not that they used that word – and I simply never saw her as any kind of ‘tomboy’. I think all her strength and spirit came from within, and manifested itself in a quiet resolve. What little we do know about her life reveals her to be brave, dutiful, and resourceful. Knowing this, I was able to write her as a strong character without artificially ‘empowering’ her.
I think this is why I was drawn to Æthelflæd right from the opening pages–she had inner strength and put her duty before her own desires.
Thank you, Annie, for dropping by and sharing your thoughts of this great lady. For those who are interested in the Anglo Saxon era, I highly recommend To Be A Queen.
Annie Whitehead is an author and historical, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. As well as To Be A Queen, the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, she has written Alvar the Kingmaker, which begins with a tenth century royal scandal and ends with regicide. She contributed to an anthology of alternative stories, 1066 Turned Upside Down, and her third novel, also set in Mercia, is scheduled for release later this year. She is a contributor for a forthcoming anthology for Pen & Sword Books, and she is currently working on a history of Mercia for Amberley Publishing, to be released in 2018.
Her books are sold through Amazon. For more information about her work, visit Annie’s Website and Blog.
Annie and Cryssa, what an interesting post! Especially since I know about Aethelflaed from the Uthred series by Bernard Cornwell. I was always interested in his depiction of her and of course, the fictional Uthred. Now I just have to read your book, Annie, and see your take on the whole thing. Awesome!
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Thanks! I recommend highly To Be a Queen. It’s a great story, compelling heroine and the historical detail is exquisite. I didn’t want to leave the Anglo Saxons at the end.
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Thank you so much, Elaine. I hope you enjoy my story. My depiction of her is perhaps similar to Mr Cornwell’s, but I imagined her husband in quite a different way. I’d love to know what your thoughts are.
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Fascinating woman from history! Although, leave the poor Welsh alone;) Fighting the Vikings would’ve kept her plenty busy as it was:)
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You’re on the other side of the fence, aren’t you?
I agree, Mark – I have a strong affinity for the Welsh and in the book my Lady is rather fond of some of them too 😉 They are not the ‘enemy’ in this book, and Anarawd is a sympathetic character, but I couldn’t ignore the documented episode where she avenged the death of an abbot who was ‘dear to her’ 🙂
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I enjoyed Annie Whitehead’s insights as well as the initial question. What experiences and situations in her life up to the moment she stepped in to lead Mercia would have equipped Aethelfled to step in as she did? She was a lady, not a virago, with the power of her situation. Dorothy Sayers commented in an essay that until The 17th century, women had power in their households, which they ran. It was not until relatively late that the tasks they controlled – physicking, baking, weaving…whatever… were done by outside sources. (‘The human Not Quite Human’)
I have, however read novels that placed 21st century ways of thought and behavior in the characters and mouths of historical women. Interesting. (Incidentally, I would back Aethekfled against Scarlett O’Hara any day…)
Thank you for a thought-provoking subject and a wonderful guest post.
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Thanks for your comments! I have read the same thing about the shift from the home (female) practitioner to the professional physician (male). In the early to mid-17th century, we still see ‘household receipt’ books written by the wife/mother that contain notes on how to prevent ague or stomach complaints. Culpepper’s English Physician (printed around 1652) tried to capture this collective household wisdom and I believe it was also done as a rebuke to the rise of professional practitioners. I enjoyed researching this when exploring my heroine who came from a line of wise women. Society changed after the English Civil War and the same can be said with more modern wars.
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Thank you Diana – I appreciate your comments. A strong influence on my character Aethelflaed was her experience of the Viking raids and of having to watch as her father struggled against the invaders with few allies. Later on she (as indeed the real historical character must have done) saw her husband doing the same, and it was surely this that equipped her to step in. Initially of course, she would have been dealing with the ‘admin’, for her husband was ill for a few years before his death, but still nominally in charge. Alfred was keen on education and in all probability she would have benefited from that. I can only imagine that she was learned, and astute, but still must have had some remarkable qualities for the men of Mercia to follow her as they did. And yet, it was not remarked upon as being unusual. If only we had more surviving written sources…
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Forgive my self-promotion here, and this interview is interesting, but I just wanted to mention my newly released Biography of Aethelflead, which was published by Amberley in May (it comes out in the USA on August 1st, although the Kindle edition is already available. Annie’s was one of the books I looked at the course of my research, and I am inclined to agree with same of her interpretations about things which happened in Mercia.
Look the ‘The Warrior Queen’ by Joanna Arman.
Annie is an outstanding historian as well as a historical fiction author. She is working on a non-fiction work about Mercia. Thanks to her I’ve gotten very interested in Aethelflaed. Good luck with your Aethelflaed and the US release!
I know, I am rather wishing some of these books had been out during my research, but there’s always an oppurtunity to make edits for the paperback.
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