Books about figures from the Early Medieval or Dark Age periods of English history usually fall into one of two categories – a summary of the period in question with a specific name highlighted, or pure speculation. Interestingly, Founder, Fighter, Saxon Queen: Aethelflaed by Margaret C. Jones doesn’t really fall into either of these categories.
The first thing a reader is likely to notice about this book is that the main text is only 150 pages long. While this is pretty short for a book of this type, it is sort of a tacit acknowledgement that there is only so much that can be said about Aethelflaed, and I suspect, a stronger book for its short length.
For those not in the know, Aethelflaed was the daughter of Alfred the Great, and eventually became the de facto queen of Mercia (her exact position is complicated). In this position, she carried on her father’s work of fortifying towns, founding new towns, and slowly reclaiming the lands lost to the Danes. Despite her modern obscurity, the reconquest of England owes as much to her as it does to her more famous brother, Edward the Elder, and nephew, Aethelstan. I suspect this obscurity owes most to the fact that she doesn’t fit neatly into any line of succession.
Margaret C. Jones’ book covers all of the important facts about Aethelflaed’s life, such as can be gleaned from Anglo-Saxon and Irish sources, and covers her military, town-building, and diplomatic successes. More interestingly, it takes a solid look at what it meant to be a royal woman in this time period and how Aethelflaed broke all of those traditions. While there is plenty of speculation and guess-work as to the details, some of the key points are inescapable. Having never read a book that took this perspective, I must say I found it a delightfully refreshing take on the period.
The book also covers all of the monuments to Aethelflaed, all of the commemorative celebrations that have been held in her honour, and even all of her appearances in popular culture. That all of this can fit into just one chapter shows just how obscure Aethelflaed has become.
All-and-all, a short, interesting, and delightful read that offers a really refreshing view on a time period that is completely dominated by Alfred the Great.