Lady Æthelflaed’s Defense of Chester, c.907

I was reading through the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland and I found a very interesting story. It details Lady Æthelflaed’s defense of Mercia from the Vikings in c. 907. I’m just going to quote it in full and let it speak for itself.

Now the Norwegians left Ireland, as we said, and their leader was Ingimund, and they went then to the island of Britain. The son of Cadell son of Rhodri was king of the Britons at that time. The Britons assembled against them, and gave them hard and strong battle, and they were driven by force out of British territory.

After that Ingimund with his troops came to Aethelflaed, Queen of the Saxons; for her husband, Aethelred, was sick at that time. (Let no one reproach me, though I have related the death of Aethelred above, because this was prior to Aethelred’s death and it was of this very sickness that Aethelred died, but I did not wish to leave unwritten what the Norwegians did after leaving Ireland.) Now Ingimund was asking the Queen for lands in which he would settle, and on which he would build barns and dwellings, for he was tired of war at that time. Aethelflaed gave him lands near Chester, and he stayed there for a time.

What resulted was that when he saw the wealthy city, and the choice lands around it, he yearned to possess them. Ingimund came then to the chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes; he was complaining bitterly before them, and said that they were not well off unless they had good lands, and that they all ought to go and seize Chester and possess it with its wealth and lands. From that there resulted many great battles and wars. What he said was, ‘Let us entreat and implore them ourselves first, and if we do not get them good lands willingly like that, let us fight for them by force.’ All the chieftains of the Norwegians and Danes consented to that.

Ingimund returned home after that, having arranged for a hosting to follow him. Although they held that council secretly, the Queen learned of it. The Queen then gathered a large army about her from the adjoining regions, and filled the city of Chester with her troops.

?918 Almost at the same time the men of Foirtriu and the Norwegians fought a battle. The men of Alba fought this battle steadfastly, moreover, because Colum Cille was assisting them, for they had prayed fervently to him, since


he was their apostle, and it was through him that they received faith. For on another occasion, when Imar Conung was a young lad and he came to plunder Alba with three large troops, the men of Alba, lay and clergy alike, fasted and prayed to God and Colum Cille until morning, and beseeched the Lord, and gave profuse alms of food and clothing to the churches and to the poor, and received the Body of the Lord from the hands of their priests, and promised to do every good thing as their clergy would best urge them, and that their battle-standard in the van of every battle would be the Crozier of Colum Cille—and it is on that account that it is called the Cathbuaid‘Battle-Triumph’from then onwards; and the name is fitting, for they have often won victory in battle with it, as they did at that time, relying on Colum Cille. They acted the same way on this occasion. Then this battle was fought hard and fiercely; the men of Alba won victory and triumph, and many of the Norwegians were killed after their defeat, and their king was killed there, namely Oittir son of Iarngna. For a long time after that neither the Danes nor the Norwegians attacked them, and they enjoyed peace and tranquillity. But let us turn to the story that we began.

The armies of the Danes and the Norwegians mustered to attack Chester, and since they did not get their terms accepted through request or entreaty, they proclaimed battle on a certain day. They came to attack the city on that day, and there was a great army with many freemen in the city to meet them. When the troops who were in the city saw, from the city wall, the many hosts of the Danes and Norwegians coming to attack them, they sent messengers to the King of the Saxons, who was sick and on the verge of death at that time, to ask his advice and the advice of the Queen. What he advised was that they do battle outside, near the city, with the gate of the city open, and that they choose a troop of horsemen to be concealed on the inside; and those of the people of the city who would be strongest in battle should flee back into the city as if defeated, and when most of the army of the Norwegians had come in through the gate of the city, the troop that was in hiding beyond should close the gate after that horde, and without pretending any more they should attack the throng that had come into the city and kill them all.

Everything was done accordingly, and the Danes and Norwegians were frightfully slaughtered in that way. Great as that massacre was, however, the Norwegians did not abandon the city, for they were hard and savage; but they all said that they would make many hurdles, and place props under them, and that they would make a hole in the wall underneath them. This was not delayed; the hurdles were made, and the hosts were under them making a hole in the wall, because they wanted to take the city, and avenge their people.

It was then that the King (who was on the verge of death) and the Queen


sent messengers to the Irish who were among the pagans (for the pagans had many Irish fosterlings), to say to the Irishmen, ‘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: for they have given no greater honour to any Saxon warrior or cleric than they have given to each warrior or cleric who has come to them from Ireland, for this inimical race of pagans is equally hostile to you also. You must, then, since you are faithful friends, help them on this occasion.’ This was the same as saying to them, ‘Since we have come from faithful friends of yours to converse with you, you should ask the Danes what gifts in lands and property they would give to the people who would betray the city to them. If they will make terms for that, bring them to swear an oath in a place where it would be convenient to kill them, and when they are taking the oath on their swords and their shields, as is their custom, they will put aside all their good shooting weapons.’

All was done accordingly, and they set aside their arms. And the reason why those Irish acted against the Danes was because they were less friends to them than the Norwegians. Then many of them were killed in that way, for huge rocks and beams were hurled onto their heads. Another great number were killed by spears and by arrows, and by every means of killing men.

However, the other army, the Norwegians, was under the hurdles, making a hole in the wall. What the Saxons and the Irish who were among them did was to hurl down huge boulders, so that they crushed the hurdles on their heads. What they did to prevent that was to put great columns under the hurdles. What the Saxons did was to put the ale and water they found in the town into the towns cauldrons, and to boil it and throw it over the people who were under the hurdles, so that their skin peeled off them. The Norwegians response to that was to spread hides on top of the hurdles. The Saxons then scattered all the beehives there were in the town on top of the besiegers, which prevented them from moving their feet and hands because of the number of bees stinging them. After that they gave up the city, and left it. Not long afterwards there was fighting again …

CELT edition, Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, FA 429  (p. 169-173 in Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. Joan Newlon Radner (ed), first edition [xxxvii + 241 pages] Dublin Institute for Advanced StudiesDublin (1978)

I nearly called this post the beer and bee defense of Chester. It makes me wonder how many bee hives they had within the city walls. I guess there is clear association between the number of bee hives and the number of barrels of mead/ale. 🙂 They were clearly pulling out all stops to hold off the Vikings. Interesting though that they were able to send messengers back and forth to the Lady Æthelflaed and also to the Irish.

Why would an annalist insert a story of a battle in Fortriu in the middle of the Chester account? Reading through the Fragmentary Annals I can’t help noticing all the references and stories to either Adomnan or Columba.

8 thoughts on “Lady Æthelflaed’s Defense of Chester, c.907

  1. Great post Michelle. I’ve always enjoyed the “female saint led the defense” stories – Genevieve and Attila is a good one though I don’t think it has this level of detail (can’t say for sure – I’m in KC and my books are in Indiana).

    1. Aethelflaed is Alfred the Great’s daughter, sister of Edmund(?) of Wessex. Interesting how the Irish (perhaps survivors?) preserved the account rather than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle kept in her brother’s Wessex. He had sister issues….

      1. It does seem likely that her military achievements were downplayed by West Saxon scribes, who were more keen to paint a gilded image of her younger brother Edward. It was left to others to give her the credit she deserved. The account of the defence of Chester is a good example. Another is the alliance she forged with the northern kings, an account of which is likewise preserved in FAI (and on which I wrote a blogpost two years ago). But the Fortriu battle is a strange interpolation here, isn’t it? I imagine there must be other sections of FAI where it would have fitted better.

        1. There have been a couple papers on her but I’m really surprised there hasn’t been a full length biography of her. We probably know or can deduce more about her than just about any other Anglo-Saxon woman.

          1. I’m not up-to-date with the published work on Aethelflaed but the nearest I’ve seen to a long biography is Wainwright’s old paper in Clemoes ‘The Anglo-Saxons’ of 1959. Of the modern stuff I’m familiar with Pauline Stafford’s paper in Brown & Farr ‘Mercia’ (2001) and the entry by Stephanie Hollis in ‘Amazons to Fighter Pilots’ (2003) but not much else. There may be other stuff published more recently. Aethelflaed must surely be one of the most fascinating figures of the 10th century.

  2. Fascinating post, Michelle. Would it be fair to say that the ASC has “Mercia” issues as well? I’d be very interested, following on from a discussion on Tim’s Senchus blog, in the original terms used in the Annals for “Dane” and “Norwegian” – this account seems to give a picture of two distinct armies, with a separate line in diplomacy (with the Irish) taking account of this.
    One other question that occurred to me in reading this, that I’d never considered before, is why the Welsh avoided the sort of Viking colonisation the rest of the British Isles experienced during the period – or is that a misreading of the picture?

    1. I think everyone had Mercia issues. 🙂 I guess its a sign of being a defeated major power. There just isn’t much recorded on Mercia at any phase.

      I don’t know much about the Norse but I would guess that Dane is from Denmark’s area of control and Norweigans are from Norway, probably further from continental influence.

      On Wales, I think earlier above where I quoted it says they tried to land in Wales and were beaten off. Note that Æthelflaed allowed them to land and settle near Chester. This seems to be always a bad plan.

      land in Wales wn

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