Æthelflæd was born around 864 AD, eldest child of the great Alfred the Great, king of Wessex. She took up her father’s crusade to drive back the Danish invasions of England, and did well enough to be described by English historians as “our greatest woman-general.”
In time, Æthelflæd was betrothed to her kinsman Æthelred, the Ealdorman of Mercia. According to some, on the journey to her wedding, her party was attacked by Danes – perhaps hoping to prevent an alliance between Wessex and Mercia – but the lady directed her escort into an old trench and so fought off the attackers. Within a few years, Æthelred and Æthelflæd had their first and only child (Ælfwynn); it appears that fighting off the Vikings … who had already overrun portions of Mercia … left them little time for other activities. By 884 Æthelflæd had joined her husband in directing the campaign, spending much of her time overseeing the rebuilding of crumbling Roman strongholds and the fortifying of towns as Anglo-Saxon forces recaptured Danish-held territories. According to legend, she also was the prime architect of Saxon strategy.
And she personally led Mercian forces into battle, as at Chester in 911. This was one of many battles in which Æthelred was not involved; he had been ill since around 902, and after ten years of battling poor health finally died. At this point Æthelflæd became the sole ruler of Mercia, and thus “Lady of Mercia.” Æthelflæd immediately turned to her brother Edward (the Elder, who had succeeded Alfred in 899) for support, and together they continued the campaign to drive the Danes out and unify the various English kingdoms. While Wessex acquired London and Oxford, she led campaigns in Wales in 916 and 917, and liberated Derby and Leicester to the north in 918. But on her way to York to accept its pledge of fealty, she died, likely succumbing to one of the now-trivial diseases of the time.