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So, did Aethelflaed wear bloomers?

So, did Aethelflaed wear bloomers?

That's what I want to know! All that horse riding, and time spent around her armies... surely she embraced a few 'manly' ways. She'd not have ridden side saddle, so how did she protect herself? We know that men sometimes wore 'braies' or soft leather against their tender parts. Maybe Aethelflaed also wore leather ...

We know so little about women's underwear in bygone days. If they ever actually wore undergarments, its likely the fabric was linen and will have, over time, perished into non existence.

And how did Aethelflaed and other women of her time keep themselves comfy while bleeding? A loin cloth tied to a strap around her waist, like many women around the world still do? Sphagnum moss to stem her flow? A do-it-yourself tampon with cloth wound around a stick? Or did she just let it flow? We don't know because these 'womanly' things weren't discussed, let alone documented.

It's likely most women were undernourished, and had less regular periods than nowadays. They'll have spent most of their fertile life pregnant or breastfeeding. If they survived childbirth and were lucky enough to be alive to see menopause, as life expectancy was pretty short, women would probably have stopped bleeding by the age of 35-40.

Aethelflaed was born into royalty. She'd have been well nourished. She married young and had just one daughter when she was around 16 years old. It's told that she had such an awful birth, almost costing her life, that she made the decision not to repeat the event.

Ha! She...made.. the decision? Of course, she wasn't an ordinary woman of her time. No contraception. Marital rights. Woman's place...and all that!

It's a fascinating subject; women's sanitary protection over the years, isn't it? (or maybe it's the midwife in me) But let's think about this a little deeper. Let's grapple for a moment with the words 'sanitary' and 'protection'. Menstrual blood isn't un-sanitary, and we really don't need protection from it. Let's remind ourselves; If women don't bleed, they don't reproduce. Fertility was never more important than in Aethelflaed's time. So, why wasn't it celebrated? Why is it still not celebrated?

Where do these attitudes come from? Just yesterday I read on my Facebook page that a Nepali friend was declined tea in a cup at a cafe she visited in rural Nepal, because she was menstruating. She was given it in a plastic bag. Yes, seriously! And we all know stories with outcomes, for shunned and stigmatised women, that are a hundred times worse.

And we call ourselves civilised.

Rant (not quite) over! I'm giggling, and angry at the same time, that my writing so far may have triggered a bit of embarrassment (Blood. Menopause.. make-shift tampons.....)

But hold on. Out of that same bag which contains our embarrassment, shame, and negative, dirty words around menstruation...... comes the fact that most of us also don't actually know who Aethelflaed is.

I hold my hand up and admit I didn't either, until I overheard an enlightening programme on Radio 4 last week.

I have a reason for going on about this nasty, persistent discomfort regarding 'womanly' issues. In 2019 it's still alive and kicking! And I want us to accept the injustice of it, for what it is. Injustice. Aethelflaed's lack of recognition is one of the same injustice.

It was only recently acknowledged what a unique and influential woman Aethelflaed was, and that England was so massively shaped by her. We are celebrating her life 1,100 years on, and I hope she'll now be written in the history books like she never was at the time. Through reading what we DO know about her, it seems she was held in the highest esteem, higher even than her father, King Alfred the Great. However, much male dominated documentation failed to mention the part she played in securing England from viking rule. She was known affectionately as Lady of the Mercians, or Queen of the Saxons.

Here's a thought...
It seems Aethelflaed chose leadership over birthing more children. I think she'd have been awesome at either. But, let's face it, both came with huge risks. How many women would have been leaders if they didn't have the task of bringing the next generation into the world (or..are both actually similar?), and where would be be without the birth givers?

I'm thrilled to find yet another awesome woman to add to the ever growing list of awesome women. Another to help us celebrate the different and complimentary skills, characters, and strengths women bring to community, rule, and leadership. How many more women are yet to appear from 'between the lines' of our history books? And how much longer will we 'chip away' to have recognition for the half of sky that we hold up?


If I've piqued your interest in Aethelflaed, do check her life story out. Briefly, though, this is her legacy....

In one of the most unique events in early medieval history, Aethelflaed saved England, but she got written out of history.

..and the slightly less brief version....

Aethelflaed was born around 870. She was the daughter of Alfred, who was having a BIG headache with the viking invasion. Interestingly, she was given the same education as her brothers, and was married to Aethelred, 10 years her elder, bringing alliance for Mercia, and unity for England against the viking invasion.
It was while Aethelred was ill, that our 'Queen of the Saxons' came into her own. Her strategic planning won the battle at Chester, with many vikings being slaughtered inside the hold of the city, saving it from a viking take-over.
When her husband died, Aethelflaed didn't re-marry. She was already quite a force, and marriage would have meant giving up control of her territories. It is written that she remained celibate, and therefore stronger and more 'manly'.

With Edward, her brother, she raided deep into Viking lands, and she annihilated all who came burning and looting into Mercia. The brother-sister act saw a united England as the only way to over-rule the vikings. When Edward succeeded the now deceased Alfred, he gained part of Aethelflaed's territories, but they continued the battle with their united armies.

For all the battles and fighting, she was a negotiator and peace-weaver, like no man could be in such a competitive culture. She made peace and won footholds. In 917, her armies took hold of Leicester. Shortly after this, the city of York, the nerve centre of Viking rule, offered a surrender and pledged their loyalty to her. In the few chronicles where her activity was documented, she was described as having an 'enlarged soul'.

She died suddenly, possibly of a stroke, in Tamworth on 12th June 918, at around the age of 47.

Much through his dependence on his sister's hold of Mercia, Edward continued to battle and won southern England from the Vikings. Most chronicles focused on Edward and, in doing so, wrote Aethelflaed out of existence. History is recored in a more balanced manner in the few chronicles less influenced by Edward's designs on Mercia. 

Aethelflaed's only child, Aelfwynn, never married. Unique in British history, the country embraced her succession to her mother's ruling. This is surely testament to the massive respect Aethelflaed earned, founding an England as we know it today. However, Edward deposed his niece and it is believed she spent her remaining days in a nunnery.

On Edwards death, his legitimate son took the kingship, but this son died just 16 days later. Aethelstan, Edward's eldest and illegitimate son, worshiped by his grandfather Alfred and raised by Aethelflaed and her husband within their family, became the first true king of a united England.

The few detailed recordings of these events are precious. Notably, thanks go to 'William of Malmsbury' for his chronicles of Athelflaed's accomplishments and her significance in our history.

She was laid to rest in St Oswald's ruins in Gloucestershire.

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  • Tracy Birrell on

    Thank you for sharing this. So interesting.

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