The Warrior Queen: the Life and Legend of Aethelflaed, Daughter of Alfred the Great by Joanna Arman

Back in another life, I was a professional historian of Anglo-Saxon Britain.  My knowledge is 20 years out of date (and substantially forgotten) so I pick up new books on Anglo-Saxon history for the general reader when they come to my attention.

If you know anything about Anglo-Saxon England, you are probably wondering how there is enough source material to write a book about any one person.  As with most general histories of this era, most of the book is devoted to explaining the background to Aethelflaed, ie the culture at the court of Alfred the Great, Anglo-Saxon Christianity, etc.  Aethelflaed was the daughter of Alfred the Great, who married into the Mercian royal family, became widowed, and may or may not have ruled in her own right and may or may not have led armies into battle.  A lot is made of the fact that growing up in her father’s court she was almost certainly raised to leadership despite being a woman, but I thought that not enough was made of the fact that there was a long tradition of women wielding some power in Mercia.

There’s nothing factual that made me want to throw the book at the wall, but I still found it frustrating.  There is far too much reference to how Aethelflaed as portrayed in the novels of Bernard Cornwell and the television show based on them, The Last Kingdom.  One mention that what the reader may have heard about her in popular culture is far off the mark would have been fine.  Repeatedly it was annoying.  More egregious, the author falls into the trap of the “average life expectancy” myth – and refers to people in their 30s as being old in Anglo-Saxon times.  Again, repetitively.

So, while I’m excited that there is a book for the general reader about a strong woman from an era that I care deeply about, this one’s purely for the amateurs.  The bibliography is light on primary and scholarly sources; there is certainly no groundbreaking analysis.  The references to popular culture (and I will admit The Last Kingdom is a guilty pleasure of mine) and life expectancy are likely to be too infuriating, not just for academics, but for anyone reasonably well versed in medieval history.

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