Church Monuments Society

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Month: July 2023
Type: Ledgerstone  
Era: 10th Century

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Gloucester Museum
Brunswick Rd, Gloucester GL1 1HP

More about this monument

Gloucester Museum has an elaborately carved piece of stone in its Anglo Saxon area with the caption: Aethelflaed’s Grave-Cover?

But who was Aethelflaed – and is this really her grave?

Gloucester Museum has an elaborately carved piece of stone in its Anglo Saxon area with the caption:

Aethelflaed’s Grave-Cover?

Found at St. Oswald’s Priory – the church Aethelflaed built, and where she was buried – this is ornate enough to have covered the tomb of the Warrior Queen herself.

The grave-cover is featured in the Museum’s Virtual Tour “The Anglo Saxons and Aethelflaed.” You can access the video at Aethelflaed (Fig. 1) was the daughter of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex.

The grave-cover is made of limestone and is carved with a leaf scroll motif. There is no inscription on it but there are two other artefacts which are stylistically similar which have been used to date it. One is the Alfred Jewel which has similar decoration on the reverse. This is inscribed “Alfred ordered me to be made” and it is thought to be one of the ornaments which King Alfred sent to the bishops of Wessex together with a copy of his translation of Pope Gregory’s “Pastoral Care.” This is dated to the late 9th century.

The other artefact is the Cuthbert embroidery. This is a vestment that was a gift given to the Bishop of Winchester. The inscription on it dates it to between 909 and 916. (It is called the Cuthbert embroidery because it was found in St. Cuthbert’s coffin when the coffin was opened in 1827. Athelstan, Alfred the Great’s grandson and the first King of all England, visited St. Cuthbert’s shrine in 934 and it is assumed that he donated the vestment then.)

The style of patterning on the three artefacts had gone out of fashion by the middle of the tenth century. This suggests that the grave-cover was carved earlier than this. Aethelflaed died in 918.

Aethelflaed married Aethelred, the ruler of Mercia, in around 886 when she was about 16. Virtually nothing is known about him and he does not seem to have been a member of the Mercian royal family. Mercia covered the centre of England with Northumbria to the north of it and Wessex to the south. At the beginning of the tenth century the north-easterly part of Mercia came under Viking rule while the south-westerly part was Anglo Saxon. Aethelred and Aethelflaed seem to have adopted Gloucester as their capital. In about 900 they founded a minster there, which they named St. Peter’s.

In 909 a raid was mounted into Viking Lincolnshire by a joint force from Mercia and Wessex. During the raid the remains of St. Oswald, a former King of Northumbria, were taken from Bardney Abbey and brought to Gloucester. A crypt was added to the east end of the minster to house St. Oswald’s remains. This may have been modelled on the crypt at Repton (Fig. 2). Mercian royalty had been buried at Repton but the monastery was ransacked when the Viking army spent the winter of 873-4 there. The minster in Gloucester was renamed St. Oswald’s. Over the next century it became very wealthy and was known as “The Golden Minster.”

Aethelred and Aethelflaed defeated the Vikings in a decisive battle at Tettenhall near modern Wolverhampton in 910. Aethelred died in 911 but Aethelflaed continued to rule Mercia on her own. Defensive settlements, known as burhs, were established at Bridgnorth, Stafford, Tamworth, Warwick, Runcorn and at other places whose locations have not yet been identified. In 917 Derby was captured from the Vikings and Leicester then surrendered. Aethelflaed died on 12th June 918 in Tamworth. Her body was taken to St. Oswald’s Minster in Gloucester where her husband was buried.

Aethelflaed is still remembered in the 21st century. Bernard Cornwell has written a series of novels called “The Saxon Tales” telling the story of how a united England came into being. Aethelflaed played a significant role in this. She ruled Mercia while her brother, Edward, succeeded their father as King of Wessex. The novels have been turned into a television series under the title of “The Last Kingdom.”

Ian Scruton