|Æthelstan presenting a book to St Cuthbert, illustration in a gospel book presented by Æthelstan to the saint's shrine in Chester-le-Street, the earliest surviving royal Anglo-Saxon portrait (Corpus Christi MS 183, fol. 1v)|
|Coronation||4 September 925|
|Predecessor||Ælfweard or Edward the Elder|
(as King of the English)
|Reign||927 – 27 Oct 939|
(as King of the Anglo-Saxons)
|House||House of Wessex|
|Father||Edward the Elder|
|Died||27 October 939
Æthelstan or Athelstan (Old English: Æþelstan, Æðelstān; c. 893/895 – 27 October 939) was King of the West Saxons from 924 to 927, and King of the English from 927 to 939. He was the son of King Edward the Elder and his first wife, Ecgwynn. Æthelstan's conquest in 927 of the last remaining Viking kingdom, York, made him the first ruler to control the whole of England, and he is regarded by historians as the first king of England.a He claimed the title of 'king of the English', and after the submission of Scottish and Welsh kings later in 927 even 'king of Britain'.2 Victory over Scottish and Viking forces at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 confirmed his prestige. His reign had been overlooked and overshadowed by the achievements of his grandfather, Alfred the Great, but he is now considered one of the greatest kings of the West Saxon dynasty.3
The view of the 12th century chronicler William of Malmesbury that "no one more just or more learned ever governed the kingdom" has been endorsed by modern historians.4 In the view of Frank Stenton: "In character and cast of mind he is the one West Saxon king who will bear comparison with Alfred."5 Simon Keynes agreed, writing that he "has long been regarded, with good reason, as a towering figure in the landscape of the tenth century...he has also been hailed as the first king of England, as a statesman of international standing, and as the one Anglo-Saxon ruler who will bear comparison with king Alfred the Great."6 Michael Wood regards Offa, Alfred and Æthelstan as the three greatest Anglo-Saxon kings.7
His household was the centre of English learning during his reign, and he played an important role in continental politics, According to Frank Stenton "Between Offa and Cnut there is no English king who played so prominent or so sustained a part in the general affairs of Europe."8
Æthelstan never married and was succeeded by his half-brother, Edmund. The Vikings then recovered the north, and although Edmund was able to reverse these gains, York was not finally conquered until 954.
By the end of the 8th century the petty Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the early settlement period had been consolidated into four large ones, Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria. In the early 9th century Wessex became the dominant kingdom under Æthelstan's great-great-grandfather, Egbert. In the middle of the century England came under increasing attack from Viking raids, culminating in the invasion by the Great Heathen Army in 865. By 878 the Vikings had destroyed East Anglia, Northumbria, and Mercia, and nearly conquered Wessex, but the West Saxons fought back under Æthelstan's grandfather, Alfred the Great, and achieved a decisive victory at the Battle of Edington. Alfred and the Viking leader Guthrum then agreed on a division that gave Alfred western Mercia, while eastern Mercia was incorporated into Viking East Anglia. In the 890s there were renewed Viking attacks, but these were successfully fought off by Alfred's son Edward and Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, who ruled English Mercia under Alfred and was married to his daughter Æthelflæd. Æthelred died in 911, and over the next decade Edward and Æthelflæd conquered Viking Mercia and East Anglia.
When Edward died in 924 he controlled all of England south of the Humber. The Viking king Sihtric ruled the Kingdom of York in southern Northumbria, but Ealdred maintained Anglo-Saxon rule in at least part of the former kingdom of Bernicia from his base in Bamburgh in northern Northumbria. King Constantine ruled Scotland, apart from the southwest, which was still the ancient British Kingdom of Strathclyde. Wales was divided into a number of small kingdoms, including Deheubarth in the southwest, Gwent in the southeast, Brycheiniog immediately north of Gwent, and Gwynedd in the north.
Source materials for a life of Æthelstan are very limited, and the first biography, by Oxford University historian Sarah Foot, was only published in 2011.9 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in this period is principally devoted to military events, and it is largely silent during his reign, apart from recounting his most important victories.10 An important source is the 12th century chronicle of William of Malmesbury, but historians are cautious about accepting his testimony, much of which cannot be verified from other sources. David Dumville goes so far as to dismiss William's account entirely, regarding him as a "treacherous witness" whose account is unfortunately influential.11 However, Sarah Foot is inclined to accept Michael Wood's argument that William's chronicle draws on a lost life of Æthelstan, while cautioning that we have no means of discovering how far William 'improved' on the original.12
There are a variety of other sources on Æthelstan's reign, and in Dumville's view the lack of information is more apparent than real.13 Charters, law codes, and coins throw considerable light on Æthelstan's government,14 and a scribe known as Æthelstan A', who was responsible for drafting all charters between 928 and 935, provides very detailed information, including signatories, dates and locations, which provide important information about Æthelstan's progress around his realm.15 By contrast with this rich source of information, no charters survive from 910 to 924, a gap which historians struggle to explain, and which makes it difficult to assess the degree of continuity in personnel and the operation of government between Edward's reign and Æthelstan's.16 Historians are also paying increasing attention to less conventional sources, such as poetry in his praise and manuscripts associated with his name.17
There is very little information about Æthelstan's mother, Ecgwynn, and she is not even named in any pre-Conquest source. She was later rumoured to have been Edward the Elder's concubine, a view accepted by some historians,18 but Barbara Yorke and Sarah Foot argue that the rumours were a product of the dispute over the succession in 924, and that there is no reason to doubt that she was Edward's legitimate wife. One 12th century chronicler described her as of noble birth, and she may have been related to St Dunstan.19 According to William of Malmesbury, Æthelstan was thirty years old when he acceded to the throne in 924, which would mean that he was born in about 894. William also wrote that Alfred the Great honoured his young grandson, giving him a scarlet cloak, a belt set with gems, and a sword with a gilded scabbard. Some historians have seen this as recalling Alfred's confirmation by the Pope in Rome as a young boy, and thus as an investiture of his grandson as 'throneworthy' and a potential heir. An acrostic poem praising 'Adelstan' has been interpreted as a eulogy to Æthelstan when he was a young boy by one of Alfred's leading scholars, John the Old Saxon, who may have been the prince's tutor.20b
Edward married Ælfflæd at about the time of his father's death, probably because Ecgwynn had died, although she may have been put aside. The new marriage weakened Æthelstan's position, as his step-mother naturally favoured the interests of her own sons, Ælfweard and Edwin.22 By 920 Edward had taken a third wife, Eadgifu, probably after putting Ælfflæd aside.23 She also had two sons, the future kings Edmund and Eadred. Edward also had a large number of daughters, perhaps as many as nine.24c
Æthelstan's later education was at the Mercian court of his aunt and uncle, Æthelflæd and Æthelred, and the young prince probably gained his military training in the Mercian campaigns to conquer the Danelaw. Æthelred died in 911 and Æthelflæd in 918, and according to a transcript dating from 1304, in 925 Æthelstan gave a charter of privileges to St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester, where his aunt and uncle were buried, "according to a pact of paternal piety which he formerly pledged with Æthelred, ealdorman of the people of the Mercians".26 After Æthelflæd's death, Edward took direct control of Mercia, and Æthelstan may have represented his father's interests there.327
On 17 July 924 Edward died, and the events which followed are very unclear. Ælfweard, Edward's eldest son by Ælfflæd, had ranked above Æthelstan in attesting a charter in 901,2829 and Edward may have intended Ælfweard to be his successor as king, either of Wessex only or of the whole kingdom. When Edward died Æthelstan was apparently with him in Mercia, while Ælfweard was in Wessex, and Mercia elected Æthelstan as king and Wessex chose Ælfweard. Whether a division of the kingdom was intended is uncertain, but Ælfweard only outlived his father by sixteen days, which changed everything.30 Even after this there seems to have been opposition to Æthelstan in Wessex, particularly in Winchester, where Ælfweard was buried. According to William of Malmesbury, a certain Alfred plotted to blind Æthelstan on account of his supposed illegitimacy, although whether to make himself king or on behalf of Ælfweard's younger brother Edwin is not known. In 925 Æthelstan behaved as a Mercian king. In a charter of that year relating to land in Derbyshire he described himself as Rex Anglorum, and it was only witnessed by Mercian bishops. He does not appear to have established his authority in Wessex until mid 925, and he was not crowned until 4 September 925. His coronation took place at Kingston upon Thames, perhaps because of its symbolic location on the border between Wessex and Mercia.31 He was crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Athelm, who probably designed or organised a new ordo (order of service) in which for the first time the king wore a crown instead of a helmet. The new ordo was influenced by West Frankish liturgy and in turn became one of the sources of the medieval French ordo.32
Tensions between Æthelstan and Winchester seem to have continued for some years. The Bishop of Winchester, Frithestan, did not attend the coronation or witness any of Æthelstan's known charters until 928. After that he witnessed fairly regularly until his resignation in 931, but he was listed in a lower position than his seniority should have entitled him to.33 It is possible that Edwin was Æthelstan's official heir, but in the early 930s he seems to have rebelled. In 933 he was drowned while fleeing to France. His cousin, Adelolf, Count of Boulogne, took his body for burial at St Bertin Abbey in Saint-Omer, and according to its annalist, Folcuin, king (sic) Eadwine had fled England "driven by some disturbance in his kingdom". Folcuin stated that Æthelstan sent alms to the abbey for his dead brother and received monks from the abbey graciously when they came to England, although Folcuin did not realise that Æthelstan died before the monks made the journey in 944. The 12th century chronicler Symeon of Durham said that Æthelstan ordered Edwin to be drowned, but this is generally dismissed by historians. Edwin's death was probably important in putting an end to Winchester's opposition.34
Edward the Elder had conquered the Danish territories in Mercia and East Anglia with the assistance of Æthelflæd and her husband, but when Edward died the Danish king Sihtric still ruled the Viking Kingdom of York (formerly the southern Northumbrian kingdom of Deira). Soon after Æthelstan's coronation, in January 926, he arranged for his only full sister to marry Sihtric. The two kings agreed not to invade each other's territories or to support each other's enemies. The following year Sihtric died, and Æthelstan seized the chance to invade.d Guthfrith, a cousin of Sihtric, led a fleet from Dublin to try to take the throne, but Æthelstan easily prevailed. He captured York and received the submission of the Danish people. According to the bland description of a southern chronicler, he "succeeded to the kingdom of the Northumbrians", and it is uncertain whether he had to fight Guthfrith.38 His usurpation was met with outrage by the Northumbrians, who had always resisted southern rule, but at Eamont, near Penrith, on 12 July 927, King Constantine of Scotland, King Hywel Dda of the West Welsh,e Ealdred of Bamburgh, and King Owain of Strathclyde (or Morgan ap Owain of Gwent)f accepted Æthelstan's overlordship. He then went to the Welsh border and forced the Welsh princes to accept his authority and pay an unusually high level of tribute. A more permanent result of the meeting was an agreement to fix the border between England and Wales in the region of Hereford at the River Wye.41 According to William of Malmesbury, Æthelstan then went on to expel the Cornish from Exeter, fortify its walls, and fix the Cornish boundary at the River Tamar. However, this account is regarded sceptically by historians as Cornwall had by then been at least nominally under English rule for a hundred years. By Æthelstan's day it was securely under his control, and he was able to establish a new Cornish see and appoint its first bishop.42 His triumph led to a period of peace in the north lasting seven years.43 He thus became the first king of all the Anglo-Saxon peoples,g and in effect over-king of Britain.
Æthelstan's successes inaugurated what John Maddicott called the imperial phase of English kingship between about 925 and 975, when rulers from Wales and Scotland attended the assemblies of English kings and witnessed their charters.45 Welsh kings attended Æthelstan's court between 928 and 935 and witnessed charters near the head of the list, showing that their position was regarded as different from that of the other great men present. Nevertheless, Æthelstan appears to have regarded the Welsh as a subject people, compelled to pay tribute and attend court. In Armes Prydein Vawr (The Great Prophecy of Britain) a Welsh poet foresaw the day when the British would rise up against their Saxon oppressors and drive them into the sea.46 He tried to reconcile the aristocracy in his new territory of Northumbria to his rule. He lavished gifts on the minsters of Beverley, Chester-le-Street, and York, emphasising his Christianity. But he remained a resented outsider, and the northern Celtic kingdoms preferred to ally themselves with the pagan Norse of Dublin. In contrast to his strong control over southern England, his position in the north was far more tenuous.47
The peace following Eamont lasted nearly seven years, but in 934 Æthelstan invaded Scotland. His reasons are not clear, and historians give alternative explanations. One factor may have been the death of his half-brother Edwin in 933, if this finally removed factions in Wessex opposed to his rule. Guthfrith, the Norse king of Dublin who had briefly ruled Northumbria, died in 934, and this may have caused insecurity among the Danes which gave Æthelstan an opportunity to stamp his authority on the north. Another possible explanation is given by the Annals of Clonmacnoise, which records the death in 934 of a ruler who may have been Ealdred of Bamburh, and this could have led to a dispute between Æthelstan and Constantine over control of his territory. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle briefly recorded the expedition without explanation, but the twelfth century chronicler John of Worcester stated that Constantine had broken his treaty with Æthelstan.48
Æthelstan set out on his campaign in May 934, accompanied by four Welsh princes, Hywel Dda of Deheubarth, Idwal Foel of Gwynedd, Morgan ap Owain of Gwent and Tewdwr ap Griffri of Brycheiniog. His retinue also included eighteen bishops and thirteen earls, six of whom were Danes from eastern England. By late June or early July he had reached Chester-le-Street, where he made generous gifts to the tomb of St Cuthbert. The invasion was conducted by a combined land and naval force. According to the 12th century chronicler Simeon of Durham, his land forces ravaged as far as Dunnottar in north east Scotland, while the fleet raided Caithness, then probably part of the Norse kingdom of Orkney.49
No battles are recorded during the campaign, and chronicles do not record its outcome, but this is clear from Æthelstan's charters. By September he was back in the south of England at Buckingham, where Constantine witnessed a charter as subregulus, that is a king acknowledging Æthelstan's overlordship. In December Æthelstan held court at Frome in Somerset, and the only subregulus present was Hywel Dda, but the following year at Cirencester a charter was attested by Constantine, Owain of Strathclyde, Hywel Dda, Idwal Foel, and Morgan ap Owain. At Christmas 935, Owain of Strathclyde was once more at Æthelstan's court along with the Welsh kings, but Constantine was not. His return to England less than two years later would be in very different circumstances50
In 934 Olaf Guthfrithson had succeeded his father Guthfrith as the Norse king of Dublin. The alliance between the Scots and the Norse was cemented by the marriage of Olaf to Constantine's daughter, and by 937 Olaf had defeated his rivals for control of the Viking part of Ireland and was ready to launch a bid for his father's former kingdom of York. Individually Olaf and Constantine were too weak to challenge Æthelstan, but together they could hope to challenge the dominance of Wessex. In the autumn they joined with the Strathclyde Britons under Owain to invade England, and met the West Saxons and the Mercians under Æthelstan and his brother Edmund at the Battle of Brunanburh. The result was an overwhelming victory for Æthelstan. Olaf escaped back to Dublin with the remnant of his forces, while Constantine lost a son. The English also suffered heavy losses, including two of Æthelstan's cousins, sons of Edward the Elder's younger brother, Æthelweard.51
The battle was reported in the Annals of Ulster:
- A great, lamentable and horrible battle was cruelly fought between the Saxons and the Northmen, in which several thousands of Northmen, who are uncounted, fell, but their king Amlaib [Olaf], escaped with a few followers. A large number of Saxons fell on the other side, but Æthelstan, king of the Saxons, enjoyed a great victory.52
A generation later the chronicler Æthelweard reported that it was popularly remembered as 'the great battle', and the historian Alfred Smyth described it as "the greatest battle in Anglo-Saxon history".53 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle abandoned its usual terse style in favour of a heroic poem vaunting the great victory,54 which uses imperial language to present Æthelstan as ruler of an empire of Britain.55 However, the site of the battle is uncertain and many sites have been suggested, with Bromborough on the Wirral the most favoured by historians.56
The victory sealed Æthelstan's posthumous reputation as "victorious because of God" (in the words of Ælfric of Eynsham), and in the view of Sarah Foot, it would be difficult to exaggerate its importance: if the Anglo-Saxons had been defeated, their hegemony over England would have disintegrated. Alex Woolf argues on the other hand that it caused no major changes in the political map of Britain; furthermore when Æthelstan died all that he achieved crumbled, and Olaf was elected king by the Northumbrians.57
Anglo-Saxon kings ruled through ealdormen, men of the highest status who were given authority over an area larger than a single shire. Beneath them reeves, royal officials who were noble local landowners, were in charge of a town or royal estate. One of the ealdormen was Æthelstan's namesake, who governed the eastern Danelaw territory of East Anglia, the largest and wealthiest province of England, with great ability from 932. In the reigns of Æthelstan's half brothers, he became so powerful that he was known as Æthelstan Half-King. Several of the ealdormen who witnessed charters had Scandinavian names, and while the localities they came from cannot be identified, they were almost certainly the successors of the earls who led Danish armies in the time of Edward the Elder, and who were retained by Æthelstan as his representatives in local government. The authority of church and state was not separated in early medieval societies, and the lay officials worked closely with their diocesan bishop and local abbots, who also attended the king's royal councils.58
As the first king of all the Anglo-Saxon peoples, Æthelstan needed effective means to govern his extended realm. Building on the foundations of his predecessors, he created the most centralised government that England had yet seen.59 Previously, some charters had been produced by royal priests and others by members of religious houses, and the monopoly of production by the scribe known as Æthelstan A between 928 and 935 shows and unprecedented degree of royal control over an important royal activity. Their elaborate style, which was influenced by Aldhelm, shows a high level of intellectual attainments. He may have been bishop Ælfwine of Lichfield, who was close to the king. However, after Æthelstan A retired or died, charters reverted to a simpler form, suggesting that they had been an individual's work rather than showing the development of a formal writing office.60
A key mechanism of government was the Royal Council (or witan). Anglo-Saxon kings did not have a fixed capital city. Their courts were peripatetic, and their councils were held at varying locations around their realm. However, Æthelstan stayed mainly in Wessex, and controlled outlying areas by summoning leading figures to his councils. The small and intimate meetings which had been adequate until the enlargment of the kingdom under Edward the Elder gave way to large bodies attended by bishops, ealdormen, thegns, magnates from distant areas and independent rulers who had submitted to his authority. Frank Stenton sees Æthelstan's councils as "national assemblies" which did much to break down the provincialism which was a barrier to the unification of England. John Maddicott goes further, seeing them as the start of centralised assemblies which had a defined role in English government, and Æthelstan as "the true if unwitting founder of the English parliament".61
The Anglo-Saxons were the first people in northern Europe to write in the vernacular, and law codes in Old English go back to Æthelberht of Kent at the beginning of the 7th century. Alfred the Great's law code at the end of the ninth century was also in the vernacular, and he expected his ealdormen to learn it.62 It was strongly influenced by Carolingian law going back to Charlemagne in such areas as treason, peace-keeping, hundred organisation, ecclesiastical tithes and judicial ordeal.63 It remained in force throughout the 10th century, and later codes were built on this foundation, although oral law was also important in the Anglo-Saxon period.64
More legal texts survive from Æthelstan's reign than for any other 10th century king. The earliest appear to be his tithe edict and the ‘Ordinance on Charities’. Four were adopted at Royal Councils in the early 930s at Grately in Hampshire, Exeter, Faversham in Kent, and Thunderfield in Surrey. Local legal texts survive from London and Kent, and one concerning the ‘Dunsæte’ on the Welsh border probably also dates to Æthelstan’s reign.65 In the view of Patrick Wormald, the laws must have been written by Wulfhelm, who succeeded Athelm as Archbishop of Canterbury in 926.66 h Other historians see Wulhelm’s role as less important, giving the main credit to Æthelstan himself, although the significance placed on the ordeal as a test of innocence shows the church’s increased involvement, and Nicholas Brooks sees the role of the bishops as marking an important stage in the increasing involvement of the church in the making and enforcement of law.68
The two earliest codes are concerned with clerical matters, and Æthelstan stated that he acted on the advice of Wulfhelm and his bishops. The first asserts the importance of paying tithes to the church. The second enforces the duty of charity on Æthelstan's reeves, specifying the amount to be given to the poor and requiring reeves to free one penal slave annually.69 The later codes showed his concern with social order, especially theft, which he regarded as the most important manifestation of social breakdown. The first of these later codes, issued at Grately, prescribed harsh penalties, including the death penalty for anyone over twelve years-old stealing goods worth more than eight pence. This apparently had little effect, as Æthelstan admitted in the Exeter code:
- I King Æthelstan, declare that I have learned that the public peace has not been kept to the extent, either of my wishes, or of the provisions laid down at Grately, and my councillors say that I have suffered this too long.
In desperation the Council tried a different strategy, offering an amnesty to thieves if they paid compensation to their victims. The problem of powerful families protecting criminal relatives was to be solved by expelling them to other parts of the realm. This strategy did not last long, and at Thunderfield Æthelstan returned to the hard line, softened by raising the minimum age for the death penalty to fifteen "because he thought it too cruel to kill so many young people and for such small crimes as he understood to be the case everywhere".70 His reign saw the first introduction of the system of tithing, sworn groups of ten or more men who were jointly responsible for peace-keeping (later known as frankpledge). Sarah Foot commented that tithing and oath taking to deal with the problem of theft had its origin in Frankia:
- But the equation of theft with disloyalty to Æthelstan’s person appears peculiar to him. His preoccupation with theft – tough on theft, tough on the causes of theft – finds no direct parallel in other kings’ codes.71
Historians’ views on Æthelstan’s legislation vary widely. Patrick Wormald's verdict was harsh: "The hallmark of Æthelstan's law-making is the gulf dividing its exalted aspirations from his spasmodic impact." In his view "The legislative activity of Æthelstan's reign has rightly been dubbed 'feverish'...But the extant results are, frankly, a mess."72 But in the view of Simon Keynes: "Without any doubt the most impressive aspect of King Æthelstan's government is the vitality of his law-making", which shows him driving his officials to do their duties and insisting on respect for the law, but also demonstrates the difficulty he had in controlling a troublesome people. He sees the Grately code as "an impressive piece of legislation" which shows the king's determination to maintain social order.73 David Pratt describes his legislation as “a deep and far-reaching reform of legal structures, no less important than developments under King Alfred two generations earlier”.74
Later Anglo-Saxon England had the most advanced currency in Europe, but this dates to Edgar's reform of the monetary system in the 970s, and in Æthelstan's time it was far less developed. The Grately code included a provision that there was to be only one coinage across the king's dominion. However, this appears in a section which appears to be copied from a code of his father, and the list of towns with mints is confined to the south, including London and Kent, but not northern Wessex or other regions. Early in Æthelstan's reign, different styles of coin were issued in each region, but after he conquered York and received the submission of the other British kings, he issued a new coinage, known as the 'Circumscription Cross' type. This advertised his newly exalted status with the inscription 'Rex Totius Britanniae'. Examples were minted in Wessex, York and English Mercia (but in Mercia with the title 'Rex Saxorum), but not East Anglia or the Danelaw.
In the early 930s a new coinage was issued, the 'crowned-bust' type, with the king shown for the first time wearing a crown with three stalks, similar to the crown he is wearing in the illustration above. This was eventually issued in all regions apart from Mercia, which showed its independence of mind by issuing coins without a ruler portrait, suggesting that any Mercian affection for a West Saxon king brought up among them quickly declined.75
Church and state maintained close relations in the Anglo-Saxon period, socially and politically. Churchmen attended royal feasts as well as meetings of the Royal Council. During Æthelstan's reign these relations became even closer, especially as the archbishopric of Canterbury had come under West Saxon jurisdiction since Edward the Elder annexed Mercia, and Æthelstan's conquests brought the northern church under the control of a southern king for the first time.76
Æthelstan appointed members of his own circle to bishoprics in Wessex, possibly to counter the influence of the bishop of Winchester, Frithestan. One of the king's mass-priests, Ælfheah, became bishop of Wells, while another, Beornstan, succeeded Frithestan as bishop of Winchester. Beornstan was succeeded by another member of the royal household, Ælfheah. One of the leading figures in the later tenth century Benedictine revival of Edgar's reign, Æthelwold, served in early life at Æthelstan's court, and according to Æthelwold's biographer, Wulfstan, "he spent a long period there in the royal burh as the king's inseparable companion". Æthelstan arranged for him to be ordained a priest.77
He had a reputation for founding churches, although it is unclear how justified this is. According to late and dubious sources, they included minsters at Milton Abbas in Dorset and Muchelney in Somerset. In the view John Blair the reputation is probably well founded, but "These waters are muddied by Æthelstan's almost folkloric reputation as a founder, which made him a favourite hero of later origin-myths."78
No tenth-century king was a keener collector of relics than Æthelstan. The abbot of Saint Samson in Dol sent him some as a gift, and in his covering letter he wrote: "we know you value relics more than earthly treasure".79 Æthelstan was also a generous donor of manuscripts and relics to churches and monasteries. Indeed, his reputation was so great that some monastic scribes later falsely claimed that their institutions had been beneficiaries of his largesse. He was especially devoted to the cult of St Cuthbert in Chester-le-Street, and his gifts to the community there included Bede's Lives of Cuthbert. He commissioned it especially to present to Chester-le Street, and it is the only manuscript he gave to religious foundations which is known to have been wholly written in England during his reign.80 This has a portrait of Æthelstan presenting the book to Cuthbert (illustration at top of article), which is the earliest surviving manuscript portrait of an English king.81
He also sought to build ties with continental churches. Cenwald was a royal priest before his appointment as bishop of Worcester, and in 929 he accompanied two of Æthelstan's half-sisters to the Saxon court so that the future Holy Roman Emperor, Otto, could choose one of them as his wife. Cenwald went on to make a tour of German monasteries, giving lavish gifts on Æthelstan's behalf and receiving in return promises that the monks would pray for the king and others close to him in perpetuity. England and Saxony became closer after the marriage alliance, and German names start to appear in English documents, while Cenwald kept up the contacts he had made by subsequent correspondence, helping the transmission of continental ideas about reformed monasticism.82
Learning and the church had fallen to a low state in the second half of the ninth century, and Æthelstan built on his grandfather's efforts to revive them by what John Blair called "a determined reconstruction, visible to us especially through the circulation and production of books, of the shattered ecclesiastical culture.83 He was renowned in his own day for his piety and promotion of sacred learning. His interest in learning, and his reputation as a collector of books and relics, attracted a cosmopolitan group of ecclesistical scholars to his court, particularly Bretons and Irish. He made a confraternity agreement with the clergy of Dol Cathedral in Brittany, who were then in exile in central France because of Norman attacks, and they sent him the relics of Breton saints, apparently hoping for his patronage. The contacts resulted in a surge in interest in England in commemorating Breton saints. One of the most notable scholars at Æthelstan's court was Israel the Grammarian, who may have been a Breton. He introduced a board game called 'Gospel Dice', and this was taken to Bangor by an Irish bishop, Dub Innse. The environment at Æthelstan's court played a crucial role in the origins of the English monastic reform movement.84
The West Saxon court had connections with the Carolingians going back to the marriage between Æthelstan’s great-grandfather Æthelwulf to Judith, daughter of the king of West Francia (and future Holy Roman Emperor), Charles the Bald, and then the marriage of Alfred the Great’s daughter, Ælfthryth to Judith’s son by a later marriage, Baldwin II, Count of Flanders. By Æthelstan’s time the connection was well established, and his coronation was performed with anointment, probably to draw a deliberate parallel between his rule and Carolingian tradition. His Crowned Bust coinage of 933–938 was the first Anglo-Saxon coinage to show the king crowned, following Carolingian iconography, and on both coins and his charters he claimed the title Rex totius Britanniae, King of the Whole of Britain. In one manuscript dedication he is even styled ‘’basileus et curagulus’’, the title of Byzantine emperors. The contemporary French chronicler Flodoard described him as “the king from overseas”.85
Some historians are sceptical of Æthelstan’s claims."Clearly", Alex Woolf commented, "King Æthelstan was a man who had pretensions," 86 while in the view of Simon Keynes, he proclaimed himself ‘’king of Britain’’ "by wishful extension".2 However, other historians see these claims as justified. Michael Wood titled an essay ‘The Making of King Aethelstan’s Empire: an English Charlemagne?’, and described him as “the most powerful ruler that Britain had seen since the Romans”.87 In the view of Veronica Ortenberg, he was “the most powerful ruler in Europe” with an army which had repeatedly defeated the Vikings; continental rulers saw him as a Carolingian emperor, who “was clearly treated as the new Charlemagne”. She wrote:
- Wessex kings carried an aura of power and success, which made them increasingly powerful in the 920s, while most Continental houses were in military trouble and engaged in internecine warfare. While the civil wars and the Viking attacks on the Continent had spelled the end of unity of the Carolingian empire, which had already disintegrated into separate kingdoms, military success had enabled Æthelstan to triumph at home and to attempt to go beyond the reputation of a great heroic dynasty of warrior kings, in order to develop a Carolingian ideology of kingship.88
In Sarah Foot's view: "Any man whose parents managed to provide him with eight or even nine sisters deserves our sympathy." Like his father, Æthelstan was unwilling to marry them to his own subjects, so they either entered nunneries or married foreign husbands. This was one reason for his close relations with European courts, and he married several of his half-sisters to European nobles.89 Another reason lay in the common interest on both sides of the Channel in resisting the threat from the Vikings, while the rise in the power and reputation of the royal house of Wessex made marriage with an English princess more prestigious to European rulers.90
One of Æthelstan’s half-sisters, Eadgifu, had already married Charles the Simple, king of the West Franks, in the late 910s. He was deposed in 922, and Eadgifu sent their son, Louis to safety in England. In 926 Hugh, duke of the Franks, sent Æthelstan’s cousin, Adelolf, Count of Boulogne, on an embassy to ask for the hand of Æthelstan’s sister. According to William of Malmesbury, the gifts Adelolf brought included spices, jewels, many swift horses, a crown of solid gold, the sword of Constantine the Great, Charlemagne's lance and a piece of the Crown of Thorns.Æthelstan sent his half-sister Eadhild to be Hugh’s wife.91
Æthelstan’s most important European alliance was with the new Liudolfing dynasty in East Francia. The Carolingian dynasty of East Francia had died out in the early tenth century, and its new Liudolfing king, Henry the Fowler, was seen by many as an ‘‘arriviste’’. He needed a royal marriage for his son to establish his legitimacy, but no suitable Carolingian women were available. The ancient royal line of the West Saxons provided an acceptable alternative, especially as they (wrongly) claimed descent from the seventh century king and saint, Oswald, who was venerated in Germany. In 929 or 930 Henry sent ambassadors to Æthelstan’s court seeking a wife for his son, Otto, who later became Holy Roman Emperor. Æthelstan sent two of his half-sisters, and Otto chose Eadgyth. Fifty years later, Æthelweard, a descendant of Alfred the Great's older brother, addressed his Latin version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to Matilda, abbess of Essen, who was Eadgyth's grand-daughter. The other sister, whose name is uncertain, was married to "a prince near the Jupiter Mountains" not definitively identified.92
In early medieval Europe, it was common for kings to act as foster-fathers for other kings’ sons, and Æthelstan was known for the support he gave to dispossessed young royals. In 936 he sent an English fleet to help his foster-son, Alan II, Duke of Brittany, to regain his ancestral lands in Britanny, which had been conquered by the Vikings. In the same year he assisted his half-sister Eadgifu’s son Louis to take the throne of West Francia, and in 939 he sent another fleet which unsuccessfully attempted to help Louis in a struggle with rebellious magnates. According to later Scandinavian sources, he assisted another possible foster-son, Hakon, son of Harald Fairhair, king of Norway to reclaim his throne.93
On 27 October 939, Æthelstan, "pillar of the dignity of the western world" in the words of the Annals of Ulster, died at Gloucester. His grandfather, Alfred, his father, Edward, and his half-brother, Ælfweard, had been buried at Winchester, but Æthelstan chose not to honour the city which had been associated with opposition to his rule. By his own wish he was buried at Malmesbury Abbey, close to the shrine of Saint Aldhelm, where Æthelstan had buried his cousins who died at Brunanburh. In the 12th century, William of Malmesbury described him as fair-haired "as I have seen for myself in his remains, beautifully intertwined with gold threads". His bones were lost during the Reformation, but he is commemorated by an empty 15th century tomb.94
After Æthelstan's death, the men of York immediately chose Olaf Guthfrithsson as their king, and Anglo-Saxon control of the north, seemingly made safe by the victory of Brunanburh, collapsed. The reigns of his half-brothers Edmund (939-946) and Eadred (946-955) were largely devoted to regaining control. Olaf seized the east midlands, leading to the establishment of a frontier at Watling Street. In 941 Olaf died and Edmund took back control of the east midlands, and then York in 944. Following Edmund's death York again switched back to Viking control, and it was only when the Northumbrians finally drove out their Norwegian Viking king Eric Bloodaxe in 954 and submitted to Eadred that Anglo-Saxon control of the whole of England was finally restored.97
- David Dumville's chapter on Æthelstan in Wessex and England is headed 'Between Alfred the Great and Edgar the Peacemaker: Æthelstan, the first king of England', and the title of Sarah Foot's biography is Æthelstan: the first king of England.1
- However, Sarah Foot thinks that the poem praising Æthelstan makes better sense if it is dated to the beginning of his reign.21
- One sister of Æthelstan, whose name is unknown, married Sihtric of York. Modern authors make her his full sister, but the earliest primary sources to report the marriage make no such distinction. Chronicler Roger of Wendover calls her Edith (Eathgitam) and describes her in a manner suggesting identification with Saint Edith of Polesworth. His claim that she remained a virgin throughout her one-year marriage may indicate that she was still underage, and hence only a half-sister of Æthelstan. However, her identification with Edith of Polesworth is not found elsewhere and may be apocryphal. Likewise, contradictory accounts in surviving chronicles give different fates to the named half-sisters of Æthelstan. Several report instead that his sister Edith was sent to the continent, where she married either Holy Roman Emperor Otto or "a king near the Jupiter Mountains".25
- Some historians believe that Sihtric renounced his wife soon after the marriage and reverted to paganism,35 while others merely state that Æthelstan took advantage of Sihtric's death to invade.36 In the view of Alex Woolf, it is unlikely that Sihtric repudiated her because Æthelstan would almost certainly have declared war on him.37
- Hywel Dda united Seisylleg and Dyfed to form the enlarged kingdom of Deheubarth at an unknown date around 930. In the entry for 927 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle he is described as king of the West Welsh.39
- According to William of Malmesbury it was Owain of Strathclyde, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says Owain of Gwent. Most historians think Strathclyde is more likely, but either or both are possible.40
- However, the situation in northern Northumbria is unclear. In the view of Ann Williams, the submission of Ealdred of Bamburgh was probably nominal, and it is likely that he acknowledged Constantine as his lord, but Alex Woolf sees Ealdred as a semi-independent ruler acknowledging West Saxon authority, like Æthelred of Mercia a generation earlier.44
- Wormald discusses the codes in detail in The Making of English Law67
- An allusion in the 12th century Liber Eliensis to "Eadgyth, daughter of king Æthelstan" is probably a mistaken reference to his sister.96
- Dumville, ch. IV; Foot, 2011
- Keynes, 'Edward, King of the Anglo Saxons'., p. 61
- Williams, Athelstan
- Lapidge, 1993, pp. 49
- Stenton, p. 356
- Keynes, 1999, p. 466
- Wood, 2005, p. 7
- Lapidge, 1993, pp. 89; Stenton, p. 344
- Foot, 2011, pp. 2-3
- Dumville, p. 167
- Dumville, pp. 146, 168
- Foot, 2011, pp. 251-258, discussing an unpublished essay by Michael Wood.
- Dumville, pp. 142-143
- Miller, Æthelstan
- Foot, 2011, pp. 71-73, 82-89
- Keynes, 1999, pp. 465-468
- Foot, 2011, p. 247
- Abels, p. 207; Williams, 'Athelstan'
- Yorke, 'Edward as Ætheling', pp. 26, 33; Foot, 2011, 30-31
- Foot, 2011, pp. 29-33; Lapidge, 'John the Old Saxon'; Wood, 2010, p. 137
- Foot, 2011, pp. 110-112
- Foot, 2011, pp. 31-33
- Williams, 'Ælfflæd'; Miller, 'Edward the Elder'
- Foot, 2011, pp. xv, 44-52
- Thacker, pp. 257-258; Foot, 2011, p. 48
- Foot, 2011, p. 206
- Foot, 2004
- Foot, 2011, p. 37
- Keynes, 'Edward, King of the Anglo Saxons', p. 51
- Foot, 2011, p. 17; Keynes, 'Rulers of the English', p. 514
- Foot, 2011, pp. 40, 73-74
- Nelson, 2008, pp. 125-126
- Foot, 2011, pp. 75, 83n, 98; Thacker, pp. 254-55
- Foot, 2011, pp. 39-43, 87; Stenton, pp. 355-56; Williams, 'Athelstan'
- Hart, 'Sihtric'; Thacker, p. 257
- Foot, 2011, p. 18; Stenton, p. 340; Miller, 'Æthelstan'
- Woolf, pp. 150-151
- Foot, 2011, pp. 12-19
- Kirby, 'Hywel Dda'
- Foot, 2011, p. 162 n.; Woolf, p. 151
- Higham, p. 190; Foot, 2011, 18-20; Williams, 'Ealdred'; Stenton, pp. 340-341
- Foot, 2011, p. 164; Padel, 'Cornwall'; Stenton, pp. 341-342; Loyn, pp. 299-300
- Foot, p. 20
- Williams, 'Ealdred'; Woolf, p. 158
- Maddicott, pp. 7-13
- Foot, 2011, pp. 20, 163; Loyn, pp. 292-299; Keynes, 1999, p. 469
- Higham, p. 192; Keynes, 1999, p. 469; Nelson, 1999, pp. 116-117
- Foot, 2011, pp. 164-165; Woolf, pp. 158-165
- Foot, 2011, pp. 87-88, 165-67; Woolf, pp. 158-66
- Woolf, pp. 166-68.
- Foot, 2011, pp. 169-171; Higham, p. 193; Stenton, pp. 342-343; Woolf, pp. 168-169; Smyth, pp. 202-204
- Woolf, p. 169
- Foot, 2011, p. 211; Smyth, p. 204
- Translated in Woolf, pp. 172-73
- Foot, 2007, p. 144
- Foot, 2011. 172-179; Scragg, 'Battle of Brunanburh'; Higham, p. 193
- Foot, 2011, pp. 23, 171-172; Woolf, p. 174
- Foot, 2011, pp. 129-130; Hart, 'Athelstan Half King', p. 121; Stafford, 'Ealdorman'
- Foot, 2011, p. 10
- Foot, 2011, pp. 71-72, 98; Keynes, 1999, p. 470
- Foot, 2011, pp. 63, 77-79; Stenton, p. 352; Maddicott, p. 4
- Foot, 2011, p. 136
- Pratt, p. 332
- Keynes, 1999, p. 471; Foot, 2011, pp. 136-137
- Pratt, p. 335-336, 345-346; Foot, 2011, p. 137
- Wormald, pp. 290, 299-300
- Wormald, pp. 290-308, 430-440
- Foot, 2011, pp. 138, 146-148; Pratt, pp. 336, 350; Keynes, 1999, p. 471; Brooks, p. 218
- Foot, 2011, pp. 136-140
- Foot, 2011, pp. 140-142
- Pratt, pp. 339-347; Foot, 2011, p. 143-145
- Wormald, pp. 300, 308
- Keynes, 'Royal Government and the Written Word', p. 237; Keynes, 1999, p. 471
- Pratt, p. 349
- Foot, 2011, pp. 151-157
- Foot, 2011, pp. 95-96
- Foot, 2011, pp. 97, 107-108; Yorke, 'Æthelwold'
- Blair, p. 348
- Nelson, 1999, p. 112
- Foot, 2011, pp. 117-124; Keynes, 1985, p. 180
- Karkov, p. 55
- Foot, 2011, pp. 101-102
- Blair, p. 348; Dumville, p. 156
- Foot, 2011, pp. 94, 99-107, 190-191; Keynes, 1985, p. 198
- Ortenberg, pp. 211-215; Karkov, pp. 66-67
- Woolf, p. 158
- Wood, 1983, p. 250
- Ortenberg, pp. 211-222
- Foot, 2011, pp. xv, 44-45
- Ortenberg, pp. 217-218
- Foot, 2011, pp. 46-49, 192-193; Ortenberg, pp. 218-219
- Foot, 2011, pp. xvi, 48-52; Ortenberg, pp. 231-232; Nelson, 1999, p. 112; Wormald, 'Æthelweard'
- Foot, 2011, pp. 22-23, 52-53, 167-169, 183-184
- Foot, 2011, pp. 25, 186-87, 210, 243, text to plate 16; Thacker, pp. 254-55
- Foot, 2011, pp. 59, 249
- Foot, 2011, pp. 59
- Keynes, 1999, pp. 472-473
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Æthelstan|
- Foot, Sarah (11 April 2013). "Athelstan". The Essay:Anglo-Saxon Portraits. BBC. Radio 3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01rr95w.
- Sillito, David (27 August 2009). "Viking hoard reveals its story". BBC Radio 4, Today Programme. (On the The Vale of York Hoard)
ÆthelstanBorn: c. 893/895 Died: 27 October 939
Ælfweard or Edward the Elder
|King of the Anglo-Saxons
as King of the English
as King of the Anglo-Saxons
|King of the English
927 – 27 October 939