Æthelstan was the King of Wessex who would become the first to style himself as ‘King of the English.’ He was the son of Edward the Elder and the grandson of Alfred the Great.
Athelstan, c.895-939. Illuminated manuscript from Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert, c.930. Originally from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Scanned from the book The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson, ISBN 1855142287.
There’s just no other way to say it. Æthelstan was Disney prince material. Chronicler William of Malmesbury described the king as handsome, slim, and blond. He was also extremely educated and personally brave. It’s written that he “won by the sword’s edge undying glory in battle.” In other words, if we didn’t have proof of his existence, he would be as legendary as King Arthur.
Æthelstan, King of Wessex
Æthelstan was born in Wessex in either 893 or 895. When his father, Edward the Elder died in battle in 924, the Mercians accepted him as king. It is widely believed that he had an older half-brother, Ælfweard who became King of Wessex after the death of Edward the Elder, but he died within only a few weeks of Edward. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dictates that the two were even buried together at Winchester. Manuscript D of the Chronicle states that Ælfweard outlived his father by only 16 days. It is unknown whether or not he was actually assassinated. Either way, chronicler William of Malmesbury related that Æthelstan succeeded Edward immediately as part of the terms of Alfred the Great’s will (since lost).
Æthelstan centralized government and increased and maintained control over the production of charters. He also might be one of the first kings, if not the first, to basically invent ‘state visits,’ as he invited rulers from foreign areas to attend his councils, particularly the neighboring Welsh kings. Historian Thomas Charles-Edwards writes that the most dominant figure in Wales at this time was Hywel Dda of Deheubarth, who is described as “the firmest ally of the ‘emperors of britain’ among all the kings of his day.” The Welsh kings attended Æthelstan’s councils which created a strong alliance between England and Wales. Also by attending these councils, the Welsh acknowledged Æthelstan’s overlordship (an overlord is a person who has authority over other people in power; in this case, a lord who has power over other lords. The Welsh kings therefore were sub-kings of the English sovereign).
A large-scale map of Britain (up to Edinburgh) in the reign of King Æthelstan (924-39), showing settlements, bishoprics, and known mints, with lots of historical notes in the margins. Map drawn by Reginald Piggott for Simon Keynes.
Æthelstan, King of the Anglo-Saxons
Unlike the Welsh, the Scots and the Vikings were resistant to accept him as a supreme ruler of the British Isles. In 927 AD, Æthelstan invaded and reconquered the last remaining Viking kingdom, York. This victory is what officially made him the first Anglo-Saxon ruler of England, and from 927 until his death, he was styled as King of the English.
Once he had gained control of York, the king was persistent in trying to persuade them to acknowledge him as the supreme ruler of all Britain. Instead of force the Archbishop of York (the most important lieutenant in the region) to submit to him, Æthelstan purchased a major territory in Lancashire and gave it to him. He showered ministers in York in gifts. Still, despite southern England swearing allegiance to him without question, and despite his peaceful-like tactics, he was still resented in the North, and the northern British kingdoms allied elsewhere, in one instance with the pagan Norse of Dublin.
Anxious for the Scots to accept his rule and accompanied by four Welsh kings, Æthelstan invaded Scotland in 934 and forced King Constantine to submit to him. Several factors made Æthelstan extremely comfortable with this invasion. Firstly, his half-brother Edwin died in 933, removing any insecurities that his people in Wessex might have against his rightful claim to the throne (which by now he’d held for ten years). Furthermore, the Norse king of Dublin, Guthfrith (who briefly ruled Northumbria in Northern Britain) died in 934. Guthfrith’s death created an insecurity among the Danes which gave Æthelstan a flawless opportunity to make his claim over the North. Two sources briefly explain this invasion. The Annals of Clonmacnoise (a 17th century translation of a lost Irish chronicle covering events in ireland from pre-history to 1408 AD) explains that Constantine and Æthelstan were disputing over who rightfully should claim the territory that Guthfrith left behind. The Chronicle briefly explained the expedition without an explanation but a twelfth-century chronicler John of Worcester stated that Constantine had broken a former treaty with Æthelstan.
A modern sketch of Æthelstan.
Whatever the reason, filled with resentment, the Scots and Vikings retaliated by invading England. They were defeated at the Battle of Brunanburh, a victory that gave Æthelstan a major prestigious status across continental Europe.
The Battle of Brunanburh
The Battle of Brunanburh was fought against a combined army of Scots, Vikings, and Britons. The battle has been deemed “the greatest single battle in Anglo-Saxon history before the Battle of Hastings” by historian Alfred Smyth. Another historian, Michael Livingston claims that Brunanburh marked the moment when Englishness came of age. The site of the battle is unknown but it is well recorded in dozens of sources in Old English, Irish, Welsh, Middle English, Latin, and more. The Battle of Brunanburh is also a poem recorded in the Chronicle.
Never, before this,
were more men in this island slain
by the sword’s edge–as books and aged sages
confirm–since Angles and Saxons sailed here
from the east, sought the Britons over the wide seas,
since those warsmiths hammered the Welsh,
and earls, eager for glory, overran the land.
The poem also describes the deaths of five kings and seven earls among Æthelstan’s enemies, among them Constantine’s son:
Five lay still
on that battlefield – young kings
by swords put to sleep – and seven also
of Anlaf’s earls, countless of the army,
of sailors and Scotsmen. There was put to flight
the Northmen’s chief, driven by need
to the ship’s prow with a little band.
He shoved the ship to sea. The king disappeared
on the dark flood. His own life he saved.
So there also the old one came in flight
to his home in the north; Constantine,
that hoary-haired warrior, had no cause to exult
at the meeting of swords: he was shorn of his kin,
deprived of his friends on the field,
bereft in the fray, and his son behind
on the place of slaughter, with wounds ground to pieces,
too young in battle.
Æthelstan’s defeat of the Norse-Celtic army confirmed England as a fully unified kingdom. He was now officially the first King of the English.
Æthelstan, King of the English
Fortunately, we have many texts and manuscripts surviving from his reign, more than any other king prior to the 1000’s. As a religious leader, Æthelstan was famous for collecting relics and founding churches across England. He was extremely intelligent especially in the areas of foreign relations, and even had some of his sisters married off to other rules of Europe at the time. This offered him a great deal of protection and greatly supported his throne.
Æthelstan can be seen in many stained glass windows in churches across Europe because of his support for learning and his support for the church. He was one of the most religious Anglo-Saxon kings.
King Æthelstan built on his grandfather’s efforts to rebuilt, support, and maintain ecclesiastical scholarship. He was praised in his day for his piety and encouragement for learning. His reputation as a collector of books and relics attracted very intelligent educators to his court and he also aided Breton ministers who fled Brittany (in France) following it’s Viking conquest in 919. He sent to those clerics from Brittany, now exiled in Central France, some of his relics of Breton saints. This resulted in a major foreign interest in England for commemorating Breton saints.
Æthelstan took many grand and extravagant titles as the first King of England. Coins and charters of his time describe him as Rex totius Britanniae, King of the Whole of Britain. Charters from 931 on record him as ‘King of the English.’ Many historians regard him as a bit pretentious. For example, historian Sarah Foot writes in Æthelstan: the first king of England (pp. 212–213) that he was styled in one manuscript dedication as basileus et curagulus, the titles of Byzantine emperors. His titles reflect something very important: his status. Greatness was not something he solely saw in himself. It was recognized everywhere. Continental rulers saw him as a Carolingian emperor, and historian Veronica Ortenberg further argues that he was clearly treated as the new Charlemagne, writing:
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. (Ortenberg, The King from Overseas, pp. 211–222).
Something remarkable about Æthelstan is that he also wasn’t selfish. He was very kind and giving to other rulers, of course, if they showed him respect. Having married his sisters off to other kings, he had many young nieces and nephews around the known world. He supported them greatly in times of need. In 936, he sent an English fleet to help his foster-son, Alan II, Duke of Brittany, to regain his lands that had been conquered by the Vikings. He also assisted the son of his half-sister Eadgifu, Louis, to take the throne of West Francia. After having helped another possible foster-son, Hakon (the son of the king of Norway) to reclaim his throne, he was known by the Norwegians as ‘Æthelstan the Good.’
Stained glass window, All Souls College Chapel, Oxford. Originally obtained from Warden and Fellows of All Souls, Oxford.
A miniature of St. Matthew in the Coronation Gospels presented by King Athelstan to Christ Church Priory. The manuscript is Carolingian in origin.
British Library MS Cotton Tiberius A ii.
Æthelstan died at Gloucester on October 27, 939. Although his father Edward and his grandfather, Alfred the Great had been buried at Winchester, he chose not to honor that opposed his rule. He was buried therefore at Malmesbury Abbey, where his cousins that died at Brunanburh were interred.
His bones were lost during the Dissolution of the Monestaries, but he is commemorated by an empty fifteenth-century tomb.
The tomb of King Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey, Malmesbury, England.