Æthelstan, King of the English

Worcester Manuscript (D) 924:

“Here King Edward died at Farndon in mercia; and very soon, 16 days after, his son Ælfweard died at Oxford; and their bodies lie at Winchester. And Æthelstan was chosen as king by the Mercians and consecrated at Kingston [Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey]; and he gave his sister across the sea to the son of the king of the Old Saxons.”


So it was that following the untimely (though a cynic would point out very lucky) demise of his half-brother Ælfweard (Edwards second son, the first born to his second wife Ælfflæd) that Æthelstan became king. However this was not a smooth transition. Æthelstan had been with his father in Mercia when he passed, while Ælfweard was in Wessex: Mercia chose Æthelstan as their king and the same may have been done for his half-brother by Wessex but, as already seen, that was quite a short-lived affair with some sources saying Ælfweard died a paltry sixteen days after his father. Oh well, c’est la vie, life goes on etc. Æthelstan probably thought to himself (in Old English of course). Except not quite. Even after almost everyone between him and being King of the Anglo-Saxons rather sportingly decided to die simultaneously, Æthelstan faced a great deal of resistance within Wessex, especially around Winchester. It wasn’t until the 4th September 925 that he was actually crowned at Kingston-upon-Thames, a location possibly chosen due to its location right on the border of Mercia and Wessex, but even after this momentous occasion trouble didn’t really end until Edwin, the younger brother of Ælfweard, drowned in a shipwreck in the North Sea in 933.

But what sort of kingdom did Æthelstan actually succeed to when he became king of the Anglo-Saxons? At the time of Edward’s death in 924, he had control of all the English lands south of Humber. The Norse king Sihtric ruled the Kingdom of York, based around the city itself and constituting southern Northumbria, while Ealdred ruled at least part of the old Kingdom of Bernicia from Bamburgh (Bebbanburg to you Last Kingdom fans) in northern Northumbria. Scotland was under the control of Constantine II except for the southwest which was the British Kingdom of Strathclyde, and Wales was split into numerous minor kingdoms. Æthelstan, then, is arguably the ruler of the most powerful kingdom within Britain.

The British Isles in the 10th century

So imagine for a minute you are in his shoes: what is practically your first order of business? If you said take Northumbria (because why wouldn’t you?) then congratulations! You have won absolutely nothing I’m afraid. In 926 he negotiated a marriage between his sister and Sihtric, with the negotiations being sealed at Tamworth, deep within Æthelstan ‘s kingdom which suggests that the alliance was not one between equals. When Sihtric kicked the proverbial bucket the following year after some “fiery rays” in the northern sky, Æthelstan “succeeded to the kingdom of the Northumbrians” according to our old friend the ‘D’ version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The ‘E’ version goes a step further, describing how in the same year Æthelstan “drove out king Guthfrith”, a figure who had been active in Britain and Ireland in previous years and had links to the recently dead Sihtric and Ragnald, his predecessor. Subsequently Æthelstan then went to a place called Eamont, near Penrith in Cumbria, and had his overlordship accepted by Constantine II of Scotland, Hywel Dda of Dehubarth, Ealdred of Bamburgh/Bernicia, and either King Owain of Strathclyde OR Morgan ap Owain of Gwent. From 927 Æthelstan was King of the Anglo-Saxons no more, he was now Rex Anglorum; King of the English.

Battle of Brunanburh

Yet the peace of Eamont was not to last. In 934, for reasons we are unsure of, Æthelstan ravaged Scotland by land, reaching as far north as Kincardine, and by sea, reaching Caithness. His reason are unknown, but the year 934 also heralded the death of Guthfrith (Guðrøðr; Gofraid ua Ímair / Guthfrith of Ivar) as well as, maybe, Ealdred of Bamburgh. It is not impossible that these two deaths caused a dispute between Æthelstan and Constantine over control of Bernicia. Across the sea in Ireland, Olaf Guthfrithson (no prizes for guessing who his father was…) became king in Dublin, cemented an alliance with Constantine by marrying the latter’s daughter, and by August of 937 had defeated his rivals for control of the Viking part of Ireland. Individually, Dublin, Scotland or any of the other powers in Britain could not hope to contend with Æthelstan, together though there was certainly a chance. Thus in the Autumn of 937, late in the campaigning season, a coalition consisting of Dublin, Scotland and Strathclyde invaded England. Eventually, having taken the time to gather an army, Æthelstan met the coalition in the Battle of Brunanburh (potentially modern day Bromborough on the Wirral). Our main source of information comes from the praise-poem Battle of Brunanburh in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The battle lasted all day until, eventually, the invaders were scattered and forced to flee:

‘[Æthelstan and Edmund, his brother] struck life long glory

in strife round Brunanburh, clove the shield wall,

hacked the war-lime, with hammers’ leavings,

… The antagonists succumbed,

the nation of Scots and sea-men

fell doomed.

… Five young 

kings lay on the battle-field,

put to sleep by sowrds; likewise also

severn of Olaf’s jarls, countless of the raiding-army

of Seamen and Scots.

… Never yet in this island

was there a greater slaughter

of people felled by the sword’s edges,

… since Angles and Saxons

came here from the east…’

Full version of the poem from University of Nottingham, slight differences from the version I used

Battle of Brunanburh

The Saxons routed their foe and drove them from the field of battle. Constantine fled back to Scotland, while Olaf returned to Dublin with what was left of his army. Historians disagree over the importance of Brunanburh: some like Alex Woolf describe it as a Pyrrhic victory that ended in a stalemate of a campaign. Others such as Alfred P. Smyth argue it was the ‘greatest battle in Anglo-Saxon history’, but that its consequences beyond Æthelstan’s reign has been overstated, while finally some like Sarah Foot believe it would be hard to exaggerate the battle’s importance, arguing that had Æthelstan lost English hegemony over Britain would have unravelled.

But who was Æthelstan outside of this one momentous, divisive battle? Well he has a reputation as a founder of churches which, according to later sources, included minsters at Milton Abbas in Dorset and Muchelney in Somerset. He was also a generous donor to monasteries, and sought to build ties with churches on the continent: he sent Cenwald, a former royal priest and then Bishop of Worcester, to Saxony with his half-sisters in 929 so that the future Holy Roman Emperor Otto I could choose one as his wife. Cenwald also went on to do a tour of German monasteries which involved a campaign of gift giving on Æthelstan’s behalf. Similarly Æthelstan maintained his grandfather Alfred’s efforts to revive ecclesiastical scholarship which had in the second half of the ninth century, rather understandably, fallen by the wayside somewhat.

He was also not a man concerned with modesty, at least when it came to his titles. Æthelstan didn’t simply refer to himself as Rex Anglorum, or King of the English. No, that was merely the start! On coins and charters he is often referred to as Rex totius Britanniae: King of the whole of Britain. A gospel book he donated to Canterbury Cathedral is even inscribed “Æthelstan, king of the English and ruler of the whole of Britain with a devout mind gave this book to the primatial see of Canterbury, to the church dedicated to Christ”. As I said, clearly not a modest man, but also not a liar. These titles and claims to kingship over the whole island only appear inflated and baseless if we compare it to later, 11th or 12th century kingship. Æthelstan and other English kings like him had a very real, albeit loose, hegemony that spread beyond the borders of their lands.

Æthelstan died at Gloucester in October 939. While his half-brother, father and grandfather were all buried in Winchester, Æthelstan decided not to be laid to rest in the city that was associated so strongly with opposing him: by his own wish he was buried at Malmesbury Abbey, where he had buried his cousins who fell fighting alongside him at Brunanburh two years earlier. He is the only member of the West Saxon royal family to be buried there. After his death the situation had all but gone to pot: Olaf Guthfrithson was chosen by the men of York to be their king, and control of the north and even the East Midlands was lost, leaving Æthelstan’s successors Edmund and Eadred to spend much of their reigns to regaining what had been lost, though no doubt I’ll end up having a look at both of them in due course!


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