Was Athelstan England's First and Greatest King?
Britain has had more than sixty monarchs over the centuries. Some have been good; some have been bad, but few are held in as high regard as King Athelstan. King Athelstan, often described as the first king of England, has one of the best reputations of all the English monarchs. Famed for his morals, knowledge of politics, and leadership skills, Athelstan reigned over some of the greatest victories in early British history. But does the historical record support this? Can he really be deemed Britain’s greatest king?
The Ups and Downs of Athelstan’s Early Life
Athelstan was born around 894 AD, the son of King Edward the Elder and his first consort, Ecgwynn. Little is known about his mother, and historians have been arguing for centuries over her social rank. Some have described her as born from noble stock, but some contemporary sources claimed she was low-born.
There is evidence that his grandfather, King Alfred the Great , favored Athelstan as his ultimate heir to the throne from an early age. As a young man, Athelstan was gifted a scarlet cloak, a jeweled belt, and a sword with a gilded scabbard by his grandfather at an elaborate ceremony. Some historians believe this was a move by Alfred to make it clear that of the possible candidates he saw Athelstan as a potential heir.
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There were indications that King Alfred the Great favored his grandson Athelstan as successor. (PadreDelElToro / CC BY SA 3.0 )
Athelstan’s early luck began to run out around the time of his grandfather’s death. The course of his mother’s life is unknown, but his father Edward married a second wife, Ælfflæd. Edward had two sons with Ælfflæd, and it would appear she did her best to promote her sons, Ælfweard and Edwin, over Athelstan.
Edward later went on to have a third wife, Eadgifu, with whom he had two more sons, Edmund and Eadred. All this means that the young Athelstan, whose succession was one guaranteed, now had serious competition.
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Miniature of Athelstan of England in a 13th century royal genealogy. ( Public Domain )
Athelstan’s Rise to Power
King Edward died in northern Mercia on July 17th, 924 AD. It is unclear what Edward had planned for his kingdom after his death. It would seem that he had planned for Ælfweard, his eldest son by Ælfflæd, to be either king of Wessex or king of his entire kingdom. If he had intended to split his kingdom, then it is likely he expected Athelstan to become king of Mercia while Ælfweard ruled Wessex. All we know for sure is that at the time of Edward’s death, Athelstan was with him in Mercia and Ælfweard was in Wessex. This worked in Athelstan’s favor.
Immediately after Edward’s death, Mercia acknowledged Athelstan as its king, while Wessex probably chose Ælfweard, although sources are spotty. Unfortunately for Ælfweard, he only lived sixteen days after Edward’s death.
This doesn’t mean things were made easy for Athelstan, however. Wessex, especially Winchester, stayed opposed to Athelstan’s rule even after Ælfweard’s death. Athelstan was crowned over a year after his father’s death, on September 4th, 925. He chose to be crowned at Kingston upon Thames , on the border of Mercia and Wessex. While he was clearly sending a message to Wessex by his choice of venue, he was careful to only act as king of Mercia, not wanting to rile up the people of Wessex into open rebellion.
Opposition to Athelstan seems to have continued long after his coronation. His primary opponent was his half-brother, Edwin. It has been claimed by some historians that Edwin was responsible for several plots against Athelstan that were designed to make him ineligible to be king. One such plot involved an attempt at blinding the king.
Ultimately, the matter was solved in 933 AD when Edwin drowned in a shipwreck on the North Sea. It is believed Edwin may have been fleeing the country after attempting a rebellion against Athelstan. At least one contemporary, anti-Athelstan source claimed Edwin’s death was in fact an assassination ordered by Athelstan, but this claim has been thoroughly disputed. Whatever the truth, Wessex’s opposition against Athelstan died with Edwin.
Miniature of Athelstan from a 13th century genealogy ( Public Domain )
King Athelstan: First King of the English
King Athelstan was only getting started. Although he had both Wessex and Mercia under his control, he still had the Danes to contend with. The Danish king Sihtric Cáech (also known as Sigtryggr Gále) ruled over the Viking Kingdom of York. Rather than go to war, Athelstan decided to try his hand at diplomacy.
In 926 AD, he married his only full-blooded sister to Sihtric. The two agreed not to attack or invade each other, nor to help prop up each other's enemies in proxy wars. Athelstan stuck to his word for a full year. In 927 AD, Sihtric died and Athelstan wasted no time in invading.
The Danes did not go down without a fight, however. Sihtric’s cousin, Guthfrith, attempted to come to York’s rescue, bringing a fleet from Dublin with him. It was all in vain, however; Athelstan easily took York and soon accepted the Danish inhabitants' surrender. It is unclear whether Guthfrith even reached York in time for there to be a battle.
Athelstan was the first English king to have taken the north and united it with the south. The northern peoples were outraged, but their leaders were wiser. On July 12, 927, various Northern kings and leaders met at Eamont, near Penrith, to officially declare Athelstan their leader and superior. What followed was a rare seven year period of peace.
Next on Athelstan’s list was Wales. He had technically inherited authority over the Welsh kings from his aunt and uncle, who had ruled over Wales. They had sworn allegiance to his father and then brother before transferring it across to him.
After claiming the north at the meeting of Eamont, Athelstan summoned the various Welsh kings to his court. At this meeting, he announced a heavy annual tribute and fixed the border between Wales and England at the Hereford area along the river Tamar. The Welsh kings attended Athelstan’s court between 928 and 935 AD, and Athelstan was always careful to show them the utmost respect.
This all meant England and Wales enjoyed a healthy period of peace during Athelstan’s reign. As such, Athelstan was the first king of the Anglo-Saxon people. He spent much of his rule trying to keep the various parts of his kingdom happy.
Despite his best efforts, Britain was never one big happy family. The people of Wales and the northerners never stopped resenting his rule, and Athelstan spent much time and money making sure their leaders stayed in line. However, these feelings of resentment would crop up later in his rule and cause him major headaches.
British Isles in 10th century represented with the coastline at the time. King Athelstan was the first king to unite England. (Ikonact / CC BY SA 3.0 )
Athelstan’s Conquest of Scotland
Now that Athelstan had both the north of England and Wales, there was only one thing left that Athelstan desired: Scotland. In May of 934 AD, Athelstan began his invasion, although the reason for his exact timing is unclear. It seems likely that he finally felt confident to attempt it after the death of his half-brother Edwin in 933 AD, combined with newfound support from northern England and Wales.
Athelstan was accompanied in his invasion by four of the Welsh kings, as well as 18 bishops and 13 earls (6 of whom were Danes). His invasion appears to have made quick progress, and by July of the same year, he had made it to Chester-le-Street. His land forces eventually made it as far as Dunnottar in the northeast, and his naval fleet raided Caithness and even the Norse kingdom of Orkney.
No great battles were recorded during his invasion, and its ultimate outcome is unclear. We know that by September, Athelstan was safely back in Buckingham in the south of England. A charter was signed stating Athelstan’s overlordship over Scotland and its primary leader, Constantine.
Painting of Scottish King Constantine II by Jacob Jacobsz de Wet II, late 17th century. Constantine allied with Olad Guthfrithson against Athelstan. ( Public Domain )
If Athelstan's conquest of Scotland appears to have been too easy to be true, it was. That same year, Olaf Guthfrithson replaced his father, Guthfrith as the Norse king of Dublin. Olaf had his heart set on not only taking the rest of Ireland, but also reclaiming York.
By 937, Olaf had taken control of the Viking part of Ireland by defeating several of his rivals. His next target was York, but he was well aware that he lacked the numbers needed to take on Athelstan. Likewise, Constantine wanted Athelstan’s influence out of Scotland and the north, but he too lacked the numbers. So Olaf and Constantine became firm allies, cementing the alliance with a marriage between Olaf and Constantine’s daughter. The alliance was further bolstered by Owain of Strathclyde and his men.
Traditionally, medieval campaigns were carried out in the summer, when conditions were most favorable. Seeking to surprise Athelstan, Olaf, Constantine and Owain waited until autumn to make their move against Athelstan. The ploy appears to have worked; contemporary sources initially criticized him for having “languished in sluggish leisure”.
Athelstan was no fool, however. While the northern allies raided English territory, Athelstan took his time to gather his own army of allies. Athelstan was a student of history and knew what could happen if he allowed himself to be baited into a fight before he was ready.
The two opposing armies finally met at the Battle of Brunanburh . Despite initially being at a disadvantage, and having been abandoned by the Welsh, the battle was a decisive win for Athelstan. History is often written by the victors, so accurate representations of the battle are hard to find. It is likely though that the Battle of Brunanburh was one of the bloodiest and hardest-won in English history. When the dust settled, Olaf had fled back to Dublin with what remained of his men and allies. Constantine survived, but had lost at least one son. The English, too, had suffered heavy losses.
The battle has been described as the first example of English nationalism, the first time people from all over England had united under one banner to take on an invading force. Historians today disagree on how important to Athelstan’s rule the battle ultimately was. Less than two years after he had won the battle, Athelstan died. Olaf bided his time and moved into Northumbria following Athelstan’s death, meaning all the fighting had been for nothing.
Others disagree, pointing out that while Athelstan gained little from winning, he would have lost everything by losing. If the Anglo-Saxon forces had lost at Brunanburh, it is likely the whole kingdom would have fallen shortly thereafter.
King Athelstan at the Battle of Brunanburh ( Public Domain )
Evaluating Athelstan’s Rule
Athelstan’s rule was not all expansionism and fending off enemies. He is also remembered as a wise ruler and great king outside of battle. For example, he created the most centralized government the Anglo-Saxon people had ever seen.
Anglo-Saxon kings had traditionally made heavy use of the king’s council to govern. Traditionally, kings moved around a lot and so too did the council. The meetings had traditionally been small and intimate. Athelstan changed all of his.
He held the majority of his councils in Wessex, and summoned leading figures from across his realm to join him at them. These ‘national assemblies’ helped to unify the country by making sure every realm felt equally represented. Some historians have gone even further, describing it as a kind of early version of the English parliament.
Athelstan was also seen as a godly and exceedingly moral leader. He was a devoted Christian who took a vow of celibacy as a young man. He never married or had children. He possessed a vast collection of religious relics and manuscripts. Rather than hoarding his collection, it was widely known that he was a generous donor who gifted many churches and monasteries parts of his collection.
Athelstan presenting a book to St Cuthbert, an illustration in a manuscript of Bede's Life of Saint Cuthbert, probably presented to the saint's shrine in Chester-le-Street by Athelstan when he visited the shrine on his journey to Scotland in 934. It is the oldest surviving portrait of an English king and the manuscript is the oldest surviving made for an English king, circa 930 AD. ( Public Domain )
Athelstan died in Gloucester on October 27, 939 AD. The men in his family had traditionally been buried at Winchester, but Athelstan chose to break with tradition. Winchester had too often been a thorn in his side, and so he chose to be buried at Malmesbury Abbey with his loyal cousins who had died at the Battle of Brunanburh.
The country he had fought so hard to defend began to quickly unravel after his death. The people of York turned to Olaf Guthfrithson for leadership, and he easily took control of northern England.
Both of Athelstan’s successors, Edmund and Eadred, would devote their reigns to retaking the north. It took fifteen years, but in 954 AD, the north finally returned to Anglo-Saxon control with the death of Olaf’s replacement, the Norwegian king Eric Bloodaxe .
The tomb of King Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey, Malmesbury, England. There is nothing in the tomb beneath the statue, the relics of the king having been lost in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. ( Public Domain )
Ultimately, modern opinions on Athelstan vary greatly. He had no official biographer, and reliable tenth-century sources are hard to find. History tends to be written by the victor, and Athelstan was pretty much always the victor.
This issue is compounded by the fact that his reputation peaked after his death. For a while, he became somewhat of a legend, as the king who united the Anglo-Saxon peoples. His deeds and actions have a tendency to be exaggerated by contemporary chroniclers.
This means some historians view him as instrumental to the founding of England, a great leader who did what no man before him had managed. Others take a dimmer view, claiming he did little more than lay the groundwork and that it was his successors who deserve most of the praise.
In all likelihood, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Athelstan’s skills as a king have perhaps been exaggerated. Yet at the same time, his record speaks for itself. For a short period, he was the first man to unite England, Wales, and even Scotland. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with British history will know that has never been an easy feat.
Top image: The impact of the Battle of Brunanburh is still debated today; however, the English win by Athelstan prevented additional Viking gains for a time. Source: Public Domain
By Robbie Mitchell
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Who Was Athelstan and Why Was His Reign So Important? October 7, 2016. History Hit.com. Available at: https://www.historyhit.com/death-athelstan-first-king-england/
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