the roof-tree of the honour of the western world’

Æðelstan cyning lædde fyrde to Brunanbyrig’

(‘Athelstan the King led the fyrd to Brunanburh’)

Figure 1: Athelstan’s tomb at Malmesbury



Athelstan (2,3) (‘noble stone’ (10,18)) also spelled Aethelstan or Ethelstan (4) was the first West Saxon king (4,17) to have effective rule over the whole of England, (2,3) and one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon kings. (3,5)

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

By the ninth century the many kingdoms of the early Anglo-Saxon period had been consolidated into four: Wessex, (18) Mercia, (14,18) (the modern Midlands) (14) Northumbria and East Anglia. (18) In the eighth century, Mercia had been the most powerful kingdom in southern England, but in the early ninth, Wessex became dominant under Athelstan’s great-great-grandfather, Egbert. (18)

The Vikings

Britain, though, was not the world. (17) The 9th century had been a tumultuous one for the Saxon kingdoms of England, which had fallen one by one to invading Danes. (13,17) The seas that washed the island were a menace as well as a moat. (17) For a hundred years and more, they had borne on their tides war-fleets bristling with pirates from pagan lands. (17) The young men of Scandinavia, hungry for land and contemptuous of the Christian faith, had found in the monasteries and kingdoms of Britain irresistibly rich pickings. (17) “Wicingas”, their victims called them: “robbers”. (17) Altars had been stripped bare of all their fittings, and kings bled of their treasure. (17) Then, when there was nothing else left to take, the Wicingas – the “Vikings” – had moved in for the kill. (17) In the middle of the century, England came under increasing attack from Viking raids, culminating in invasion by the Great Heathen Army in 865. (18) By 878, the Vikings had overrun, and nearly conquered Wessex. (18)


The West Saxons fought back under Alfred the Great, and achieved a decisive victory at the Battle of Edington. (18) In succession, the proud and venerable kingdoms of East Anglia, (17) Northumbria, and Mercia (17,18) had been hewn to pieces. (17) Only Wessex remained (1,13) saved by the resolution of Athelstan’s grandfather, (17) Alfred (1,17) its shrewd and indomitable warrior-king (17) Alfred had repelled many Danish invasions and earned his epithet, and by the time Athelstan was born he had left a legacy of good governance, well-fortified towns and military success. (13) Gradually, inexorably, bloodily, the fight had been taken to the Vikings. (17) Alfred and the Viking leader Guthrum agreed on a division that gave Alfred western Mercia, while eastern Mercia was incorporated into Viking East Anglia. (18) In the 890s, renewed Viking attacks were successfully fought off by Alfred, (18) assisted by his son (and Athelstan’s father) (3,4) Edward the Elder (3,4) and Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians. (18) Æthelred ruled English Mercia under Alfred and was married to his daughter Æthelflæd. (18)

Edward the Elder

Alfred died in 899 and was succeeded by Edward. (18) Æthelwold, the son of Æthelred, King Alfred’s older brother and predecessor as king, made a bid for power, but was killed at the Battle of the Holme in 902. (18) Little is known of warfare between the English and the Danes over the next few years, but in 909, Edward sent a West Saxon and Mercian army to ravage Northumbria. (18) The following year the Northumbrian Danes attacked Mercia, but suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Tettenhall. (18) Æthelred died in 911 and was succeeded as ruler of Mercia by his widow Æthelflæd. (18) Over the next decade, Edward and Æthelflæd conquered Viking Mercia and East Anglia. (18) Æthelflæd died in 918 and was briefly succeeded by her daughter Ælfwynn, but in the same year Edward deposed her and took direct control of Mercia. (18)

Athelstan parentage

Athelstan (1,2) was the eldest (15,16) son of Edward (1,2) the Elder (10) and his (3,10) first (3,10) wife, Ecgwynn. (3,10) [OR] Ecgywn (7) [OR] Egwina. (11,15) He was Edward’s only son by Ecgwynn. (18) He was born (7,10) in 895 (15) [OR] about 895 (7) [OR] about  894 (10,12) whilst his grandfather Alfred the Great was still King. (13,16)


See Appendix II

Appearance and demeanour as a youth

He was the tallest of Edward’s children. (18) William of Malmesbury describes Athelstan as being a tall and handsome youth with light flaxen hair with gold threads’ and (16) ‘A boy of astonishing beauty and graceful manners’. (11) He had four half (6,11) sisters (6,7) including Edith (12) [OR] Eadgyth (11) and Eadhild, (11) and three half brothers, Aelfweard (11,12) [OR] Ælfweard, (10) Edwin and Edmund. (12) The young prince was groomed for a bright future. (13) William of Malmesbury also records how (11) King Edward (9,11) [OR] King Alfred (16) was so fond of Athelstan that he gave him (9,11) a mantle of royal purple, a girdle set with precious stones and a Saxon seax (16) (a sword (9,11)) with a golden scabbard (11,16) and made him a knight at an early age. (9,11) The aged Alfred draped a scarlet cloak around him in an important coming-of-age ceremony. (13)

Fostered with Aethelflaed

In about 898, when he was only four years old, (15) after the death or possibly disgrace of Athelstan’s mother, (13) his father was married officially (13,15) to Elfflaed. (16) The new marriage weakened Athelstan’s position, as his step-mother naturally favoured the interests of her own sons, (18) Ælfweard (16,18) [OR] Ælfweard (10) [OR] Elfweard (13) and Edwin. (18) Athelstan was no longer Edward’s sole or primary heir, (13) and he was sent away (15) to be brought up by his aunt, Aethelflaed, (4,15) the powerful (15) Lady of the Mercians, (4,15) at the Royal courts of Tamworth and Gloucester, (15) in Mercia. (4) By 920 Edward had taken a third wife, Eadgifu, probably after putting Ælfflæd aside. (18) Eadgifu also had two (13,18) other (13) sons, the future kings Edmund and Eadred, and several daughters, perhaps as many as nine. (18) Athelstan’s later education was probably at the Mercian court of his aunt and uncle, Æthelflæd and Æthelred, and it is likely the young prince gained his military training in the Mercian campaigns to conquer the Danelaw. (18) Aethelflaed died, (15,19) in about 918 (19) When Edward took direct control of Mercia after Æthelflæd’s death in 918, Athelstan may have represented his father’s interests there. (18)

Accession and Reign(s)

Status Quo

The heartland of Edward the Elder’s realm was to be found in the south of the island, in the ancient kingdom of Wessex. (17) Edward the Elder had conquered the Danish territories in Mercia and East Anglia with the assistance of Æthelflæd and her husband. (18) At his death in 924, he controlled all of England south of the Humber (18) and stretching from Cornwall to Kent. (17), but the Danish king Sihtric still ruled the Viking Kingdom of York (formerly the southern Northumbrian kingdom of Deira). (18) Ealdred maintained Anglo-Saxon rule in at least part of the former kingdom of Bernicia from his base in Bamburgh in northern Northumbria. (18) Constantine II ruled Scotland, apart from the southwest, which was the British Kingdom of Strathclyde. (18) 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. (18)

Dynastic complications

See Appendix III

Difficulties with Wessex

He was not accepted in Wessex; (10) for several months before his coronation (15,16) [OR] years into his reign (13,16) Athelstan encountered resistance there (10,15) See Appendix IV


He was crowned king (4,5) of the whole country (4) [OR] of the free English (13) [OR] not of the West Saxons, but of the Anglo-Saxons, (17) with much splendour (16) at Kingston (4,5)-upon-Thames (7,11) on Sept. 4th, 925 (4,5) at the age of about 30. (7) Kingston was symbolic (18) because it was on the border between Mercia and Wessex. (13) It was the traditional site of the coronation of the Saxon Kings, seven of which were crowned there. (16) In accordance with an ancient custom, they took possession of their throne standing upon a large rock. (16) The stone still exists, standing outside the Guildhall at Kingston-upon-Thames, with a silver penny from the reign of each Saxon king set into its plinth. (16) He was crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Athelm, who probably designed or organised a new ordo (religious order of service) for the occasion, based on the West Frankish liturgy and in turn one of the sources of the medieval French ordo. (18) For the first time the coronation service laid out the responsibilities the king and his people had to each other, and the Christian hymn Te Deum was sung as it is now. (5) The coronation ‘ordo’ compiled for Athelstan was used for subsequent coronations through to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. (5) Athelstan first greeted his people in the marketplace before entering a church, which was probably wooden, and probably stood on the site of the present All Saints Church. (5) Athelstan was the first King to be ordained with a crown placed on his head, rather than a helmet. (5,18) Athelstan began his reign in 925 (2) [OR] 924, (3,4) and died in 939 AD. (2,3) Within those dates he was King of the Anglo-Saxons (3,10) from July 17th (7) 924 (3,4) to 927 (3,9) and King of the English from (3,10) 925 (4) [OR] 927 (3,9) to 939 AD. (2,3)

Domestic Policies

Athelstan was clearly good at war, but he was also pretty good at peace. (14) He soon set about consolidating his position in England. (15) [OR] wasted no time in pursuing an aggressive foreign policy. (13) When he became king, at around the age of 30, there wasn’t really an England, as such: there were simply a collection of kingdoms, held together largely by their terror of the Vikings. (14) He was the first (12,13) [OR] thought to be the first (9) and perhaps the greatest (13) King of England. (12,13) [OR] Some say the first was Egbert of Wessex (802-839), or even Offa or Mercia (757-796), both of whom seem to have ruled large chunks of the country, at least briefly, before being succeeded by descendants who didn’t.(14) Traditionally, though, lists of English kings have generally begun with Alfred the Great (871-899): the first man to proclaim himself “king of the Anglo-Saxons”, it was he who started the process of unifying the various English kingdoms in their fightback against the Viking invaders. (14) Alfred, though, never actually managed to take back the whole country, and the east and the north remained in Danish hands at his death. (14) Aside from his conquests and victories Athelstan took after his grandfather and being a hard-working and conscientious King. (13) At his coronation, though, he had been crowned as the king: due reflection of the fact that the Angles of Mercia, who inhabited the lands immediately north of Wessex, were his subjects too. (17)

Control of the realm: the Eamont Oath, 927

After Athelstan’s capture of Jorvik (17,18) the princes in the lands beyond the city, intimidated by the scope of his power, scrabbled to acknowledge his authority. (17) Never before had the grasp of a southern king reached so far. (17)) accepted Athelstan’s overlordship. (18) On 12th July 927 (11,12) King (11,12) Constantine (6,10) II (10,12) of Scotland, (11,12) and the northern kings (6,11) Ealdred (12,18) [OR] Eldred I, High-Reeve (15) of Bamburgh, (12,15) and King (11,12) Owain (12,18) [OR] Owen (15,16) of Strathclyde (11,12) [OR] Morgan ap Owain of (18) Gwent, (16,18) King Hywel Dda1 of Deheubarth (12,18) and Hywel2, King of Cornwall, (16) bound together by the force of Athelstan’s personality (13) gathered at Eamont, near Penrith, to accept Athelstan as their overlord (11,12) by swearing allegiance. (11) His triumph led to seven years of peace in the north. (18) From 927 on (14) he was the undisputed overlord of the British Isles (13,17) including Wessex, Mercia and now Northumbria: all the peoples who spoke the conqueror’s own language, the whole way to the Firth of Forth, acknowledged Athelstan as their lord. (17) In mark of this, he adopted a splendid and fateful new title, that of “Rex Anglorum”: “King of the English”. (14,17) Athelstan’s horizons, however, were wider. (17) His ambitions were not content with the rule of the English alone. (17) He aspired to be acknowledged as lord of the entire island: by the inhabitants of the various kingdoms of the Welsh, and by the Welsh- speaking Cumbrians of Strathclyde, whose kings held sway from the Clyde down to the Roman Wall, and by the Scots, who lived beyond the Forth in the highland realm of Alba. (17) All had duly been obliged to bow their necks to him. (11,12)

Law and administration

Central Government

As the first king of all the Anglo-Saxon peoples, Athelstan needed effective means to govern his extended realm. (18) He was an able administrator. (16) He was the first king to [OR] Building on the foundations of his predecessors, (18) he created (14,18) a (14) proper (10,14) thorough and efficient (10) national administration, (10,14) the most centralised government that England had yet seen. (18)


Anglo-Saxon kings did not have a fixed capital city. (18) Their courts were peripatetic, and their councils were held at varying locations around their realms. (18) Athelstan stayed mainly in Wessex, however, and controlled outlying areas by (18) making (10,13) the advisory (13) Witan into (13,18) a key mechanism of government (18) and a national assembly of sorts. (10,13) He summoned leading figures to his councils, (18) further centralising government (13,18) and leading John Maddicott to call him “the true if unwitting founder of the English parliament” (13,18) The small and intimate meetings that had been adequate until the enlargement 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. (18) Frank Stenton sees Athelstan’s councils as “national assemblies”, which did much to break down the provincialism that was a barrier to the unification of England. (18) Even if this is going a bit far, his government reforms turned England into something approaching a modern nation-state rather than a collection of squabbling kingdoms. (13)


Anglo-Saxon kings ruled through ealdormen, who had the highest lay status under the king. (18) In ninth-century Wessex they each ruled a single shire, but by the middle of the tenth they had authority over a much wider area, a change probably introduced by Athelstan to deal with the problems of governing his extended realm. (18) One of the ealdormen, who was also called Athelstan, governed the eastern Danelaw territory of East Anglia, the largest and wealthiest province of England. (18) After the king’s death, he became so powerful that he was known as Athelstan Half-King. (18) 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 Athelstan as his representatives in local government. (18) Beneath the ealdormen, reeves—royal officials who were noble local landowners—were in charge of a town or royal estate. (18) 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. (18)


He consolidated the Midlands and the (6,14) north (14) [OR] Danish towns (6) into the shires we’d still recognise today. (6,14) He tried, though with limited success, to bring the Northumbrian nobility closer to southern Britain than to the Norse. (12)


Athelstan improved the administration (12) by increasing control over the production of charters: (10) Previously, some charters had been produced by royal priests and others by members of religious houses, but (18) between AD 928 and 935, they were written by a single man, perhaps a royal scribe (15,18) known to historians as “Athelstan A”. (18) [OR] the form and language of his many documents suggest the presence of a corps of skilled clerks staffed by the cathedral of Winchester. (4) The charters show (18) an unprecedented degree of royal control over an important activity. (10,18) Unlike earlier and later charters, “Athelstan A” provides full details of the date and place of adoption and an unusually long witness list, (18) providing crucial information for historians (15,18) by throwing light on the organization of Athelstan’s Royal government. (15) Both his charters3 and the coinage bore the proud title (4,15) Rex totius Britanniae (“King of all Britain”), (1,4) ‘elevated by the right hand of the Almighty’. (8) [OR] Athelstan used the title Basileus, the Greek term for king. (16) His meetings were also attended by rulers from outside his territory, especially Welsh kings, who thus acknowledged his overlordship. (10,12) Rulers from Scotland also attended assemblies at his court and witnessed royal charters. (12) After “Athelstan A” retired or died, charters reverted to a simpler form, suggesting that they had been the work of an individual, rather than the development of a formal writing office. (18)

Legal Reforms

The Anglo-Saxons were the first people in northern Europe to write administrative documents in the vernacular, and law codes in Old English go back to Æthelberht of Kent at the beginning of the seventh century. (18) The law code of Alfred the Great, from the end of the ninth century, was also written in the vernacular, and he expected his ealdormen to learn it. (18) His code was strongly influenced by Carolingian law going back to Charlemagne in such areas as treason, peace-keeping, organisation of the hundreds and judicial ordeal. (18) It remained in force throughout the tenth century, and Athelstan’s codes were built on this foundation. (18) Athelstan worked on the justice system. (10) He extended Alfred the Great’s legal reforms. (10,12) [OR] he was one of the first kings to write laws and enforce them. (9) He reformed the law to make it more fair (12) and lenient on young offenders. (4,12) More legal texts survive from his reign than from any other (10,13) 10th-century (10 [OR] pre-Norman (13) English king. (10,13) Seven of his lawcodes survive. (15) Four were officially drawn up for the King himself (15,18) They were adopted at Royal Councils in the early 930s at Grately in Hampshire, Exeter, Faversham in Kent, and Thunderfield in Surrey. (18) One was a proclamation from Grately and another from Exeter. (15) Six of his (4) [OR] The later (18) codes of law (4,6) reveal his concern about (10,12) widespread lawlessness (12,16) oppression, (16) corruption (4,11) and strengthen royal control over his large kingdom, (6) and the threat they posed to social order. (10,12) These codes show his particular concern about (18) robberies (10,12) which he regarded as the most important manifestation of social breakdown. The Grately Code prescribed harsh penalties, including the death penalty for anyone over twelve years old caught in the act of stealing goods worth more than eight pence. This apparently had little effect, as Athelstan admitted in the Exeter code: I King Athelstan, 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 Athelstan 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”. 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 Athelstan’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.

Economic Policy

He helped make England one of the wealthiest nations in Europe. (12) He encouraged the establishment of burhs where trade would become concentrated: (6,11) buying and selling was largely confined to the burhs, encouraging town life. (6) Although keen to promote commerce, (11) he banned Sunday trading. (9,11) He promoted the rural economy based on the market town. (9,11) but it would be wrong to portray England in this period as an incipient consumer society. (19) Athelstan later turned to charitable efforts. (4,12) This has been linked to his guilt for having murdered his brother Edwin. (12) He was charitable and popular and like his great-grandfather Ethelwulf, (16) made provisions for his poorer subjects. (4,12) He directed that each of the manors owned by the crown should be subject to an annual charge, (16) using a portion of the income from each of his estates (12,16) to relieve the poor and the destitute. (16) to support the poor. (12,15) He was particularly active in the Malmesbury area: (11) Athelstan is reputed to have one of his Palaces at Brokenborough. (11) There is a Saxon complex towards Foxley which could have associations with Athelstan. (11) He certainly had a villa at Norton and land at Foxley. (11) A road still called ‘Kingway’ passes through these and and goes on to Hullavington before returning to Malmesbury. (11) A railway bridge across the A249 is named ‘Kingway Bridge’. (11) Malmesbury remembers this great king for the grant of land, five hides to the south west of the town (about 600 acres or 260 hectares. (11) This land is held by the Warden and Freemen of Malmesbury to this day. (11) He confirmed the charters from his father, Edward and his grandfather, Alfred. (11)

I, Athelstan, King of the English, on behalf of myself and my successors grant to my Burgesses and to their successors of the Burg of Meldufu that they may have and hold always all their tributes and free customs, as they held them in the time of King Edward, my Father, fully and in honour. And I enjoin on all beneath my rule that they do no wrong to these Burgesses, and I order that they be free from claims and payment of Scot And I give and grant to them that royal heath land of five hides near my vill of Norton, on account of their assistance in my struggle against the Danes”. (11)

He owned land in Foxley in what is now Wiltshire, and gave the nearby town of Malmesbury 600 acres of land. (9) To this day, the land is still owned by the Freemen of the town. (9)


The coinage had become badly debased. (11) Early in Athelstan’s reign, different styles of coin were being issued in each region. (18) Examples were minted in Wessex, York, and English Mercia (in Mercia bearing the title “Rex Saxorum”), but not in East Anglia or the Danelaw. (18) The Grately code said that there was to be only one coinage across England, but this 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. (18) He reformed the currency (6,11) for the first time. (14) [OR] Offa reformed the coinage. (Offa 15) After he conquered York and received the submission of the other British kings, (18) he issued a new coinage, known as the “circumscription cross” type. (18) This advertised his newly exalted status (18) Rex totius Britanniae (“King of all Britain”), (1,4) He was the first to introduce a proper coin mint4. (13) 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. (18) This was eventually issued in all regions apart from Mercia, which issued coins without a ruler portrait, suggesting, in Sarah Foot’s view, that any Mercian affection for a West Saxon king brought up among them quickly declined. (18) The coinage was still relatively undeveloped, and minting was still organised regionally long after Athelstan unified the country. (18) In the 970s, Athelstan’s nephew, King Edgar, reformed the monetary system to give Anglo-Saxon England the most advanced currency in Europe, with a good quality silver coinage, which was uniform and abundant. (18)

Religious and Cultural Activity

He was a Chalcedonian Christian, (10) and one of the most pious West Saxon kings. (10,11) Church and state maintained close relations in the Anglo-Saxon period, both socially and politically. (18) Churchmen attended royal feasts as well as meetings of the Royal Council. (18) During Athelstan’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 Athelstan’s conquests brought the northern church under the control of a southern king for the first time. (18) Athelstan appointed members of his own circle to bishoprics in Wessex, possibly to counter the influence of the Bishop of Winchester, Frithestan. (18) One of the king’s mass-priests (priests employed to say Mass in his household), Ælfheah, became Bishop of Wells, while another, Beornstan, succeeded Frithestan as Bishop of Winchester. (18) Beornstan was succeeded by another member of the royal household, also called Ælfheah. (18) Two of the leading figures in the later tenth-century Benedictine revival of Edgar’s reign, Dunstan and Æthelwold, served in early life at Athelstan’s court and were ordained as priests by Ælfheah of Winchester at the king’s request. (18) Athelstan’s reign laid the foundation for the (10,12) English (18) Benedictine (10) monastic reform (10,12) Athelstan’s court played a crucial role in the origins of the monastic reform movement. (18) later in the century. (10) He founded churches (10) and many monasteries in Britain, including the Abbey of St. John (9,11) at Beverley (11) in Yorkshire. (9,11) He patronised a number of Wessex monasteries. (15) He founded Muchelney Abbey in Somerset, for example. (15) One of his first laws he made was about paying money to the church. (9) His generosity to the Church was well-known, not just in terms of money, but books and other holy treasures. (15) According to a transcript dating from 1304, in 925 Athelstan 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”. (18) According to Æthelwold’s biographer, Wulfstan, “Æthelwold spent a long period in the royal palace in the king’s inseparable companionship and learned much from the king’s wise men that was useful and profitable to him”. (18) Oda, a future Archbishop of Canterbury, was also close to Athelstan, who appointed him Bishop of Ramsbury. (18) Oda may have been present at the battle of Brunanburh. (18) 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. (18) He commissioned it especially to present to Chester-le Street, and out of all manuscripts he gave to a religious foundation which survive, it is the only one which was wholly written in England during his reign. (18) This has a portrait of Athelstan presenting the book to Cuthbert, the earliest surviving manuscript portrait of an English king. (18) In the view of Janet Nelson, his “rituals of largesse and devotion at sites of supernatural power …enhanced royal authority and underpinned a newly united imperial realm”. (18) Athelstan had a reputation for founding churches, although it is unclear how justified this is. (18) According to late and dubious sources, these churches included minsters at Milton Abbas in Dorset and Muchelney in Somerset. (18) In the view of historian John Blair, the reputation is probably well-founded, but “These waters are muddied by Athelstan’s almost folkloric reputation as a founder, which made him a favourite hero of later origin-myths.” (18) However, while he was a generous donor to monasteries, he did not give land for new ones or attempt to revive the ones in the north and east destroyed by Viking attacks. (18) He also sought to build ties with continental churches. (18) Cenwald was a royal priest before his appointment as Bishop of Worcester, and in 929 he accompanied two of Athelstan’s half-sisters to the Saxon court so that the future Holy Roman Emperor, Otto, could choose one of them as his wife. (18) Cenwald went on to make a tour of German monasteries, giving lavish gifts on Athelstan’s behalf and receiving in return promises that the monks would pray for the king and others close to him in perpetuity. (18)


He was a great collector of works of art and religious relics, (6,9) even by the standards of his time when this was a common practice. (18) He sent out agents across Europe to acquire them, (15) and the abbot of Saint Samson in Dol sent him some as a gift, because “we know you value relics more than earthly treasure”. (18) He gave relics away to (6,9) many of his followers and (6,11) churches in order to gain their support. (6,9) He gave the Lance of Charlemagne and the Sword of Constantine to Malmesbury abbey. (11) Milton Abbey in Dorset was especially pleased with (15) his gift of St. Samson’s arm and St. Branwaladr’s head (11,15) which made it into an important pilgrimage centre. (15) Athelstan was also a generous donor of manuscripts and relics to churches and monasteries. (18) Indeed, his reputation was so great that some monastic scribes later falsely claimed that their institutions had been beneficiaries of his largesse. (18)


Athelstan built on his grandfather’s efforts to revive ecclesiastical scholarship, which had fallen to a low state in the second half of the ninth century. (18) He helped to promote learning, (9,13) created a cosmopolitan and intellectual court full of the greatest minds from across northern Europe. (13) John Blair described Athelstan’s achievement as “a determined reconstruction, visible to us especially through the circulation and production of books, of the shattered ecclesiastical culture”. (18) He was renowned in his own day for his piety and promotion of sacred learning. (18) His interest in education, and his reputation as a collector of books and relics, attracted a cosmopolitan group of ecclesiastical scholars to his court, particularly Bretons and Irish. (18) Athelstan gave extensive aid to Breton clergy who had fled Brittany following its conquest by the Vikings in 919. (18) He made a confraternity agreement with the clergy of Dol Cathedral in Brittany, who were then in exile in central France, and they sent him the relics of Breton saints, apparently hoping for his patronage. (18) The contacts resulted in a surge in interest in England for commemorating Breton saints. (18) It is not surprising that foreign scholars flocked to such a highly ordered Royal Court: amongst them, the Irish, Bretons, Franks, Germans and Italians. (15) Notable individuals included the Icelander, Egill Skallagrimsson,(15) and Israel the Grammarian (15,18) who may have been a Breton. (18) Israel and “a certain Frank” (18) invented a board game called Gospel Dice. (9,18) for an Irish bishop, Dub Innse, who took it home to Bangor. (18) He also oversaw the translation of [OR] helped translate (9) the Bible into English. (9,11) His household was the centre of English learning during his reign. (10) The epic poem Beowulf may have been written at his request. (9,18) He helped create an organization for masons, which may have led to Freemasonry (9,11) in England. (11) Few prose narrative sources survive from Athelstan’s reign, but it produced an abundance of poetry, much of it Norse-influenced praise of the King in grandiose terms, such as the Brunanburh poem. (18)

Foreign Policy


When Athelstan’s father died in 924, England still stopped at the Humber. (14) Much of his reign was occupied, as were his forefathers’, with the ongoing struggle with the Viking invaders. (16) At his accession there was still (10,14) one last remaining (10) Viking Kingdom, at Jorvik (12,16) (York) (7,16) then ruled by King Sihtric, (7,12) or Sitrik, or possibly (14) Sigtrygg (14,15) Cáech (meaning the ‘Squinty’), the Danish (16) Viking (7) The kings of Jorvik acknowledged the Kings of the Anglo-Saxons as their overlords; in practice, this didn’t stop Sihtric from attempting to invade Mercia in 9265, which suggests that English control was imperfect, to say the least. (14) Athelstan initially dealt with this rival powerbase in (14,18) January (18) 926 (14,18) [OR] in 934 (7) through the standard medieval diplomatic technique of (14) a marriage treaty (14,16) involving the marriage of a woman under his control (15) He arranged for his sister (7,12) Edith (12,16) [OR] Eadgyth (11) to marry Sihtric, (7,12) to cement his ties with the North. (7) The marriage took place at Tamworth in 926 and resulted in Sithric acknowledging Athelstan as over-king and converting to Christianity. (16) This was a sort of non-aggression pact, under which the two kings promised not to invade each other. (14,18) The following year, Sihtric helpfully died, (12,14) and Athelstan immediately took the opportunity. (14,16) Marching north in (13,14) 927 (8,13) he moved against the Viking kingdom (4,6) to re-assert his influence over, if not his control of, Norse York. (15) Never before had the grasp of a southern king reached so far. (17) His mighty army swept across York and Northumbria. (15) He rode past the River Humber and entered York, (17) conquered it (13) and annexed it, (4,6) in 927, (4,6) expelling the new king,6 Olaf Sigtryggson (15) and bringing all the English under one King for the first time in history. (13,16) Strongholds lost decades previously had been won back. (17) Athelstan’s conquest of York, as well as securing him the sway of Northumbria, had also terminated its rule by a lengthy sequence of Viking potentates. (17) Princes in the lands beyond the city, intimidated by the scope of his power, had scrabbled to acknowledge his authority. (17) The capture of York can be seen as the decisive event in the making of Scotland as well as of England. (17) Sensing an opportunity, (14) Guthfrith (12,14) of Dublin, (14) a cousin of Sihtric, tried (12,18) to invade (14) and retake the throne. (12,18) He led a fleet from Dublin (18) but Athelstan easily prevailed. (12,18) He captured York and (12) the Danes submitted to his rule. (12,14) It is uncertain whether he had to fight Guthfrith at all. (18) Guthfrith’s failure showed that Athelstan was now firmly in control of the north. (14) Athelstan was the first English king to conquer northern Britain. (5,6) He conquered Northumbria (1,7) in 926. (7,12) Southern kings had never ruled the north, and his usurpation was met with outrage by the (18) Northumbrians (13,18) Scots and Vikings (10) who bitterly resented southern control: (10,13) however they felt about being ruled by Danes, being ruled by southerners was beyond the pale. (14) Athelstan’s successes inaugurated what John Maddicott, in his history of the origins of the English Parliament, calls 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. (18)


His aggressive foreign7 policy (13) on the Scottish borders (1,7) led to the Treaty of Penrith in 927, signed with the Scottish monarchs and ending the aggression of the past decade. (15) Britain seemed buttressed at last against the predations of the heathen. (17) But that was to reckon without the treachery of Constantin. (17) In 927, he and rulers from across the island were obliged by Athelstan to swear publicly that they would never have dealings with idol worship: an oath calculated to remind them of their solemn duty as Christian kings. (17) He had forced the submission of various of Scottish kings, (14) but there were more battles still to come. (13)

Invasion of 934

In 934 Athelstan invaded Scotland. (18) His reasons are unclear, and historians give alternative explanations. (18) An entry in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, recording the death in 934 of a ruler who was possibly Ealdred of Bamburgh, mentions a dispute between Athelstan and Constantine over control of his territory. (18) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle briefly recorded the expedition without explanation, but the twelfth-century chronicler John of Worcester stated that (18) Constantine (15) [OR] Constantin (17) II (15) of the Scots (15,17) had broken his treaty with Athelstan, (15,18) perhaps seeing the chink which the rising in Wessex had opened in Aethelred’s8 armour. (15) For, the following year, he broke their seven-year peace and attacked England (15) This may have been an unwise move, as Athelstan was well placed to retaliate: the death of his half-brother Edwin in 933 might have finally removed factions in Wessex opposed to his rule. (18) Guthfrith, the Norse king of Dublin who had briefly ruled Northumbria, died in 934; any resulting insecurity among the Danes would have given Athelstan an opportunity to stamp his authority on the north. (18) Athelstan moved quickly. (15) He set out on his campaign (18) in May (17,18) 934. (9,10) By late June or early July he had reached Chester-le-Street, where he made generous gifts to the tomb of St Cuthbert, including a stole and maniple (ecclesiastical garments) originally commissioned by his step-mother Ælfflæd as a gift to Bishop Frithestan of Winchester. (18) He invaded Scotland (7,9) by land and sea. (9,12) compelling his Welsh sub-Kings (12,15) Hywel Dda of Deheubarth, Idwal Foel of Gwynedd, Morgan ap Owain of Gwent, and Tewdwr ap Griffri of Brycheiniog (18) and 18 bishops (12,18) and thirteen earls, six of whom were Danes from eastern England (18) to help swell his army’s numbers. (12,15) According to the twelfth-century chronicler Simeon of Durham, (18) they put the Scottish heartlands to the torch, (17) ravaging the northern kingdom as far as Dunottar (near Aberdeen), while the naval force sailed to Caithness, (12,15) which was at that time part of the Norse kingdom of Orkney. (12,18) No battles are recorded during the campaign, and chronicles do not record its outcome. (18) By September, however, Athelstan was back in the south of England at Buckingham, where Constantine witnessed a charter as subregulus, (18) that is a king acknowledging Athelstan’s overlordship. (17,18) Athelstan forced him to pay him tribute, and during periods of peace, representatives from Scotland attended assemblies at Athelstan’s court and witnessed royal charters. (12) In 935 a charter was attested by Constantine, Owain of Strathclyde, Hywel Dda, Idwal Foel, and Morgan ap Owain. (18) At Christmas of the same year Owain of Strathclyde was once more at Athelstan’s court along with the Welsh kings, but Constantine was not. (18) His return to England less than two years later would be in very different circumstances. (18)

Invasion of 937

Three years (15) [OR] A decade9 on, collusion with the heathen proved a temptation impossible for Constantin to resist. (17) Across the Irish Sea, in the Viking stronghold of Dublin, a warlord by the name of Olaf Guthfrithsson had long had his eyes fixed on York – a city which, until its capture by Athelstan, had been held by his family. (17) In AD 937 (15) because of the opportunity provided by the death of his father, Guthrith10, that same year, (9) Just as Constantin yearned to cast off the yoke of his subordination, so Olaf dreamed of recovering his patrimony. (17) It was a potent meeting of interests. (17) By 937, the alliance was out in the open. (17) Constantine rose again, forming a powerful alliance with the British subjects of King Owen of Strathclyde and the Norse warriors of King Olaf Guthfrithson of Dublin. (15) A great invasion army marched south, but Athelstan was ready for them again and the Northerners were soundly defeated at the Battle of Brunanburgh. (15)(q.v. infra)


Whereas Athelstan was the first English king to achieve lordship over northern Britain, he inherited his authority over the Welsh kings from his father and aunt. (18) In the 910s Gwent acknowledged the lordship of Wessex, and Deheubarth and Gwynedd accepted that of Æthelflæd of Mercia; following Edward’s takeover of Mercia, they transferred their allegiance to him. (18) The dominant figure in Wales was (18) Hywel Dda of Deheubarth (12,16), described by the historian of early medieval Wales Thomas Charles-Edwards as “the firmest ally of the ‘emperors of Britain’ among all the kings of his day”. (18) Hywel Dda (12,16) and Owain of Glywysing & Gwent felt it wise to submit to Athelstan’s overlordship (15) at Eamont. (12,16) According to William of Malmesbury, (18) after the meeting at Eamont (15,18) Athelstan summoned the Welsh kings to Hereford, where he imposed a heavy annual tribute and fixed the border between England and Wales in the Hereford area at the River Wye. (15,18) All five of the Welsh kings agreed to pay a huge annual tribute, (6,9) of gold, silver and (11) 25,000 sheep every year, (8,9) The Welsh rulers, this time including the Gwynedd king, and King Tewdr of Brycheiniog re-attested their loyalty by (15) attending Athelstan at the English court, (15,18) four years later, (15) and between 928 and 935 they witnessed charters at the head of the list of laity (apart from the kings of Scotland and Strathclyde), showing that their position was regarded as superior to that of the other great men present. (18) The alliance produced peace between Wales and England, and within Wales, lasting throughout Athelstan’s reign. (18) 4 Welsh kings and 18 bishops accompanied Athelstan (12) on his invasion of Scotland in 934. (9,7) Some Welsh resented the status of their rulers as under-kings, as well as the high level of tribute imposed upon them. (18) 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. (18)


According to William of Malmesbury, after the Hereford meeting (18) Athelstan went on to expel the Cornish from Exeter, fortify its walls, and fix the Cornish boundary at the River Tamar. (16,18) He also eliminated (6,8) a rebellion (11) opposition in Cornwall, (6,8) This account is regarded sceptically by historians, however, as Cornwall had been under English rule since the mid-ninth century. (18) Thomas Charles-Edwards describes it as “an improbable story”, while historian John Reuben Davies sees it as the suppression of a British revolt and the confinement of the Cornish beyond the Tamar. (18) Athelstan emphasised his control by establishing a new Cornish see and appointing its first bishop, but Cornwall kept its own culture and language. (18)


Athelstan tried to reconcile the aristocracy in his new territory of Northumbria to his rule. (18) He lavished gifts on the minsters of Beverley, Chester-le-Street, and York, emphasising his Christianity. (18) He also purchased the vast territory of Amounderness in Lancashire, and gave it to the Archbishop of York, his most important lieutenant in the region. (18) But he remained a resented outsider, and the northern British kingdoms preferred to ally with the pagan Norse of Dublin. (18) In contrast to his strong control over southern Britain, his position in the north was far more tenuous. (18)


He was determined to forge links with Europe, (11,12) and no other West Saxon king played as important a role (10) or showed more interest than his predecessors (12) in European politics as Athelstan. (10) A focus on the importance of learning and a series of tactical marriages, meant that Athelstan’s England developed close ties with the continent. (13) He brought England into contact with mainland Europe more than (13,15) Alfred the Great (15) or any ruler who came before him. (13) He developed a series of alliances across Europe. (13) According to later Scandinavian sources, (18) he helped another possible foster-son, (13,18) Hakon (18) [OR] Prince Haakon (15) son of Harald Fairhair, king of (18) Norway (13,18) by sending military aid (13) to reclaim his throne, (18) and he was known among Norwegians as “Athelstan the Good”. (13,18) His victory at Brunanburh gave him prestige on the continent, (10,13) and he became one of the greatest men in Europe. (13) The West Saxon court had connections with the Carolingians going back to the marriage between Athelstan’s great-grandfather Æthelwulf and Judith, daughter of the king of West Francia (and future Holy Roman Emperor), Charles the Bald, as well as the marriage of Alfred the Great’s daughter, Ælfthryth to Judith’s son by a later marriage, Baldwin II, Count of Flanders. (18) Helping Frankish Kingdom. (13) One of Athelstan’s half-sisters, Eadgifu, married Charles the Simple, king of the West Franks, in the late 910s. (18) He was deposed in 922, and Eadgifu sent their son, Louis to safety in England. (18) By Athelstan’s time the connection was well established, and his coronation was performed with the Carolingian ceremony of anointment, probably to draw a deliberate parallel between his rule and Carolingian tradition. (18) His “crowned bust” coinage of 933–938 was the first Anglo-Saxon coinage to show the king crowned, following Carolingian iconography. (18) Like his father, Athelstan was unwilling to marry his female relatives to his own subjects, so his sisters either entered nunneries or married foreign husbands. (18) This was one reason for his close relations with European courts, and he married several of his half-sisters to European nobles in what historian Sheila Sharp called “a flurry of dynastic bridal activity unequalled again until Queen Victoria’s time”. (18) 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. (18) In 926 Hugh, Duke of the Franks, sent Athelstan’s cousin, Adelolf, Count of Boulogne, on an embassy to ask for the hand of one of Athelstan’s sisters. (18) 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. (18) Athelstan sent his half-sister Eadhild to be Hugh’s wife. (18) Athelstan’s most important European alliance was with the new Liudolfing dynasty in East Francia. (18) 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. (18) He needed a royal marriage for his son to establish his legitimacy, but no suitable Carolingian princesses were available. (18) 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. (18) In 929 or 930 Henry sent ambassadors to Athelstan’s court seeking a wife for his son, Otto, who later became Holy Roman Emperor. (18) Athelstan sent two of his half-sisters, and Otto chose Eadgyth. (18) Fifty years later, Æthelweard, a descendant of Alfred the Great’s older brother, addressed his Latin version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to Mathilde, Abbess of Essen, who was Eadgyth’s granddaughter, and had apparently requested it. (18) The other sister, whose name is uncertain, was married to a prince from near the Alps who has not definitely been identified. (18) In early medieval Europe, it was common for kings to act as foster-fathers for the sons of other kings. (18) Athelstan was known for the support he gave to dispossessed young royalty. (18) In 936 he sent an English fleet to (18) help (13,18) his foster-son, Alan II, Duke of (18) Brittany,(13,18) to regain his ancestral lands, which had been conquered by the Vikings. (18) In the same year he assisted the son of his half-sister Eadgifu, Louis, to take the throne of West Francia, and in 939 he sent another fleet that unsuccessfully attempted to help Louis in a struggle with rebellious magnates. (18) Athelstan’s court was perhaps the most cosmopolitan of the Anglo-Saxon period. (18) The close contacts between the English and European courts ended soon after his death, but descent from the English royal house long remained a source of prestige for continental ruling families. (18) According to Frank Stenton in his history of the period, Anglo-Saxon England, “Between Offa and Cnut there is no English king who played so prominent or so sustained a part in the general affairs of Europe. (18)

Marriage Alliances

He married off (6,7) several (6,10) all four (11) of his four [OR] nine (18) half (6,11) sisters (6,7) to various rulers in western Europe. (6,10) He married one of his sisters to the Viking Egil Skallagrimson, the subject of an Icelandic saga. (16)


Charles the Simple

Another half-sister (12,15) Edith (15) [OR] Edgifu (16) married (12,15) Charles the Simple11 (15,16) the King France (12,15) When Charles was imprisoned by his enemies (15) Queen (16) Edith (15) [OR] Edgifu (16) brought their son and heir, Prince Louis, to England. (15) Another example of this is in relation to an embassy sent to his court by the Duke of Boulogne, (13) [OR] Duke (11) [OR] King (14) Hugh (11,14) the Great (14) of the Franks, (11) when seeking the hand of (11,13) Eadhild, (11) Athelstan’s (11,13) half-sister (11) [OR] sister. (13) The gifts given to Athelstan included the sword of (11,13) the Emperor (11) Constantine (11,13) (which had fragments of the cross including a nail set in crystal in the hilt, (11)) and a piece of the crown of thorns and even the lance of Charlemagne (11,13) which had pierced the side of Jesus. (11) A further sister’s marriage forged a political alliance with Alan II (16) of Brittany. (12,16)

Holy Roman Empire

He sent two sisters to (11) Otto (11,15) I, (11,16) the Great (14) the Holy Roman Emperor (9,16) [OR] King, (15) telling him to choose which he fancied. (11) Otto chose (11,12) Eadgyth (11) [OR] Edith (12,16) (Sihtric’s widow) (12) England and Saxony became closer after the marriage alliance, and German names start to appear in English documents. (18) Eadgyth’s tomb is in the Cathedral of Magdeburg. (11) A lead sarcophagus bearing her name has recently been found and opened and is currently being examined. (11)

Military Activity

He was a very good military leader, (2,12) distinguished, (2,5) courageous (2) and audacious. (8) He is recorded as never having lost a battle and was called ‘Athelstan the Glorious’. (11) He conquered vast chunks of modern England that Alfred never managed. (14) He pushed the boundaries of the kingdom to the furthest extent they had yet reached, (2) uniting the regional kingdoms as one nation for the first time. (5) The infantry ‘shield wall’ was a key tactic for both Saxon and Viking armies at the time of Alfred and Athelstan. (13)

The Battle of Brunanburh, 937

The forces assemble

In 934 Olaf (4,11) Guthfrithson (4,16) succeeded his father Guthfrith as (18) the Danish (6,7) King of (11,13) Dublin, (6,12) The alliance between the Norse and the Scots was cemented by the marriage of Olaf to Constantine’s daughter. (18) By August 937 Olaf had defeated his rivals for control of the Viking part of Ireland, (18) and he promptly launched a bid for the former Norse kingdom of York. (4,13) King (11,12) Constantine (6,10) II (10,12) of Scotland, (11,12) made a significant challenge to Athelstan in 937 when (4,12) in alliance with Celts, (6,7) Irish, (7,16) the Welsh, (6) Owain (4,13) [OR] Eógan (16) of the northern Britons of (13,18) Strathclyde (4,7) and his men. (7,13) Individually Olaf and Constantine were too weak to oppose Athelstan, but together they could hope to challenge the dominance of Wessex. (18) In the autumn (17,18) they rose12 against Athelstan. (4,11) Constantin and Owain, the King of Strathclyde (17) marched south (13,15) and (13,15) invaded England. (4,10) Meanwhile, in an immense war-fleet (17) Vikings (6,7) under Guthfrithson, (4,16) made the crossing from Ireland to join them. (17) The combined armies of the three leaders, two of them the most powerful kings in Britain after Athelstan himself, and the third a notorious warlord, represented a potentially mortal threat to the nascent English realm. (17)

Athelstan’s response

Medieval campaigning was normally conducted in the summer, and Athelstan could hardly have expected an invasion on such a large scale so late in the year. (18) Athelstan, brought the news, was numbed at first by the sheer scale of the calamity that threatened all his labours. (17) He seems to have been slow to react, (17,18) and an old Latin poem preserved by William of Malmesbury accused him of having “languished in sluggish leisure”. (18) The allies plundered English territory while Athelstan took his time gathering a West Saxon and Mercian army. (18) Then, with a supreme effort of will, he geared himself for the great confrontation that he knew he could not duck. (17) Unlike that of Harold II a hundred years later, Athelstan’s response was slow and measured. (13,18) He did raise an army without panicking. (13,18) Accompanied by his younger half-brother Edmund, (12) Athelstan led a force drawn from Britain, (6) [OR] The Welsh did not join him, and they did not fight on either side. (18)

Æðelstan cyning lædde fyrde to Brunanbyrig”: “Athelstan the king led the levy to Brunanburh”.

He confronted the invaders head on, (17) supported by his young half-brother, the future King Edmund I. (18)


Despite its fame, the site of the battle remains uncertain. (12,16) It could have been anywhere between southern Scotland and Devon. (12) Theories have been debated linking it to several sites including Burnswark in southwest Scotland, Tinsley Wood near Sheffield, Yorkshire and Axminster in Devon, however (16) Bromborough on the Wirral Peninsula remains the most likely candidate. (12,16) And See Appendix 1

Events of the Battle

As his army approached (17) Brunanburh (4,5) in 937, (5,6) scouts reported the presence ahead of the teeming hordes of his foes. (17) When dawn broke, battle was joined. (17) The events of the battle are unclear, but according to some sources the West Saxons mounted a cavalry charge13 on the enemy. (16) As the sky above the rival armies lightened, so the field of Brunanburh began to darken red. (17) All day long the work of killing lasted. (17) Losses on both sides were heavy. (12,16) It was the most terrible conflict that anyone could remember. (17) Entire kingdoms were mobilized for combat. (17) Slaughter fit to stupefy poets was visited on the ranks of the rival combatants. (17) The memory of it would long endure. (17) Some forty years after the churned mud of the battlefield had returned to grass, and despite the passing of the generation which had fought it, the commemorations persisted. (17) Not merely a war, it was enshrined as something altogether more devastating: as the “Great War”. (17) In the end, it was those loyal to Athelstan, their lord, the ring-giver, who secured the victory. (17,18) West Saxons and men of Mercia, (17) they broke their adversaries. (4,5) Olaf and those of his entourage still standing turned and fled, pursued by bands of West Saxons; and then, on reaching their ships, pushed them frantically out into the sea. (17) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle narrated how “On the dark floodtide the king made his escape”. (17) Constantin too, “that grey-haired warrior, the old deceitful one”, lived to tell the tale of his defeat, slinking back to his highland fastnesses. (16,17) Olaf escaped back to Dublin with the remnant of his forces. (18) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records Constantin’s defeat in the form of a jubilant poem in celebration of the event:-

The hoary man of war had no cause to exult in the clash of blades; he was shorn of his kinsmen, deprived of friends, on the meeting place of peoples, cut off in strife, and left his son on the place of slaughter, mangled by wounds, young in battle. The grey-haired warrior, old crafty one, had no cause to boast”


The Annals of Ulster record the battle as:-

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…” (18)

Constantine left behind him on the field of Brunanburh his son. (16,17) The young prince of Alba was not the only man of note to have fallen. (17) Five kings lay amid the tangle of the dead, (16,17) and seven of Olaf’s earls. (16,17) Athelstan’s triumph had been bloodily won. (17) The English also suffered heavy losses, (17,18) including two of Athelstan’s cousins, (16,18) Alfric and Athelwin (16) the sons of Edward the Elder’s younger brother, Æthelweard, (18) plus a prominent Saxon bishop (16) Brunanburh is thought to have been one of the bloodiest battles of the period. (16)

Strategic significance

It has been called one of the most important battles in British history, (12,16) since Athelstan’s utter and crushing defeat of the combined Norse-Celtic force ranged against him irrevocably confirmed England as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, forcing the Celtic kingdoms to consolidate in the positions they have occupied to the present day. (16) ‘If the Anglo-Saxons had been defeated, their hegemony over the whole mainland of Britain would have disintegrated’. (Sarah Foot) (18) Athelstan retained control over most of what is now England. (11,12) and became the first king to rule all the Anglo-Saxon people of Britain, and was in effect the overlord of all Britain. (12,17) The victory gave him great prestige both in the British Isles, (8,10) earning him recognition by lesser kings in Britain (8) (save for, technically, the Celtic kingdom of Cornwall (12)) and on the Continent. (10) If the presence of Constantin and Owain in arms against the rex Anglorum served as a reminder that in the northern reaches of Britain there were still those who defied his supremacy, then there could be no doubting the loyalty of his Anglo-Saxon subjects. (17) Brunanburh had been won by the men of Wessex and Mercia fighting together side by side; and now, with York secured against the attempt of Olaf to wrest it back, Northumbria too remained a part of Athelstan’s realm. (17)For a century and more, the Vikings had treated Britain as the ravens which now swooped and hopped across the battlefield were treating the fallen: as prey to be picked clean. (17) The great cause to which Athelstan’s dynasty had devoted itself for three generations, had been decisively won, (17) and his heirs didn’t instantly let the whole thing crumble again. (14) [OR] It was a pyrrhic victory: (Alex Woolf). (18) The campaign seems to have ended in a stalemate, and Athelstan’s power appears to have declined. (18) Alfred Smyth says that its consequences beyond Athelstan’s reign have been overstated. (18) After he died Olaf (18) seized back control of York. (10,12) Anglo-Saxon control of northern England collapsed. (12) Both Edmund and Eadred spent most of their reigns trying to win back control. (12) Edmund briefly captured York, but after his death the Vikings regained it. (12) It was not until 954 (10,12) that the Viking king Eric Bloodaxe was driven out of Northumbria and the Anglo-Saxons once more controlled all of England. (12)


He died on October 27th (4,7) 939 (3,4) [OR] 940 (16) in his palace (11) at Gloucester, (7,11) at the age of about 45. (10) [OR] 45 (16) [OR] 47. (13) He was at the height of his powers’ (6) and, according to his wishes, (12) was buried (6,7) not beside his father and brother (12) in the family mausoleum (15,16) at Winchester, (12,15) but in Malmesbury Abbey (6,7) in Wiltshire, (16) a favourite of his. (6,16) He had been an ardent supporter and endower of the abbey, (6) whereas Winchester had been a centre of opposition to him. (18) He was buried close to the shrine of Saint Aldhelm, where he had buried his cousins who died at Brunanburh. (16) He had (7,11) only (14) reigned for (7,11) 14 (11) [OR] 15 (14) [OR] 16 (16) [OR] 15 years, 3 months, and 9 days. (7) His bones were taken sometime during the 16th century, (9,12) in the turmoil of the Reformation, and the 15th century effigy and (12) the tomb there today is an empty one. (9,11)


He never married (10) and left no heir. (7,8) After his death in 939 he was succeeded by his half-brother Edmund (7,10) I. (10)



Chronicle sources for the life of Athelstan are limited, and the first biography, by Sarah Foot, was only published in 2011. (18) Athelstan had no biographer, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in his reign is principally devoted to military events, and it is largely silent apart from recording his most important victories. (18) “If Athelstan has not had the reputation which accrued to his grandfather, the fault lies in the surviving sources”. In Dumville’s view, Athelstan has been regarded by historians as a shadowy figure because of an ostensible lack of source material, but he argues that the lack is more apparent than real. (18) Charters, law codes, and coins throw considerable light on Athelstan’s government. (18) The scribe known to historians as “Athelstan A”, who was responsible for drafting all charters between 928 and 935, provides very detailed information, including signatories, dates, and locations, illuminating Athelstan’s progress around his realm. (18) “Athelstan A” may have been Bishop Ælfwine of Lichfield, who was close to the king. (18) By contrast with this extensive 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 the reigns of Edward and Athelstan. (18) An important source is the twelfth-century chronicle of William of Malmesbury, (18) who wrote that ‘no one more just or more learned ever governed the kingdom’. (12) Sarah Foot is inclined to accept Michael Wood’s argument that William’s chronicle draws on a lost life of Athelstan. (18) Historians are also paying increasing attention to less conventional sources, such as contemporary poetry in his praise and manuscripts associated with his name. (18)


William of Malmesbury’s favourable assessment is a verdict shared by modern historians. (12,18) Athelstan is now considered one of the greatest kings of the West Saxon dynasty, (18) the one Saxon king who can be reasonably compared to his grandfather Alfred the Great. (12) Sarah Foot, writing in 2011, says that “He found acclaim in his own day not only as a successful military leader and effective monarch but also as a man of devotion, committed to the promotion of religion and the patronage of learning.” (18) Athelstan soon displayed the strong character and leadership qualities that enabled him to unite England. (11) He proceeded to establish boundaries (4) and rule firmly. (4,12) To kick out the Vikings, subdue the Scots and the Welsh, and lay the foundations of an actual English state, all in 15 years, was impressive. (14) Historians frequently comment on Athelstan’s grand and extravagant titles. (18) On his coins and charters he is described as Rex totius Britanniae, or “King of the whole of Britain”. (18) A gospel book he donated to Christ Church, Canterbury is inscribed “Athelstan, 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”. (18) In charters from 931 he is “king of the English, elevated by the right hand of the almighty to the throne of the whole kingdom of Britain”, and in one manuscript dedication he is even styled “basileus et curagulus”, the titles of Byzantine emperors. (18) Foreign contemporaries described him in panegyrical terms. (18) The French chronicler Flodoard described him as “the king from overseas”, and the Annals of Ulster as the “pillar of the dignity of the western world”. (18) Some historians take a similar view. (18) Michael Wood titled an essay, “The Making of King Athelstan’s Empire: an English Charlemagne?”, and described him as “the most powerful ruler that Britain had seen since the Romans”. (18) In the view of Veronica Ortenberg, he was “the most powerful ruler in Europe” with an army that had repeatedly defeated the Vikings; continental rulers saw him as a Carolingian emperor, who “was clearly treated as the new Charlemagne”. (18) 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. (18) 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 Athelstan 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. (18) Frank Stenton and Simon Keynes both describe him as the one Anglo-Saxon king who will bear comparison with Alfred. (18) In Keynes’s view 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”. (18) David Dumville describes Athelstan as “the father of mediaeval and modern England”, while Michael Wood regards Offa, Alfred, and Athelstan as the three greatest Anglo-Saxon kings, and Athelstan as “one of the more important lay intellectuals in Anglo-Saxon history”. (18) Athelstan is regarded as the first King of England by some modern historians. (18) Although it was Eadred who would achieve the final unification of England by the permanent conquest of Viking York, Athelstan’s campaigns made this success possible. (18) His nephew Edgar called himself King of the English and revived the claim to rule over all the peoples of Britain. (18) Simon Keynes argued that “the consistent usages of Edgar’s reign represent nothing less than a determined reaffirmation of the polity created by Athelstan in the 930s”. (18) He was ‘the roof-tree of the honour of the western world’. (18)


Some historians are less impressed. (18) He remains obscure – remarkably so, when you consider his achievements. (14) The reign of Athelstan has been overshadowed by the achievements of his grandfather, Alfred the Great. (18) By the Victorian period his reputation had so far been overshadowed by Alfred that Charles Dickens gave him one short paragraph in his ‘Child’s History of England’. (12,18) Although Anglo-Saxon history was a popular subject for nineteenth-century artists, and Alfred was frequently depicted in paintings at the Royal Academy between 1769 and 1904, there was not one picture of Athelstan. (18) The Historical Atlas of Britain says merely that ‘he maintained the momentum begun by Alfred”. (19) Historians have been cautious about accepting William of Malmesbury’s favourable view of him, not much of which can be verified from other sources. (18) Even Sarah Foot, generally complimentary, cautions that we have no means of discovering how far William of Malmesbury “improved” on the original. (18) David Dumville goes so far as to dismiss William’s account entirely, regarding him as a “treacherous witness” whose account is unfortunately influential. (18) Perhaps Athelstan’s lack of reputation can be blamed on the fact he’s been overshadowed by his more famous grandfather. (14) Or perhaps it’s because he didn’t found a dynasty: he died childless, and was followed as king by his half brother Edmund. (14) Some of his ‘achievements’ died with him: after his death, the men of York immediately chose the Viking king of Dublin, Olaf Guthfrithson (or his cousin, Anlaf Cuaran ), as their king, and Anglo-Saxon control of the north, seemingly made safe by the victory of Brunanburh, collapsed. (18) The reigns of Athelstan’s half-brothers Edmund (939–946) and Eadred (946–955) were largely devoted to regaining control. (18) Olaf seized the east midlands, leading to the establishment of a frontier at Watling Street. (18) In 941 Olaf died, and Edmund took back control of the east midlands, and then York in 944. (18) 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. (18) Athelstan, for all his achievements, simply gets lost in the fog of a period we tend to ignore. (12,14) “Clearly”, comments Alex Woolf, “King Athelstan was a man who had pretensions,” while in the view of Simon Keynes, “Athelstan A” proclaimed his master king of Britain “by wishful extension”. (18) But according to George Molyneaux “this is to apply an anachronistic standard: tenth-century kings had a loose but real hegemony throughout the island, and their titles only appear inflated if one assumes that kingship ought to involve domination of an intensity like that seen within the English kingdom of the eleventh and later centuries.” (18) Or perhaps it’s simply because his Anglo-Saxon name is not one that even a hipster medievalist would dream of giving their kid today: Athelstan gets forgotten in an endless sea of names beginning Athel- and Ed-. (14) Personally, though, I blame the French. (14) We have a tendency to treat 1066 as the Year Zero of English history: the Norman Conquest meant the arrival of an entirely new ruling class, and our national story has tended to understate the importance of those who came before. (14) Simon Keynes saw Athelstan’s law-making as his greatest achievement. (18) His reign predates the sophisticated state of the later Anglo-Saxon period, but his creation of the most centralised government England had yet seen, with the king and his council working strategically to ensure acceptance of his authority and laws, laid the foundations on which his brothers and nephews would create one of the wealthiest and most advanced systems of government in Europe. (18) Athelstan’s reign built upon his grandfather’s ecclesiastical programme, consolidating the local ecclesiastical revival and laying the foundation for the monastic reform movement later in the century. (18) Athelstan’s reputation was at its height when he died. (18) Later in the century, Æthelweard praised him as a very mighty king worthy of honour, and Æthelred the Unready, who named his eight sons after his predecessors, put Athelstan first as the name of his eldest son. (18) In his biography of Æthelred, Levi Roach commented: The king was clearly proud of his family and the fact that Athelstan stands atop this list speaks volumes: though later overtaken by Alfred the Great in fame, in the 980s it must have seemed as if everything had begun with the king’s great-uncle (a view with which many modern historians would be inclined to concur). (18) Memory of Athelstan then declined until it was revived by William of Malmesbury, who took a special interest in him as the one king who had chosen to be buried in his own house. (18) William’s account kept his memory alive, and he was praised by other medieval chroniclers. (18) In the early sixteenth century William Tyndale justified his English translation of the Bible by stating that he had read that King Athelstan had caused the Holy Scriptures to be translated into Anglo-Saxon. (18) From the sixteenth century onwards Alfred’s reputation became dominant and Athelstan largely disappeared from popular consciousness. (18) Sharon Turner’s History of the Anglo-Saxons, first published between 1799 and 1805, played a crucial role in promoting Anglo-Saxon studies, and he helped to establish Brunanburh as a key battle in English history, but his treatment of Athelstan was slight in comparison with Alfred. (18) According to Michael Wood: “Among all the great rulers of British history, Athelstan today is the forgotten man”. (18)

Appendix I: Reflections on site & significance of Brunanburh

Nothing better illustrates the oblivion that has largely claimed his reputation than the fact that the very site of Brunanburh long ago slipped from memory. That a glorious victory had been won there was celebrated by a poet writing – to judge by the prominence given in its opening lines to Edmund – sometime in the reign of Athelstan’s half-brother; but it is impossible to pinpoint from the poem, preserved in four manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the entry for the year 937, where precisely the battle was fought. The details that it does provide are sufficient to pique curiosity – but they are inadequate to satisfy it. They make it evident that Constantin, escaping the scene of his defeat, was able to withdraw to Alba; that Olaf, similarly taking flight, “sought Dublin over deep water”; and that Athelstan, triumphing over his foes, had done so “defending his own land”. A further pointer is provided by Aethelweard, writing some thirty years after the battle, who records it as having been fought, not at Brunanburh, but at “Brunandun” – “the hill of Brune”. Unsurprisingly, these few vague details have prompted a startlingly wide array of theories as to the likeliest site of the battle. Over thirty sites have been suggested (18) Perhaps Athelstan won his great victory at Bromborough on the Wirral (17,18) – and yet, despite the resemblance of the town’s name to “Brunanburh”, and the fact that Cheshire had been settled by Vikings from Ireland since the time of Athelstan’s aunt Æthelflæd (“Lady of the Mercians”), what would a king of Alba have been doing on a peninsula so far south? Perhaps, then, based on the evidence of a twelfth-century chronicle, the battle was fought beside the Humber – but would a king of Dublin really have sailed the whole way round Britain to launch his invasion? What about the ancient hill fort of Brunswark in what is now Dumfriesshire, but was then a part of the kingdom of Strathclyde? Like Bromborough, its name seems to echo that of Brunanburh; unlike Bromborough, the site does actually feature a hill. Again, though, not all the pieces fit: for Athelstan, if he had indeed won his victory there, deep within an adversary’s lands, would hardly have been described a few years later as “defending his own land”. Based on the fact that both Olaf and Constantin were able to escape the battle, and that it was fought on English territory beside a hill, the likeliest location for Brunanburh would appear to be somewhere west of the Pennines, within easy reach both of the sea and of the Cumbrian frontier – but more than that it is hard to say. None of which detracts from the decisive role played by the great victory in ensuring that the kingdom of the Angelcynn would stay united – nor from the scale of what was achieved by the victor himself. When Athelstan died in Gloucester on October 27, 939, there had been many, of course, who greeted it with relief: in Alba, and in Strathclyde, and on the ships of Viking adventurers. Such joy was its own compliment: due acknowledgement of the awe and dread that Athelstan had struck into his foes, and of the greatness that he won for himself. His own countrymen understood this; and so too did those who marked his passing from afar. A scribe in Ulster, recording the death of Athelstan, certainly had no doubts as to the stature of the King of the English. He had been, so the chronicler declared, nothing less than “the roof-tree of the dignity of the western world”. (17)

Appendix II: Athelstan’s Mother

Very little is known about Ecgwynn, (16,18) and she is not named in any pre-Conquest source. (18) Medieval chroniclers gave varying descriptions of her rank: one described her as an ignoble consort of inferior birth, while others described her birth as noble. (18) Modern historians also disagree about her status. (18) Simon Keynes and Richard Abels believe that leading figures in Wessex were unwilling to accept Athelstan as king in 924 partly because (18) his mother had been Edward the Elder’s concubine, (11,18) his ‘common-law wife’. (15,16) However, Barbara Yorke and Sarah Foot argue that allegations that Athelstan was illegitimate were a product of the dispute over the succession, and that (18) there is no reason to doubt that she was Edward’s legitimate wife. (11,18) She may have been related to St Dunstan. (18) William of Malmesbury wrote that Alfred the Great honoured his young grandson with a ceremony in which he gave him a scarlet cloak, a belt set with gems, and a sword with a gilded scabbard. (18) Medieval Latin scholar Michael Lapidge and historian Michael Wood see this as designating Athelstan as a potential heir at a time when the claim of Alfred’s nephew, Æthelwold, to the throne represented a threat to the succession of Alfred’s direct line, but historian Janet Nelson suggests that it should be seen in the context of conflict between Alfred and Edward in the 890s, and might reflect an intention to divide the realm between his son and his grandson after his death. (18) Historian Martin Ryan goes further, suggesting that at the end of his life Alfred may have favoured Athelstan rather than Edward as his successor. (18) An acrostic poem praising prince “Adalstan”, and prophesying a great future for him, has been interpreted by Lapidge as referring to the young Athelstan, punning on the old English meaning of his name, “noble stone”. (18) Lapidge and Wood see the poem as a commemoration of Alfred’s ceremony by one of his leading scholars, John the Old Saxon. (18) In Michael Wood’s view, the poem confirms the truth of William of Malmesbury’s account of the ceremony. (18) Wood also suggests that Athelstan may have been the first English king to be groomed from childhood as an intellectual, and that John was probably his tutor. (18) However, Sarah Foot argues that the acrostic poem makes better sense if it is dated to the beginning of Athelstan’s reign. (18) Ecgwynn seems to be off the scene by about 898, the date at which Athelstan was fostered with Aelflaeda. (13,15) She may have died, although she may have been put aside. (18)Edward married his second wife, Ælfflæd, at about the time of his father’s death, (18) [OR] before Edward became king. (16)

Appendix III: The Succession

Edward the Elder died in (3,4) at Farndon in northern Mercia (18) on 17th (15,18) July (10,15) 924, (3,4) the circumstances are shrouded in confusion. (13,15) According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle he was succeeded by his second son (15) Athelstan’s half-brother Aelfweard. (11,12) When Edward died, Athelstan was apparently with him in Mercia, while Ælfweard was in Wessex. (18) Mercia acknowledged Athelstan as king, and Wessex may have chosen Ælfweard. (18) However, Aelfweard’s mysterious death (11,13) at Oxford, on 2nd August, 924, possibly on the orders of Athelstan, (16) only sixteen days (18) [OR] two (11,13) three (10,12) weeks (11,13) after their father’s death, (10,11) gave Athelstan a far better claim (13) and disrupted any succession plan. (18) Even after Ælfweard’s death there seems to have been opposition to Athelstan in Wessex, particularly in Winchester, where Ælfweard was buried. (18) At first Athelstan behaved as a Mercian king. (18) A charter relating to land in Derbyshire, which appears to have been issued at a time in 925 when his authority had not yet been recognised outside Mercia, was witnessed only by Mercian bishops. (18) In the view of historians David Dumville and Janet Nelson he may have agreed not to marry or have heirs in order to gain acceptance. (18) However, Sarah Foot ascribes his decision to remain unmarried to “a religiously motivated determination on chastity as a way of life”. (18) Ælfweard, Edward’s eldest son by Ælfflæd, had ranked above Athelstan in attesting a charter in 901, (18) and Edward may have intended Ælfweard to be his successor as king, either of Wessex only (15,18) or of the whole kingdom. (18) If Edward intended his realms to be divided after his death, this may explain his deposition of Aethelflaed’s daughter Ælfwynn in Mercia in 918, to prepare the way for Athelstan’s succession as king of Mercia. (18) Athelstan had to be content with the (13,14) poorer (13) northern Kingdom of Mercia, (13,14) which had recently been re-conquered: (13) his claim was supported there (12) and he became king of Mercia in 924. (14) Aelfweard (11,12) immediately claimed the throne, (12) though he (16,18) was probably never crowned. (16) He was only king in Wessex (13,15) (the south of England), (14) but perhaps this was only because the Mercians rejected him. (15) There was certainly tension between the two, which ended up with (15) Athelstan (1,2) inherited (1) [OR] was elected to (4) the crown of both Mercia and Wessex. (1,4) [OR] His title at first, in fact, was still “King of the Anglo-Saxons” (14) and it took time for Athelstan to be accepted everywhere. (13) Athelstan was then accepted by the Mercians (1,10) [OR] Mercia supported his claim from the outset. (12,15) After making deals and threatening movements from Mercia, (13) Athelstan finally claimed both Wessex and Mercia (12) by September (10) 925. (10,14)

Appendix IV: The Wessex rebellions

Opposition to Athelstan in Wessex seems to have continued even after the coronation. (18) Even after his triumphs in the north, making Athelstan King of all England, (15) south of the Humber, (14) he faced still faced further opposition from an otherwise unknown (13,15) prince (15,16) of the Saxon Royal House, (16) as a grandson of King Aethelred I. (15) [OR] nobleman (13) named Alfred, (13,15) representing the Wessex party who were still not happy with Athelstan’s leadership. (15) According to William of Malmesbury, Alfred plotted to blind Athelstan on account of his supposed illegitimacy, although it is unknown whether he aimed to make himself king or was acting on behalf of Edwin, Ælfweard’s younger brother. (18) Blinding would have been a sufficient disability to render Athelstan ineligible for kingship without incurring the odium attached to murder. (18) Tensions between Athelstan and Winchester seem to have continued for some years. (18) The Bishop of Winchester, Frithestan, did not attend the coronation or witness any of Athelstan’s known charters until 928. (18) After that he witnessed fairly regularly until his resignation in 931, but was listed in a lower position than entitled by his seniority. (18) Again (in AD 933, (15,16) the men of Wessex seem to have broken out into open rebellion for (15) there was “disturbance in the kingdom”. (15,18) This involved a plot to have Athelstan blinded14 and deposed (13,15) at Winchester (15) and replaced by the late Aethelweard’s full-brother, Edwin. (12,15) Whether the plot simply failed or was uncovered is not clear, (15) but Athelstan strongly suspected that Edwin was a party to it, despite his strong protestations to the contrary. (16) He resolved to be rid of him. (16) Edwin might have fled England after the unsuccessful rebellion against his brother’s rule in 933 (18) He was drowned in a shipwreck (15,18) in a storm (15) in the North Sea. (18) The twelfth-century chronicler Symeon of Durham said that Athelstan ordered Edwin to be drowned, but this is generally dismissed by historians15. (18) His cousin, Adelolf, Count of Boulogne, took his body for burial at the Abbey of Saint Bertin in Saint-Omer. (18) According to the abbey’s annalist, Folcuin, who wrongly believed that Edwin had been king, he had fled England “driven by some disturbance in his kingdom”. (18) Athelstan was said to later regret his conduct in the matter and did penance for this action. (16) Folcuin stated that Athelstan 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 Athelstan died before the monks made the journey in 944. (18) It has been suggested that, after this event, Athelstan deliberately refrained from acquiring a direct heir to his kingdom, so that the two parties would reconcile after his death. (15) The death of Edwin probably helped put an end to Winchester’s opposition to Athelstan. (18)

Appendix V: Athelstan and ‘England’

The outlines of a new and potentially enduring state, rendered that much clearer by the decisive result of the battle, had begun to emerge. True, there remained debate as to what this agglomeration of ancient kingdoms, now joined under the rule of a single king, should properly be termed. “Saxonia”, some suggested: “Saxonland”. There were others, though, beyond the reaches of Wessex, who preferred the obvious alternative: “Anglia”. Sure enough, it was this name, in the wake of Brunanburh, which increasingly won out. A few generations on from the “Great War”, men looking back at it could see in the terrible battle the birth pangs of an entire new order, in which, as the Wessex ealdorman and chronicler Aethelweard wrote, “all the fields of Britain were joined as one, and everywhere there was peace, and prosperity was general”. Athelstan, the great conqueror who had secured this happy result, was commemorated as the founder of something glorious and new: the united kingdom of what, in the native language of those who lived in it, was coming to be known as “Englalonde”. A momentous development – and ripe with implications for more than England. The kings who followed Athelstan had not forgotten his claim to rule as lord of the whole of Britain. It was not enough for them to rule merely as the rex Anglorum. In 973, Athelstan’s nephew, Edgar, was crowned amid the aptly imperial surroundings of what had once been Roman Bath, and hailed by those present as the pre-eminent king of Britain. The echo of a great assembly held by his uncle at Cirencester some forty years previously was palpable – and no doubt deliberate. Nevertheless, the contrasts too were telling. Whereas Athelstan had been attended in person by Welsh princes and the kings of Alba and Strathclyde, Edgar’s consecration at Bath was witnessed by an altogether more circumscribed audience: “the nobility of the English”. That he then headed from his coronation to Chester, there to meet six kings summoned from the rest of Britain, only emphasized the clear distinction that had come to exist since Athelstan’s time between the English-speaking regions of the island and the realms elsewhere. Edgar, who made sure to arrive on the River Dee escorted by his entire fleet, could hardly have struck a more imposing figure; and his six guests, duly overawed, “all swore solemn oaths that they would be his allies by sea and land”. The paradox, though, was already evident: that the more solidly the foundations of an English state were cemented together, so the harder did it become to present the island as a single realm. Seen in this light, Athelstan’s conquest of York, the feat which had first served to project the power of the West Saxon monarchy deep into the north of Britain, can be seen as the decisive event in the making of Scotland as well as of England. There was certainly nothing preordained about the emergence of either kingdom. Had Athelstan neglected to seize his chance in 927, then the political contours of Britain might easily have ended up very different. It is not far-fetched to imagine an Anglo-Viking kingdom ruled from York putting down permanent roots. The heirs of Alfred would then have been confined to Southumbria, and the kings of Alba to the Highlands. As it was, the absorption of Northumbria into the emergent kingdom of England gave the Scots the chance to extend their own sway. Already, in Athelstan’s reign, the sheer scale of the effort required to ravage the Highlands had demonstrated the challenge that any West Saxon king was bound to face in exercising lordship over lands some 500 miles north of Wessex. When Edmund, Athelstan’s half-brother and immediate successor, rode north to inflict a similarly punitive ravaging on Strathclyde, he had no choice when he returned south but to entrust it to the overlordship of the King of the Scots, “upon these terms – that the King of the Scots should help him by land and sea”. This oath, though, was not long upheld. When an English garrison was obliged soon afterwards to evacuate the Northumbrian stronghold of Edinburgh, Scottish rule was entrenched for the first time south of the Forth. A century on, and it extended almost to Lindisfarne. The inhabitants of Lothian, for all that they might still regard themselves as English, were no longer subject to an English king. Instead, they had been brought to acknowledge the lordship of another man: the ruler of a kingdom that they would call, in their own language, “Scotland”. This division of Britain into rival kingdoms would ultimately come to seem so natural that its origins in the turbulent events of Athelstan’s reign would end up largely forgotten.

Appendix VI: Athelstan and the Law

Legal codes required the approval of the king, but they were treated as guidelines which could be adapted and added to at local level, rather than a fixed canon of regulations, and customary oral law was also important in the Anglo-Saxon period. More legal texts survive from Athelstan’s reign than from any other tenth-century English king. The earliest appear to be his tithe edict and the “Ordinance on Charities”. Local legal texts survive from London and Kent, and one concerning the ‘Dunsæte’ on the Welsh border probably also dates to Athelstan’s reign. In the view of the historian of English law, Patrick Wormald, the laws must have been written by Wulfhelm, who succeeded Athelm as Archbishop of Canterbury in 926. Other historians see Wulfhelm’s role as less important, giving the main credit to Athelstan himself, although the significance placed on the ordeal as an ecclesiastical ritual shows the increased influence of the church. 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. The two earliest codes were concerned with clerical matters, and Athelstan 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 Athelstan’s reeves, specifying the amount to be given to the poor and requiring reeves to free one penal slave annually. His religious outlook is shown in a wider sacralization of the law in his reign. Historians differ widely regarding Athelstan’s theft legislation. Patrick Wormald’s verdict was harsh: “The hallmark of Athelstan’s law-making is the gulf dividing its exalted aspirations from his spasmodic impact”. in his view, “The legislative activity of Athelstan’s reign has rightly been dubbed ‘feverish’…But the extant results are, frankly, a mess.” In the view of Simon Keynes, however, “Without any doubt the most impressive aspect of King Athelstan’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. Keynes sees the Grately code as “an impressive piece of legislation” showing the king’s determination to maintain social order. 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”. (18)

Appendix VII: Literary Style

Athelstan’s court was the centre of a revival of the elaborate hermeneutic style of later Latin writers, influenced by the West Saxon scholar Aldhelm (c. 639–709), and by early tenth-century French monasticism. Foreign scholars at Athelstan’s court such as Israel the Grammarian were practitioners. The style was characterised by long, convoluted sentences and a predilection for rare words and neologisms. The “Athelstan A” charters were written in hermeneutic Latin. In the view of Simon Keynes it is no coincidence that they first appear immediately after the king had for the first time united England under his rule, and they show a high level of intellectual attainment and a monarchy invigorated by success and adopting the trappings of a new political order. The style influenced architects of the late tenth-century monastic reformers educated at Athelstan’s court such as Æthelwold and Dunstan, and became a hallmark of the movement. After “Athelstan A”, charters became more simple, but the hermeneutic style returned in the charters of Eadwig and Edgar. The historian W. H. Stevenson commented in 1898: The object of the compilers of these charters was to express their meaning by the use of the greatest possible number of words and by the choice of the most grandiloquent, bombastic words they could find. Every sentence is so overloaded by the heaping up of unnecessary words that the meaning is almost buried out of sight. The invocation with its appended clauses, opening with pompous and partly alliterative words, will proceed amongst a blaze of verbal fireworks throughout twenty lines of smallish type, and the pyrotechnic display will be maintained with equal magnificence throughout the whole charter, leaving the reader, dazzled by the glaze and blinded by the smoke, in a state of uncertainty as to the meaning of these frequently untranslatable and usually interminable sentences. However, Michael Lapidge argues that however unpalatable the hermeneutic style seems to modern taste, it was an important part of late Anglo-Saxon culture, and deserves more sympathetic attention than it has received from modern historians. In the view of historian David Woodman, “Athelstan A” should “be accorded recognition as an individual author of no little genius, a man who not only overhauled the legal form of the diploma but also had the ability to write Latin that is as enduringly fascinating as it is complex … In many ways the diplomas of “Athelstan A” represent the stylistic peak of the Anglo-Saxon diplomatic tradition, a fitting complement to Athelstan’s own momentous political feats and to the forging of what would become England. (18)


Notes: 2 and 6 are derived directly from 8; ‘descendents’ for ‘descendants’ (14); ‘lead’ for ‘led’ (13); ‘formerly’ for ‘formally’, and ‘amonst’ for ‘amongst’; ‘succeeded’ for ‘succeeded’. (15) ‘where’ for ‘were’; ‘neccessity’ for ‘necessity’; ‘pennance’ for ‘penance’; ‘Basilius’ for ‘Basileus’; ‘forefather’s’ for ‘forefathers’’; ‘siezed’ for ‘seized’; ‘equivelant’ for ‘equivalent’ (16)

Number 1.

Number 2.

Number 3. Wikipedia Summary

Number 4.

Number 5.

Number 6.

Number 7.

Number 8.

Number 9.

Number 10. Wikipedia Brief

Number 11.

Number 12.

Number 13.

Number 14.

Number 15.

Number 16.

Number 17.

Number 18. Big Wikipedia

Number 19. Historical Atlas of Britain


F – Never lost a battle; won Brunanburh, to become ruler of entire British Isles; one of the more active Saxon rulers on the continent; united Wessex and Mercia.

R – ‘Devout’; orthodox or ‘Chalcedonian’? Relics; Bible translation; Monastic foundations; use of bishops in governmental roles.

E – Coinage; trade based on burhs and market towns;

S – policy on crime and youth crime; tithing; education; Beowulf; Tax money for relief of poor.

C – Centralisation; Winchester clerks; charters; shiring;

I – illegitimate; fortunate death of Aelfheard; plot by nobleman Alfred to depose him; murder of Edwin; remorse; local affection for to Malmesbury;.

P – First and Greatest King of England; ‘forgotten king’; Jorvik men deserted his successor quickly.

L – Translations; Beowulf

A – N/A

C – Comparison with Penda, Offa, and particularly Alfred; Compare English maintaining society vis a vis crown and Vikings, when S France collapsed into chaos; Consequence: impermanence of his conquests; end of Mercia as independent kingdom.

T – Cluniac Revival? Hywel Dda?

1 Hywel Dda did homage at Hereford, according to (15)

2 Surely a mistake for Hywel Dda of Dyfed?

3 for example a church charter of 934, (8)

4 Offa?

5 This from 14 is difficult to reconcile with the rest of the marriage treaty narrative.

6 Of York, presumably

7 His northern expedition of 927 was in some sense domestic (if we regard him as having been crowned King of England) and also in a sense foreign (Northumbria had never been conquered by the west Saxons, although it was an ‘Anglo Saxon Kingdom’); Scotland was 100% foreign.

8 Must be a mistake for ‘Athelstan’

9 The author of 17 seems unaware of the 834 invasion.

10 Probably ‘Guthfrith’, reasoning from his son ‘Guthfrithson’

11 King of West Francia 879-929 (Wikipedia)

12 Book 11 says that ‘memories were short’ after the Eamont Bridge oath. It was 12 years, or 7 years counting from Eamont to 934.

13 A very early date for this, though Athelstan was exceptionally well educated & might have picked up the idea of stirrups from the Carpathians. The early English usually fought on foot. The AS Chronicle makes no mention of cavalry & and it is believed that the mention of the Saxons using cavalry has arisen through a mistranslation the Anglo-Saxon ‘eorodcistum,’ which means troop not cavalry. (16)

14 The same plot is alleged in the 20s and again in the 30s

15 The story went that (16) Athelstan’s forces (15) captured Edwin, and to spare the King the necessity of having him executed, (16) the unfortunate Edwin was sent to sea (12,16) in a small (12) leaking old (16) boat (12,16) without a sail and with neither water or (16) provisions. (12,16) He died [OR] drowned himself rather than face starvation. (12,16)


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