Athelstan of England

Athelstan
King of England
Image:Athelstan.gif
Reign August 2, 924 – October 27, 939
Born 895
Wessex, England
Died October 27, 939
Buried Malmesbury Abbey
Married Never married
Parents Edward the Elder
Egwina

Athelstan or Æþelstān (c. 895 - October 27, 939) was the King of England from 924 to 939. He was the son of King Edward the Elder (Ēadweard se Ieldra), and nephew of Ethelfleda (Æðelflǣd) of Mercia. His reign is frequently overlooked, with much focus going to Alfred the Great (Ælfrēd se Grēata) before him, and Edgar (Ēadgar I) after. However, his reign was of fundamental importance to political developments in the 10th century.

Sources

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was so vocal during the reign of Alfred and Edward the Elder, falls into relative silence during Athelstan's reign. A few references tell us of his military campaigns, the longest entry by far being a poem about the Battle of Brunanburh. Other narrative sources from across Europe, though, provide us with more information. The Annals of Flodoard contain several references to Athelstan's dealing with the rulers of west and east Francia, as does the Chronicle of Nantes. It is William of Malmesbury, however, writing in the early12th century, who provides us with the greatest detail. Caution is called for, however, in that William's account often cannot be backed up.

Other written sources come in the form of charters and laws. Numerous charters exist that tell us about where Athelstan was, who was with him, and to whom he was granting land. Through these it is even possible to trace his movements, such as prior to the Brunanburh campaign. We have several law codes attributed to Athelstan; a couple are law codes after the tradition of Alfred and Edward; the others are less 'official', but nonetheless reveal interesting aspects of Athelstan's administration.

Non-written sources are also available. Perhaps most useful are coins, which give Athelstan a title which reveals how widespread he (or rather the minter) felt his reign extended, throughout all-England.

Reign

Athelstan was the son of Edward the Elder, and grandson of Alfred the Great. His father succeeded, after some difficulty, to the Kingdom of Wessex. His aunt, Edward's sister, Æðelflǣd, ruled western Mercia following the death of her husband, Æthelred. On Æthelflæd's death, Edward was quick to assume control of Mercia, and by his death he ruled all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms south of the Humber. Athelstan was raised in Mercia, perhaps as a method of encouraging Mercian loyalty to the West Saxon dynasty. It seems to have worked. On Edward's death, Athelstan immediately became King of Mercia, though it took a little longer for him to receive the crown of Wessex, in 925.

Political alliances seem to have been high on Athelstan's agenda. Only a year after his crowning he had a sister married to Sihtric, the viking King of York. However, Sihtric died only a year later, and Athelstan seized the chance to take Northumbria. This was a bold move, and made him the king of a larger territory than any Anglo-Saxon king before him, roughly equivalent to modern England. Perhaps taken slightly aback by this, the other rulers in Great Britain seem to have submitted to Athelstan at Bamburgh: "first Hywel, King of the West Welsh {Cornish}, and Constantine II, King of Scots, and Owain, King of the people of Gwent, and Ealdred...of Bamburgh" records the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. William of Malmesbury adds that Owain of Strathclyde was also present.

Similar events are recorded along the western marches of Athelstan's domain. According to William of Malmesbury, Athelstan had the kings of the North British (meaning the Welsh) submit to him at Hereford, where he exacted a heavy tribute from them. Similarly, he drove the West Welsh (meaning the Cornish) out of Exeter, and established the border between England and Cornwall along the River Tamar.

Athelstan is generally regarded as the first king of England. He achieved considerable military successes over his rivals, including the vikings, and extended his rule to parts of Wales and Cornwall. His greatest victory, over an enemy alliance that included Constantine II of Scotland, was the Battle of Brunanburh in 937.

Administration and Law

As Athelstan's kingdom grew it posed new challenges in administration. Towards the end of his reign we hear of another Athelstan, termed 'half-king', who was Ealdorman for much of eastern Mercia and East Anglia. Ian Walker has argued that, as the extent of Athelstan's power grew, the extent of rule of the next level of the aristocracy had to grow too. This points towards an increasing stratification of Anglo-Saxon society, a development that can (possibly) be traced from earliest Anglo-Saxon times right up to the Norman Conquest and beyond.

A relatively large number of law codes have come down to us from Athelstan's reign. To examine each in detail would take too much space here, but two viewpoints summarise the arguments around them. Patrick Wormald, who has argued that written law had little practical use in Anglo-Saxon England, states that there is little homogeneity to the laws, and that the sporadic nature of them indicate little sign of a coherent system based on written law. Simon Keynes has instead argued that there is a pattern to the laws of Athelstan's reign, and that the laws are evidence 'not of any casual attitude towards the publication or recording of the law, but quite the reverse'.

Athelstan and the Welsh

Athelstan's reign marks a hiatus in sporadic unrest between the Anglo-Saxon and Welsh kingdoms. According to Asser, several of the kingdoms of South Wales were under Alfred's dominance, Asser himself being a monk from St David's, Dyfed. No battle between the English and the Welsh is recorded, however, during Athelstan's reign. Instead, charters from Athelstan's reign show Welsh kings in attendance at his court, and possibly coming with him on campaign. D.P. Kirby argued that Athelstan was repressing the Welsh kings, keeping them close in order to maintain their loyalty. However, it is also possible that some Welsh kings, and in particular Hywel Dda, were benefiting from this relationship. Hywel may have begun to imitate Athelstan's style of kingship - it is he who traditionally compiled a major Welsh law code, and we have a coin, minted at Chester, that carries his name.

Foreign Contacts

Like those of his predecessors, Athelstan's court was in contact with the rest of Europe. His half sisters married into European noble families. One was married to future Holy Roman Emperor Otto, son of Henry I of Saxony, and another to Egill Skallagrímsson, the subject of the Icelandic Egils Saga. Alan II, Duke of Brittany and Haakon, son of Harald of Norway, were both fostered in Æthelstan’s court, and he provided a home for Louis, the exiled son of Charles the Bald.

Athelstan, or at the least those writing about him, may have considered his rule in some way imperial. On charters and coins Athelstan was styled 'basileus' and 'rex totius Britanniae'. According to William of Malmesbury, relics such as the Sword of Constantine (first Christian Emperor of Rome) and the Lance of Charlemagne (first Holy Roman Emperor) came to Athelstan, suggesting that he was in some way being associated with past great rulers.

Although he established many alliances through his family, he had no children of his own. He fostered Hakon the Good, who later became King of Norway.

The tomb of King Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey, Malmesbury, England. There is nothing in the tomb beneath the statue, the relics of the king having been lost in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. The remains may have been destroyed by the King's Commissioners or hidden before the Commissioners arrived to close down the Abbey.
The tomb of King Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey, Malmesbury, England. There is nothing in the tomb beneath the statue, the relics of the king having been lost in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. The remains may have been destroyed by the King's Commissioners or hidden before the Commissioners arrived to close down the Abbey.

Athelstan was religious and gave generously to the church in Wessex, when he died in 939 at Gloucester he was buried at his favourite abbey (Malmesbury) rather than with his family at Winchester. Though his tomb is still there, his body was lost decades later. He was succeeded by his younger half-brother, King Edmund I of England.

Bibliography

  • Wessex and England from Alfred to Edgar: six essays on political, cultural, and ecclesiastical revivial, David Dumville, (Woodbridge, 1992)
  • "England, c.900-1016", Simon Keynes, in The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. II. ed. R. McKitterick, (Cambridge University Press, 1999)
  • The Age of Athelstan: Britain's Forgotten History, Paul Hill, (Tempus Publishing, 2004). ISBN 0752425668

On Athelstan and the Welsh:

  • D.P. Kirby, 'Hywel Dda: Anglophil?', Welsh Historical Review, 8 (1976-7)
  • H.R. Loyn, 'Wales and England in the tenth century: the context of the Athelstan Charters', Welsh History Review 10, (1980-1)

For law in Athelstan's reign:

  • Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century, vol. 1, (Blackwell, 1999)
  • Simon Keynes, 'Royal government and the written word in late Anglo-Saxon England' in The Uses of Literacy in Early Medieval Europe. ed. R. McKitterick, (Cambridge University Press, 1990)

Compilations of sources can be found in:

  • The Laws of the Earliest English Kings, F.L. Attenborough, (Cambridge University Press, 1922)
  • English Historical Documents c.500-1042, D. Whitelock, (Eyre and Spottisoode, 1955)
Preceded by:
Ethelweard
King of England
924 - 939
Succeeded by:
Edmund I
Monarchs of England
Alfred | Edward the Elder | Ethelweard | Athelstan | Edmund I | Edred | Edwy | Edgar I | Edward the Martyr | Ethelred | Sweyn I*† | Edmund II | Canute*† | Harthacanute* | Harold I | Edward the Confessor | Harold II | Edgar II | William I | William II | Henry I | Stephen | Matilda | Henry II | Richard I | John | Henry III | Edward I | Edward II | Edward III | Richard II | Henry IV | Henry V | Henry VI | Edward IV | Edward V | Richard III | Henry VII | Henry VIII‡ | Edward VI‡ | Jane‡ | Mary I‡ | Elizabeth I‡ | James I‡§ | Charles I‡§ | Interregnum | Charles II‡§ | James II‡§ | William III‡§¶ and Mary II‡§ | Anne‡§
* Also Monarch of Denmark | † Also Monarch of Norway | ‡Also Monarch of Ireland | § Also Monarch of Scotland | ¶ Also Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel and Drenthe

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