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Athelstan
King of England
Reign August 2,924October 27,939
Born 895
Wessex, England
Died October 27, 939
Buried Malmesbury Abbey
Predecessor Ælfweard
Successor Edmund
Father Edward the Elder
Mother Egwina
For the East Anglian king christened Æthelstan, see Guthrum the Old.

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

SourcesEdit

File:Saxon Coronation Stone( Athelstan).jpg
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is so vocal during the reigns of Alfred and Edward the Elder, falls into relative silence during Athelstan's reign, and what entries survive are retrospective. A few references tell us of his military campaigns, the longest entry being a poem about the Battle of Brunanburh, probably composed in his successor Edmund's reign. 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. William of Malmesbury, however, writing in the early 12th century, provides us with the greatest detail. His work might even draw on a (now lost) Vita Æthelstani, as Michael Wood argues, but caution is called for as this case has yet to be proven and William's account can rarely be verified.

Documentary 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 possible to trace his peregrinations, particularly between 927 and 932 when all diplomas were drafted by the extraordinary scribe known as 'Athelstan A'. 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 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 minters) felt his reign extended, throughout all Britain. Also of interest are the manuscripts and relics Athelstan collected and donated - many of the former contain notices giving the details of these donations. These particularly shed light on Athelstan's patronage of the cult of St Cuthbert's in Northumbria, to whom he gave two lavish manuscripts containing our earliest surviving English ruler portraits, the Corpus Christi Manuscript.

ReignEdit

File:Athelstanobv.2.jpg

Athelstan was the son of Edward the Elder, and grandson of Alfred the Great. His father succeeded, after some difficulty, to the Kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons formed by Alfred. His aunt, Edward's sister, Æthelflæd, ruled western Mercia on his behalf following the death of her husband, Ealdorman Æthelred. On Æthelflæd's death, Edward was quick to assume control of Mercia, and by his death he directly ruled all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms south of the Humber. Athelstan was fostered by the family of Athelstan 'Half-King' in Mercia, perhaps as a method of encouraging Mercian loyalty to the West Saxon dynasty. On Edward's death, Athelstan immediately became King of Mercia, though it seems to have taken a little longer for him to be recognised in Wessex where his half-brothers Ælfweard and Edwin had support.

Political alliances seem to have been high on Athelstan's agenda. Only a year after his crowning he married one of his sisters to Sihtric, the viking King of York. However, Sihtric died only a year later, and Athelstan seized the opportunity to take Northumbria. This bold move made him king of more territory than any Anglo-Saxon king before him, roughly equivalent to modern England. 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. The reality of his influence in Wales is underlined by the Welsh poem Armes Prydein Fawr, and by the appearance of the Welsh kings as subreguli in the charters of 'Αthelstan A'. 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 lawEdit

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 creasing 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 WelshEdit

Athelstan's reign marks a hiatus in sporadic unrest between the Anglo-Saxon and Welsh kingdoms. According to Asser, a monk from St David's, Dyfed, several kingdoms of Wales submitted (including eventually those ruled by the sons of Rhodri Mawr) to Alfred. No battles between the English and the Welsh are recorded during Athelstan's reign, but charters show Welsh kings attending his court, 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. Yet it is also possible that some Welsh kings, in particular Hywel Dda, were benefiting from this relationship. Hywel may have been influenced by English ideas of kingship - he is the first Welsh king associated with a major Welsh law code, and a coin, minted at Chester, carries his name.

Foreign contactsEdit

Like those of his predecessors, Athelstan's court was in contact with the rest of Europe. His half sisters married into European noble families. Ædgyth 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 might have considered his rule in some way imperial: the style basileus is found in his charters, whilst he is the first king to bear the title r[ex] tot[ius] B[ritanniae]. According to William of Malmesbury, relics such as the Sword of Constantine (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.

File:King.athelstan.tomb.arp.jpg

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. In Malmesbury, his name lives on into the 20th and 21st centuries, with everything from a bus company and a second-hand shop to several roads and streets named after him. His patronage of the abbey, and his gift of freemen status to the town also lives on with the Warden and Freemen of Malmesbury.

He was succeeded by his younger half-brother, King Edmund of England

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

BibliographyEdit

  • 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 0-7524-2566-8

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, 2nd ed., D. Whitelock, (Eyre and Spottisoode, 1980)

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