King of Wessex (924-939)
Born c895 Died 939
Also known as Æþelstan, Ethelstan, Æthelstan or Aethelstan, from the Old English aethel for 'noble' and stan for 'stone', hence 'noble stone'.
Aethelstan was the eldest son of Edward the Elder and Ecgwynn and born probably in the year 895. However it seems that Ecgwynn was most likely simply Edward's concubine, rendering Aethelstan illegitimate. When Edward did finally marry in 899, it is presumbaly in order to avoid any potential source of embarassment that he despatched the four year old Athelstan off to be raised by his aunt Aethelflaed in Mercia. 1
Edward the Elder and the succession
Eadweard son of Alfred, better known as Edward the Elder was the ruler of Wessex from the year 899 and was successful in expanding the boundaries of Wessex at the expense of his Danish neighbours, conquering East Anglia and northern Mercia and thereby re-establishing the boundaries of Wessex to the extent established in the time of Ecgberht.
When Edward died in the July of 924 he was succeeded, in Wessex at least, by his eldest legitimate son, Aelfweard. But in Mercia it was Athelstan who became king 2. Now there are some indications that this was simply in accordance with Edward's intentions; Mercia was after all a semi-autononmous, if subordinate, part of the enlarged kingdom of Wessex and it may have seemed entirely sensible to divide the responsibilities of government given the continuing military threat of Jorvik and the Danes.
On the other hand it is entirely possible that Athelstan simply engineered a revolt against Aelfweard. In any event Aelfweard very conveniently died after a reign of only sixteen days and Athelstan was thus able to inherit the whole of his father's territories. In this he was not unapposed, as one Alfred, whose exact relationship with Athelstan and his kin is not known, hatched a plot to capture Athelstan, blind him and and seize the throne for himself. But Alfred's plot was foiled, and although Alfred denied his involvement he soon disappeared from the scene.3
It therefore wasn't until the September of 925 that Athelstan was sufficiently secure in his control to be crowned king at Kingston-on-Thames.
Rex Totius Britanniae
Athelstan's major strategic concern after securing control of Wessex was ensuring a stable relationship with the Viking kings of Jorvik. In 926 he arranged a meeting with king Sigtrygg Caech at Tamworth; some understanding must have been reached as it was arranged for Sigtrygg agreed to be baptised and to marry his sister Eadgyth.
Unfortunately Sigtrygg died the very next year after which time Athelstan seems to have been able to take over Jorvik. Quite how this was achieved is uncertain; some versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle state for the year 926 that "Athelstan succeeded to Northumbria", whilst the Winchester manuscript has no such entry but for the following year refers to "Athelstan driving out Gothfrith", who was Sigtrygg's brother, implying that Gothfrith who was the ruler of Dublin may have made an attempt to capture Jorvik.
From his success in Jorvik he proceeded to extract the submission of "all the kings that were in this island". The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to a meeting at a location named as the "Rivers' Meeting" believed to be Eamont Bridge in Cumberland where on the 12th July a number of named kings "confirmed peace with pledges and with oaths".
The kings present are named, presumably in order of precedence, as Hywel, King of the West Welsh; and Constantine, King of the Scots; and Owen, King of Gwent; and Aldred, the son of Eadulf, of Bamburgh. Given the location of the meeting it has to be presumed that the king of Strathclyde was present as well.
Other than that they "renounced all devil-worship" the Chronicle does not specify the exact terms of the agreement but it clearly implies some claim of overlordship by Athelstan over the other rulers of Britain, and as far as Athelstan was concerned its meaning was clear,as in his charters and on his coins he proclaimed himself as rex totius Britanniae, the king of all Britain.
Details are spares regarding the activities of the next few years of his reign, in the south-west Athelstan expelled the Cornish from Exeter and fixed the river Tamar as the boundary between Cornwall and Wessex 4, whilst an agreement was reached with Owain ap Hywel to fix the boundary between their respective domains along the line of the river Wye.
There are some suggestions that he may have faced a rebellion in Wessex in 933 when there was a "disturbance in the kingdom"; his uncle Edwin left for Frankia soon afterwards and died enroute, leading some to suggest that Edwin was the instigatior of the rebellion and that Athelstan had him killed.
The Battle of Brunanburh
In the year 934 Athelstan launched a major invasion of Scotland 4 involving a co-ordinated land and sea offensive. Quite what prompted this assault is unknown5; perhaps Constantine had failed to abide by whatever terms were agreed at Eamont Bridge or perhaps Athelstan just wanted to make a point. But whatever the motivation, the invasion of Scotland was entirely successful, penetrating as far north as Dunottar whilst the navy reached Caithness and Athelstan "laid waste a great part of it".
Sources such as Simeon of Durham record that Constantine of Scotland formally submitted to Athelstan as a result of this invasion, and presumably an even more abject submission than that of 927. (Florence of Worcester adds that Constantine was obliged to surrender one of his sons as hostage for his future good behaviour.)
This was not however the end of the matter as Constantine appears to have wanted revenge for this defeat and three years later a great confederacy was brought together to challenge Athelstan's claims to dominion in the north; Constantine, now joined with both Owain of Strathclyde and Olafr Gothfrithson the Viking king of Dublin combined their forces and marched south against him. The resulting battle of Brunanburh was a resounding victory for Athelstan, celebrated in a long battle poem inserted into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and became one of the most celebrated victories of the Anglo-Saxon era.
Athelstan the overlord
His claim to be rex totius Britanniae was obviously meant to signify the establishment of hegemony across the whole of Britain. It is difficult to know exactly what this meant in practice; claims to overlordship often amounted to an ability to extract tribute from fellow kings without necessarily implying any degree of control over the activities of said kings.
For example the exact extent of Athelstan's control of Jorvik is unknown; there is some evidence that he may have appointed Eirkr Bloodaxe as his agent in the north and in any case, as soon as he was dead the "Northumbrians abandoned their allegiance" and chose the very Olafr Gothfrithson as king that Athelstan had defeated at Brunanburh.
It is also worth noting that Welsh kings had been appearing at the courts of the kings of Wessex and witnessing charters as sub-kings since the days of Alfred the Great and Edward had similarly been extracting the submsission of sundry northern kings. Throughout the reign of Edward, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle specifically identifies various rulers, from the King of Scots to the kings of Jorvik and Strathclyde as well as the various kings of Wales all of whom "chose him as father and lord".
Or to put it another way the extent of Athelstan's authority wasn't substantially different from that of his predecessor and his reign simply marked another stage in the process by which the Wessex of the late ninth century transformed itself into the England of the late tenth.
Athelstan the king
Described by William of Malmesbury is his Gesta Regum as being "not beyond what is becoming in stature, and slender in body; his hair ... flaxen, beautifully mingled with gold threads" Athelstan was more than simply a warrior-king. He was a noted benefactor of churches and a collector of holy relics and was also responsible for producing a considerable body of law.
He founded Muchelney Abbey in Somerset, gave much wealth to his favourite foundation at Malmesbury Abbey, was a generous benefactor to northern establishments at Ripon, Beverley and Chester-le-Street6, and apparently gave Milton Abbey in Dorset both Saint Samson's arm and Saint Branwaladr's head.
As a lawmaker Athelstan was responsible for five separate law codes including the Judicia civitatis Lundonie, the agreement of the London peace-guilds, set up to put his commands into effect. It is said that Athelstan was rather upset at the idea that a twelve year old could be executed for theft and secured the raising of the age limit to fifteen - the penalty for theft by a female slave however, remained that of being burned alive - such was the nature of the times in which Athelstan lived.
Athelstan's various sisters and half-sisters were all married off in a succession of alliances to nearby European dynasties; Eadgifu was married to Charles the Simple, Eadhild to Hugh the Great, Eadgyth to the emperor Otto the Great, and Aelfgifu to Conrad of Burgundy.
He also established close diplomatic links with Harold Fairhair, king of Norway, with the result that Harold's son Haakon was raised in England and became known as Haakon Adalsteinsfostri (fostered by Athelstan). Aethalstan's nephew Louis, the son of Charles the Simple and the future Duke Alan of Brittany were also similarly raised within the English court.
All of which meand that these kings of Wessex-England were now being recognised as rulers of stature by their European peers; worthy allies and sources of marriagable princesses.
Athelstan died at Gloucester in 939 and the Annals of Ulster recorded his death with the words that "Athelstan, king of the English, pillar of the dignity of the western world, died an untroubled death." He was buried at Malmesbury Abbey, where the tomb bearing his effigy can still be seen to this day. For whatever reason he never married and does not appear to have had any children. The succession therefore passed to his younger half-brother Edmund.
1 Known as the 'Lady of the Mercians' and in a position of some authority in Mercia, effectively a sub-regulus of that region.
2 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Worcester manuscript refers to Athelstan as being "chosen king by the Mercians"; other versions say that he simply "succeeded to the kingdom".
3 According to William of Malmesbury, the story goes that Alfred denied the plot, and left for Rome to demonstrate his innocence in front of the Pope, swore an oath before the altar at St Peters, and was promptly struck down and died three days later.
3 Cornwall remained an independent Brythonic kingdom at this time.
4 Scotland needs to here in the sense of the Goidelic kingdom of Alba that did not extend south of the Forth-Clyde line, unlike the later Norman kingdom of Scotland that did.
5 Although it may ahve been because Constantine married his daughter to Olafr Gothfrithson without first asking permission.
6 Of course, political considerations came into play here as well, a means of currying favour with the locals.
The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica entry for Aethelstan at
Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain (Seaby, 1991)
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swanton (Phoenix Press, 2000)
King Aethelstan at