King Alfred of Wessex, who died in 899, is the only English king to whom is accorded the title “Great”, but perhaps his grandson Athelstan was equally deserving of that honour, given that that he was the first king of what is recognisable as modern England.
Athelstan’s early life
Athelstan was the son of Edward the Elder, who ruled Wessex from 899 until his death in 924. Athelstan was born in about the year 894 (this is uncertain) and he was regarded from an early age as a potential king.
It has to be remembered that the Anglo-Saxon monarchies did not adopt the custom of primogeniture that is typical of most modern monarchies. Kings were elected to office by the nobility, and simply being the eldest son of a king did not guarantee that one would succeed as the next king.
However, Alfred decided to give his grandson a training in kingship by sending him to the court of his daughter Aethelflaed, who was married to Ethelred, the king of West Mercia, which was in any case a puppet regime under the control of Wessex.
This arrangement paid dividends for Athelstan who was elected king of the Anglo-Saxons in 924 thanks in part to the votes of the Mercian lords who had got used to the idea of Athelstan being “one of them”.
Athelstan as king
Athelstan saw no need to bother with the business of providing an heir, as he had three younger brothers. He also had four sisters who could be married off to supply useful links with the crowned heads of Europe.
A deeply religious man, Athelstan was free to pursue his hobby of collecting religious relics which in turn gave him great credit with the Church. This may in turn have something to do with the generally favourable accounts given of him by contemporary scribes, most of whom would have been churchmen!
One of Athelstan’s sisters, Eadgyth, married King Sihtric of the Kingdom of York which was in the hands of Irish Norsemen at the time. The move for this match came from Sihtric, who was willing to convert to Christianity in order to secure good relations with his southern neighbours. The marriage took place in 926.
Athelstan no doubt saw this marriage as a convenient way of bringing York into his sphere of influence, if not immediately. After all, the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia had been united as the result of a marriage, so why should the same not apply in the case of York?
Forced to fight
However, things did not work as smoothly as might have been hoped. Sihtric’s move was not popular with his fellow Norsemen, who forced him to renounce his new religion. He was then overthrown and had died within a year of the marriage – possibly murdered.
The leaders in York elected a new king, this being Olaf, the son of Sihtric’s kinsman Guthfrith who promptly arrived from Ireland with an army to support Olaf against any threats from the south.
Athelstan had no choice but to counter this move, and he marched on York.
The campaign was a huge success, with the result that Guthfrith was sent packing northwards into Scotland, where he sought sanctuary, and Olaf was forced to flee to Ireland.
Domination of the north
Athelstan continued northwards to launch an invasion of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, which extended into what is now northern England.
Athelstan summoned the kings of the north to a conference at Eamont, near Penrith (in modern Cumbria). He also summoned King Constantine of Scotland to meet him there and to bring Guthfrith with him. However, Guthfrith managed to escape (possibly with Constantine’s connivance) and made his way back to York.
At Eamont, on 12th July 927, Athelstan received submissions from Constantine, Owain of Gwent and Hywel of Strathclyde, as well as Ealdred who ruled the Northumbrians from his stronghold at Bamburgh. They all recognised Athelstan as sole ruler of the English kingdoms.
Securing the kingdom
Despite the submissions referred to above, Athelstan was far from secure as overlord of England. There was much work still to be done.
In 928 Athelstan once again attacked the Kingdom of York and again found it easy to defeat Guthfrith. However, Athelstan showed clemency to his enemy and allowed him to return to Ireland. Large quantities of treasure were discovered in York, but Athelstan shared the booty between the victorious soldiers.
He then turned his attention westwards and subdued the kings of Wales. He called them to a conference at Hereford, where they were required to agree to pay him large annual tributes.
Another source of trouble was Cornwall, where the “west Welsh” (who were Celts who spoke a language related to Welsh) had infiltrated Devon and settled in Exeter on equal terms with the English. Athelstan drove them out and forced them back across the Tamar.
Athelstan made absolutely sure that the whole of his united kingdom would be treated fairly and according to laws that applied to everyone, whether from Wessex, Mercia or Northumbria, and whether native English, Dane or Norseman.
He established his rule by means of granting charters that made it clear that he saw himself as God’s emissary and that his power to punish breakers of the terms of such charters had divine sanction.
His most important charters were witnessed by all the highest people in the land, including the archbishops of Canterbury and York and representatives of all the nationalities that were now incorporated in his kingdom.
Local administration was devolved to English ealdormen (nobles) in Essex, East Anglia and West Mercia, but to Danish earls in the former Danelaw. All the land, however, was subject to English law.
Athelstan’s laws recognised the equality of all his subjects. These laws sought to crack down on crimes such as theft, perjury and non-observance of the Sabbath.
English towns (the “burghs” founded during Alfred’s reign) flourished under Athelstan’s rule, as he decreed that no trade could be carried out except within their walls, which were required to be maintained. Many market towns of the present day can trace their origin to this period of history.
Keeping the peace
Athelstan still faced challenges to his overlordship of the former English kingdoms, particular those in the north.
In 934 he marched north to face a challenge from King Constantine of Scotland. His army and fleet caused considerable havoc in Scotland, and no doubt he hoped that – by showing who was boss – he would dissuade any other challengers to his authority from flexing their muscles.
However, this proved to be a forlorn hope. In 937 Constantine joined forces with the King of Strathclyde and an expeditionary force of Norsemen from Ireland. Olaf, the former Norse King of York, was anxious to reclaim his throne and saw an alliance with Athelstan’s other northern enemies as his best means of so doing.
The Battle of Brunanburh
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the forces joined battle at Brunanburh, although it is not clear exactly where this was. It might have been somewhere in Cumbria, or possibly on the Wirral peninsula where the town of Bromborough is a contender for the battle site. Another candidate is Burnswark Hill in Annandale, southern Scotland.
Athelstan fought alongside his half-brother Edmund and was completely victorious. The battle was commemorated in an epic poem that gave details of the casualties that included “five young kings” and numerous Norse and Scots noblemen. The main contenders all escaped with their lives, with Olaf having to flee to Dublin yet again.
The battle was the defining moment of Athelstan’s reign in that it showed where the real power lay. However, that dominance was entirely dependent on Athelstan’s skills as a battle commander, because his successors would not find things so easy. Olaf was still waiting in the wings, and was destined for better success after Athelstan’s death.
Athelstan died at Gloucester on 27th October 939, at the age of about 45, to be succeeded by his young half-brother Edmund who had fought with him at Brunanburh.
Athelstan’s claim to be the first king of a united England is a strong one, although, as mentioned above, this was not to be a permanent state of affairs given the continuing threats from Danes and Norsemen that would continue for much of the Anglo-Saxon period.
What Athelstan did was to show that it was possible for England to be defended and ruled with justice and efficiency. His successors therefore had a benchmark and a standard to aim for, even if they found it difficult (and sometimes impossible) to follow where Athelstan had led.
© John Welford