2019 - 2020 Medieval Volume 13

Athelstan: The Forgotten First King of England

By Sam Skinner

Which Anglo-Saxon kings feature in the popular imagination? Many know of Alfred the Great’s wars against the Vikings; of the infamy of Aethelred ‘the Unready’; of Harold’s defeat at Hastings. The chances are that King Athelstan does not resonate. Yet it was Athelstan’s achievement to ruthlessly bend an island to his will and, in the process, create a single kingdom of England. Curiously, his is a reign forgotten.

Athelstan came to the throne of Wessex in 924 AD amidst a climate of political instability and near-perpetual warfare. This is why, despite the successes of his grandfather, Alfred, and father, Edward, in beating back the Danes and forging a powerful, enlarged kingdom, Athelstan could not rest on his laurels. In Northumbria, the Norse Vikings had established a new dynasty at York, the thriving centre of a prosperous Scandinavian kingdom. Within Wessex, his accession was marred by uncertainty, with only the death of his younger half-brother, Aelfweard, clearing his path to kingship. Once secure, however, there was little uncertainty in the decisiveness of his actions.

Although an initial truce had been made with Sihtric, the Viking king of York, the fragility of this agreement was thrown sharply into focus upon his death. Marching north in 927, Athelstan stormed York and claimed the city in a bloodless coup that shattered its ruling hierarchy. Following this, he received the submission of Constantine, king of the Scots, Owain, king of the Strathclyde Welsh, and Ealdred, lord of Bamburgh, at Eamont Bridge in Cumbria. In one devastating campaign, Athelstan had annexed Northumbria to his rule and made himself overlord of Britain. His was a position of power and authority unparalleled since the end of Roman rule. 

It was Constantine who, in 934, appears to have broken the peace. What followed was a monumental demonstration of Athelstan’s power. At the head of a great army and flanked by a fleet of ships, he marched deep into Scotland and ravaged the country in a coordinated campaign by land and sea. Constantine was once more cowed into ignominious surrender. This campaign, on an incredible scale, was an overwhelming confirmation of Athelstan’s superiority. Its success was extraordinary, its execution ruthless. 

Athelstan’s ascendancy would not go unchallenged. Seeking his destruction, his enemies formed an unlikely alliance. This included the aforementioned Constantine and Owain, as well as the Norse king of Dublin, Olaf Guthfrithson. Matters came to a head at Brunanburh in the year 937 AD, the location of which is not fully certain, though Bromborough, on the Wirral, is most likely. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells how Athelstan gained “lifelong glory struck in battle with sword’s edge at Brunanburh”. In evocative verse, a seismic battle is vividly depicted. It was a decisive victory for Athelstan. The invaders were crushed with Olaf, his force heavily depleted, driven into desperate flight. The significance of this cataclysmic clash of kings should not be underplayed. Had Athelstan lost, it is likely that the gains of his reign would have been dramatically reversed and that Britain, as it is now, would look quite different. 

Athelstan also merits recognition beyond his military accomplishments. He was exceptionally pious, scholarly, and, by the standards of the age, a just ruler who harboured a genuine concern for his subjects. He effectively administered and developed his expanded realm by revising his ancestors’ law-codes, centralising the kingdom’s coinage, and advancing bureaucracy. Cultured, he cultivated a highly intellectual court that attracted an eclectic mix of Christendom’s brightest scholars, poets, and clerics. As ‘Rex Totius Britanniae’ – a pompous title referring to his overlordship – he maintained his hard-won superiority through oft-held, great assemblies at which vassal rulers, royal and noble, would pay tribute and participate in affairs of state. An image thus emerges of a conscientious monarch and astute administrator who consolidated his successes on campaign through the innovative harnessing of the mechanisms of early medieval government.

Despite the epic significance of these years, they are little known. Unlike his grandfather, Alfred, Athelstan suffers from a lack of source material. There is no surviving biography to champion his deeds and the entries documenting his reign, Brunanburh aside, are relatively scanty. It is therefore easy to see how Athelstan resonates so little outside of academic circles. Yet he was a paragon of early medieval kingship. Not only an accomplished war-leader in the heroic Germanic tradition, he was also a shining example of Christian kingship. It was by blending the ideals of these two worlds that Athelstan crushed his opponents and brought about a kingdom of all England.