Yet if one asked a group of educated Britons to name three Anglo-Saxon kings, few would now number Æthelstan among those they could recall. Alfred who burnt the cakes would top any list, followed swiftly by Harold (he who died with an arrow in the eye at the battle of Hastings) and then perhaps Æthelred the Unready, or Edward the Confessor. In his homeland, outside the few places with monuments to his memory, Æthelstan has become England’s forgotten king, an almost entirely unknown figure of a remote past no longer seen as relevant to modern culture, or included in a national school curriculum.
In her new book, Sarah Foot sets out to remedy this & put Æthelstan back in the national consciousness, where he belongs. Æthelstan was the grandson of Alfred the Great & his achievements have been almost entirely eclipsed by those of Alfred. Yet it was Æthelstan, not Alfred who was the first King of Britain. Æthelstan not only inherited the kingdom of Wessex, he also became overlord of Mercia when his aunt, Æthelflaed, died. He then conquered Northumbria & eventually had all the rulers of the Scots & Welsh kingdoms paying him tribute & acknowledging him as their ruler. Æthelstan’s achievements are even more remarkable because he reigned for only 14 years & had to overcome not only opposition at his accession but an invasion by disgruntled Scots & Scandinavian leaders that he defeated at the famous battle of Brunanburh.
Æthelstan was the son of Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great. He was Edward’s eldest son, born around 894, but his mother, Ecgwynn, died young or was repudiated. Edward married again & his new wife produced a large family. Æthelstan was sent to Mercia to live at the court of Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians & her husband, Æthelred. When Edward died, Æthelstan was not the only candidate for the throne of the West Saxons, even though he was the eldest son. He was relatively unknown at the West Saxon court because he had spent his childhood in Mercia. His younger half-brother, Ælfweard, was proclaimed King but he died only a short time later. Æthelstan’s other half-brothers were too young to succeed so, maybe reluctantly, the West Saxons accepted Æthelstan as King.
Æthelstan never married & there have been many theories to account for this. Producing an heir was vital so that the succession would be smooth & the family line would continue. Æthelstan was a notably religious man so he may have taken an oath of celibacy, similar to the oath that Edward the Confessor was said to have taken in the 11th century. Æthelstan may have felt that he should allow one of his half-brothers to succeed him. He may have feared that, if he died young, leaving a child as his heir, civil war could be the result. Although Æthelstan didn’t marry, he was very shrewd in the marriage alliances he arranged for his half-sisters. His full sister, who may have been called Eadgyth, was married to the Scandinavian King of York, Sihtric. After Sihtric’s death, Æthelstan used his family relationship to bring York back into his kingdom after many years of Scandinavian rule. His half-sisters were married to various European rulers – Eadgifu to Charles, King of the West Franks, Eadhild to Hugh, Duke of Frankia, Ælfgifu to Louis of Burgundy & Eadgyth to Otto of Saxony. These alliances made Æthelstan & England respected throughout Europe & allowed Æthelstan to pursue his passion for collecting religious relics. He also helped two of his nephews & a foster-son to regain their thrones after they had spent years of exile at the English court. All these diplomatic alliances & initiatives enhanced England’s reputation.
Æthelstan was also a great warrior. He helped his aunt & uncle to recapture northern Mercia from the Danes under the overall lordship of his father, King Edward the Elder. Once Æthelstan became King, he led raids further north into the Scottish kingdoms, driving out the Danes & forcing the Scots King, Constantin, to become his vassal. Æthelstan’s greatest test was the battle of Brunanburh in 937 against an invasion led by Constantin, the Strathclyde Welsh led by Owain (another client king) & Olaf Guthfrisson, the Norse King of Dublin. The site of the battle has never been definitively known, but Sarah Foot believes it must have been at Bromborough, near Chester. Æthelstan took both land & naval forces on the campaign, which was an amazing logistical exercise for the period. The details of the battle are only known through a poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle but it was a convincing victory for Æthelstan & his eldest half-brother, Edmund. If Æthelstan had been defeated, England would have been plunged back into the divisive days when Viking raiders had forged their own kingdoms out of England, creating the Danelaw where they ruled almost half of England. Æthelstan’s victory at Brunanburh confirmed his title of King of Britain although he didn’t live long to enjoy it. He died in 939, & was succeeded by his half-brother, Edmund.
Sarah Foot also considers the reasons for Æthelstan’s disappearance from historical consciousness. The fact that he was succeeded by his half-brother rather than a direct descendant meant that his achievements weren’t recorded as a father or grandfather’s would have been. Although he was a religious man, his military exploits meant that he was never seen as a candidate for sainthood as Edward the Confessor was. He didn’t have an Asser at his court to write his biography as Alfred the Great did. There are few written sources for Æthelstan’s life & his achievements became lost in those of his grandfather & later Anglo-Saxon kings like Edgar.
Sarah Foot has written a fascinating & accessible account of the life of one of England’s greatest kings. She looks at his religious life, especially his collection of relics & the gifts he made to churches & monasteries. She looks at the charters which set out the gifts of land he made to individuals & which are one of the key sources of information about the period. She examines the coins minted during the reign & analyses the different images of the king to try to understand what Æthelstan meant when he called himself rex totius Brittaniae, king of all Britain.