Athelstan of england

This article is about the tenth-century king. For other persons of that name, see Æthelstan (name).
Æthelstan presenting a book to St Cuthbert. Illustration in a gospel book presented by Æthelstan to the saint's shrine in Chester-le-Street, the earliest surviving portrait of an English king (Corpus Christi MS 183, fol. 1v)
King of the Anglo-Saxons
Reign 924–927
Coronation 4 September 925
Predecessor Ælfweard or Edward the Elder
Successor Himself
(as King of the English)
King of the English
Reign 927 – 27 Oct 939
Predecessor Himself
(as King of the Anglo-Saxons)
Successor Edmund I
House House of Wessex
Father Edward the Elder
Mother Ecgwynn
Born c. 893/895
Died 27 October 939
Burial Malmesbury Abbey
Religion Christianity

Æthelstan or Athelstan (Old English: Æþelstan, Æðelstān; c. 893/895 – 27 October 939) was King of the Anglo-Saxons from 924 to 927 and King of the English from 927 to 939. He was the son of King Edward the Elder and his first wife, Ecgwynn. Historians regard him as the first king of England, and as one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon kings. He never married, and was succeeded by his half-brother, Edmund.

When Edward died in 924, Æthelstan was accepted by the Mercians as king. His half-brother Ælfweard may have become king of Wessex, but died within weeks of their father. Æthelstan was not immediately accepted in Wessex, and he was not crowned until September 925. In 927 he conquered the last remaining Viking kingdom, York, making him the first Anglo-Saxon ruler of the whole of England. In 934 he invaded Scotland and forced King Constantine of Scotland to submit to him, but his rule was resented by the Scots and Vikings, and in 937 they invaded England. Æthelstan defeated them at the Battle of Brunanburh, a victory which gave him great prestige both in the British Isles and on the continent. However, after his death in 937 the Vikings seized back control of York, and it was not finally reconquered until 954.

Æthelstan centralised government, increasing control over the production of charters, and requiring leading figures from distant areas, and even Welsh princes, to attend his councils. More legal texts survive from his reign than from any other tenth century king, and they show his concern for social order, and especially for the threat to it posed by widespread robberies. His legal reforms built on and were commensurate with those of his grandfather, Alfred. Æthelstan was very religious, and had a reputation for collecting relics and founding churches. His household was the centre of English learning during his reign. No other West Saxon king played as important a role in European politics as Æthelstan, and he married several sisters to continental rulers.


In the eighth century Mercia was the most powerful kingdom in southern England, but in the early ninth Wessex became dominant under Æthelstan's great-great-grandfather, Egbert. In the middle of the century England came under increasing attack from Viking raids, culminating in invasion by the Great Heathen Army in 865. By 878 the Vikings had destroyed the kingdoms of East Anglia, Northumbria, and Mercia, and nearly conquered Wessex, but the West Saxons fought back under Æthelstan's grandfather, Alfred the Great, and achieved a decisive victory at the Battle of Edington.[1] Alfred and the Viking leader Guthrum then agreed on a division that gave Alfred western Mercia, while eastern Mercia was incorporated into Viking East Anglia. In the 890s there were renewed Viking attacks, but these were successfully fought off by Alfred, assisted by his son Edward and Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, who ruled English Mercia under Alfred and was married to his daughter Æthelflæd. Alfred died in 899 and was succeeded by Edward. Æthelwold, the son of King Alfred's older brother and predecessor as king, Æthelred, made a bid for power, but he was killed at the Battle of the Holme in 902.[2]

Little is known of warfare between the English and the Danes over the next few years, but in 909 Edward sent a West Saxon and Mercian army to ravage Northumbria. The following year the Northumbrian Danes attacked Mercia, but they suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Tettenhall.[3] Æthelred died in 911 and was succeeded as ruler of Mercia by his widow Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. Over the next decade Edward and Æthelflæd conquered Viking Mercia and East Anglia. Æthelflæd died in 918 and was briefly succeeded by her daughter Ælfwynn, but in the same year Edward deposed her and took direct control of Mercia.[4]

When Edward died in 924 he controlled all of England south of the Humber.[3] The Viking king Sihtric ruled the Kingdom of York in southern Northumbria, but Ealdred maintained Anglo-Saxon rule in at least part of the former kingdom of Bernicia from his base in Bamburgh in northern Northumbria. King Constantine ruled Scotland, apart from the southwest, which was the British Kingdom of Strathclyde. Wales was divided into a number of small kingdoms, including Deheubarth in the southwest, Gwent in the southeast, Brycheiniog immediately north of Gwent, and Gwynedd in the north.[5]

Primary sources

Source materials for the life of Æthelstan are very limited, and the first biography, by Oxford University historian Sarah Foot, was only published in 2011.[6] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in this period is principally devoted to military events, and it is largely silent during his reign, apart from recounting his most important victories.[7] An important source is the 12th-century chronicle of William of Malmesbury, but historians are cautious about accepting his testimony, much of which cannot be verified from other sources. David Dumville goes so far as to dismiss William's account entirely, regarding him as a "treacherous witness" whose account is unfortunately influential.[8] However, Sarah Foot is inclined to accept Michael Wood's argument that William's chronicle draws on a lost life of Æthelstan, while cautioning that we have no means of discovering how far William 'improved' on the original.[9]

There are a variety of other sources on Æthelstan's reign, and in Dumville's view the lack of information is more apparent than real.[10] Charters, law codes, and coins throw considerable light on Æthelstan's government,[11] and a scribe known as 'Æthelstan A', who was responsible for drafting all charters between 928 and 935, provides very detailed information, including signatories, dates, and locations, illuminating Æthelstan's progress around his realm.[12] By contrast with this rich source of information, no charters survive from 910 to 924, a gap which historians struggle to explain, and which makes it difficult to assess the degree of continuity in personnel and the operation of government between the reigns of Edward and Æthelstan.[13] Historians are also paying increasing attention to less conventional sources, such as poetry in his praise and manuscripts associated with his name.[14]

Early life

There is very little information about Æthelstan's mother, Ecgwynn, and she is not even named in any pre-Conquest source.[15] Some historians believe that leading figures in Wessex were unwilling to accept Æthelstan as king in 924 partly because his mother had been Edward the Elder's concubine,[16] while others argue that allegations that Æthelstan was illegitimate were a product of the dispute over the succession, and that there is no reason to doubt that she was Edward's legitimate wife. One chronicler described her as an ignoble consort of inferior birth, while another described her birth as noble.[17] She may have been related to St Dunstan.[18]

According to William of Malmesbury, Æthelstan was thirty years old when he acceded to the throne in 924, which would mean that he was born in about 894.[19] William also wrote that Alfred the Great honoured his young grandson, giving him a scarlet cloak, a belt set with gems, and a sword with a gilded scabbard. Some historians have seen this as recalling Alfred's confirmation by the Pope in Rome as a young boy, and thus as an investiture of his grandson as 'throneworthy' and a potential heir.[20] An acrostic poem praising 'Adalstan' has been interpreted as a eulogy to Æthelstan, punning on the old English meaning of his name, 'noble stone'. This verse has generally been dated to the late 890s and attributed to one Alfred's leading scholars, John the Old Saxon, who may have been the prince's tutor. However, Sarah Foot argues that it makes better sense if it is dated to the beginning of Æthelstan's reign.[21]

Edward married his second wife Ælfflæd at about the time of his father's death, probably because Ecgwynn had died, although she may have been put aside. The new marriage weakened Æthelstan's position, as his step-mother naturally favoured the interests of her own sons, Ælfweard and Edwin.[20] By 920 Edward had taken a third wife, Eadgifu, probably after putting Ælfflæd aside.[22] She also had two sons, the future kings Edmund and Eadred. Edward had a large number of daughters, perhaps as many as nine.[23]

Æthelstan's later education was probably at the Mercian court of his aunt and uncle, Æthelflæd and Æthelred, and it is likely that the young prince gained his military training in the Mercian campaigns to conquer the Danelaw. According to a transcript dating from 1304, in 925 Æthelstan gave a charter of privileges to St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester, where his aunt and uncle were buried, "according to a pact of paternal piety which he formerly pledged with Æthelred, ealdorman of the people of the Mercians".[24] When Edward took direct control of Mercia after Æthelflæd's death in 918, Æthelstan may have represented his father's interests there.[25]


The struggle for power

Edward died at Farndon in northern Mercia on 17 July 924, and the ensuing events are unclear.[26] Ælfweard, Edward's eldest son by Ælfflæd, had ranked above Æthelstan in attesting a charter in 901, and Edward may have intended Ælfweard to be his successor as king, either of Wessex only or of the whole kingdom. If Edward had intended his realms to be divided after his death, his coup in 918 against Ælfwynn in Mercia may have been directed to prepare the way for Æthelstan's succession as king of Mercia.[27] When Edward died, Æthelstan was apparently with him in Mercia, while Ælfweard was in Wessex, and Mercia elected Æthelstan as king, while Wessex may have chosen Ælfweard. However, Ælfweard outlived his father by only sixteen days, disrupting any succession plan.[28]

Even after Ælfweard's death there seems to have been opposition to Æthelstan in Wessex, particularly in Winchester, where Ælfweard was buried. In early 925 Æthelstan behaved as a Mercian king, describing himself as Rex Anglorum in a charter relating to land in Derbyshire, witnessed only by Mercian bishops. He does not appear to have established his authority in Wessex until mid-925, and he was not crowned until the autumn.[29] He may have had to agree to become a 'caretaker' king, who would not marry or have heirs, in order to gain acceptance.[30]

The coronation of Æthelstan took place on 4 September 925 at Kingston upon Thames, perhaps due to its symbolic location on the border between Wessex and Mercia.[29] He was crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Athelm, who probably designed or organised a new ordo (order of service) in which the king wore a crown for the first time instead of a helmet. The new ordo was influenced by West Frankish liturgy and in turn became one of the sources of the medieval French ordo.[31]

Opposition seems to have continued even after the coronation. According to William of Malmesbury, a certain Alfred plotted to blind Æthelstan on account of his supposed illegitimacy, although whether to make himself king or on behalf of Ælfweard's younger brother Edwin is not known.[32] Tensions between Æthelstan and Winchester seem to have continued for some years. The Bishop of Winchester, Frithestan, did not attend the coronation or witness any of Æthelstan's known charters until 928. After that he witnessed fairly regularly until his resignation in 931, but he was listed in a lower position than his seniority should have entitled him to.[33]

In 933 Edwin was drowned in a shipwreck in the North Sea. His cousin, Adelolf, Count of Boulogne, took his body for burial at St Bertin Abbey in Saint-Omer, and according to its annalist, Folcuin, king (sic) Eadwine had fled England "driven by some disturbance in his kingdom". Folcuin stated that Æthelstan sent alms to the abbey for his dead brother and received monks from the abbey graciously when they came to England, although Folcuin did not realise that Æthelstan died before the monks made the journey in 944. The 12th-century chronicler Symeon of Durham said that Æthelstan ordered Edwin to be drowned, but this is generally dismissed by historians. Edwin may have fled England after an unsuccessful rebellion against his brother's rule, and his death probably helped put an end to Winchester's opposition.[34]

King of the English

Edward the Elder had conquered the Danish territories in Mercia and East Anglia with the assistance of Æthelflæd and her husband, but when Edward died the Danish king Sihtric still ruled the Viking Kingdom of York (formerly the southern Northumbrian kingdom of Deira). In January 926, Æthelstan arranged for one of his sisters to marry Sihtric. The two kings agreed not to invade each other's territories or to support each other's enemies. The following year Sihtric died, and Æthelstan seized the chance to invade. Guthfrith, a cousin of Sihtric, led a fleet from Dublin to try to take the throne, but Æthelstan easily prevailed. He captured York and received the submission of the Danish people. According to the bland description of a southern chronicler, he "succeeded to the kingdom of the Northumbrians", and it is uncertain whether he had to fight Guthfrith.[35] His usurpation was met with outrage by the Northumbrians, who had always resisted southern rule, but at Eamont, near Penrith, on 12 July 927, King Constantine of Scotland, King Hywel Dda of Deheubarth, Ealdred of Bamburgh, and King Owain of Strathclyde (or Morgan ap Owain of Gwent) accepted Æthelstan's overlordship.[36] His triumph led to seven years of peace in the north.[37]

Whereas Æthelstan was the first English king to achieve lordship over northern Britain, he inherited his authority over the Welsh kings from his father and aunt. In the 910s Gwent acknowledged the lordship of Wessex, and Deheubarth and Gwynedd acknowledged that of Æthelflæd of Mercia; after Edward's takeover of Mercia, they transferred their allegiance to him. The dominant figure in Wales was Hywel Dda of Deheubarth, described by T.M. Charles-Edwards as "the firmest ally of the 'emperors of Britain' among all the kings of his day". Welsh kings attended Æthelstan's court between 928 and 935 and witnessed charters at the head of the list of laity (apart from the kings of Scotland and Strathclyde), showing that their position was regarded as superior to that of the other great men present. The alliance produced peace between Wales and England, and within Wales, lasting throughout Æthelstan's reign, though some Welsh resented the status of their rulers as sub-kings as well, as the high level of tribute imposed upon them. In Armes Prydein Vawr (The Great Prophecy of Britain), a Welsh poet foresaw the day when the British would rise up against their Saxon oppressors and drive them into the sea.[38]

According to William of Malmesbury, after Eamont Æthelstan went on to expel the Cornish from Exeter, fortify its walls, and fix the Cornish boundary at the River Tamar. This account is regarded sceptically by historians, however, as Cornwall had been under English rule since the mid-9th century by then. T.M. Charles-Edwards described it as "an improbable story", while John Reuben Davies saw it as the suppression of a British revolt and the confinement of the Cornish beyond the Tamar. Æthelstan emphasised his control by establishing a new Cornish see and appointing its first bishop, but Cornwall kept its own culture and language.[39]

Æthelstan became the first king of all the Anglo-Saxon peoples, and in effect over-king of Britain.[40] His successes inaugurated what John Maddicott called the imperial phase of English kingship between about 925 and 975, when rulers from Wales and Scotland attended the assemblies of English kings and witnessed their charters.[41] Æthelstan tried to reconcile the aristocracy in his new territory of Northumbria to his rule. He lavished gifts on the minsters of Beverley, Chester-le-Street, and York, emphasising his Christianity. He also purchased the vast territory of Amounderness in Lancashire, and gave it to the Archbishop of York, his most important lieutenant in the region. But he remained a resented outsider, and the northern British kingdoms preferred to ally with the pagan Norse of Dublin. In contrast to his strong control over southern Britain, his position in the north was far more tenuous.[42]

The invasion of Scotland in 934

In 934 Æthelstan invaded Scotland. His reasons are not clear, and historians give alternative explanations. The death of his half-brother Edwin in 933 may have finally removed factions in Wessex opposed to his rule. Guthfrith, the Norse king of Dublin who had briefly ruled Northumbria, died in 934, and this may have caused insecurity among the Danes, giving Æthelstan an opportunity to stamp his authority on the north. Another possible explanation is given by the Annals of Clonmacnoise, which records the death in 934 of a ruler who may have been Ealdred of Bamburh, and this may have led to a dispute between Æthelstan and Constantine over control of his territory. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle briefly recorded the expedition without explanation, but the 12th-century chronicler John of Worcester stated that Constantine had broken his treaty with Æthelstan.[43]

Æthelstan set out on his campaign in May 934, accompanied by four Welsh princes: Hywel Dda of Deheubarth, Idwal Foel of Gwynedd, Morgan ap Owain of Gwent, and Tewdwr ap Griffri of Brycheiniog. His retinue also included eighteen bishops and thirteen earls, six of whom were Danes from eastern England. By late June or early July he had reached Chester-le-Street, where he made generous gifts to the tomb of St Cuthbert, including a stole and manciple originally commissioned by his step-mother Ælfflæd as a gift to bishop Frithestan of Winchester. The invasion was conducted by a combined land and naval force. According to the 12th-century chronicler Simeon of Durham, his land forces ravaged as far as Dunnottar in northeast Scotland, while the fleet raided Caithness, then probably part of the Norse kingdom of Orkney.[44]

No battles are recorded during the campaign, and chronicles do not record its outcome. However, Æthelstan's charters report that by September he was back in the south of England at Buckingham, where Constantine witnessed a charter as subregulus, that is a king acknowledging Æthelstan's overlordship. In 935 a charter was attested by Constantine, Owain of Strathclyde, Hywel Dda, Idwal Foel, and Morgan ap Owain. At Christmas of the same year Owain of Strathclyde was once more at Æthelstan's court along with the Welsh kings, but Constantine was not. His return to England less than two years later would be in very different circumstances.[45]

The Battle of Brunanburh

Main article: Battle of Brunanburh

In 934 Olaf Guthfrithson succeeded his father Guthfrith as the Norse king of Dublin. The alliance between the Norse and the Scots was cemented by the marriage of Olaf to Constantine's daughter. By August 937 Olaf had defeated his rivals for control of the Viking part of Ireland, and he promptly launched a bid for the former Norse kingdom of York. Individually Olaf and Constantine were too weak to oppose Æthelstan, but together they could hope to challenge the dominance of Wessex. In the autumn they joined with the Strathclyde Britons under Owain to invade England. Æthelstan can hardly have expected an invasion by a grand alliance so late in the year, and he seems to have been slow to react. An old Latin poem preserved by William of Malmesbury accused him of having "languished in sluggish leisure". The allies plundered the north west while Æthelstan took his time gathering a West Saxon and Mercian army, and unlike Harold in 1066, he did not allow himself to be provoked into precipitate action. When he marched north, the Welsh did not join him. Surprisingly, in view of the part they played in the invasion of Scotland in 934, they did not fight on either side.[46]

The two sides met at the Battle of Brunanburh, resulting in an overwhelming victory for Æthelstan, supported by his young half-brother, the future Edmund I. Olaf escaped back to Dublin with the remnant of his forces, while Constantine lost a son. The English also suffered heavy losses, including two of Æthelstan's cousins, sons of Edward the Elder's younger brother, Æthelweard.[47]

The battle was reported in the Annals of Ulster:

A great, lamentable and horrible battle was cruelly fought between the Saxons and the Northmen, in which several thousands of Northmen, who are uncounted, fell, but their king Amlaib [Olaf], escaped with a few followers. A large number of Saxons fell on the other side, but Æthelstan, king of the Saxons, enjoyed a great victory.[48]

A generation later, the chronicler Æthelweard reported that it was popularly remembered as 'the great battle', and it sealed Æthelstan's posthumous reputation as "victorious because of God" (in the words of the homilist Ælfric of Eynsham).[49] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle abandoned its usual terse style in favour of a heroic poem vaunting the great victory, employing imperial language to present Æthelstan as ruler of an empire of Britain.[50] The site of the battle is uncertain, however, and over thirty sites have been suggested, with Bromborough on the Wirral the most favoured by historians.[51]

Historians disagree over the significance of the battle. Alex Woolf described it as a "pyrrhic victory" for Æthelstan: the campaign seems to have ended in a stalemate, his imperium appears to have receded, and after he died Olaf acceded to the kingdom of Northumbria without resistance.[52] Alfred Smyth described it as "the greatest battle in Anglo-Saxon history", but he also thought that its consequences beyond Æthelstan's reign have been overstated.[53] In the view of Sarah Foot, on the other hand, it would be difficult to exaggerate the battle's importance: if the Anglo-Saxons had been defeated, their hegemony over the whole mainland of Britain would have disintegrated.[54] According to Michael Livingston: would be no small stretch to consider the battle the moment when Englishness came of age. The men who fought and died on that field forged a political map of the future that remains with us today, arguably making the Battle at Brunanburh one of the most significant battles in the long history not just of England but of the whole of the British Isles.[55]



Anglo-Saxon kings ruled through ealdormen, who had the highest lay status under the king. In ninth century Wessex they each ruled a single shire, but by the middle of the tenth they had authority over a much wider area, a change probably introduced by Æthelstan to deal with the problems of governing his extended realm.[56] One of the ealdormen was Æthelstan's namesake, who governed the eastern Danelaw territory of East Anglia, the largest and wealthiest province of England, with great ability from 932. In the reigns of Æthelstan's half brothers, he became so powerful that he was known as Æthelstan Half-King.[57] Several of the ealdormen who witnessed charters had Scandinavian names, and while the localities they came from cannot be identified, they were almost certainly the successors of the earls who led Danish armies in the time of Edward the Elder, and who were retained by Æthelstan as his representatives in local government.[58]

Beneath the ealdormen, reeves, royal officials who were noble local landowners, were in charge of a town or royal estate. The authority of church and state was not separated in early medieval societies, and the lay officials worked closely with their diocesan bishop and local abbots, who also attended the king's royal councils.[59]

As the first king of all the Anglo-Saxon peoples, Æthelstan needed effective means to govern his extended realm. Building on the foundations of his predecessors, he created the most centralised government that England had yet seen.[60] Previously, some charters had been produced by royal priests and others by members of religious houses, and the monopoly of production by the scribe known as Æthelstan A between 928 and 935 shows an unprecedented degree of royal control over an important activity. Unlike earlier and later charters, Æthelstan A provides full details of the date and place of adoption and an unusually long witness list, providing crucial information for historians. Æthelstan A may have been bishop Ælfwine of Lichfield, who was close to the king. However, after Æthelstan A retired or died, charters reverted to a simpler form, suggesting that they had been the work of an individual, rather than the development of a formal writing office.[61]

A key mechanism of government was the Royal Council (or witan). Anglo-Saxon kings did not have a fixed capital city. Their courts were peripatetic, and their councils were held at varying locations around their realms. Æthelstan stayed mainly in Wessex, however, and controlled outlying areas by summoning leading figures to his councils. The small and intimate meetings that had been adequate until the enlargement of the kingdom under Edward the Elder gave way to large bodies attended by bishops, ealdormen, thegns, magnates from distant areas, and independent rulers who had submitted to his authority. Frank Stenton sees Æthelstan's councils as "national assemblies", which did much to break down the provincialism that was a barrier to the unification of England. John Maddicott goes further, seeing them as the start of centralised assemblies that had a defined role in English government, and Æthelstan as "the true if unwitting founder of the English parliament".[62]


The Anglo-Saxons were the first people in northern Europe to write in the vernacular, and law codes in Old English go back to Æthelberht of Kent at the beginning of the 7th century. The law code of Alfred the Great, from the end of the 9th century, was also written in the vernacular, and he expected his ealdormen to learn it.[63] His code was strongly influenced by Carolingian law going back to Charlemagne in such areas as treason, peace-keeping, hundred organisation, ecclesiastical tithes, and judicial ordeal.[64] It remained in force throughout the 10th century, and later codes were built on this foundation, although oral law was also important in the Anglo-Saxon period.[65]

More legal texts survive from Æthelstan's reign than from any other 10th-century king. The earliest appear to be his tithe edict and the 'Ordinance on Charities'. Four legal codes were adopted at Royal Councils in the early 930s at Grately in Hampshire, Exeter, Faversham in Kent, and Thunderfield in Surrey. Local legal texts survive from London and Kent, and one concerning the 'Dunsæte' on the Welsh border probably also dates to Æthelstan's reign.[66] In the view of Patrick Wormald, the laws must have been written by Wulfhelm, who succeeded Athelm as Archbishop of Canterbury in 926.[67] Other historians see Wulhelm's role as less important, giving the main credit to Æthelstan himself, although the significance placed on the ordeal as a test of innocence shows the increased influence of the church. Nicholas Brooks sees the role of the bishops as marking an important stage in the increasing involvement of the church in the making and enforcement of law.[68]

The two earliest codes are concerned with clerical matters, and Æthelstan stated that he acted on the advice of Wulfhelm and his bishops. The first asserts the importance of paying tithes to the church. The second enforces the duty of charity on Æthelstan's reeves, specifying the amount to be given to the poor and requiring reeves to free one penal slave annually.[69] His religious outlook is shown in a wider sacralization of the law in his reign, such as an increasing use of ordeals conducted as ecclesiastical rituals.[70]

The later codes show his concern with threats to social order, especially theft, which he regarded as the most important manifestation of social breakdown. The first of these later codes, issued at Grately, prescribed harsh penalties, including the death penalty for anyone over twelve years-old stealing goods worth more than eight pence. This apparently had little effect, as Æthelstan admitted in the Exeter code:

I King Æthelstan, declare that I have learned that the public peace has not been kept to the extent, either of my wishes, or of the provisions laid down at Grately, and my councillors say that I have suffered this too long.

In desperation the Council tried a different strategy, offering an amnesty to thieves if they paid compensation to their victims. The problem of powerful families protecting criminal relatives was to be solved by expelling them to other parts of the realm. This strategy did not last long, and at Thunderfield Æthelstan returned to the hard line, softened by raising the minimum age for the death penalty to fifteen "because he thought it too cruel to kill so many young people and for such small crimes as he understood to be the case everywhere".[71] His reign saw the first introduction of the system of tithing, sworn groups of ten or more men who were jointly responsible for peace-keeping (later known as frankpledge). Sarah Foot commented that tithing and oath-taking to deal with the problem of theft had its origin in Frankia:

But the equation of theft with disloyalty to Æthelstan's person appears peculiar to him. His preoccupation with theft – tough on theft, tough on the causes of theft – finds no direct parallel in other kings' codes.[72]

Historians differ widely regarding Æthelstan's legislation. Patrick Wormald's verdict was harsh: "The hallmark of Æthelstan's law-making is the gulf dividing its exalted aspirations from his spasmodic impact." In his view, "The legislative activity of Æthelstan's reign has rightly been dubbed 'feverish'... But the extant results are, frankly, a mess."[73] In the view of Simon Keynes, however, "Without any doubt the most impressive aspect of King Æthelstan's government is the vitality of his law-making", which shows him driving his officials to do their duties and insisting on respect for the law, but also demonstrates the difficulty he had in controlling a troublesome people. Keynes sees the Grately code as "an impressive piece of legislation" showing the king's determination to maintain social order.[74] David Pratt describes his legislation as "a deep and far-reaching reform of legal structures, no less important than developments under King Alfred two generations earlier".[75]


Later Anglo-Saxon England had the most advanced currency in Europe, but this dates to Edgar's reform of the monetary system in the 970s. In Æthelstan's time it was far less developed, and minting was still organised regionally long after Æthelstan unified the country. The Grately code included a provision that there was to be only one coinage across the king's dominion. However, this is in a section that appears to be copied from a code of his father, and the list of towns with mints is confined to the south, including London and Kent, but not northern Wessex or other regions. Early in Æthelstan's reign, different styles of coin were issued in each region, but after he conquered York and received the submission of the other British kings, he issued a new coinage, known as the 'Circumscription Cross' type. This advertised his newly exalted status with the inscription, 'Rex Totius Britanniae'. Examples were minted in Wessex, York, and English Mercia (in Mercia bearing the title 'Rex Saxorum), but not in East Anglia or the Danelaw.[76]

In the early 930s a new coinage was issued, the 'crowned-bust' type, with the king shown for the first time wearing a crown with three stalks, similar to the crown he is wearing in the illustration provided here. This was eventually issued in all regions apart from Mercia, which demonstrated its independence by issuing coins without a ruler portrait, suggesting that any Mercian affection for a West Saxon king brought up among them quickly declined.[77]


Church and state maintained close relations in the Anglo-Saxon period, socially and politically. Churchmen attended royal feasts as well as meetings of the Royal Council. During Æthelstan's reign these relations became even closer, especially as the archbishopric of Canterbury had come under West Saxon jurisdiction since Edward the Elder annexed Mercia, and Æthelstan's conquests brought the northern church under the control of a southern king for the first time.[78]

Æthelstan appointed members of his own circle to bishoprics in Wessex, possibly to counter the influence of the bishop of Winchester, Frithestan. One of the king's mass-priests, Ælfheah, became bishop of Wells, while another, Beornstan, succeeded Frithestan as bishop of Winchester. Beornstan was succeeded by another member of the royal household, Ælfheah. Two of the leading figures in the later 10th-century Benedictine revival of Edgar's reign, Dunstan and Æthelwold, served in early life at Æthelstan's court and were ordained as priests by Ælfheah at the king's request. According to Æthelwold's biographer, Wulfstan, "he spent a long period there in the royal burh as the king's inseparable companion".[79] Oda, a future Archbishop of Canterbury, was also close to Æthelstan, who appointed him bishop of Ramsbury.[80] He was almost certainly present at the battle of Brunanburh.[81]

No 10th-century king was a keener collector of relics than Æthelstan. The abbot of Saint Samson in Dol sent him some as a gift, and in his covering letter he wrote: "we know you value relics more than earthly treasure".[82] Æthelstan was also a generous donor of manuscripts and relics to churches and monasteries. Indeed, his reputation was so great that some monastic scribes later falsely claimed that their institutions had been beneficiaries of his largesse. He was especially devoted to the cult of St Cuthbert in Chester-le-Street, and his gifts to the community there included Bede's Lives of Cuthbert. He commissioned it especially to present to Chester-le Street, and it is the only surviving manuscript he gave to a religious foundation that was wholly written in England during his reign.[83] This has a portrait of Æthelstan presenting the book to Cuthbert (see the illustration at the top of this article), the earliest surviving manuscript portrait of an English king.[84]

Æthelstan had a reputation for founding churches, although it is unclear how justified this is. According to late and dubious sources, these churches included minsters at Milton Abbas in Dorset and Muchelney in Somerset. In the view of John Blair, the reputation is probably well-founded, but "These waters are muddied by Æthelstan's almost folkloric reputation as a founder, which made him a favourite hero of later origin-myths."[85] However, while he was a generous donor to monasteries, he did not give land for new ones or attempt to revive the ones in the north and east destroyed by Viking attacks.[86]

He also sought to build ties with continental churches. Cenwald was a royal priest before his appointment as bishop of Worcester, and in 929 he accompanied two of Æthelstan's half-sisters to the Saxon court so that the future Holy Roman Emperor, Otto, could choose one of them as his wife. Cenwald went on to make a tour of German monasteries, giving lavish gifts on Æthelstan's behalf and receiving in return promises that the monks would pray for the king and others close to him in perpetuity. England and Saxony became closer after the marriage alliance, and German names start to appear in English documents, while Cenwald kept up the contacts he had made by subsequent correspondence, helping the transmission of continental ideas about reformed monasticism to England.[87]


Learning and the church had fallen to a low state in the second half of the 9th century, and Æthelstan built on his grandfather's efforts to revive them by what John Blair called "a determined reconstruction, visible to us especially through the circulation and production of books, of the shattered ecclesiastical culture".[88] He was renowned in his own day for his piety and promotion of sacred learning. His interest in education, and his reputation as a collector of books and relics, attracted a cosmopolitan group of ecclesistical scholars to his court, particularly Bretons and Irish. Æthelstan gave extensive aid to Breton clergy who had fled Brittany following its conquest by the Vikings in 919. He made a confraternity agreement with the clergy of Dol Cathedral in Brittany, who were then in exile in central France, and they sent him the relics of Breton saints, apparently hoping for his patronage. The contacts resulted in a surge in interest in England for commemorating Breton saints. One of the most notable scholars at Æthelstan's court was Israel the Grammarian, who may have been a Breton. He introduced a board game called 'Gospel Dice', and this was taken to Bangor by an Irish bishop, Dub Innse. Æthelstan's court played a crucial role in the origins of the English monastic reform movement.[89]

Few prose narrative sources survive from Æthelstan's reign, but it produced an abundance of poetry, much of it Norse-influenced praise of the king in grandiose terms, such as the Brunanburh poem. Sarah Foot even made a case that Beowulf may have been composed in Æthelstan's circle.[90]

British monarch

Historians frequently comment on Æthelstan's grandiose and pompous titles. On his coins and charters he is described as Rex totius Britanniae, King of the Whole of Britain. A gospel book he donated to Christ Church, Canterbury is inscribed "Æthelstan, king of the English and ruler of the whole of Britain with a devout mind gave this book to the primatial see of Canterbury, to the church dedicated to Christ". In charters from 931 he is "king of the English, elevated by the right hand of the almighty to the throne of the whole kingdom of Britain", and in one manuscript dedication he is even styled "basileus et curagulus", the titles of Byzantine emperors.[91] Some historians are not impressed. "Clearly", commented Alex Woolf, "King Æthelstan was a man who had pretensions," [92] while in the view of Simon Keynes, Æthelstan A proclaimed his master king of Britain "by wishful extension".[93]

Foreign contemporaries described him in panegyric terms. The French chronicler Flodoard described him as "the king from overseas", and the Annals of Ulster as the "pillar of the dignity of the western world".[94] Some historians take a similar view. Michael Wood titled an essay, 'The Making of King Aethelstan's Empire: an English Charlemagne?', and described him as "the most powerful ruler that Britain had seen since the Romans".[95] In the view of Veronica Ortenberg, he was "the most powerful ruler in Europe" with an army that had repeatedly defeated the Vikings; continental rulers saw him as a Carolingian emperor, who "was clearly treated as the new Charlemagne". She wrote:

Wessex kings carried an aura of power and success, which made them increasingly powerful in the 920s, while most Continental houses were in military trouble and engaged in internecine warfare. While the civil wars and the Viking attacks on the Continent had spelled the end of unity of the Carolingian empire, which had already disintegrated into separate kingdoms, military success had enabled Æthelstan to triumph at home and to attempt to go beyond the reputation of a great heroic dynasty of warrior kings, in order to develop a Carolingian ideology of kingship.[96]

The Æthelstan A charters were written in an elaborate style of Latin, which in the view of Simon Keynes shows a high level of intellectual attainment and a monarchy invigorated by success and adopting the trappings of a new political order.[97] Their elaborate hermeneutic style was influenced by the 8th-century scholar Aldhelm and by early 10th-century French monasticism. After Æthelstan A, charters became more simple, but the hermeneutic style returned in the charters of Eadwig and Edgar, becoming a hallmark of the late 10th-century monastic reformers.[98] The historian W. H. Stevenson commented in 1898:

The object of the compilers of these charters was to express their meaning by the use of the greatest possible number of words and by the choice of the most grandiloquent, bombastic words they could find. Every sentence is so overloaded by the heaping up of unnecessary words that the meaning is almost buried out of sight. The invocation with its appended clauses, opening with pompous and partly alliterative words, will proceed amongst a blaze of verbal fireworks throughout twenty lines of smallish type, and the pyrotechic display will be maintained with equal magnificence throughout the whole charter, leaving the reader, dazzled by the glaze and blinded by the smoke, in a state of uncertainty as to the meaning of these frequently untranslatable and usually interminable sentences.[99]

European relations

The West Saxon court had connections with the Carolingians going back to the marriage between Æthelstan's great-grandfather Æthelwulf to Judith, daughter of the king of West Francia (and future Holy Roman Emperor), Charles the Bald, as well as the marriage of Alfred the Great's daughter, Ælfthryth to Judith's son by a later marriage, Baldwin II, Count of Flanders. One of Æthelstan's half-sisters, Eadgifu, married Charles the Simple, king of the West Franks, in the late 910s. He was deposed in 922, and Eadgifu sent their son, Louis to safety in England. By Æthelstan's time the connection was well established, and his coronation was performed with the Carolingian ceremony of anointment, probably to draw a deliberate parallel between his rule and Carolingian tradition.[100] His Crowned Bust coinage of 933–938 was the first Anglo-Saxon coinage to show the king crowned, following Carolingian iconography.[101]

In Sarah Foot's view, "Any man whose parents managed to provide him with eight or even nine sisters deserves our sympathy." Like his father, Æthelstan was unwilling to marry them to his own subjects, so they either entered nunneries or married foreign husbands. This was one reason for his close relations with European courts, and he married several of his half-sisters to European nobles[102] in what Sheila Sharp called "a flurry of dynastic bridal activity unequalled again until Queen Victoria's time".[103] Another reason lay in the common interest on both sides of the Channel in resisting the threat from the Vikings, while the rise in the power and reputation of the royal house of Wessex made marriage with an English princess more prestigious to European rulers.[104] In 926 Hugh, duke of the Franks, sent Æthelstan's cousin, Adelolf, Count of Boulogne, on an embassy to ask for the hand of one of Æthelstan's sisters. According to William of Malmesbury, the gifts Adelolf brought included spices, jewels, many swift horses, a crown of solid gold, the sword of Constantine the Great, Charlemagne's lance, and a piece of the Crown of Thorns. Æthelstan sent his half-sister Eadhild to be Hugh's wife.[105]

Æthelstan's most important European alliance was with the new Liudolfing dynasty in East Francia. The Carolingian dynasty of East Francia had died out in the early 10th century, and its new Liudolfing king, Henry the Fowler, was seen by many as an arriviste. He needed a royal marriage for his son to establish his legitimacy, but no suitable Carolingian women were available. The ancient royal line of the West Saxons provided an acceptable alternative, especially as they (wrongly) claimed descent from the 7th-century king and saint, Oswald, who was venerated in Germany. In 929 or 930 Henry sent ambassadors to Æthelstan's court seeking a wife for his son, Otto, who later became Holy Roman Emperor. Æthelstan sent two of his half-sisters, and Otto chose Eadgyth. Fifty years later, Æthelweard, a descendant of Alfred the Great's older brother, addressed his Latin version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to Matilda, abbess of Essen, who was Eadgyth's granddaughter. The other sister, whose name is uncertain, was married to a prince from near the Alps, but not definitively identified.[106]

In early medieval Europe, it was common for kings to act as foster-fathers for the sons of other kings, and Æthelstan was known for the support he gave to dispossessed young royals. In 936 he sent an English fleet to help his foster-son, Alan II, Duke of Brittany, to regain his ancestral lands in Britanny, which had been conquered by the Vikings. In the same year he assisted the son of his half-sister Eadgifu, Louis, to take the throne of West Francia, and in 939 he sent another fleet that unsuccessfully attempted to help Louis in a struggle with rebellious magnates. According to later Scandinavian sources, he assisted another possible foster-son, Hakon, son of Harald Fairhair, king of Norway, to reclaim his throne,[107] and he was known among Norwegians as 'Æthelstan the Good'.[108]

Æthelstan's court was perhaps the most cosmopolitan of the Anglo-Saxon period,[109] and the close contacts between the English and European courts ended soon after his death, but descent from the English royal house long remained a source of prestige for continental ruling families.[110] According to Frank Stenton, "Between Offa and Cnut there is no English king who played so prominent or so sustained a part in the general affairs of Europe."[111]


Æthelstan died at Gloucester on 27 October 939. His grandfather Alfred, his father Edward, and his half-brother Ælfweard had been buried at Winchester, but Æthelstan chose not to honour the city associated with opposition to his rule. By his own wish he was buried at Malmesbury Abbey, where he had buried his cousins who died at Brunanburh. No other member of the West Saxon royal family was buried there, and according to William of Malmesbury, Æthelstan's choice reflected his devotion to the abbey and to the memory of its 7th-century abbot, Saint Aldhelm. William described Æthelstan as fair-haired "as I have seen for myself in his remains, beautifully intertwined with gold threads". His bones were lost during the Reformation, but he is commemorated by an empty 15th-century tomb.[112]


After his death, the men of York immediately chose the Viking king of Dublin, Olaf Guthfrithsson, as their king, and Anglo-Saxon control of the north, seemingly made safe by the victory of Brunanburh, collapsed. The reigns of his half-brothers Edmund (939–946) and Eadred (946–955) were largely devoted to regaining control. Olaf seized the east midlands, leading to the establishment of a frontier at Watling Street. In 941 Olaf died, and Edmund took back control of the east midlands, and then York in 944. Following Edmund's death York again switched back to Viking control, and it was only when the Northumbrians finally drove out their Norwegian Viking king Eric Bloodaxe in 954 and submitted to Eadred that Anglo-Saxon control of the whole of England was finally restored.[113]


The reign of Æthelstan has been overlooked and overshadowed by the achievements of his grandfather, Alfred the Great, but he is now considered one of the greatest kings of the West Saxon dynasty.[114] Modern historians endorse the view of 12th-century chronicler William of Malmesbury that "no one more just or more learned ever governed the kingdom".[115] In the assessment of Frank Stenton, "[i]n character and cast of mind he is the one West Saxon king who will bear comparison with Alfred."[116] Simon Keynes agreed, writing that he "has long been regarded, with good reason, as a towering figure in the landscape of the tenth century ... he has also been hailed as the first king of England, as a statesman of international standing, and as the one Anglo-Saxon ruler who will bear comparison with king Alfred the Great."[117] David Dumville described Æthelstan as "the father of mediaeval and modern England",[118] while Michael Wood regards Offa, Alfred, and Æthelstan as the three greatest Anglo-Saxon kings.[119]

Æthelstan is regarded as the first king of England. Although it was Eadred who would achieve the final unification of England by the permanent conquest of Viking York, Æthelstan's campaigns made this success possible.[114] His nephew Edgar called himself king of the English and revived the claim to rule over all the peoples of Britain. Simon Keynes argued that "the consistent usages of Edgar's reign represent nothing less than a determined reaffirmation of the polity created by Æthelstan in the 930s".[120] His reign built upon his grandfather's ecclesiastical programme, consolidating the local ecclesiastical revival and laying the foundation for the monastic reform movement later in the century.[7]

Simon Keynes saw Æthelstan's law-making as his greatest achievement.[121] His reign predates the sophisticated state of the later Anglo-Saxon period, but his creation of the most centralised government England had yet seen, with the king and his council working strategically to ensure acceptance of his authority and laws, laid the foundations on which his brothers and nephews would build upon to create one of the wealthiest and most advanced systems of government in Europe.[122]

Æthelstan's reputation was at its height when he died. According to Sarah Foot, "He found acclaim in his own day not only as a successful military leader and effective monarch but also as a man of devotion, committed to the promotion of religion and the patronage of learning." Later in the century, Æthelweard praised him as a very mighty king worthy of honour, and Æthelred the Unready, who named his eight sons after his predecessors, put Æthelstan first as the name of his eldest son.[123] Memory of Æthelstan then declined until it was revived by William of Malmesbury, who took a special interest in him as the one king who had chosen to be buried in his own house. William's account kept his memory alive, and he was praised by other medieval chroniclers, but his reputation gradually declined.[124] According to Michael Wood, "Among all the great rulers of British history, Æthelstan today is the forgotten man".[30] His great misfortune was not to have a biographer like Asser to keep his memory alive.[114]




  • Wood, Michael (20 August 2013).

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Born: c. 893/895 Died: 27 October 939
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Ælfweard or Edward the Elder
King of the Anglo-Saxons
Succeeded by
as King of the English
Preceded by
as King of the Anglo-Saxons
King of the English
927 – 27 October 939
Succeeded by
Edmund I

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