Custom Search


King Athelstan

Malmesbury Abbey.

Athelstan, often considered England's first king, was groomed for his position from an early age. This process was begun by Athelstan's grandfather, the ninth century king Alfred the Great. Alfred was king of Wessex with aspirations to bring England together under one monarch. Looking to the future he sent his grandson to the Midlands to be raised as a Mercian prince. Alfred's plan came to fruition in 924 on the death of Athelstan's father, Edward the Elder. Following on from the Mercian upbringing, Mercian councillors were sympathetic to Athelstan and gave him their votes when it came to choosing a new king. Inspite of inevitable opposition, Athelstan took the throne, and was to become the King of England, as Alfred had planned.

Athelstan was a pious man who enthusiastically collected religious relics. At this time culture and art were focused entirely on the Christian Church, which left Athelstan's cultural enthusiasm with few other outlets. Religion was also a powerful unifying force in a politically discordant time. Unity was Athelstan's priority. As well as embracing a universal Church, political moves were made towards unifying England as much as possible. Athelstan headed off potential trouble in northern England by the judicious marriage of his sisters. In the last five years of Edward the Elder's reign Irish Norsemen had conquered York, and had set up a powerful new kingdom there. Its first king, Regnald, had submitted to Edward in 920, and now his successor Sihtric married Athelstan's sister. The wedding took place at Tamworth in late January 926, but did not have the desired result in bringing unity. When Sihtric died in 921 he was replaced by Olaf, who immediately invited a Norse army to cross from Ireland to begin an offensive in England. Athelstan had to move quickly, invading Northumbria and advancing towards York. This campaign was a great success. Not only were the Norse defeated, but their allies, Scotland, Gwent and Strathclyde, ended hostilities, their kings formally submitting themselves to Athelstan at Eamont on the 12th of July 927. They were joined there by Ealdred, King of the free Northumbrians, who also offered his submission.


Shaftsbury, Dorset - Athelstan had standard coinage made here

Athelstan now decided to clearly delineate his growing kingdom. He settled on the river Wye as a frontier between England and Wales. He also engaged in some brutal ethnic cleansing in the south west, expelling Cornishmen from Exeter and other settlements in Devon, driving them west across the Tamer. This action seems rather pointless in the face of bewildering ethnic diversity in England. Even if he threw out the Cornishmen, Athelstan still had to find a way of ruling on terms which would be acceptable to West Saxons, Mercians, East Anglians, Danes, Norsemen and Northumbrians. Athelstan approached this seemingly impossible task by presenting his kingship as ordained by God. Athelstan's grandfather Alfred had been much more of a secular administrator. But pious Athelstan responded to the insecurity of his times by appealing to a higher power which invested him with authority necessary to keep different groups happy. This can be seen in the language used in his official documents. In a document known as the Amounderness Charter, he writes: "I Athelstan, king of the English, elevated by the right hand of the Almighty, which is Christ, to the throne of the whole kingdom of Britain" (quoted in The Saxon Kings by Richard Humble). As king of the whole kingdom of Britain, Athelstan needed all the help he could get. The argumentative groups under his leadership were threatened with supernatural vengeance should they step out of line: "If, however - which God forbid - anyone puffed up with pride of arrogance shall try to destroy or infringe this little document of my agreement and confirmation, let him know that on the last and fearful day of assembly, when the trumpet of the archangel is clanging the call and bodies are leaving the foul graveyards, he will burn with Judas." In many ways the Christian religious ritual and tradition surrounding the English monarchy, which continues today, has its roots in Athelstan's panicky reign. We might even credit him with a major role in developing the idea of the divine right of kings as it applies to English monarchs. It all goes back to an insecure king facing a bewildering ethnic concoction. In a more practical sense Athelstan issued six separate law codes during his reign, and ordered uniform coinage for the whole kingdom. He also banned buying and selling outside towns, hoping perhaps to concentrate people and business in a more centralised and controllable way.


None of this, however, prevented turbulence. There was possibly a challenge from Athelstan's brother Edwin, who was ordered to be "drowned at sea," according to an entry for 933 in a chronicle by Simeon of Durham. There was trouble in the north, with Constantine of Scotland, the king of Strathclyde and Olaf, son of Norseman Guthfrith who opposed Athelstan in 927, all conspiring against the king. Eventually these tensions led to a huge battle in 936, known as the Battle of Brunanburh. It is not clear where this conflagration took place, but the shores of the Mersey have been suggested. Little is known of the battle except that the Anglo Saxon Chronicle made much of its size and ferocity, and that Athelstan won. It is also clear that the battle did not end problems in the north. Divisions remained. Brunanburh, the battle to end all battles ended nothing. Athelstan died on 27th of October 939, and was succeeded by his younger brother Edmund. Edmund as an eighteen year old had fought at Brunanburh, but within two years Olaf and his Irish Norsemen were back.



Malmsbury Abbey

Some accounts of this period present history as a series of stepping stones towards the formation of England, and give a special place to Athelstan in this process, the first official king of England. This gives a sense that England is an end point, a kind of perfect statue emerging from the marble of history. England has never been and will never be a finished article. As Athelstan's reign shows there is no definitive Englishman who can get cross about other non-Englishmen coming in to "his" country. The one group Athelstan chose to pick on for expulsion from his England were the poor Cornish people living in Devon!

Coins from the reign of Athelstan can be seen at the British Museum and at Shaftesbury Museum. Shaftesbury in Dorset was a major town at this time, and had a number of moneyers producing coins. These are a significant symbol of his reign, as they represent Athelstan's attempt to bring a measure of unity and uniformity to his volatile kingdom.

Athelstan was buried in Malmesbury Abbey, where his tomb can still be seen.