• Thu. Mar 30th, 2023

Was Athelstan England’s First and Greatest King?


Nov 30, 2022

Britain has had greater than sixty monarchs over the centuries. Some have been good; some have been dangerous, however few are held in as excessive regard as King Athelstan. King Athelstan, typically described as the primary king of England, has among the best reputations of all of the English monarchs. Famed for his morals, data of politics, and management expertise, Athelstan reigned over a number of the best victories in early British historical past. However does the historic document help this? Can he actually be deemed Britain’s best king?

The Ups and Downs of Athelstan’s Early Life

Athelstan was born round 894 AD, the son of King Edward the Elder and his first consort, Ecgwynn. Little is thought about his mom, and historians have been arguing for hundreds of years over her social rank. Some have described her as born from noble inventory, however some up to date sources claimed she was low-born.

There’s proof that his grandfather, King Alfred the Great , favored Athelstan as his final inheritor to the throne from an early age. As a younger man, Athelstan was gifted a scarlet cloak, a jeweled belt, and a sword with a gilded scabbard by his grandfather at an elaborate ceremony. Some historians consider this was a transfer by Alfred to make it clear that of the attainable candidates he noticed Athelstan as a possible inheritor.

There have been indications that King Alfred the Nice favored his grandson Athelstan as successor. (PadreDelElToro / CC BY SA 3.0 )

Athelstan’s early luck started to expire across the time of his grandfather’s loss of life. The course of his mom’s life is unknown, however his father Edward married a second spouse, Ælfflæd. Edward had two sons with Ælfflæd, and it could seem she did her greatest to advertise her sons, Ælfweard and Edwin, over Athelstan.

Edward later went on to have a 3rd spouse, Eadgifu, with whom he had two extra sons, Edmund and Eadred. All which means the younger Athelstan, whose succession was one assured, now had severe competitors.

Miniature of Athelstan of England in a 13th century royal genealogy. (Public Domain)

Miniature of Athelstan of England in a thirteenth century royal family tree. ( Public Domain )

Athelstan’s Rise to Energy

King Edward died in northern Mercia on July seventeenth, 924 AD. It’s unclear what Edward had deliberate for his kingdom after his loss of life. It will appear that he had deliberate for Ælfweard, his eldest son by Ælfflæd, to be both king of Wessex or king of his whole kingdom.  If he had meant to separate his kingdom, then it’s seemingly he anticipated Athelstan to develop into king of Mercia whereas Ælfweard dominated Wessex. All we all know for positive is that on the time of Edward’s loss of life, Athelstan was with him in Mercia and Ælfweard was in Wessex. This labored in Athelstan’s favor.

Instantly after Edward’s loss of life, Mercia acknowledged Athelstan as its king, whereas Wessex in all probability selected Ælfweard, though sources are spotty. Sadly for Ælfweard, he solely lived sixteen days after Edward’s loss of life.

This doesn’t imply issues have been made straightforward for Athelstan, nonetheless. Wessex, particularly Winchester, stayed against Athelstan’s rule even after Ælfweard’s loss of life. Athelstan was topped over a yr after his father’s loss of life, on September 4th, 925. He selected to be topped at Kingston upon Thames , on the border of Mercia and Wessex. Whereas he was clearly sending a message to Wessex by his alternative of venue, he was cautious to solely act as king of Mercia, not eager to rile up the folks of Wessex into open riot.

Opposition to Athelstan appears to have continued lengthy after his coronation. His major opponent was his half-brother, Edwin. It has been claimed by some historians that Edwin was liable for a number of plots towards Athelstan that have been designed to make him ineligible to be king. One such plot concerned an try at blinding the king.

Finally, the matter was solved in 933 AD when Edwin drowned in a shipwreck on the North Sea. It’s believed Edwin might have been fleeing the nation after making an attempt a riot towards Athelstan. A minimum of one up to date, anti-Athelstan supply claimed Edwin’s loss of life was the truth is an assassination ordered by Athelstan, however this declare has been totally disputed. Regardless of the reality, Wessex’s opposition towards Athelstan died with Edwin.

Miniature of Athelstan from a 13th century genealogy (Public Domain)

Miniature of Athelstan from a thirteenth century family tree ( Public Domain )

King Athelstan: First King of the English

King Athelstan was solely getting began. Though he had each Wessex and Mercia underneath his management, he nonetheless had the Danes to take care of. The Danish king Sihtric Cáech (also called Sigtryggr Gále) dominated over the Viking Kingdom of York. Reasonably than go to battle, Athelstan determined to attempt his hand at diplomacy.

In 926 AD, he married his solely full-blooded sister to Sihtric. The 2 agreed to not assault or invade one another, nor to assist prop up one another’s enemies in proxy wars. Athelstan caught to his phrase for a full yr. In 927 AD, Sihtric died and Athelstan wasted no time in invading.

The Danes didn’t go down with out a struggle, nonetheless. Sihtric’s cousin, Guthfrith, tried to return to York’s rescue, bringing a fleet from Dublin with him. It was all in useless, nonetheless; Athelstan simply took York and shortly accepted the Danish inhabitants’ give up. It’s unclear whether or not Guthfrith even reached York in time for there to be a battle.

Athelstan was the primary English king to have taken the north and united it with the south. The northern peoples have been outraged, however their leaders have been wiser. On July 12, 927, varied Northern kings and leaders met at Eamont, close to Penrith, to formally declare Athelstan their chief and superior. What adopted was a uncommon seven yr interval of peace.

Subsequent on Athelstan’s listing was Wales. He had technically inherited authority over the Welsh kings from his aunt and uncle, who had dominated over Wales. They’d sworn allegiance to his father after which brother earlier than transferring it throughout to him.

After claiming the north on the assembly of Eamont, Athelstan summoned the assorted Welsh kings to his court docket. At this assembly, he introduced a heavy annual tribute and stuck the border between Wales and England on the Hereford space alongside the river Tamar. The Welsh kings attended Athelstan’s court docket between 928 and 935 AD, and Athelstan was at all times cautious to indicate them the utmost respect.

This all meant England and Wales loved a wholesome interval of peace throughout Athelstan’s reign.  As such, Athelstan was the primary king of the Anglo-Saxon folks. He spent a lot of his rule making an attempt to maintain the assorted elements of his kingdom pleased.

Regardless of his greatest efforts, Britain was by no means one large pleased household. The folks of Wales and the northerners by no means stopped resenting his rule, and Athelstan spent a lot money and time ensuring their leaders stayed in line. Nonetheless, these emotions of resentment would crop up later in his rule and trigger him main complications.

British Isles in 10th century represented with the coastline at the time. King Athelstan was the first king to unite England. (Ikonact / CC BY SA 3.0)

British Isles in tenth century represented with the shoreline on the time. King Athelstan was the primary king to unite England. (Ikonact / CC BY SA 3.0 )

Athelstan’s Conquest of Scotland

Now that Athelstan had each the north of England and Wales, there was just one factor left that Athelstan desired: Scotland. In Could of 934 AD, Athelstan started his invasion, though the explanation for his actual timing is unclear. It appears seemingly that he lastly felt assured to try it after the loss of life of his half-brother Edwin in 933 AD, mixed with newfound help from northern England and Wales.

Athelstan was accompanied in his invasion by 4 of the Welsh kings, in addition to 18 bishops and 13 earls (6 of whom have been Danes). His invasion seems to have made fast progress, and by July of the identical yr, he had made it to Chester-le-Road. His land forces ultimately made it so far as Dunnottar within the northeast, and his naval fleet raided Caithness and even the Norse kingdom of Orkney.

No nice battles have been recorded throughout his invasion, and its final final result is unclear. We all know that by September, Athelstan was safely again in Buckingham within the south of England. A constitution was signed stating Athelstan’s overlordship over Scotland and its major chief, Constantine.

Painting of Scottish King Constantine II by Jacob Jacobsz de Wet II, late 17th century. Constantine allied with Olad Guthfrithson against Athelstan. (Public Domain)

Portray of Scottish King Constantine II by Jacob Jacobsz de Moist II, late seventeenth century. Constantine allied with Olad Guthfrithson towards Athelstan. ( Public Domain )

If Athelstan’s conquest of Scotland seems to have been too straightforward to be true, it was. That very same yr, Olaf Guthfrithson changed his father, Guthfrith because the Norse king of Dublin. Olaf had his coronary heart set on not solely taking the remainder of Eire, but additionally reclaiming York.

By 937, Olaf had taken management of the Viking part of Ireland by defeating a number of of his rivals. His subsequent goal was York, however he was effectively conscious that he lacked the numbers wanted to tackle Athelstan. Likewise, Constantine needed Athelstan’s affect out of Scotland and the north, however he too lacked the numbers. So Olaf and Constantine turned agency allies, cementing the alliance with a wedding between Olaf and Constantine’s daughter. The alliance was additional bolstered by Owain of Strathclyde and his males.

Historically, medieval campaigns have been carried out in the summertime, when situations have been most favorable. Looking for to shock Athelstan, Olaf, Constantine and Owain waited till autumn to make their transfer towards Athelstan. The ploy seems to have labored; up to date sources initially criticized him for having “languished in sluggish leisure”.

Athelstan was no idiot, nonetheless. Whereas the northern allies raided English territory, Athelstan took his time to assemble his personal military of allies. Athelstan was a scholar of historical past and knew what may occur if he allowed himself to be baited right into a struggle earlier than he was prepared.

The 2 opposing armies lastly met on the Battle of Brunanburh . Regardless of initially being at an obstacle, and having been deserted by the Welsh, the battle was a decisive win for Athelstan. Historical past is commonly written by the victors, so correct representations of the battle are onerous to seek out. It’s seemingly although that the Battle of Brunanburh was one of many bloodiest and hardest-won in English historical past. When the mud settled, Olaf had fled again to Dublin with what remained of his males and allies. Constantine survived, however had misplaced no less than one son. The English, too, had suffered heavy losses.

The battle has been described as the primary instance of English nationalism, the primary time folks from throughout England had united underneath one banner to tackle an invading drive. Historians in the present day disagree on how necessary to Athelstan’s rule the battle in the end was. Lower than two years after he had gained the battle, Athelstan died. Olaf bided his time and moved into Northumbria following Athelstan’s loss of life, that means all of the combating had been for nothing.

Others disagree, stating that whereas Athelstan gained little from successful, he would have misplaced every little thing by dropping. If the Anglo-Saxon forces had misplaced at Brunanburh, it’s seemingly the entire kingdom would have fallen shortly thereafter.

King Athelstan at the Battle of Brunanburh  (Public Domain)

King Athelstan on the Battle of Brunanburh  ( Public Domain )

Evaluating Athelstan’s Rule

Athelstan’s rule was not all expansionism and heading off enemies. He’s additionally remembered as a clever ruler and nice king exterior of battle. For instance, he created probably the most centralized authorities the Anglo-Saxon folks had ever seen.

Anglo-Saxon kings had historically made heavy use of the king’s council to manipulate.  Historically, kings moved round quite a bit and so too did the council. The conferences had historically been small and intimate. Athelstan modified all of his.

He held nearly all of his councils in Wessex, and summoned main figures from throughout his realm to hitch him at them. These ‘nationwide assemblies’ helped to unify the nation by ensuring each realm felt equally represented. Some historians have gone even additional, describing it as a type of early model of the English parliament.

Athelstan was additionally seen as a godly and exceedingly ethical chief. He was a faithful Christian who took a vow of celibacy as a younger man. He by no means married or had kids. He possessed an unlimited assortment of religious relics and manuscripts.  Reasonably than hoarding his assortment, it was broadly recognized that he was a beneficiant donor who gifted many church buildings and monasteries elements of his assortment.

Athelstan presenting a book to St Cuthbert, an illustration in a manuscript of Bede's Life of Saint Cuthbert, probably presented to the saint's shrine in Chester-le-Street by Athelstan when he visited the shrine on his journey to Scotland in 934. It is the oldest surviving portrait of an English king and the manuscript is the oldest surviving made for an English king, circa 930 AD. (Public Domain)

Athelstan presenting a ebook to St Cuthbert, an illustration in a manuscript of Bede’s Lifetime of Saint Cuthbert, in all probability introduced to the saint’s shrine in Chester-le-Road by Athelstan when he visited the shrine on his journey to Scotland in 934. It’s the oldest surviving portrait of an English king and the manuscript is the oldest surviving made for an English king, circa 930 AD. ( Public Domain )

Athelstan’s Dying

Athelstan died in Gloucester on October 27, 939 AD. The lads in his household had historically been buried at Winchester, however Athelstan selected to interrupt with custom. Winchester had too typically been a thorn in his aspect, and so he selected to be buried at Malmesbury Abbey along with his loyal cousins who had died on the Battle of Brunanburh.

The nation he had fought so onerous to defend started to rapidly unravel after his loss of life. The folks of York turned to Olaf Guthfrithson for management, and he simply took management of northern England.

Each of Athelstan’s successors, Edmund and Eadred, would commit their reigns to retaking the north. It took fifteen years, however in 954 AD, the north lastly returned to Anglo-Saxon management with the loss of life of Olaf’s alternative, the Norwegian king Eric Bloodaxe .

The tomb of King Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey, Malmesbury, England. There is nothing in the tomb beneath the statue, the relics of the king having been lost in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. (Public Domain)

The tomb of King Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey, Malmesbury, England. There’s nothing within the tomb beneath the statue, the relics of the king having been misplaced within the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. ( Public Domain )


Finally, trendy opinions on Athelstan range significantly. He had no official biographer, and dependable tenth-century sources are onerous to seek out. Historical past tends to be written by the victor, and Athelstan was just about at all times the victor.

This situation is compounded by the truth that his fame peaked after his loss of life. For some time, he turned considerably of a legend, because the king who united the Anglo-Saxon peoples. His deeds and actions tend to be exaggerated by up to date chroniclers.

This implies some historians view him as instrumental to the founding of England, an important chief who did what no man earlier than him had managed. Others take a dimmer view, claiming he did little greater than lay the groundwork and that it was his successors who deserve a lot of the reward.

In all chance, the reality lies someplace within the center. Athelstan’s expertise as a king have maybe been exaggerated. But on the identical time, his document speaks for itself. For a brief interval, he was the primary man to unite England, Wales, and even Scotland. Anybody with even a passing familiarity with British historical past will know that has by no means been a simple feat.

High picture: The influence of the Battle of Brunanburh continues to be debated in the present day; nonetheless, the English win by Athelstan prevented further Viking positive factors for a time. Supply: Public Domain

By Robbie Mitchell

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