Name: King Athelstan
Parents: Edward the Elder and Ecgywn
House of: Wessex
Ascended to the throne: July 17, 924
Crowned: September 4, 925 at Kingston-upon-Thames, aged c.30
Died: October 27, 940 at Gloucester
Buried at: Malmesbury
Reigned for: 16 years, 3 months, and 10 days
Succeeded by: his half brother Edmund
King of England 924–39. The son of Edward the Elder, Athelstan brought about English unity by ruling both Mercia and Wessex.
He consolidated the English state by convincingly defeating an invasion by Vikings, Scots, Irish, and the men of Strathclyde at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937. He overcame the Scandinavian kingdom based in York and increased English power on the Welsh and Scottish borders.
Æthelstan centralised government; he increased control over the production of charters and summoned leading figures from distant areas to his councils. These meetings were also attended by rulers from outside his territory, especially Welsh princes, who thus acknowledged his overlordship. More legal texts survive from his reign than from any other tenth-century king; they show his concern for social order and especially for the threat posed to it by widespread robberies. His legal reforms built on those of his grandfather, Alfred the Great. Æthelstan was one of the most religious West Saxon kings, and was known for collecting relics and founding churches. Almost in a sense a ‘warrior monk’ he died childless and un-married.
As with Elizabeth I some centuries later, he may have seen himself married to the English nation.
Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, the third of the great West Saxon Kings, sought at first, in accordance with the traditions of his house, peaceful relations with the unconquered parts of the Dane-law; but upon disputes arising he marched into Yorkshire in 926 AD, and there established himself.
Northumbria submitted; the Kings of the Scots and of Strathclyde acknowledged him as their “father and lord”, and the Welsh princes agreed to pay tribute. There was an uneasy interlude; then in 933 AD came a campaign against the Scots, and in 937 AD a general rebellion and renewed war, organised by all the hitherto defeated peoples in the drama. The whole of North Britain – Scots, Picts, Irish, Danish, Norwegian, pagan and Christian – together presented a hostile front under Constantine, King of the Scots, and Olaf of Dublin, with the Viking reinforcements from Norway.
On this occasion neither life nor time was wasted in manoeuvres. What followed was the two day Battle of Brunanburgh in 937 AD, a battle so mighty that it inspired Tolkeins Lord of The Rings. It occurred North of Burnley in Lancashire in the North West of England. Also known as the Battle of the Five Armies. The fight that followed is recorded for us in an Icelandic saga and an English poem. According to the saga-man, Athelstan challenged his foes to meet him in pitched battle, and to this they blithely agreed. The English King even suggested the place where all should be put to the test.
The armies, vary large for those times, took up their respective positions as if for the Olympic Games, and much parleying accompanied the process. The English army under Athelstan had with him both Angles from Mercia, and Saxons from other parts of England. Tempers rose high as these masses of manhood flaunted their shields and blades at one another and flung their gibes across a narrow space; and there was a fierce clash between the Northumbrian and the Icelandic Vikings on one hand and a part of the English army on the other.
In this, although the Northumbrian commander fled, the English were worsted. But on the following day the real fighting began. The rival hosts paraded in all the pomp of war, and then in hearty goodwill fell on with spear, axe, and sword. All day long the fight raged. What is known is that at one point Athelstan made a critical battle winning move. The Picts, Scots, Strathclyde Brythons, Vikings, and Irish retreated. It then turned into a 30 mile wide slaughter front as the Anglo-Saxons pursued the defeated combined forces. They lost 5 kings and Cellach the son of the Scottish King Constantine II was killed. The survivors sought their ships and fled to Dublin and further. The English were merciless.
The original victory-song on Brunanburgh opens to us a view of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors mind, with its imagery and war-delight.
“Here Athelstan King, of earls the lord, the giver of rings and bracelets of nobles, and his brother also, Edmund the Atheling, an age-long glory won by slaughter in battle, with the edges of swords, at Brunanburgh! The wall of shields they cleaved, they hewed the battle shafts with hammered weapons, the foe flinched …..the Scottish folk and the ship-fleet…..The field was coloured with the warriors’ blood! After that the sun on high, …..the greatest star, glided over the earth, God’s candle bright! Till the noble creature hastened to her setting. There lay soldiers, many with darts struck down, Northern men over their shields shot. So were the Scotch; weary of battle, they had had their fill! They left behind them, to feast on carrion, the dusty-coated raven with horned beak, the black-coated eagle with white tail, the greedy battle-hawk, and the grey beast, the wolf in the wood.”
The victory of the English was overwhelming. Constantine, “the perjured” as the victors claimed, fled back to the North, and Olaf retired with his remnants to Dublin.
Thus did King Alfred’s grandson, the valiant Athelstan, became one of the sovereigns of Western Europe. He styled himself on coin and charter Rex Totius Britanniae. These claims were accepted upon the Continent. His three sisters were wedded respectively to the Carolingian king, Charles the Simple, to the Capetian, Hugh the Great, and to Otto the Saxon, a future Holy Roman Emperor. He even installed a Norwegian prince, who swore allegiance and was batised as his vassal at York.
Here again one might hope that a decision in the long quarrel had been reached; yet it persisted; and when Athelstan died, two years after Brunanburh, and was succeeded by his half-brother a youth of eighteen, the beaten forces welled up once more against him. Edmund, in the spirit of his family, held his own.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "King Athelstan" https://englishhistory.net/middle-ages/king-athelstan/, February 17, 2022