Athelstan, King of all England

The tomb of King Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey

Athelstan or Æthelstan (Old English: Æþelstan, Æðelstān; c. 893/895 – 27 October 939) was the King of England from 924 or 925 to 939. He was the son of King Edward the Elder and his first wife, Ecgwynn. Æthelstan’s success in securing the submission of Constantine II, King of Scots, at the Treaty of Eamont Bridge in 927 and his victory at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 led to his claiming the title “king of all Britain”. His reign has been overlooked, overshadowed by the achievements of his grandfather, Alfred the Great, but he is now regarded as one of the greatest kings of the West Saxon dynasty. Athelstan was the first king of a unified England from 927, and his reign was of fundamental importance to political developments in the 10th century.

On 17 July 924 Edward died, and confusion surrounds Athelstan’s accession. He immediately became King of Mercia, but in Wessex his half-brother Ælfweard was accepted as king. Ælfweard only outlived his father by sixteen days, but even after this there seems to have been opposition to Athelstan in Wessex, particularly in Winchester, where Ælfweard was buried. According to William of Malmesbury, a certain Alfred plotted to blind Athelstan on account of his supposed illegitimacy, and Ælfweard’s full brother Edwin was allegedly involved in the plot. Athelstan does not appear to have established his authority in Wessex until mid 925, and he was not crowned until 4 September 925.

AÐELSTAN DCCCCXXV on the modern plinth of the Saxon Coronation Stone, Kingston upon Thames

On 17 July 924 Edward died, and confusion surrounds Athelstan’s accession. He immediately became King of Mercia, but in Wessex his half-brother Ælfweard was accepted as king. Ælfweard only outlived his father by sixteen days, but even after this there seems to have been opposition to Athelstan in Wessex, particularly in Winchester, where Ælfweard was buried. According to William of Malmesbury, Alfred plotted to blind Athelstan on account of his supposed illegitimacy, and Ælfweard’s full brother Edwin was allegedly involved in the plot. Athelstan does not appear to have established his authority in Wessex until mid 925, and he was not crowned until 4 September 925.

Political alliances seem to have been high on Athelstan’s agenda. Only a year after his crowning he married one of his sisters to Sihtric Cáech, the Viking King of Northumbria at Tamworth, who acknowledged Æthelstan as over-king, adopting Christianity. Within the year he may have abandoned his new faith and repudiated his wife, but before Æthelstan and he could fight, Sihtric died suddenly in 927. His kinsman, perhaps brother, Gofraid, who had remained as his deputy in Dublin, came from Ireland to take power in York, but failed. Æthelstan moved quickly, seizing much of Northumbria. This bold move brought the whole of England under one ruler for the first time, although this unity did not become permanent until 954. In less than a decade, the kingdom of the English had become by far the greatest power in the British Isles, perhaps stretching as far north as the Firth of Forth.

Like those of his predecessors, Athelstan’s court was in contact with the rest of Europe. His half-sisters married into European noble families. Ædgyth was married to future Holy Roman Emperor Otto, son of Henry I of Saxony. Alan II, Duke of Brittany and Haakon, son of Harald Fairhair of Norway, were both fostered in Æthelstan’s court, and he provided a home for Louis, the exiled son of Charles the Simple.

Detail of Athelstan from a stained-glass window at the chapel of All Souls College, Oxford

Athelstan might have considered his rule in some way imperial: the style basileus is found in his charters, whilst he is the first king to bear the title r[ex] tot[ius] B[ritanniae]. According to William of Malmesbury, relics such as the Sword of Constantine (Emperor of Rome) and the Lance of Charlemagne (first Holy Roman Emperor) came to Athelstan, suggesting that he was in some way being associated with past great rulers.
Although he established many alliances through his family, he does not appear to have married or had children, although there is an uncorroborated allusion in the twelfth century Liber Eliensis to a daughter.

Athelstan was religious and gave generously to the church in Wessex, and when he died in 939 at Gloucester he was buried at his favourite abbey (Malmesbury) rather than with his family at Winchester. Though his tomb is still there, his body was lost centuries later. 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 by King Henry VIII. The remains may have been destroyed by the King’s Commissioners or hidden before the Commissioners arrived to close down the Abbey. In Malmesbury, his name lives on into the 20th and 21st centuries, with everything from a bus company and a second-hand shop to several roads and streets, as well as the Care Home opened in 2008, named after him. His patronage of the abbey, and his gift of freemen status to the town also lives on with the Warden and Freemen of Malmesbury.

He was succeeded by his younger half-brother, King Edmund I of England.

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