By Sarah Foot
There can be few figures in English history more overlooked than Athelstan, the ruler with the greatest claim to be called the first king of England.
Born in the 890s, he was the eldest child of Alfred the Great’s son, Edward the Elder, who succeeded his energetic father as King of Wessex in 899 and went on to extend his control of southern England, at one point recognised as fader and hlaford (“father” and “lord”) by the rulers of the Scots, Danes and Norsemen.
Edward died in 924, leaving more than a dozen sons and daughters by three wives. Athelstan, the eldest, had no full brothers and in some ways may have been a lonely figure.
After his mother died, or was discarded, he was raised partly in neighbouring Mercia, and his succession was not guaranteed, the Saxons electing their kings from athel, “worthy”, men of royal blood.
He faced numerous intrigues and rivals. Edwin, his second half-brother, had been involved with the King’s Winchester enemies, and was ordered into exile in 933. He drowned at sea and, although there was no suggestion of foul play, Athelstan was racked with guilt, building the monastery at Milton Abbas in Dorset in penitence.
His other brothers, Edmund and Eadred, were loyal, both succeeding to the throne in turn, while his seven sisters were useful connections with Europe’s royal families. Indeed chroniclers noted that the court of Athelstan had an unusually cosmopolitan feel, with Celts, Saxons, Danes, Bretons and Flemish all appearing.
This is history at its murkiest, reliant on very few contemporary sources, and yet the author should be congratulated for bringing her subject to life without sacrificing standards of serious scholarship. In particular, we get the sense of a man with great paternal feeling for the many young charges he brought into his household, not just his infant siblings but also godchildren of friends and relatives. Athelstan was a truly Christian foster parent, despite (or perhaps because of) his loneliness.
He was a deeply holy man, addressed as Rex pius Athelstan, who reinvigorated the monastic movement that flourished under Edgar, and collected books and relics from around Europe.
Athelstan’s rule, in Foot’s words, was aimed at “ensuring that the Christian ideals promoted and discussed at his court found expression in his legislative programme and that he governed his united realm as a truly Christian monarch”.
And yet no medieval king was worthy of that title without winning in battle, and Athelstan’s medieval reputation rested on his victory at Brunanburh in 937, one of the most significant victories of the period, when he defeated a combined Viking-Celtic-Scottish force and paved the way for the unification of England. There are 40 possible locations for the battle, which gives some idea of the darkness of the era.
It was a defining, yet forgotten, moment in English history, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle making clear “that the English army consisted of West Saxon and Mercian contingents fighting together, stressing the unity of Athelstan’s people”.
England was united, and as the poet Petrus wrote: “Whom he now rules with this Saxonia now made whole: King Athelstan lives glorious through his deeds.” An 11th century scribe from Exeter described Athelstan as a “king who ruled England alone which, before him, many kings had held among themselves”.
He also issued numerous laws, including the abolition of the death penalty for children under the age of 15 for minor offences, which made him something of a barmy liberal for the 10th century.
And yet, although still used as an example of glorious kingship in the 13th and 14th centuries, his star began to fade just as the reputation of his grandfather rose and rose. And while Alfred’s millennial anniversaries were widely marked by his Victorian descendants, Athelstan millennium in 1939 went almost unnoticed.
As Sarah Foot writes: “In his homeland, outside the few places with monuments to his memory, Athelstan has become England’s forgotten king, an almost entirely unknown figure of a remote past no longer seen as relevant to modern culture, or included in a national school curriculum.” Perhaps it’s time we once again remembered the man who unified England.