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England’s forgotten king

The 10th-century king who unified England has been left on history’s scrapheap, argues Ed West

By on Thursday, 24 January 2013


By Sarah Foot
Yale, £14.99

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.

  • American Bryant

    At least one of my Bryant ancestors was named Athel or Aethel — I don’t have my family geaneology book in front of me so I don’t quite remember the spelling — or the year.  They would have lived in the early nineteenth century or earlier but our family research doesn’t go back as far as the tenth century.  I am sure it is (was) a fairly common name.  I didn’t know this history about the kind.  When I saw the name in our book some years ago I though it looked like an “old timey” name.

  • GrahamCombs

    I see the book is published by Yale so it should be available here in the States.  When I was boy in the South,  England could still be heard in the media as “the mother country.”   Hard to believe now and yet, what has changed?   Not the history.   

  • Dewey

     Indeed it is Graham. My local library has it and it is a good read.  Enter your zip code in Worldcat to see which library nearest to you has it

  • GrahamCombs

    Dewey:  thank you.  I’m aware of MelCAT (the state inter library system here in Michigan which I use a lot) but not Worldcat.  

  • Parasum

    Most of the dynasty descended from Alfred the Great is forgotten. Since he is arguably England’s greatest King, this is a great pity.

    How many people – even Catholics – know that:

    a) he used to appear in calendars as “Blessed” ?

    b) his descendant Edgar (king from 959 to 975) is a Saint ? 

    English history did not begin with the Norman invasion.

  • Parasum

    There was a wave of Ediths, Edwins, Athelstans, Alfreds, Ethelreds, and other Anglo-Saxon names in the second half of the 19th century. Queen Victoria named one of her sons Alfred, and that may have started – or strengthened – a trend. 

  • Cassandra

    Sorry! History in Europe begins now with WWI

  • Parasum

    That’s Europe.