Review: Athelstan by Tom Holland

Of all the kings and queens covered in Penguin’s new Monarchs of England series, perhaps the least known is also one of the most important. Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great, was raised by his aunt Ethelfleda after his father Edward the Elder discarded his mother Ecgwynn to a convent to make a dynastic marriage. Edward went on to have another dozen children but when he died, in 924, it was Athelstan who took the throne.

There followed a reign that, had his commissioned biography not been lost, would surely have been as famous to us as his grandfather’s. For it was Athelstan who finally united the four kingdoms of England.

The Viking grand army had invaded in 865 and within six years was poised to overrun Wessex, the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom standing, until Alfred heroically turned back the tide. By Athelstan’s reign, Ethelfled, along with her husband Ethelred, had done much to recapture the Midlands kingdom of Mercia, continuing her father’s policy of building fortresses, among them the Roman ghost town of Chester. This the Vikings tried to recapture in 907. The Mercians repulsed them with boiling beer, and in 910 a great Viking army which attacked English Mercia was slaughtered.

When Athelstan took the throne, the north of England remained Danish, and may well have evolved into a separate Norse-speaking nation. Instead, when its king Sihtric died, Athelstan pounced and from 927 coins minted in York bear the image of Athelstan and the title Rex Anglorum. Many years of peace followed until the year 937, when a reckoning came with the Scots king Constantine going into an alliance with the “idol worshippers” of York and Dublin.

An army of West Saxons and Mercians, united as never before, headed north and gained a bloody victory at Brunanburh, a battle which was almost certainly much larger than Hastings a century later. It appeared in a number of records in north-west Europe, including the Annals of Ulster and the Icelandic sagas, but many of the details have been lost, including the location.

Its victor, too, has been largely overlooked, his star fading in early modern memory just as his grandfather came to be considered the perfect Englishman. Yet, as Holland says, Athelstan also deserves to be recognised as one of England’s founding fathers and the even more overlooked Ethelfleda as “England’s founding mother”.

Indeed, it was not certain that England would come to be, for as the author notes: “Perhaps we can see now, in a way that we could not even a few decades ago, just how astonishing the creation of “Englalonde” actually was. The story of how, over the course of three generations, the royal dynasty of Wessex went from near-oblivion to fashioning a kingdom that still endures today is the most remarkable and momentous in British history.”

Unlike his grandfather, whose deeds were recorded by the monk Asser, Athelstan will always remain a frustratingly shadowy figure – this warrior of Christ, who never married but adopted many of the children of his friends and enemies alike, can only be glimpsed through his devotion to books, relics and Christian laws (he abolished the death penalty for children).

Yet it is hard to finish this beautiful little book without feeling love for the man who, as one of his near contemporary chroniclers noted, brought order and learning where previously there was carnage: “He, close enough in time to Athelstan’s reign to have been the great king’s protégé, understood the full scale of his debt. We, at a millennium’s remove, could perhaps remember it better.”

This article first appeared in the July 22 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.