Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Who Are All These Kings?: Athelstan

Athelstan is one of the contenders for the title of first real King of England.

He was the eldest son of Edward the Elder and his first wife Egwina, and was born in 895, while his celebrated grandfather Alfred was still King. He was much loved by the old King. Although Alfred had a good number of grandchildren, Athelstan was the only one that he knew, as all the others were born after Alfred’s death.

Athelstan was raised at the court of Edward’s sister Ethelfleda, the Lady of the Mercians, mostly at Gloucester.

When Edward died in 924, Athelstan was chosen as King by the Mercians, who would have regarded him as one of their own. He was not so well known, though, in Wessex, where his half-brother Elfward was elected King.

Elfward, however, who had been living as a hermit at Bridgnorth, died suddenly at Oxford on his way to Winchester. It was strongly rumoured that he had been murdered on the orders of Athelstan.

Whatever the truth, Athelstan at that point became King of his father’s united England, and was crowned the following year at Kingston-on-Thames.

Early in Athelstan’s reign, he was recognised as overlord by Sihtric, the Norse King of York. But when Sihtric died, his brother Gothfrith, King of Dublin, tried to take over at York, but was defeated by Athelstan, who had him deported back to Ireland. Entering York as its master, Athelstan went on to extract promises from the Kings of Scotland and Strathclyde that they would support him in any future attempt by Gothfrith to gain the throne of York. This agreement was made at Eamont Bridge, near Penrith.

In the meantime, there had been a Norse uprising supported by the Welsh people around Chester. Athelstan called the Welsh princes, including the famous Hywel Dda, to a meeting at Hereford, where he laid down the border between England and Wales, along the River Wye.

Shortly after this, he expelled the Cornish from Devon, refortifying the ancient city of Exeter and setting the frontier between England and Cornwall along the River Tamar.

Athelstan made an alliance with Harold Fairhair, King of Norway, who sent his son Haakon to be brought up at the English court. When Haakon grew up, he was made King, with Erik Bloodaxe, his brother, being deposed.

Athelstan was clearly regarded as an important personage throughout Europe. He was related through marriage to several of the other influential European rulers, notably Count Baldwin of Flanders, Charles III of France, Hugh, Count of Paris, and Otto, Duke of Saxony. In addition to this, he maintained good relations with Rollo, of what would become Normandy.

In 934, Constantine of Scotland arranged the marriage of his daughter to Olaf Gothfrithson of Dublin. Athelstan saw his as a breach of the earlier Eamont Bridge agreement, and marched into Scotland, where he devastated the countryside.

Constantine acknowledged Athelstan’s power, but afterwards joined Olaf in invading Mercia. It was during this campaign, in 937, that the legendary Battle of Brunanburgh was fought. Athelstan, helped by his young half-brother Edmund, won a great victory. The actual location is not known for certain, but is believed to have been in Nottinghamshire, or possibly in South Yorkshire.

Athelstan was regarded in his lifetime as a great King, and later chroniclers looked back on his reign as a Golden Age. He was certainly a warrior King, but was skilled in politics and, like his grandfather Alfred, was a scholar.

He made the first attempts to institute a single coinage for England, and set up a group of clerks at court, specifically to produce the growing number of charters and other official documents. He did a lot for the church, and sent the future Archbishop Oda to France, where he learned a lot about church politics. He also gave the first encouragement to St. Dunstan, another future Archbishop.

Athelstan also changed some of the structure of local government. Previously, the position of ealdorman had involved control over a single shire. During Athelstan’s reign, however, this was changed, and a few ealdormen acquired control over larger areas. One such was Athelstan Half-King, the Ealdorman of East Anglia, who later on was to be the guardian of the young King Edgar.

It has been suggested that Athelstan’s tall, slim build and elegant bearing has been remembered in the tales of Sir Lancelot.

He died at Gloucester in 939, from an illness, probably the hereditary illness which afflicted so many of his family. He was buried at Malmesbury Abbey, of which he had been a benefactor.

Athelstan had never married, and had no children. He was succeeded by his half-brother Edmund.