Athelstan, King of England

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Reigned from 925 to 939. Athelstan was the grandson of Alfred the Great (871899) and the son of Edward the Elder (899925). In his reign of fourteen years he became a man of immense power and prestige. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to him as "lord of warriors, Ringgiver of men" who "won undying glory with the edges of swords in warfare ." As evidenced by the Chron icle, charters, and other contemporary documents, Athelstan was the first English king to successfully unite the various peoples of England; he also subdued the Scots, forcing them to accept his overlordship, and reaffirmed English suzerainty over the Welsh. He never married, and, as far as is known, had no children.

There are very few contemporary sources about Athelstan; his actions were mostly recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in his charters, in the chronicles of religious houses, and in several Welsh, Norse, and Continental sources. On the death of Edward the Elder, his son, Athelstan, was accepted as king by the Mercians as well as the men of Wessex, and he was consecrated at Kingston. Athelstan's first official act as king was probably the manumission of a slave, one Eadhelm; the act was recorded in a book of the Gospels owned at the time by St. Augustine's, Canterbury. Shortly thereafter he began a series of dynastic alliances, beginning with the marriage of his sister to Hugh, duke of the Franks. That same year, Athelstan met Sihtric, the Danish king of Northumbria, at Tamworth and gave him another sister in marriage. Sihtric died soon after, however, and Athelstan annexed the kingdom of Northumbria. He then went on to bring into submission all of the kings in Britain, beginning with Hwyel Dda, king of the West Welsh, and then Constantine, king of the Scots, Owain, king of Gwent, and Ealdred Ealdulfing from Bamburh. In July of 926, the kings gave Athelstan pledges and oaths to keep the peace, after which they departed.

Athelstan then faced Sihtric's brother, Guthfrith, king of the Danes at Dublin, who was probably in York, and drove him out of England. Shortly thereafter, Athelstan met with the Welsh kings near Hereford and created the Dunsæte, a legal document that was intended to peacefully settle disputes between Welsh and English on both sides of the Wye. According to William of Malmesbury, Athelstan then fiercely attacked the Cornish, who were living in Exeter, and cleansed the city "by purging it of its contaminated race, he fortified [the city] with towers, and surrounded [it] with a wall of squared stone ." Afterward, Athelstan penned the Cornish up on the other side of the Tamar, which he fixed as the boundary of their province and also as the boundary of British territory. A letter from Archbishop Dunstan to King Ethelred stated that "Then it happened that King Athelstan gave to Cunan the bishopric as far as the Tamar flowed."

Athelstan's actions created discontent within Britain; in The Great Prophecy of Britain, written by a monk living in Hwyel's kingdom, there is a poem that calls upon the Britons to throw off the yoke of the mechteryn, the great king, and stresses unification of all Celts against Wessex. Despite the Welsh malcontents, Hwyel supported Athelstan wholeheartedly and was often at his court. Athelstan apparently had a firm hold on his kingdom, and after 927 he began to use the inscription Rex to Brit, most likely translated as "King of all Britain" on his coinage. At some time he fostered the son of the Norwegian king, Harold Fair Hair, in the Norse sources Hakon was known as "Athalsteins fostri." He also sent a sister to the Continent to be married, this time to the son of Otto the Great, emperor and king of Germany.

Shortly after his coronation, Athelstan began to issue laws that covered almost every aspect of society. His legislation consisted of seven codes, some of which reinstated legislation from his father's and grandfather's reigns. The first code was ecclesiastical in nature, and dealt primarily with tithing. Others cover many aspects of life, including theft, coinage, the burh, and the relationship between a lord and his man. The last code is a report to the king regarding enforcement of earlier legislation.

Athelstan also issued many charters. Beginning with the Easter Court of 928, Hwyel and the other Welsh kings were often at court, where they sometimes served as witnesses to his charters. They were present on at least two occasions in 931, and attended at least twice in 932, once in 933, three times in 934, and once again in 937. Many of the charters they witnessed concerned land grants to religious houses; religion was a subject that appears to have been very important to Athelstan.

It was recorded at Athelstan's coronation that he was a collector of relics. They most often consisted of bits of various saints, or items that had personal contact with either Jesus or Mary. Relics were used in a variety of ways, all of which designed to provide protection as well as political power and prestige for the king. They were often kept in the king's haligdom, a place where the king's treasures were housed, but he also bestowed them on many religious institutions. The Old English Relic list, written at Exeter in the late tenth century, includes many relics that Athelstan gave to the cathedral.

Athelstan also bestowed relics upon the abbeys and monasteries of Exeter, Glastonbury, Milton Abbas, Muchelney, Wilton, Winchester, Westminster, Canterbury, Bury St. Edmunds, Beverly, York, Durham, Worcester, Malmesbury, and Bath. Other religious houses received books, land, and grants of money, but the relics seem to have been reserved for the above-mentioned abbeys and monasteries. Athelstan placed relics in these strategic locations to create a boundary around his kingdom in the belief that they would protect England by their spiritual power. If those abbeys and monasteries are located on a map, and if a line is drawn connecting them, they form a perimeter around most of the country with the exception of the northwest. However, years earlier, Athelstan's aunt, Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, translated the bones of St. Werburg from Hanbury to Chester, St. Ealhmund from Derby to Shrewsbury, and St. Oswald from Bardney to Gloucester, all out of Danish lands and into English territory. If Chester, Shrewsbury and Gloucester are added to the map, the boundary of England is complete.

In 934, the peace in England ended. Athelstan invaded Scotland with both land and naval forces, and "harried much of the country." The war lasted until 937, when the famous Battle of Brunanburh occurred. The Chronicle records that Athelstan and his brother, Edmund, led levies to Brunanburh and fought Anlaf, Sihtric's son, who had apparently allied with Constantine, king of Scotland. Five kings were killed that day, along with seven of Anlaf's jarls, and a "countless host of seamen and Scots." Anlaf and Constantine were forced to retreat. This battle, the Chronicle tells us, was the greatest fought since the Anglo-Saxons first invaded Britain from the east.

At the end of the year 937, Athelstan held his Christmas Court at Dorchester, and Hwyel Dda was again in attendance, as evidenced by three charters from December 21. The contemporary sources tell us little more until 940, when the Chronicle mentions the passing of Athelstan, at Gloucester, on October 27. He was about 45 years old. The Chronicle recorded Athelstan's death a year too late; Athelstan actually died in October 939.

King Athelstan reigned little more than fourteen years; yet in that short time he became what J. Armitage Robinson calls "one of the makers of England," in company with only Alfred and St. Dunstan.

Bibliography: j. a. robinson, The Times of St. Dunstan (Oxford 1923). g. n. garmonsway, ed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1992). f. stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 1989). f. harmer, Select English Historical Documents of the Ninth and Tenth Centuries (Cambridge 1914). Rerum Britannicarum Medii Aevi Scriptores: Chronicon Monasterii de Abingdon I, Rolls Series 2. r. m. thomson and m. winterbottom, ed. and tr. William of Malmesbury; Gesta Regum Anglorum (London 1999). f. l. attenborough, ed. The Laws of the Earliest English Kings (Cambridge 1922). p. sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters, An Annotated List and Bibliography (London 1968). d. w. rollason, "Relic Cults as an Instrument of Royal Policy, c. 9001050," Anglo-Saxon England 15 (1986) 96.

[l. a. lehtola]