The Life of Athelstan the Glourious
The Eighth King of Wessex
Athelstan the Glorious was the son of Edward the Elder and reigned from 925 to 939. He is best remembered for his subjugation of Scotland and his claim to the title King
Unlike the reigns of Alfred the Great and Edward the Elder, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says relatively little about the life of Athelstan. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains references to his military campaigns, while sources from elsewhere in Europe provide more information. The Annals of Floodard and the Chronicles of Nantes both contain numerous references to King Athelstan. The 12th Century English chronicler William of Malmesbury provides the greatest detail, however, little of his writings have been verified and as a result he is regarded with some scepticism by historians.
Athelstan was the son of Edward the Elder and the grandson of Alfred the Great. Athelstan’s path to the throne was a torturous one. After some difficulty, Edward became King of England. Meanwhile, Athelstan became King of Mercia following the death of his aunt, who had been Queen. A few years later, Athelstan became King of Wessex, after the death of Edward the Elder.
As it took time for Athelstan to secure his claim to the crown and be recognized as the rightful king, building political alliances were high on his agenda. To that end, Athelstan married his sister to the Viking King Sihtric of Northumbria, who acknowledged Athelstan as his overlord and converted to Christianity. Within a year, however, the King of Northumbria had divorced his wife and denounced Christianity. Before war could break out between Wessex and Northumbria, King Sihtric died. Moving quickly, Athelstan seized Northumbria. For the first time all of England was ruled by a single monarch. Within ten years, England had become the predominant power in the British Isles. Athelstan’s kingdom stretched from the shores of the English Channel north to Firth of Forth, near what is now the Scottish city of Stirling. Athelstan also accepted the submission of a number of prominent English, Scottish and Kentish kings.
According to John of Worchester, Athelstan was opposed by the kings of Wales, along with Constantine II and Owain of Scotland.
Athelstan’s campaign is briefly recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as by William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon. Athelstan’s army gathered at Winchester in May, 927. From there they advanced to Nottingham, arriving in June. Athelstan’s army continued to advance north, accompanied by a fleet of ships that advanced up the coast. The details of the campaign are scarce, but he is known to have defeated Eogan of Strathclyde. According to medieval chronicler Symeon of Durham, Athelstan’s army advanced as far north as Dunnottar and Fortriu, in Scotland. The war is believed to have ended in a negotiated settlement.
Like those of his predecessors, Athelstan’s court was in contact with other courts in Europe, including the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, the Duke of Brittany and the King of Norway.
Athelstan also surrounded himself with imperial trappings. The term basileus, which is the Greek word for king, appeared in Athelstan’s royal decrees and charters. He is also believed to be the first English ruler to claim the title, “King of Britain.”
The Death of King Athelstan
Athelstan was also very religious and supported the Church in Wessex. When he died in 939, Athelstan was buried in Malmesbury Abbey, instead of in the family crypt in Winchester. Even though Athelstan’s tomb remains today, his body has long since vanished. It is thought to have disappeared sometime around 1539, during the reign of Henry VIII. Following his death, Athelstan was succeeded by his half brother Edmund the Magnificent.
Wessex and England from Alfred to Edgar: six essays on political, cultural, and ecclesiastical revival, David Dumville, (Woodbridge, 1992)
“England, c.900-1016”, Simon Keynes, in The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. II. ed. R. McKitterick, (Cambridge University Press, 1999)
The Age of Athelstan: Britain’s Forgotten History, Paul Hill, (Tempus Publishing, 2004).
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