Alfred the Great, Æthelstan, Charles III the Simple, Constantine II of Scotland, Count of Paris, Duke of Franks, Ealdred of Bamburgh, Edward the Elder, Holy Roman Emperor, House of Wessex, Hugh the Great, King Hywel Dda of Deheubarth, King of the Anglo-Saxons, King of the English, King of West Francia, King Owain of the Cumbrians, Otto the Great
Æthelstan or Athelstan (c. 894 – October 27, 939) was King of the Anglo-Saxons from 924 to 927 and King of the English from 927 to his death in 939. He was the son of King Edward the Elder and his first wife, Ecgwynn. Modern historians regard him as the first King of England and one of the “greatest Anglo-Saxon kings”. He never married and had no children; he was succeeded by his half-brother, Edmund I.
When Edward died in July 924, Æthelstan was accepted by the Mercians as king. His half-brother Ælfweard may have been recognised as king in Wessex, but died within three weeks of their father’s death. Æthelstan encountered resistance in Wessex for several months, and was not crowned until September 925. In 927 he conquered the last remaining Viking kingdom, York, making him the first Anglo-Saxon ruler of the whole of England.
On July 12, 927, King Constantine II of Scotland, King Hywel Dda of Deheubarth, Ealdred of Bamburgh and King Owain of the Cumbrians accepted the overlordship of King Æthelstan of England, leading to seven years of peace in the north.
In 934 Æthelstan invaded Scotland. His reasons are unclear, and historians give alternative explanations. The death of his half-brother Edwin in 933 might have finally removed factions in Wessex opposed to his rule. Guthfrith, the Norse king of Dublin who had briefly ruled Northumbria, died in 934; any resulting insecurity among the Danes would have given Æthelstan an opportunity to stamp his authority on the north.
Æthelstan’s rule was resented by the Scots and Vikings, and in 937 they invaded England. Æthelstan defeated them at the Battle of Brunanburh, a victory that gave him great prestige both in the British Isles and on the Continent. After his death in 939, the Vikings seized back control of York, and it was not finally reconquered until 954.
Æthelstan centralised government; he increased control over the production of charters and summoned leading figures from distant areas to his councils. These meetings were also attended by rulers from outside his territory, especially Welsh kings, who thus acknowledged his overlordship. More legal texts survive from his reign than from any other 10th-century English king.
They show his concern about widespread robberies, and the threat they posed to social order. His legal reforms built on those of his grandfather, Alfred the Great. Æthelstan was one of the most pious West Saxon kings, and was known for collecting relics and founding churches. His household was the centre of English learning during his reign, and it laid the foundation for the Benedictine monastic reform later in the century.
No other West Saxon king played as important a role in European politics as Æthelstan, and he arranged the marriages of several of his sisters to continental rulers.
Eadgifu was Queen of the West Francia as the second wife of King Charles III the Simple. She married Charles between 917 and 919 after the death of his first wife. Eadgifu was mother to King Louis IV of West Francia.
The others were Eadgyth, who married Otto I the Great, Holy Roman Emperor and Eadhild, who married Hugh the Great who was the Duke of the Franks and Count of Paris.
Hugh was a potential rival for the Frankish throne, and Eadhild may have promoted the marriage of her sister, Eadgifu, to Charles III the Simple in order to sever a dangerous link between Hugh and Count Herbert of Vermandois.
Æthelstan died at Gloucester on October 27, 939. His grandfather Alfred the Great, his father Edward the Elder, and his half-brother Ælfweard had been buried at Winchester, but Æthelstan chose not to honour the city associated with opposition to his rule. By his own wish, he was buried at Malmesbury Abbey, where he had buried his cousins who died at Brunanburh.
No other member of the West Saxon royal family was buried there, and, according to William of Malmesbury, Æthelstan’s choice reflected his devotion to the abbey and to the memory of its seventh-century abbot Saint Aldhelm. William described Æthelstan as fair-haired “as I have seen for myself in his remains, beautifully intertwined with gold threads”. His bones were lost during the Reformation, but he is commemorated by an empty fifteenth-century tomb.
After Æthelstan’s death, the men of York immediately chose the Viking king of Dublin, Olaf Guthfrithson as their king, and Anglo-Saxon control of the north, seemingly made safe by the victory of Brunanburh, collapsed. The reigns of Æthelstan’s half-brothers Edmund (939–946) and Eadred (946–955) were largely devoted to regaining control of the Kingdom.
Following Edmund’s death York again switched back to Viking control, and it was only when the Northumbrians finally drove out their Norwegian Viking king Eric Bloodaxe in 954 and submitted to Eadred that Anglo-Saxon control of the whole of England was finally restored.