Æthelstan (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.
By the ninth century the many kingdoms of the early Anglo-Saxon period had been consolidated into four: Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia. In the eighth century, Mercia had been the most powerful kingdom in southern England, but in the early ninth, Wessex became dominant under Æthelstan’s great-great-grandfather, Egbert.
In the middle of the century, England came under increasing attack from Viking raids, culminating in invasion by the Great Heathen Army in 865. By 878, the Vikings had overrun East Anglia, Northumbria, and Mercia, and nearly conquered Wessex.
The West Saxons fought back under Alfred the Great, and achieved a decisive victory at the Battle of Edington. Alfred and the Viking leader Guthrum agreed on a division that gave the Anglo-Saxons western Mercia, and eastern Mercia to the Vikings.
In the 890s, renewed Viking attacks were successfully fought off by Alfred, assisted by his son (and Æthelstan’s father) Edward and Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians. Æthelred ruled English Mercia under Alfred and was married to his daughter Æthelflæd. Alfred died in 899 and was succeeded by Edward. Æthelwold, the son of Æthelred, King Alfred’s older brother and predecessor as king, made a bid for power, but was killed at the Battle of the Holme in 902.
Little is known of warfare between the English and the Danes over the next few years, but in 909, Edward sent a West Saxon and Mercian army to ravage Northumbria.
The following year the Northumbrian Danes attacked Mercia, but suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Tettenhall. Æthelred died in 911 and was succeeded as ruler of Mercia by his widow Æthelflæd. Over the next decade, Edward and Æthelflæd conquered Viking Mercia and East Anglia. Æthelflæd died in 918 and was briefly succeeded by her daughter Ælfwynn, but in the same year Edward deposed her and took direct control of Mercia.
When Edward died in 924, he controlled all of England south of the Humber. The Viking king Sihtric ruled the Kingdom of York in southern Northumbria, but Ealdred maintained Anglo-Saxon rule in at least part of the former kingdom of Bernicia from his base in Bamburgh in northern Northumbria.
Constantine II ruled Scotland, apart from the southwest, which was the British Kingdom of Strathclyde. Wales was divided into a number of small kingdoms, including Deheubarth in the southwest, Gwent in the southeast, Brycheiniog immediately north of Gwent, and Gwynedd in the north.
According to the Anglo-Norman historian William of Malmesbury, Æthelstan was thirty years old when he came to the throne in 924, which would mean that he was born around 894. He was the oldest son of Edward the Elder. He was Edward’s only son by his first consort, Ecgwynn.
Very little is known about Ecgwynn, and she is not named in any contemporary source. Medieval chroniclers gave varying descriptions of her rank: one described her as an ignoble consort of inferior birth, while others described her birth as noble. Modern historians also disagree about her status.
Simon Keynes and Richard Abels believe that leading figures in Wessex were unwilling to accept Æthelstan as king in 924 partly because his mother had been Edward the Elder’s concubine. However, Barbara Yorke and Sarah Foot argue that allegations that Æthelstan was illegitimate were a product of the dispute over the succession, and that there is no reason to doubt that she was Edward’s legitimate wife. She may have been related to St Dunstan.
William of Malmesbury wrote that Alfred the Great honoured his young grandson with a ceremony in which he gave him a scarlet cloak, a belt set with gems, and a sword with a gilded scabbard. Medieval Latin scholar Michael Lapidge and historian Michael Wood see this as designating Æthelstan as a potential heir at a time when the claim of Alfred’s nephew, Æthelwold, to the throne represented a threat to the succession of Alfred’s direct line, but historian Janet Nelson suggests that it should be seen in the context of conflict between Alfred and Edward in the 890s, and might reflect an intention to divide the realm between his son and his grandson after his death.
Historian Martin Ryan goes further, suggesting that at the end of his life Alfred may have favoured Æthelstan rather than Edward as his successor. An acrostic poem praising prince “Adalstan”, and prophesying a great future for him, has been interpreted by Lapidge as referring to the young Æthelstan, punning on the Old English meaning of his name, “noble stone”.
Lapidge and Wood see the poem as a commemoration of Alfred’s ceremony by one of his leading scholars, John the Old Saxon. In Michael Wood’s view, the poem confirms the truth of William of Malmesbury’s account of the ceremony. Wood also suggests that Æthelstan may have been the first English king to be groomed from childhood as an intellectual, and that John was probably his tutor. However, Sarah Foot argues that the acrostic poem makes better sense if it is dated to the beginning of Æthelstan’s reign.
Edward married his second wife, Ælfflæd, at about the time of his father’s death, probably because Ecgwynn had died, although she may have been put aside. The new marriage weakened Æthelstan’s position, as his step-mother naturally favoured the interests of her own sons, Ælfweard and Edwin.
By 920 Edward had taken a third wife, Eadgifu, probably after putting Ælfflæd aside. Eadgifu also had two sons, the future kings Edmund and Eadred. Edward had several daughters, perhaps as many as nine.
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.
In 934 he invaded Scotland and forced Constantine II to submit to him. 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.