This article was first published in the July 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
Was King Alfred (reigned 871–99) really the greatest Anglo-Saxon king? Certainly he remains the best-remembered – even if it’s only for burning the cakes. But should it really be his grandson Æthelstan (reigned 924–39) – now largely forgotten – whom we celebrate as the most significant pre-Conquest monarch?
Alfred was a highly successful military leader who, in a battle at Edington in 878, resoundingly defeated the Danish army that had almost conquered Wessex. In the ensuing period of peace he launched a programme of educational reform that transformed the use of English as both a literary and a governmental language. Yet Alfred only ruled the West Saxon people, and those in the western part of the Midland kingdom of Mercia not under subjection to the Danes. When he died (the sole remaining native king in England), the east Midlands, East Anglia and Northumbria all lay in Danish hands.
Æthelstan, on the other hand, was the first king to rule all England and laid claim to an imperial overlordship over the whole of Britain. His military prowess brought him direct authority over not just Wessex and Mercia, but the Danelaw (the name given to the area of northern England where Vikings settled) and the kingdom north of the Humber. Celtic rulers from elsewhere in the British Isles subsequently submitted to his authority. He crushed a rebellion of the Scots king in 934, attacking his realm with a land and sea force and ravaging as far north as Caithness. When Æthelstan defeated a combined Norse-Scots-Northumbrian force at the battle of Brunanburh in 937, a contemporary poem entered into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recalled: “Never yet in this island before this was a greater slaughter of a host made by the edge of the sword since the Angles and Saxons came hither from the east, overcame the Britons and won a country.”
Foreigners also recognised Æthelstan’s status. He played a significant role on a European stage, forging alliances with royal and ducal houses across the territories of the former Carolingian empire through marriage and fostering arrangements. Scholars from Britain and abroad flocked to his court, bringing books, precious gifts and the relics of the saints (to which Æthelstan showed particular devotion). Alfred founded a dynasty. Æthelstan (who died childless) paved the way for that royal line (through his brothers and nephews) to govern all the English peoples via an effective administrative machine. When he died, an Irish chronicler lamented the demise of the “pillar of the dignity of the western world”. How can so great a king, once celebrated for his achievements, have fallen into such oblivion today?
Alfred’s posthumous reputation received a substantial boost from the profusion of literature that emanated from his court in the latter years of his reign – including the first version of the collection of year-by-year accounts of early English history we know as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. One of his circle, the Welsh priest Asser, also wrote a life of the king in the 890s, giving an unparalleled insight into his personality, his devotion to the saints, his practical and creative abilities and his attitudes to kingship. Texts translated from Latin into English at his court also included passages attributed to the king himself.
By contrast, the reign of Æthelstan is ill-served with narrative sources; the Chronicle offers the sketchiest narrative of events in his reign, there is no surviving biography, nor any writing attributed to his own authorship. Creating a picture of him as a man as well as a royal figurehead involves piecing together information from a disparate range of sources (and a good deal of imaginative licence).
Even so, after his death, Æthelstan enjoyed considerable fame. The West Saxon Latin chronicler Æthelweard saw Æthelstan as a mighty king and drew attention to his victory at Brunanburh (still remembered in the late tenth century as the ‘Great Battle’). Æthelstan’s submission of the Scots and the Picts brought significant and lasting consequences: “The fields of Britain were consolidated into one, there was peace everywhere and abundance of all things, and [since then] no fleet has remained here having advanced against these shores, except under treaty with the English.”
Æthelred the Unready (reigned 978–1016) called his eldest son Æthelstan – and worked through various Old English royal names before he thought to name his eighth son Alfred.
A king to remember
After the Conquest, Æthelstan’s reputation remained strong. To Anglo-Norman writers, he stood out as the founder of a united English realm, and – perhaps more significantly in that era – as having successfully asserted his authority over his Celtic neighbours. William, a monk of Malmesbury Abbey where Æthelstan was buried, paid him particular attention, providing insights not found in any other source, possibly drawing on a now-lost tenth-century life of the king. In William’s hands, Æthelstan became not just a king to remember but one about whom there were many stories, even popular songs worth recalling and repeating.
Various factors combined to diminish Æthelstan’s standing in the literary imagination during the late Middle Ages. Legends about a heroic British king, Arthur, received a substantial boost from the writing of Geoffrey of Monmouth. While Æthelstan’s martial success still gained approval, rumours first reported by William of Malmesbury that Æthelstan’s mother had been a concubine and he was therefore illegitimate gained increasing currency. The mysterious circumstances in which his younger brother, Edwin, was drowned at sea in 933 (supposedly in an open boat without an oar), and Æthelstan’s foundation of the church at Milton Abbas in reparation did him little good either. Æthelstan’s literary reputation reached its nadir in the 14th-century poem, Æthelston, in which the eponymous hero comes across as a troubled and insecure king, struggling to achieve the moral authority to control his realm.
At the same time, other pre-Conquest kings achieved equal or greater prominence. Attempts to make a saint of Edward the Confessor began soon after his death; he was canonised in 1161. Most problematically for Æthelstan’s cause, Alfred was frequently hailed as the first king to have held sway over all England. Orderic Vitalis, writing in the 12th century, first made that claim, which was energetically promoted by monks at St Albans including Matthew Paris, who went so far as to say that “in view of his merits Alfred was called Great”. King Henry VI even tried in 1441 to get Alfred “the first monarch of the famous kingdom of England” canonised, but without success. No one tried to make a saint of Æthelstan, even though he never married and had such a great reputation for piety in his lifetime.
Neither great nor saint, Æthelstan’s place in the popular memory started to slide as the reputation of Alfred increasingly eclipsed that of all Anglo-Saxon kings. Elizabeth’s reign saw an increasing interest in the history of pre-Conquest England; antiquarians collected early English manuscripts and began to publish Anglo-Saxon texts, including Asser’s Life of Alfred. This helped to increase popular understanding of Alfred’s qualities as a ruler and build his reputation as a scholar and statesman at the expense not just of Æthelstan but of all other Anglo-Saxon kings for whom no equivalent biographies survive. William Tyndale had claimed that Æthelstan commissioned an early translation of the Bible. But it was Alfred’s promotion of English over Latin as the language through which to get closer to God that would resonate in the reformed English church, eager to find the historic roots of the Ecclesia Anglicana in the distant past.
Alfred’s reputation flourished further after the publication (in Latin in 1678, and in English in 1709) of John Spelman’s Life of King Alfred, which promoted the king as first founder of the English monarchy. Prince Frederick (son of George II) and his circle of patriots enthusiastically evoked Alfred for his protection of English freedoms and his defeat of foreign enemies, on land and sea. Thomas Arne’s masque Alfred, first performed for Prince Frederick in 1740, concludes famously with the anthem Rule Britannia.
Thus, gradually during the 18th and 19th centuries, Æthelstan’s memory waned. Only the Freemasons remembered Æthelstan and celebrated him as their mythical founder in England, his ‘son’ (brother) Edwin the first English Grand Master. History books (especially those written for children) found much to celebrate in the deeds for which Alfred was famed, not just his victories over the Danes but his inventions – a candle-clock sheltering inside a horn lantern – and his supposed role in founding the English navy by having ships of a new, longer, design built to try and defeat the enemy at sea.
A national myth
Æthelstan’s right to be considered the first king of all England seemed long forgotten, that epithet given either to Alfred’s grandfather (Ecgberht, d839) or more often to Alfred. Anglo-Saxon topics were popular among Victorian painters but neither Æthelstan nor his great battle at Brunanburh found visual commemoration in any picture exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1769 and 1904; Alfred was however frequently depicted. It was Alfred who took the central role in the creation of a national myth of English and British origins; he became the archetypal symbol of the nation’s own sense of itself. The beginnings of political stability in Britain (which stood in marked contrast to the upheavals elsewhere in 19th-century Europe) went back to Alfred’s day. As Edward Augustus Freeman argued, Alfred was the most perfect character in history; no other name could compare with his.
Nothing brings out the contrast between the two kings’ reputations better than the marking of the millennial anniversaries of their deaths. Thanks to uncertainty about the precise date of Alfred’s demise, his millennium was celebrated not in 1899 but in 1901. First planned in the aftermath of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897, the celebration was to be a “National commemoration of the king to whom this empire owes so much.”
Crowds travelled to Winchester on Friday 20 September to watch Lord Rosebery unveil Hamo Thornycroft’s massive statue of the king set in the Broadway, Winchester, before proceeding to Winchester Cathedral for a service with the massed choirs of southern English cathedrals, at which the archbishop of Canterbury preached.
In stark contrast, a single notice in The Times of London for 25 October 1940 (buried under “Ecclesiastical News”), noted the supposed millennium of “Æthelstan the Great” (dating his death to 940, in error for 939). Lamenting that there might in happier times have been some celebration of this event, the correspondent remembered the king as the greatest and most munificent benefactor to St Paul’s Cathedral in London, his donations making that cathedral the richest in England.
Only with the revival of Anglo-Saxonism in the latter years of the 20th century, increased scholarly interest in the Latin and vernacular literature of England before the Conquest, and the critical editing of royal administrative documents, has Æthelstan begun to regain something of his former prominence. His reign lay at the source of many developments. First to unite the English peoples under a single authority, Æthelstan also accepted the submission of all the other rulers of Britain. Welsh kings attended regularly at his court, travelling round the kingdom with him.
Æthelstan expressed his claim to hegemony over all Britain in a new language of imperial rulership and in visual symbols, most obviously his decision to wear a crown (shown on his coins and in the surviving portrait of the king giving a book to St Cuthbert). His sway over the whole island brought together under one rule peoples that had previously suffered significant political disruption and consequent social breakdown because of the Danish wars and Scandinavian settlements.
Æthelstan created an efficient administrative machine to govern a dispersed realm, and directed much of his legal He created an efficient administrative machine to govern a dispersed realm BBC History Magazine activity towards the repair and renewal of this fractured and damaged society.
“Very mighty”, “worthy of honour”, “his years filled with glory”, “pillar of the dignity of the western world”, “pious King Æthelstan”: each of these near-contemporary comments reflects aspects of Æthelstan’s achievement and personality. He deserves to be brought out of the shadows that have obscured his memory and celebrated as a key figure in the making of England – and, indeed, the forging of Britain.
Sarah Foot is Regius Professor of ecclesiastical history at Christ Church, Oxford. Her book Æthelstan: The First King of England was published by Yale in May.
Where Æthelstan is remembered
Æthelstan supposedly visited Beverley in the East Riding of Yorkshire on his way to fight a major battle in the north and paused to pray for victory at the shrine of St John of Beverley (a prominent figure in Bede’s History, and an early bishop of Hexham). On his return south, victorious, he refounded Beverley church as a collegiate community of canons and granted it land and a number of privileges including the right of sanctuary. Three monuments in the minster recall the king, including a life-size statue cast in lead in 1781 added to the screen at the entrance to the choir. Æthelstan stands holding a sword in one hand, and in the other the charter of privileges he had given to the town of Beverley. On the opposite side of the archway leading into the choir is a similar statue of Bishop John of Beverley.
Outside the guildhall at Kingston upon Thames in Surrey stands a piece of grey-wether sandstone, believed to be the Anglo-Saxon coronation stone on which Æthelstan was crowned in September 925. The stone once lay in St Mary’s chapel in the town; when that was destroyed, it was moved to the market place, where it served as a mounting block. The Masonic order of Surrey led a campaign in the 1850s to re-situate the relic in a more formal setting, arranging for it to be moved in 1854 to its current location, mounted on a heptagonal base and surrounded by railings. Re-laying the stone involved appropriate Masonic ceremonies, including the sprinkling of the monument with corn, oil and wine.
In the restored Norman abbey church at Malmesbury in Wiltshire, Æthelstan is commemorated by a late medieval tomb chest in perpendicular style, now in the north aisle. The king’s recumbent, full-length effigy lies beneath a heavy traced canopy. The original head has been removed and replaced with another of unknown date. Æthelstan was a generous patron of Malmesbury in life and chose to be buried there, near the tomb of St Aldhelm. In the 12th century, William of Malmesbury saw the king’s remains and remarked on his fair hair. During the Reformation his bones were lost and the tomb is now empty.
St Cuthbert and the kings of Wessex
Both Alfred and Æthelstan are associated with legends relating to St Cuthbert (bishop of Lindisfarne, d687). At his time of greatest need, before the battle of Edington, King Alfred supposedly received a night-time visitation from the saint, who promised him victory and a glorious future for his sons. If Alfred would be faithful to Cuthbert and his people, Albion would be given to him and his sons, and he would be chosen king of all Britain. Æthelstan – who claimed that very title: king of all Britain – showed great devotion to the saint’s shrine on a visit to Chester-le-Street in 934. He gave many precious gifts including a book containing Bede’s life of Cuthbert. The frontispiece to that volume depicts a double portrait (right) of the crowned King Æthelstan presenting the manuscript to Cuthbert.