Early in the 12th century, a tomb in the abbey of Malmesbury was briefly opened. A monk named William took the chance to inspect the skeleton that lay inside it. The dead man, so he reported, had been of average height and slender build. Not everything in the coffin, though, was bones. Traces of hair were still to be seen – and these too the monk studied attentively. “It had been,” so he recorded later, “blonde in colour, and beautifully twisted into golden braids.” William of Malmesbury had good reason to take an interest in such details. Sent to the abbey as a child, he had grown up with a justifiable pride in its history. More than anyone, he appreciated the significance of the man whose braided hair he had so carefully noted.
Æthelstan, a king who over the course of his reign had brought the whole of Britain to acknowledge him as overlord, had been laid to rest in Malmesbury some two centuries before, in 939. During his lifetime, he had been a formidably generous patron of the abbey. Of all the many shrines to which he had been devoted, “he had honoured none as more holy than Malmesbury”. It was thanks to his generosity that it could boast a particularly awesome relic: a fragment of the True Cross. The monks’ devotion to their long-dead patron was only to be expected.
William’s horizons, though, were far from bound by the limits of his monastery. Fascinated by the past since a child, it was his ambition to write a comprehensive history of England. That one of his parents was actually a Norman did not in any way inhibit him from declaring his motivation to be “love of my country”. The sheer antiquity of the English state, far from being despised by its conquerors, tended instead to be both prized and respected by them – for it added lustre to their rule. A Norman anointed as ‘King of the English’, no matter that his native tongue was French, ruled as the heir of those same kings who had first, long before the slaughter at Hastings, fashioned England and brought it into being.
William, whose sophistication as a historian was profound, was in no doubt as to the scale of what they had achieved. It was not only their victories in war that had laid the foundations of the English state but their concern for justice and their sponsorship of learning. Generous a patron of Malmesbury though Æthelstan had been, there were reasons far more telling why William should portray him as the greatest of England’s kings. “The opinion of the English that he governed them with a greater concern for law and for education than anyone else in their history is a valid one.”
By the time that William wrote this, ‘Englalonde’ had been a term in common use for a century, and its lineaments as a kingdom had come to be taken widely for granted. It was evident as well that the roots of this precociously unitary state, with its single currency, its common language and its intimidating monarchy, reached back in turn a further century – and that the first man who could legitimately be reckoned its king was Æthelstan. “Through God’s grace he ruled all of England alone which before him many kings held among themselves.”
The achievement, though, had not been his alone. The kingdom of the English had been fashioned over the course of three generations and in the teeth of a desperate struggle for survival against the Vikings. Over the course of the ninth century, a succession of English-speaking kingdoms had been first stripped bare and then dismembered: Northumbria, East Anglia, the Midlands realm of Mercia. Only one realm had held out: Wessex. Then, in the winter of 878, its king, Alfred, had been ambushed and sent fleeing into a marsh. The entire future of the English as an independent people had been left hanging by a thread.
Alfred, though, had re-emerged from the marshes, defeated the Vikings and succeeded in stabilising the frontiers of his kingdom. When he died in 899, both Wessex and the western half of Mercia were securely under his rule. Further conquests were to follow. Edward, Alfred’s eldest son and heir as king, had arrived at a momentous conclusion: that ultimately, faced by enemies as predatory and opportunistic as the Vikings, it was only by forcing all of them to submit permanently that Wessex and Mercia would ever be able to enjoy true security. Accordingly, he dug for victory. A great line of fortresses was erected along his frontier with Viking territory.
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In constructing these ‘burhs’, Edward was helped by a remarkable woman: his sister, Æthelflæd. Devout, learned and martial in her ambitions, she had been married by Alfred to the most powerful man in Mercia and then, after his death in 911, accepted by the Mercians as their ruler. In 917, brother and sister moved in for the kill. As Edward annexed Viking-held East Anglia, so Æthelflæd received the surrender of Derby and Leicester (the latter in 918). By the time she died, on 12 June 918, everywhere south of the Humber had effectively come under Edward’s rule. The launchpad had been built for what would prove, the following decade, to be the final and decisive stage in the fashioning of England: the conquest of Northumbria.
This was secured in 927. Æthelstan, Edward’s eldest son and Æthelflæd’s ward for much of his youth, had been on the throne since 924. He had been crowned as king of both the Saxons of Wessex and the Anglians of Mercia – as king of the Anglo-Saxons. Then, two years later, he marched on the Viking-held city of York and made it his own. Princes in the lands beyond the city, intimidated by the scope of his power, scrabbled to acknowledge his authority. Never before had the grasp of a southern king reached so far. Wessex, Mercia and now Northumbria: all the peoples who spoke the conqueror’s own language, the whole way to the Firth of Forth, acknowledged Æthelstan as their lord. In mark of this, he adopted a fateful new title, that of ‘Rex Anglorum’: ‘King of the English’.
Æthelstan’s horizons, though, were wider still. His ambitions were not content with the rule of the English alone. He aspired to be acknowledged as lord of the entire island: by the inhabitants of the various kingdoms of the Welsh; and by the Welsh-speaking Cumbrians of Strathclyde, whose king, Owain, held sway from the Clyde down to Hadrian’s Wall; and by the Scots, who lived beyond the Forth in the Highland realm of Alba. All had duly been obliged to bow their necks to him. In May 934, when Constantin, king of Scotland, briefly attempted defiance, Æthelstan led an army deep into Alba and put its heartlands to the torch. Constantin was quickly brought to heel. Humbly he acknowledged the invader as his overlord. When poets and chroniclers hailed Æthelstan as ‘rex totius Britanniae’ – ‘the king of the whole of Britain’ – they were not indulging in idle flattery but simply stating fact.
Conquest was not the limit of Æthelstan’s feats. The greatest warrior of the age did not scorn to moderate martial prowess with compassion. Like his grandfather, Alfred, whose own law code had been prefaced with praise for “the mercy taught by Christ”, Æthelstan believed himself bound to legislate in a way that ranked as authentically Christian. The obligation on him to maintain the order of his kingdom and ensure the security of his subjects did not prevent him from fretting at the human cost. It was the law in Wessex that even a child as young as 10 might be condemned for theft. Yet Æthelstan, in spelling out the details of what precisely was to constitute a capital offence, made sure to spare from execution all those under the age of 13.
Nevertheless, Æthelstan’s conscience remained troubled. Even as he attempted to stamp out theft and robbery, legislating against them to an almost obsessive degree, anxiety that he might be betrayed by his own laws into savagery still gnawed at him. Lengthy consultations with his counsellors and his bishops duly persuaded him to ameliorate their strictness. “The king thinks it cruel to have such young people put to death, and for such minor offences, as he has learnt is the common practice elsewhere. Therefore, it is the stated opinion both of the king and of those with whom he has discussed the matter that no one should be put to death who is under 15 years of age.”
Clemency such as this was the reverse side of the ferocity with which Æthelstan punished betrayals of his lordship. A Christian king was nothing, in his opinion, if he did not combine greatness with care for the vulnerable. In 932, on Christmas Eve, he duly marked the birth of his Saviour in a stable by issuing a charter that imposed a legal obligation upon its recipient to care for the poor. Æthelstan’s determination that no one living on his own lands be permitted to starve saw him issue a particularly prescriptive ordinance. The officials responsible for his estates were warned by their master that fines would be levied on those who failed in their duty to the needy and the proceeds donated to charity. “My wish it is that you should always provide the destitute with food.”
But in the north trouble was brewing. Constantin, determined still to shake off the yoke of Æthelstan’s overlordship, despite his grudging submission in 934; Owain, fearful of what the greatness of the emergent English kingdom on his doorstep might mean for his own much smaller realm; the Vikings, unreconciled to their loss of York: Æthelstan had underestimated them all. By 937, their alliance was out in the open.
Two centuries later, William of Malmesbury would report that the realisation of his blindness had numbed Æthelstan. Brought the news of the powers ranged against him, he had acted at first as though frozen by the sheer horror of it. As harvests in the north of his kingdom were put to the torch and peasants fled before the onslaught, so the rex totius Britanniae had seemed to shrink from acting. “But at length the cries of complaint stirred the king. He knew it insufferable to be branded with the shame of having submitted meekly to barbarian arms.” And so, with the weariness of a man who had believed his life’s great labour of construction completed, only to find it threatened with utter ruin, he readied himself to fight for the survival of England. “Æðelstan cyning lædde fyrde to Brunanbyrig”: “Æthelstan the king led the levy to Brunanburh.”
His victory there was bloody and terrible and would long be enshrined as the most glorious that anyone could remember. It was called the ‘Great War’. Two years later, though, exhausted perhaps by the sheer scale of his labours, Æthelstan was dead, and the Vikings – taking their chance – returned to York. His two brothers, Edmund and Eadred, who succeeded the great king in turn, found it a desperate struggle to reclaim his legacy. Only after several decades of ebb and flow was the integrity of the new kingdom of ‘Englalonde’ enduringly established.
In time, it came to seem as though it had always been. Two hundred years on, by the time that William of Malmesbury sat down to write his history, the existence of England appeared the natural state of affairs. Memories had faded of the seismic character of Æthelstan’s reign and of just how momentous its effect had been upon the political configuration of the entire island. Despite William’s own best efforts, Æthelstan’s personal renown began to fade. Today, nothing better illustrates the oblivion that has largely claimed his reputation than the fact that the very site of Brunanburh, his greatest victory, has slipped from memory. The king who founded England has largely been forgotten even by the English.
Yet though the site of Brunanburh may be unrecoverable, the implications of what was forged by Æthelstan and his dynasty more than a millennium ago have lately come to possess a renewed saliency. As the bonds weaken that for the past 300 years have joined England and Scotland in a united kingdom, so inevitably have the English as well as the Scots begun to ponder what defines them as a nation. That a union as long-lasting as that of Great Britain might fray can hardly help but serve as a reminder that the joining of different peoples in a shared sense of identity is not something easily achieved and maintained. Perhaps we can see now, in a way that we could not even a few decades ago, just how astonishing the creation of ‘Englalonde’ actually was. The story of how, over the course of three generations, the royal dynasty of Wessex went from near-oblivion to fashioning a kingdom that still endures today is the most remarkable and momentous in British history. That Æthelstan, let alone Edward and Ætheflæd, are shadowy figures, with inner lives that are as unknowable to us as the site of Brunanburh, does not render their accomplishments any less astonishing. They and Alfred richly merit being commemorated as England’s founding fathers – or, of course, in Æthelflæd’s case, as England’s founding mother.
Some two and a half decades after the death of Æthelstan, a bishop named Æthelwold, surveying “the whole dominion of England”, hailed its existence as a miracle “obtained by God’s grace”. Yet Æthelwold, who had served as one of Æthelstan’s closest advisers before becoming a priest, knew full well that the united kingdom of the English had been obtained by human agency as well as by divine providence.
Even as he expressed his astonishment that it should be marked by such prosperity and peace, Æthelwold did not hesitate to give credit to the kings who had wrought so much in the teeth of such terrible odds: “Mature in age and very prudent, and farseeing in wisdom, and hard to overcome in any strife.” Such praise, coming from a man who had grown up by Æthelstan’s side, carries rare conviction.
Bishop Æthelwold spoke for all those who, enjoying the order brought to lands that only decades before had been scenes of carnage and devastation, felt due gratitude for what had been achieved by Alfred and his heirs. He, close enough in time to Æthelstan’s reign to have been the great king’s protégé, understood the full scale of his debt. We, at a millennium’s remove, could perhaps remember it better.
Tom Holland is a co-presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Making History. Æthelstan (Penguin Monarchs): The Making of England is published by Allen Lane and is available now.
Tom Holland will be speaking about ‘Christianity: The Most Enduring Legacy of the Ancient World‘ at our History Weekend events in autumn 2019.
This article was first published in the July 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine