Æthelstan: First Medieval Ruler of a United English Kingdom

Portrait of King Æthelstan presenting a book to St Cuthbert, by permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, f. 1v),

Æthelstan was the first ruler of the whole kingdom of England.

Æthelstan was the grandson of King Alfred of Wessex  (reigned 871–899) and the son of King Edward the Elder (reigned 899–924). Nothing is certain about his mother, but Continental and later writers suggest she was of lower social status. At some point, Æthelstan was fostered by his aunt Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

When Edward the Elder died, Æthelstan was initially proclaimed king of the Mercians, while his brother, Ælfweard, became king of the West Saxons. However, Ælfweard died 16 days later, and Æthelstan was crowned king of Wessex in September 925. 

Once ruler, Æthelstan sought to expand his realm. He first made a strategic alliance with Sihtric, the Scandinavian ruler of York, who had come to Northumbria from Dublin. After Sihtric’s death in 927, Æthelstan claimed control of Northumbria for himself. He secured important northern allies, such as the powerful Community of St Cuthbert, who added his name at the head of the list of kings and noblemen in their book of benefactors .

Æthelstan was the first southern king to exercise real control over the East Midlands, East Anglia and the North, and it was around this time that the title ‘king of the English’ (‘rex Anglorum’) was first used. Leaders of the Scots, Welsh and Strathclyde Britons also submitted to him. 

Æthelstan’s ambitions did not end with being ‘king of English’, as he was also styled ‘king of all Britain’ and ‘emperor’ in certain documents. 

Ancient artesian spring at Barton-upon-Humber at Brunanburh. / Photo by 1066Thinker, Wikimedia Commons

In 937, Æthelstan and his brother Edmund defeated a combined force of the kings of Dublin, Scots, Strathclyde and others at an unidentified place called Brunanburh. Their victory was celebrated in an Old English epic poem that is included in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

‘King Æthelstan – lord of nobles, dispenser of treasure to men – and his brother also, Edmund Atheling, won by the sword’s edge undying glory in battle ’round Brunanburh. [They] clove the shield-wall, hewed the linden-wood shields with hammered swords … the people of the Scots and the pirates fell doomed. The field grew dark with the blood of men … Never yet in this island before this, by what books tell us and our ancient sages, was a greater slaughter of a host made by the edge of the sword, since the Angles and Saxons came hither form the East, invading Britain over the broad seas, and the proud assailants – warriors eager for glory – overcame the Britons and won a country.’

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation, trans. by D. Whitelock and others (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), pp. 69–70. 

Æthelstan also cultivated connections beyond the British Isles. Four of his half-sisters married into noble continental families. One was married to the king of the Franks, and another to the future emperor Otto I (reigned 936–973, emperor from 962). 

The rulers of Brittany, Norway and Francia sent their sons to be fostered at Æthelstan’s court. Æthelstan also supported the claims of his nephew, Louis, to the throne of West Francia, and sent ships to help him attack the Flemish coast.

Æthelstan’s court attracted scholars from Ireland, Germany, Francia, Brittany and Italy.  He was a noted bibliophile, who was presented with many fine manuscripts such as the Coronation Gospels

In turn, he gave several precious books to his allies and churches. Some of these still survive today, including one which contains a famous image of Æthelstan presenting the manuscript  to the Community of St Cuthbert.

Originally published by the British Library under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.



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