Who Was Athelstan and Why Was His Reign So Significant?

History Hit

3 mins

27 Oct 2016

On 27 October 939 Athelstan – the first and perhaps the greatest King of England – died in Gloucester at the age of 47. This man was remembered as a famous warrior who defeated the Danes and the Scots and forged the Kingdom we now call England. However, he was also a gifted statesman who introduced legal and social reform, founded churches across his new land, and brought England into contact with mainland Europe more than any ruler who came before him.

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Athelstan’s rise to power

Athelstan was born in 894, whilst his grandfather Alfred the Great was still King. The 9th century had been a tumultuous one for the Saxon kingdoms of England, which had fallen one by one to invading Danes with the exception of Alfred’s kingdom: Wessex. Alfred had repelled many Danish invasions and earned his epithet, and by the time Athelstan was born he had left a legacy of good governance, well-fortified towns and military success.

The young prince was groomed for a bright future, and as a young boy the aged Alfred draped a scarlet cloak around him in an important coming-of-age ceremony. When Athelstan’s father Edward died in 924, however, his succession to the throne was not simple.

Edward had remarried after the death or possibly disgrace of Athelstan’s mother, and his eldest son was now no longer his sole or primary heir. Wessex was left to Elfweard, a son by his new wife – while Athelstan had to be content with the poorer northern Kingdom of Mercia, which had recently been re-conquered.

Luckily for the young prince, Elfweard chose a good moment to drop down dead, and the young man had a far better claim. Eventually, after making deals and threatening movements from Mercia, Athelstan was crowned King of the free English in 925 in Kingston-upon-Thames, a town which marked the boundary between Mercia and Wessex. It took time for Athelstan to be accepted everywhere, and years into his reign there was a plot by a nobleman called Alfred to have him blinded and deposed.

A silver penny of King Athelstan. Credit: York Museums Trust / Commons.

Athelstan expands his kingdom further…

With his power finally secure, the young King wasted no time in pursuing an aggressive foreign policy. Marching north in 927 he conquered the Viking Kingdom of York, thus bringing all the English under one King for the first time in history.

The Northumbrians bitterly resented southern control, but the force of Athelstan’s personality bound them all together and on 12 July 927 a historic meeting took place where the lords of Northumbria and the Kings of Scotland and Wales accepted Athelstan’s overlordship. For a time he was the undisputed overlord of the British isles, but there were more battles still to come.

…yet it was not without challenge

In 937 the Constantine, King of the Scots made an alliance with Owain King of the northern Britons and Olaf King of Dublin, who had his eyes on the still Viking-dominated York. The combined forces of these men marched south and invaded Athelstan’s kingdom.

Unlike that of Harold II a hundred years later, Athelstan’s response was slow and measured. He did raise an army without panicking and eventually met his enemies at Brunanburh, where he won a crushing victory, and secured English dominance over the Isles.

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Aside from his conquests and victories Athelstan took after his grandfather and being a hard-working and conscientious King. He centralised government control by making the advisory Witan into a national assembly of sorts, which has lead him to be called

“the true if unwitting founder of the English parliament.”

Even if this is going a bit far, his government reforms turned England into something approaching a modern nation-state rather than a collection of squabbling kingdoms. In addition, we have more legal documents dating from Athelstan’s reign than that of any pre-Norman King, and he was the first to introduce a proper coin mint.

Athelstan became one of the greatest men in Europe

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A focus on the importance of learning created a cosmopolitan and intellectual court full of the greatest minds from across northern Europe. This, and a series of tactical marriages, meant that Athelstan’s England developed close ties with the continent. An example of this is an embassy sent to his court by the Duke of Boulogne, attempting to win the hand of the King’s sister. The gifts given to Athelstan included the sword of the Emperor Constantine, a piece of the crown of thorns and even the lance of Charlemagne.

Having developed a series of alliances across Europe, Athelstan sent military aid to Norway, the Frankish Kingdom and Brittany. After helping the Norwegians he was known for a long time as “Athelstan the good.” A wise King, fine warrior and one of the greatest men of an entire continent, Athelstan should be remembered and celebrated.