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Ambitious Aethelstan: The First King of All England

Researching and writing about British royal history is a pleasure. There are so many interesting characters to meet along the way.

Each of the English kingdoms had their own rulers prior to 927A.D. and Aethelstan's reign.

Each of the English kingdoms had their own rulers prior to 927A.D. and Aethelstan's reign.

Raised in Wessex and Mercia

The monarchy of all England began in 927A.D. with the Anglo-Saxon ruler Aethelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great (c.848-899) from the House of Wessex, founded in 519. (Alfred is best remembered as the king who burned the cakes.) Aethelstan was born circa 894 and his name meant 'noble stone' in old Norse. His parents were Edward the Elder, King of the Anglo-Saxons (c.874-924) and his first wife Ecgwynna.

After his mother died and Edward the Elder remarried Aethelstan was sent to live with his aunt Aethelfraed, the Lady of the Mercians (d.918,) and her husband Aethelred, Lord of the Mercians (d.911) from whom he learned a great deal about being a diplomatic ruler who could show skill in battle when it arose. Aethelstan had loyalty from the inhabitants of Mercia, something that his Wessex ancestors had not enjoyed.

Aethelstan, King of the English from Bede's Life of St. Cuthbert.

Aethelstan, King of the English from Bede's Life of St. Cuthbert.

Aethelstan Realises His Vision

Aethelstan’s appearance and attitudes have not been extensively written about for historians to pore over so assumptions have been made about him through his deeds but we do know that he was fairly tall, slim and blond-haired. He was pious, forceful and loyal but unsympathetic to rebels who he cut down with a terrifying resoluteness. He had the love, tempered with fear, of the English people.

Prior to ruling all of England he was the Anglo-Saxon peoples’ ruler in Wessex and Mercia between 924 and 927 and he had his coronation on 25th September 925 in Kingston-Upon-Thames with Aethelhelm, the Archbishop of Canterbury (d.926) officiating. Aethelhelm crowned him with a crown rather than the usual helmet. This was the first ever crowning of a ruler with a crown.

Aethelstan’s vision was to unite the different parts of the country into one peaceful kingdom as his father and grandfather had started to do during their reigns. He claimed the throne of all England in 927 after defeating the Vikings in their stronghold of the Kingdom of York in the Battle of Brunanbur.

Resistance to Aethelstan's Rule

Not all parts of the country submitted wholly to the new king’s will, a defiant Cornwall retained its own language and culture. Wessex’s people chose Aethelstan’s half-brother Aelfweard (d.924) as their king after Edward the Elder died in 924 but he was killed in battle just two weeks after he succeeded to the throne. Aelfweard’s brother Edwin was displaced as Wessex’s ruler by Aethelstan a year later. Edwin drowned in the North Sea in 933, the circumstances were never made clear.

A coin from Aethelstan's reign. He founded a currency system for his people.

A coin from Aethelstan's reign. He founded a currency system for his people.

Lawmaker

Aethelstan created and enforced several laws via charters ornately crafted in the hermeneutic Anglo-Latin style. These were written by a scribe known to history as "Aethelstan A," his true identity is unknown. The charters tackled crime and social order, permitted weekly markets in certain towns and banned Sunday trading.

The king settled land disputes that threatened the peace and he initiated a recognised currency system for his country. He also had the Bible printed in English for the first time so that more people would understand the word of God. He was considered a good administrator. His legacy survives in numerous pieces of legislature that still form the foundation of laws today.

Charter S416: An image of the November 931 charter created by King Aethelstan awarding land parcels to a minister named Wulfgar in Wessex, today's Wiltshire.

Charter S416: An image of the November 931 charter created by King Aethelstan awarding land parcels to a minister named Wulfgar in Wessex, today's Wiltshire.

The Early Medieval Marriage Market

Aethelstan invented titles that showed his elevation. He preferred to use King of the English rather than King of England. He arranged dynastic marriages for four of his half-sisters which strengthened his reputation across the continent. To maintain peace in York his full sister Edith married Sithric Caech, King of Yorvik (York.)

Another Edith, from his father’s second marriage, was married to Otto I of East Francia, later of the Holy Roman Empire. Edgifu married Charles the Simple of West Francia and Eadhild married Hugh the Great, Duke of the Franks. Aethelstan did not marry or have issues himself which has led to speculation that he made a promise about the succession passing to his half brothers during his reign.

Scotland and Wales Bow To Him

Enjoying his power, in 934 he launched an invasion on Scotland in an attempt to seize the throne. The Scots, ruled by Constantine II of Scotland (c.874-952), fought back as the general sentiment was one of ensuring independence from English rule. In 937 the Scottish launched a counterattack which Aethelstan and his soldiers suppressed. Constantine II was forced to submit to the King of the English’s will. The five Welsh kings acknowledged Aethelstan as the more powerful ruler and paid financial tributes to him to keep his favour.

Aethelstan's tomb at Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire. Much of the abbey was ruined during Henry VIII's  Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Aethelstan's tomb at Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire. Much of the abbey was ruined during Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries.

A Short But Productive Reign

Whilst still at the height of his powers and only in his forties, Aethelstan died in Gloucester in October 939 and was buried at Malmesbury Abbey in 941 as he had wished. The abbey was a monastery for Benedictine monks founded by his 7th-century ancestor Aldhelm of Wessex, known in Latin as Aldhelmus Malmesberiensis. Aldhelm was proclaimed a saint after his death with 25th May as his saint’s day.

Aethelstan was succeeded by Edmund I (921-946), his half-brother through Edward the Elder’s third wife. York was reclaimed by the Vikings under Olaf Guthfrithson (?-941) and it remained under Viking rule until 954 when it became part of the England ruled by Eadred, Weak in the Feet. (What an epithet!)

Aethelstan’s bloodline has remained unbroken for almost 1100 years and looks set to continue with Charles, Prince of Wales, William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George of Cambridge.

Sources

© 2021 Joanne Hayle

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