Childhood & Early Life
Athelstan or Æthelstan was born to Edward the Elder and his first wife Ecgwynn in 894. His mother’s exact lineage is unknown and historians believe that she was probably not of noble descent, which could be the reason why almost no information is available about her family. Some believe that Ecgwynn was Edward’s concubine and not his wife, while others argue that she was actually related to St Dunstan, Bishop of London.
Ecgwynn died shortly after giving birth to Athelstan, and he was brought up by his paternal aunt Ethelfleda, known as the Lady of Mercia.
As a young boy, Athelstan was known to be tall and handsome. His grandfather, Alfred the Great, doted on him and showered plenty of expensive jewels and other priceless gifts upon him.
Athelstan completed his education at the court in Mercia, which was then ruled by his uncle Æthelred. He also received military training in the Mercian camps. When Æthelred died, Athelstan took control of Mercia, probably on his father’s behalf.
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After Edward the Elder died on 17 July 924, his kingdom was divided between his two sons - Athelstan and Ælfweard. Ælfweard became the king of Wessex, while Athelstan went on to preside over Mercia. However, Ælfweard died just 16 days after Edward’s demise, and the people of Wessex refused to accept Athelstan as their leader. It was only after he threatened to invade Wessex did the people give in to his rule.
Athelstan was crowned in 925 at Kingston-upon-Thames, which was located on the boundary separating Wessex and Mercia. The coronation was conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Athelm, who created the new ordo and made the king wear a crown instead of a helmet.
Despite the coronation, Athelstan faced continuous opposition from the people. He also faced serious threats to life especially from those who favoured Ælfweard’s younger brother Edwin for the throne.
To get rid of his competition, Athelstan sent Edwin on a sea voyage in a leaking old boat, devoid of a sail, water or any other provision. Fearing the impending starvation, Edwin plunged into the sea and died of drowning. Later, it was said that Athelstan regretted his actions against his step-brother, and did penance to have himself absolved of his crime. Some historians dispute this claim and believe that Athelstan may not have ordered Edwin’s death.
Before Edward the Elder died, he had brought the Danish territories in Mercia and East Anglia under his rule with his brother-in-law’s help. However, the Viking Kingdom of York was still under Danish King Sihtric’s control.
Athelstan got his sister married to Sihtric in 926 after which the two kings agreed to refrain from invading their respective territories. However, after Sihtric died in 927, Athelstan wasted no time in attacking the region and thereby capturing it.
Following his victory, King Hywel Dda of Deheubarth, Ealdred of Bamburgh, King Constantine of Scotland, and King Owain of Strathclyde surrendered to Athelstan, thus making him the first English king to rule over the entire northern Britain. He preferred being called ‘Basilius’, which means king in Greek.
In 937, the Vikings and Scots, namely Constantine II of Scotland, Eógan of Strathclyde, and King of Dublin, Olaf Guthfrithson, joined forced against Athelstan and tried to take the kingdom down. However, King of the English emerged victorious in the bloody Battle of Brunanburh.
Athelstan was a shrewd strategist who married off his sisters to rulers of regions holding political importance. He married his half-sister Edith to the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I, while his other half-sister Eadgifu was married off to Charles the Simple, King of the West Franks. One half-sister of his became the wife of Viking Egil Skallagrimsson, while yet another half-sister was sent off to marry Alan II of Brittany.
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He developed an comprehensive legal system that dealt with petty crimes, oppression and fraud. More texts detailing the legal codes of his time have been found than that of any other 10th century ruler. His laws showed influence of Carolingian law developed during the time of Charlemagne.
The law codes of his initial reign appear to be mainly related to the clerical matters. But during the later stages of his rule, more law codes were developed to tackle crimes that disturbed the social order, especially theft. He imposed stringent penalties, including death, to tackle crimes prevalent in his era.
The monetary system during his rule was not as organised as it became during the reign his nephew King Edgar. The coins issued during Athelstan’s time showed his bust wearing a crown with three stalks. These were issued throughout his kingdom except Mercia.
Athelstan was a charitable king, and he made several provisions for the poor. He established the rule that each of his manors should pay an annual fee that would be used to help the poor in the kingdom. His charitable nature made him popular, and he was referred to as 'a pillar of dignity in the western world' in ‘The Annals of Ulster’.
He held tremendous respect for the Church and had churchmen attend not just the royal feasts but also the Royal council meetings. He built several churches and donated generously to monasteries.
The King of the English also did a great deal to revive ecclesiastical scholarship and education. He aggressively promoted sacred learnings and personally collected a great deal of relics and spiritual books.
Family & Personal Life
Athelstan was never married and had no children.
He was believed to be extremely religious. He took great interest in artwork and was fond of collecting religious relics.
He died on 27 October 939 in Gloucester at the age of 45 years. Even though most of his family was buried at the family mausoleum in Winchester, he chose not to be buried there because of the opposition he faced there during his lifetime.
He opted to be buried at Malmesbury Abbey alongside his cousins who died in the Battle of Brunanburh. His choice of burial showed his loyalty to the abbey and the abbot, Saint Aldhelm.
His achievements may pale compared to his grandfather Alfred the Great, but Athelstan is still considered one of the greatest kings belonging to the Anglo-Saxon dynasty.