Æthelstan r. 924-39

Unification: Opposition

Initial Opposition - Wessex/Mercia Divide

  • 918 Edward the Elder accepted submission of Welsh (as Alfred had) and ended Mercian autonomy by occupying Tamworth
  • 910-24 No charters of Edward so no titles to see how he saw how the unification was going
  • Æthelstan was brought up in Mercia with Æthelflaed
  • Possibly only accepted as king in Mercia (Mercia Register says the Mercians took him as king)
    • Ælfweard reigned for 4 weeks in Wessex before his death
    • Legitimacy as king not very clear - unification of Mercia and Wessex doesn't seem to have been planned! => Opposition in Wessex?
  • 925 Charter: "whirlpools of cataclyrms", no WS signatures
  • William of Malmesbury: records attempted rebellion
  • Didn't marry - possibly offered to stay childless to allow Edmund successesion in exchange for support
  • 933 mysterious death of Eadwine, Ælfweard's brother - possibly some foul play? (if so, reflects some division still existing)
1 of 12

Unification: Opposition

Fading Opposition - Focus on Getting Northumbria

  • Developments in Danelaw
    • York (Sihtric); Dublin (Guthfrith); Axis (c. 921-7)
  • Æthelstan recognised them - Sihtric married Æthelstan's sister - shows relative weakness of West Saxon position
  • 927 Sihtric died; Æthelstand gained direct overlordship of Northumbria
    • ASC: he "succeeded to the kingdom" - unclear whether Sihtric or Æthelstand intended for this to happen
      • Implies it was legitimate/concrete - suggests this was an idea somebody thought was happening/wanted to happen
    • Guthfrith travelled to York to oppose this, but was driven out
    • First king to officially rule Northumbria?
      • Threatened the Scots/Strathclyde
  • 927 Æthelstan's success at Battle of Eamont - celebratory poem
    • Carta dirige gressus - based on a poem about Charlemagne
    • Depicts Æthelstan as successful in uniting the English
  • 927 also conquered Dumnonia? And had oaths of allegians from the kings of Strathclyde and Picts
2 of 12

Unification: Opposition

Numismatic Evidence

  • Uniformity of coins and restriction of minting to towns
    • Innovation in royal control
  • Hoards sugest this was successful - very little coinage from the period that isn't by him
3 of 12

Government Reforms: Charters


  • 925: early charters title him as 'King of the Anglo-Saxons'
  • From 928: lots of charters by Æthelstan
    • Lofty titles such as 'King of the English'
    • Very high-flown, ornate style
    • Very long witness lists - regularly include Welsh kings as witnesses
    • High aspirations for his rule - could control polities under his control and create hierarchies
  • Lots of charters - esp. when compared to dearth from Edward the Elder's reign
    • Deliberate policy or to meet the needs of a much larger kingdom?
  • Centralisation of charter production
    • Control in Wessex and royal court
  • Charters show granting land in Northumbria => real control
  • Also at least nominal control in Wales
4 of 12

Government Reforms: Coinage

Numismatic Evidence

  • Pre 927: had continued father's coinage, titled as 'Æthelstan Rex'
  • Post 927: new type made throughout England, titled 'Æthelstan Rex Tot[ius] Bri[tanniae]' (also in charters)
    • Asserting control; distributing image and title
    • Return to idea of the ability to rule all of Britain - very Bedan, romanitas, etc.
  • Also the first king to appear in a crown
    • Both on coinage and in manuscripts
  • The image of the kingdom presented in the charters, coinage, etc. is one of unity
    • Idea of Britain as a single entity
5 of 12

Government Reforms: Law Codes

  • Issues four law codes in the 930s


  • Emphasis on the enforcement of his law codes - detailing of harsh penalties
  • Learn from the later Exeter Book that this had little effect

Exeter Code

  • Says that his laws are not being kept as well as he would like and as he said they should be in his previous code at Grately
  • Introduced gatherings of kings to give tribute, etc.
    • Possibly one at Colchester in March 931 - incl. 37 thegns, 13 earls (6 Danish), 3 abbots, 15 bishops (incl. that of Chester-le-Street) and the archbishop of Canterbury
  • Exercising his power through control - also trying to encourage national unity
    • Trying to bring everyone together under his control
6 of 12

Contact w/ Continent

  • 4 of his half-sisters married into Continental royal families
    • Cultivating royal continental connections, while houses on the Continent were interested in British ones
    • Real sense of setting up a European network of connections - possibly at the expense of relationships with Welsh, Northumbrians, Picts, etc.
    • Marriages were reciprocated with gifts; e.g. Eadhild married Duke Hugh of the Franks in 926 and Hugh sent Æthelstan the sword of Constantine the Great
    • Book containing the Rex Pius Æthelstan poem was possibly a gift from Otto I, who married Æthelstan's sister Edith
  • Had strong allie across the Continet
    • Sent the first English military force across the continent to help Lois regain throne of West Franks in 939 (admittedly a disaster)
  • Followed Alfred's legacy by encouraging Latin learning - poems from his reign, several books donated by him
  • Role of foreigners at court - following Alfred but much wider range of countries
    • Egil Skallagrimson, links to Harald Fairhair - Hakon Æthelstansfoestri (fostering model similar to political marriage one)
  • Foreign ecclesiastics - foreign influences in books and foreign names of scribes and clerics
7 of 12

Military Success (pt. 1)

  • 920s: Ordinance of the Dunsaete = settlement of the English-Welsh disputes on the river Wye
    • Comparable with Alfred-Guthrum treaty?
    • Shows there was tension and local disputes - not v. successful in stopping them!
  • 927: Æthelstan's success at Battle of Eamont against Constantine of the Picts, Owaine of Gwent, Hywel Dda of West Wales, Ealdred of Bamburgh - not yet integrated
  • Welsh not v. happy
    • Poem Armes Prydein - plans to reclaim homeland and push England back to the Continent
    • Celebratory poem - carta dirige gressus - based on a poem about Charlemagne
      • Depicts Æthelstan as successful in uniting the English
      • Victory didn't cement loyalty in a long-lasting or secure way
8 of 12

Military Success (pt. 2)

  • 934: Olaf became King in Dublin - possibly son in law of Constantine of Scotland
    • Constantine in outright rebellion against agreement with Wessex - wanted York as a buffer against the English
  • Diplomatic response
    • Gave important gifts to monks of Chester-le-Street (previously of Lindisfarne) donated CCCC 183
      • Emphasising Wessex-Northumbria links; promoting aggressive image
    • Gave Bishop fo York land in Lancashire
  • Military response
    • Ravaged Scotland - took Constantine's son hostage
      • Possibly alonstide Welsh and Scandinavian allies?
  • 934: Æthelstan and Court back in south, Constantine in a witness list as 'sub king'
9 of 12

Military Success (pt. 3)

  • 937: Olaf assembled coalition with Constantine, Strathclyde Britons, Scandinavian groups within Britain --> met by Æthelstan and Edmund at Brunanburh (where is this?)
    • OE battle poem in ASC celebrates a decisive English victory
  • Reinforced English unity - poem emphasises the Mercians and West Saxons fighting together
    • So were divisions, but no longer opposition
  • Kingdom still far from stable at Æthelstand's death in 939
  • BUT could be regarded as an indication of Æthelstan's failture to rule Northumbria in a way that kept Alba, Strathclyde, Hiberno-Norse happy
    • Was too much of a threat/too agressive to British neighbours
10 of 12

The Church

  • Very pious himself
  • Used the church to further own political aims
    • Donations to churches - e.g. CCCC 183 to Chester-le-Street
    • Founded St Germans, Cornwall, to secure Anglo-Saxons power in Dumnonia
  • Intellectual interests
    • William of Malmesbury says he was brought up to be an intellectual
11 of 12


  • Lots of sources
  • Foot: not an accident - careful to promote his own image - products of his own interests --> donated books to religious houses, attracted foreign scholars
  • Attracted later scholarship
    • William of Malmesbury, Gestum Regum Anglorum - long section on Æthelstan
      • How valuable is his information? Æthelstan did have close links with Malmesbury Abbey, so there may have been some accurate records there
      • Pretty problems: later ideological view; set up quite a lot of deliberate parallels with Alfred in his early life (e.g. symbolic cloak, belt, sword)
  • Lapidge: the three poems that survive represent three stages of Æthelstan's life/reign
    • Acrostic = childhood
    • Carta dirige gressus = zenith of power, triumph over Eamont
    • Rex pious Ædhelstan = latter days, mindful of mortality
  • One judgement: demonstratedd the viability of a unified English kingdom, but failed to secure it
12 of 12


No comments have yet been made

Similar History resources:

See all History resources »See all Anglo-Saxon History resources »