gigatos | December 11, 2021


Æþelstan of England (894 – 27 October 939) King of the Anglo-Saxons (924 – 927) and King of England (927 – 939) was the eldest son of Edward the Elder and his first wife Ekguin. Modern historians regard him as the first king of England and one of the leading Anglo-Saxon kings, he never married, left no descendants and was succeeded by his half-brother Edmund.

When Edward the Elder died in July 924, Ethelstan was accepted as king by the people of Mercia, his half-brother Elfwind of England was recognised as king by the people of Wessex but died only three weeks after their father”s death. Ethelstan resided in Wessex for a few months and was not crowned king until September 925, conquering the last Viking stronghold of York (927) and becoming the first Anglo-Saxon king to rule over all of England. In 934 he attacked Scotland, forcing King Constantine II to declare his allegiance to him. The Scottish and Viking forces rallied and attacked him (937) but Ethelstan crushed them at the Battle of Brunanbury a victory that skyrocketed his reputation in the British Isles. After his death (939) the Vikings attacked York again and eventually succeeded in recapturing it (954).Ethelstan created a central government by producing statutes and inviting rulers from outlying areas into his kingdom such as the Welsh who did not belong to his kingdom but accepted his hegemony. The surviving writings about him which were more than any other European ruler in the 10th century manifest his concern for the plundering, robbery and safety of the inhabitants of his kingdom. His legislative arrangements were based on those initiated by his grandfather Alfred the Great, he was the most pious of all Saxon kings in collecting sacred relics and establishing churches. His court became the centre of learning for the English base and laid the foundations for the establishment of Benedictine monasteries in England in the following century. No other Saxon king played such an important role in his time as Ethelstan who arranged to marry his sisters to leading European monarchs.

England before Ethelstan

During the 9th century England was divided into four kingdoms: Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia. In the 8th century Mercia was the most important kingdom in Britain until Wessex was conquered by Ethelstan”s great-great-grandfather Ebert, in the middle of the century England was the target of Viking attacks culminating in the great raid of 865. In 878 the Vikings raided eastern England, Northumbria, Mercia and reached as far as Wessex but were defeated by Alfred the Great at the Battle of Eddington. Alfred the Great and the Viking King of the Law of the Danes Guthrum then agreed to the division of Mercia, Alfred

Little is known about the wars between the English and the Danes in the following years but in 909 Edward sent an army to conquer Northumbria, in the following years the Danes attacked Mercia but were defeated at the battle of Tettenhall. Ethelred died (911), he was succeeded in Mercia by Ethelflint”s widow, in the following years Edward and Ethelflint managed to conquer Mercia and East Anglia. Ethelphild died (918) and was succeeded for a short time by her daughter Elfwyn but in the same year she was deposed by Edward who gained control over the whole of Mercury.By the time of her death Edward had gained control over the whole area south of the Humber. The Viking king Sithric ruled the kingdom of York in southern Northumbria but Eldrid had managed to dominate the former kingdom of Vernicia based in Marburg in northern Northumbria. Constantine II of Scotland ruled over the British kingdom of Strathclyde, Wales was also in turn fragmented into smaller kingdoms.

Historical opinions about his mother

William of Malmesbury mentions that Ethelstan was 30 years old when he ascended the throne, which puts his birth year at 894. He was the eldest and tallest son of Edward the Elder but the only one by his first wife Ekguin, there is no source about his mother in pre-Norman sources. Medieval historians provide different interpretations of his mother, some referring to her as an arrogant noblewoman of noble descent, others instead referring to her descent from a noble family. Modern historians in turn also provide different interpretations, Simon Keynes (b. 1952) and Richard Abels (b. 1951) state that Wessex nobles refused to accept Ethelstan as king because his mother was the mistress of Edward the Elder. Barbara Yorke (b. 1951) and Sarah Foote (b. 1961) respectively report that his disagreements over his mother”s legitimacy were created by his rivals for the succession and there is no doubt that Ekguin was his father”s legitimate wife. His mother was probably related to St. Dunstan.

Benefactor of Alfred”s grandfather

William of Malmesbury reports that Alfred the Great greatly adored his young grandson Ethelstan, honoured him with a magnificent ceremony in which he gave him a black robe, a belt with precious stones and a golden sword. Historians Michael Lapitz (b. 1942) and Michael Wood (b. 1948) report that Alfred was anxious to secure the succession for him because it was contested by his nephew Ethelwald who was the son of an older brother. Historian Janet Nelson (b. 1942) reports Alfred”s conflict with his son Edward in the 890s because Alfred wanted to divide the kingdom between his son and grandson. Historian Martine Ryan (b. 1943) takes it even further by stating that Alfred was so fond of his grandson that he wanted to anoint Ethelstan himself as heir instead of his son. An epic medieval poem called ”Adalstan” dedicated to Ethelred mentions him, according to Lapitz, as a ”noble stone”. Lapitz and Wood state that the poem is a memoir of the magnificent ceremony which Alfred performed to honour his grandson recorded by Saxon John the Old. Wood further states that Ethelred was the first English king who was very clever from childhood and John was probably his tutor. Sarah Foote instead states that the poem is dedicated to his coronation ceremony.

Ascension to the throne of Mercury

Edward the Elder married Elfleda in his second marriage, but it is uncertain whether Ethelstan”s mother had died or whether Edward had divorced her. His father”s second marriage weakened Ethelstan”s position because his stepmother wanted to promote her own sons to the throne of Elfwyrd of Wessex and Edwin instead of him. Edward the Elder married in his third marriage to Edgiphus of Kent (920) probably after a divorce from his second wife. With his third wife his father had two more sons the future kings Edmund I and Edred of England.Ethelstan”s early education was in Mercia at the court of his uncle Ethelred and his aunt Ethelphild, it is certain that Ethelred acquired all his military skills in his uncle”s campaigns against Danelaw. A document of 1304 records that in 925 Ethelstan gave a charter of privileges to the abbey of St Oswald in Gloucester in which his uncle and aunt were buried with the inscription ”according to the paternal care which I have promised to Ethelred, Earl of the inhabitants of Mercury”. When Edward the Elder took direct charge of Mercury after the death of Ethelphild (918), Ethelred went to the region as his father”s representative.

Edward died on 17 July 924 at Fardon in northern Mercia, but the events that followed are unclear. Elfward his father”s eldest son with his second wife Elfled presented a charter 901 which presented him as his father”s heir to Wessex or the whole of the rest of England. If Edward really intended to divide his kingdom in two he probably wanted Ethelstan as his successor in Mercia. Edward died while he was with Ethelred in Mercia, at the same time Elfward was in Wessex. The nobles of Mercia subsequently elected Ethelred as their king and the nobles of Wessex elected Elfward as their king, who died soon afterwards, just 16 days after his father.

Rise to the throne of Wessex with reactions

After Elfwind”s untimely death there seems to have been strong resistance in Wessex to Ethelstan, a statute in Derbyshire (925) states that nowhere is Ethelstan”s authority recognised beyond the bishops of Mercia. Historians David Dumville (b. 1949) and Janet Nelson (b. 1942) state that he had to marry heirs in order to increase the areas under his authority. Sarah Foote, however, records that “he never wanted to marry in his life as a sign of chastity. “Ethelstan”s coronation took place on 4 September 925 at a symbolic location on the border between Wessex and Mercia. His coronation was performed by the Archbishop of Canterbury who changed the coronation ceremony to a crown instead of a helmet in keeping with the manner of coronation in medieval France. Hostilities against him seem to have increased in intensity after his coronation, a man named Alfred planned to blind him, it is unknown who his client was probably his younger half-brother Ethelred Edwin to make him unfit for the throne. Tensions between Ethelstan and Winchester rose sharply in the following years, the bishop of Winchester, Freetheson, did not attend the coronation or send any envoy until 928, after his dismissal (931) he is recorded in a lesser position than his seniority.

Stabilisation on the throne

Edwin drowned in a shipwreck in the North Sea (933), his cousin Adedolph, Earl of Boulogne took his body for burial at St. Bertin”s Abbey in St. Aumer, Folkwyn incorrectly states that Edwin was then king of England with the phrase “he left after a disturbance in his kingdom”. Folquin points out that Ethelred buried his brother with honours and accepted monks to come to England but again incorrectly places the monks” journey in 944 when Ethelred had died. The 12th century chronicler Simeon of Durham states that Ethelstan himself requested Edwin”s drowning but the information is disputed by historians. Edwin escaped from England after a failed rebellion against his brother, his death interrupted the civil strife and hostility of Winchester. Edward the Elder conquered the Danish territories of Mercia and East Anglia with the support of Ethelflint and her husband; when Edward died, King Citrick of Denmark still ruled the Viking kingdom of York. In January 926 Ethelstan arranged the marriage of one of his sisters to Sitric, the two kings agreed never to attack each other”s territory and to defend each other against common enemies. The following year Sitric died and Ethelstan found the right opportunity to attack, Guthfrith a cousin of Sitric led the fleet from Dublin trying to retake the throne but Ethelstan won easily. He took York and accepted the allegiance of the Danes, according to one chronicler he “succeeded the kingdom of Northumbria” and it is uncertain when he fought Guthfrith. The southern kings had never ruled in the north, and the inhabitants of Northumbria accepted Ethelred”s hegemony with great fearOn 12 July 927 near Penrith, Constantine of Scotland, Huell Da of Dehebarth, Earl of Wamburg, and Owaine of Strathclyde declared their allegiance to Ethelred. This triumph resulted in seven years of peace in the north.

Subjugation of Wales

Ethelstan was the first English king to rule the whole of northern Britain, inheriting his power over the Welsh kings from his father and aunt. In the 910s Went recognised the guardianship of Wessex and the other Welsh kings recognised the guardianship of Ethelflint of Mercia. William of Malmesbury reports that Ethelstan summoned all the Welsh kings to Hereford, fixed their annual levy and the boundary between England and Wales on the River Wye. The most important figure among the Welsh kings was Huell Da of Deherbert who is described by historians such as Thomas Charles-Edwards (b. 1943) as ”the most important ally of the British among all the kings of his time”. Welsh kings were at his court in the period 928-935 signing charters which emphasised their superiority among other nobles. The alliance brought peace between England and Wales although some Welsh were strongly resentful of the great subservience of their kings. In a Welsh poem the “Great Prophecy of Britain” foretold the day when the Britons would rise up against their Saxon oppressors and throw them into the sea.

According to William of Malmesbury, after the meeting of Hereford, Ethelstan abolished the Cornish language from Exeter, strengthened the walls of Cornwall and placed its border on the River Thamar. This act is mentioned with scepticism by historians as Cornwall was under English rule until the 19th century. Historian Thomas Charles-Edwards (b. 1943) describes it as a significant history, John Reuben Davis sees it as suppressing British rebellion and restricting Cornwall”s borders beyond the River Thamar. Subsequently Ethelsten attempted to control the bishopric of Cornwall and appoint a new bishop but Cornwall retained its customs and language. Ethelsten appears as the first king of all the Anglo-Saxon peoples, the historian John Manticott (b. 1943) in his work relating to the origins of the British parliament calls the period of English reign from 925 – 975 an imperial phase, the kings of Wales and Scotland adhered to English decrees. Ethelstan tried to reconcile with the Northumbrian aristocracy by granting gifts to the dioceses of Beverley, Chester-le-Street and York, he ceded the Amundernes area of Lancashire to the archbishopric of York. Despite his conquests he always remained unwelcome to the northerners who preferred to ally themselves with the pagan Normans of Dublin as opposed to his strong authority in southern Britain.

Subjugation of Scotland

In 934 Ethelstan attacked Scotland for unknown reasons which historians give different interpretations, the death of his half-brother Edwin (934) neutralised all opposition to him in Wessex. The Norman king of Dublin, Guthrfrith who had ruled Northumbria died (934), this gave Ethelstan a great opportunity to complete his rule in the north. Another explanation as described was the death of another great ruler who was probably Eldrid of Bamberg (934). He generally tried to control the northern regions that were more under Constantine”s rule. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions the expedition without providing further explanation, but the 12th century chronicler John of Worcester states that Constantine violated the agreement he had made with Ethelstan. Ethelstan began his campaign in May 934 accompanied by the four Welsh kings, 18 bishops and 13 earls, six of whom were Danes from eastern England. In July he arrived at Chester-le-Street and made gallant gifts to the tomb of St Cuthbert which included a robe and ecclesiastical jewels intended by his adoptive mother Elfled to Bishop Freetheson of Winchester. The attack took place on land and sea, the 12th century chronicler Simeon of Durham reports that the land forces arrived in north-east Scotland, the fleet correspondingly arrived in the Orcas.

The chronicles do not record any battles, but in September when Ethelstan had returned to England and at Buckingham, Constantine signed a charter declaring his allegiance to Ethelstan along with the other Welsh kings. At Christmas of the same year, however, Owen of Strathclyde was at Ethelstan”s court with the other Welsh kings but Constantine was absent, his return to England two years later was under different circumstances. Olaf Guthfrithson succeeded his father Guthfrith in the Norse kingdom of Dublin (934), the alliance between the Dubliners and the Scots was ratified by Olaf”s marriage to Constantine”s daughter. In August 937 Olaf defeated his internal rivals by gaining control of Ireland from the Vikings and prepared a raid on the former Norse kingdom of York. Olaf and Constantine were weak enough on their own to deal with Ethelstan but could challenge his rule in Wessex, in the autumn they allied with Owen of Strathclyde and decided to attack England. Campaigns were usually made in the summer and Ethelstan could not wait until the end of the year for an expedition of such a large scale, an old Latin poem presented by William of Malmesbury describes his tardiness. The allies attacked England and Ethelstan gathered troops from Mercia and West Saxony. The historian Michael Wood (b. 1948) describes that Ethelstan did not take the risks that Harald III of Norway (1066) did when he marched north; the Welsh kingdoms remained neutral in the war.

The Battle of Brunanabour

The two armies met at the Battle of Brunanbur in which Ethelstan crushed their rivals with the support of his half-brother Edmond. Olaf escaped to Dublin with the remnants of his army and Constantine lost a son, Ethelstan in turn suffered heavy losses among which were his two first cousins, the two sons of Ethelwind”s younger brother Edward the Elder.

The Ulster Chronicles report on the battle:

“A very fierce and terrible battle took place between the Saxons and the Norwegians, many thousands of Norwegians fell in the battle but their king Olaf managed to escape with a few of his followers. From the other camp a large number of Saxons fell in the battle but Ethelstan was the great victor.”

A later chronicler, Ethelwind, reported that it was a very great victory that made Ethelstadt famous with the phrase “victorious with the help of God”. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on the other hand abandons the comic style of storytelling and turns it into an epic form of narrative by presenting Ethelstan in the form of an emperor of all Britain. The location in which the battle took place is uncertain, more than 30 locations have been suggested with Boborug being the most likely. Historians disagree on the value of the battle, Alex Wolfe refers to it as a “Pyrrhic victory” for Ethelstan which resulted in the weakening of the English army and Olaf after his death managed to easily retake Northumbria. Alfred Schmidt describes it as “the greatest victory in English history” without failing to mention the exaggerations in the characterizations. Sarah Fund in turn emphasises the great importance of the victory, pointing out that had the English nation been defeated the English nation would have perished.Historian Michael Livingston states :

“We must not look at the outcome of the battle in the short term, it was a victory that determined the future of the English for many centuries as well as the later overwhelming English domination of the British Isles.”

Central administration

The changes that took place subsequently in the matters of the governance of the kingdom were significant, in the 9th century Wessex was fragmented, most of the powers were held by the earls without answering to the king but by the end of the 10th century they answered to the king on everything. An earl who was also named Ethelstan was placed in East Dunelow in the richest province in England, after the death of King Ethelstan he had such great powers that he gained the title of contractor. Many of the earls had Scandinavian names and in Edward the Elder”s time were the successors to the Viking army chiefs, they owned vast tracts of land but with Ethelstan they became the king”s representatives in the local government. The church also had the most important role during Ethelstan”s reign, the churches and abbeys were closely involved in the administration of the region and participated in all councils.Ethelstan was the first king to establish central administration for the whole of England based on the structures that his predecessors had created. The earlier charters were usually drawn up by priests but in the period 928 – 935 the situation changed as Ethelstan requested that he should have personal supervision over their drafting. Ethelstan took a personal interest in recording them in detail with reference to place and time which greatly helped historians later to draw their conclusions, after Ethelstan”s death the statutes became simpler again. The Anglo-Saxon kings never had a fixed seat until Ethelstan”s time, the royal councils were itinerant from town to town, Ethelstan fixed them in Wessex they were attended by the most important persons of the whole of England from the nobility and the church. Edward the Elder”s small councils were replaced by nobles, dukes, earls and archbishops. The historian Frank Stenton (1880-1967) describes them as national councils that marked the unification of the whole of England. The historian John Manticott (b. 1943) takes the subject even further, stating that Ethelstan is ”the real founder of the English parliament”.


The Anglo-Saxons were the first people of northern Europe to make a scientific record of the laws, the first being Ethelbert of Kent in the early 7th century; the legal codes of Alfred the Great in the early 9th century were an extension of the earlier ones. The legal codes of the Anglo-Saxons had very deep roots beginning with the legal codes of the Carolingian period. Ethelstan created new legal codes on a new basis. The king would have the general power to enforce them but each region could retain its own customs and traditions in applying the laws so as not to change the prevailing climate in Anglo-Saxon societies. Ethelstan created new legal codes, the oldest of which became known as the ”Charity Code”. Four new legal codes followed in the early 930s in Hampshire, Exeter, Faversham and Surrey, other legal codes survived in London and Kent. The historian Patrick Wormald (b. 1947) states that most of the laws were written by Wulfhelm, archbishop of Canterbury who succeeded Atthelm in that position (926). Other historians give a leading role to Wulfhelm, emphasising the great power the church had in Ethelstan”s time. Historian Nicholas Brooks (1941 – 2014) further emphasizes the important role of the archbishops in the creation of the laws. The first two codes concerned ecclesiastical matters; Ethelstan drafted them with the advice of Wolfhelm and his bishops. The first code concerned the payment of tithes to the church and the second code concerned charitable duties with the amount to be given to the poor.The later codes concerned more social matters such as robbery, it contained severe penalties even up to death for people over the age of 12 who would steal sums greater than 8 pence, this law was not enforced, Exeter”s code states :

“King Ethelstan saw with great regret that his laws were not respected by my advisors who preferred a different strategy by offering amnesty to the bandits in case they paid compensation to their victims. Powerful families offer protection to criminals by removing them to other parts of the kingdom. That”s why the king relaxed the penalties by raising the death sentence from 12 to 15 years because he thought the sentence was harsh for killing so many young people for such trivial offences.”

Introducing the jury panel of 10 or more men who would be responsible for keeping the peace, Sarah Fund says: “The equation of theft with intent with theft with recklessness seems very strange, the severity with which it treats theft seems to have no precedent in other European countries.” The historian Patrick Wormald (1947 – 2004) states : “The characteristic of Ethelstan”s legislation is the wide gap between its high expectations and its convulsive effects, Ethelstan”s legislative activity can be described as feverish and the results brought chaos”. In contrast, the author Simon Kaines (b. 1952) states : “The most striking aspect of Ethelstan is the vitality of his legislation, consisting of bills determined to maintain social order”. David Pratt says : “he made important reform structures but no less important than those made by his grandfather Alfred two generations before”.

Monetary policy

In the 970s, Ethelstan”s nephew Edgar I the Pacific reformed the monetary system to the extent that it became the most advanced in its time of all the other countries of Europe with silver coins uniform and plentiful. In Ethelstan”s time, however, the monetary system was still in its previous form developed regionally even and changed after Ethelstan unified the entire country. The code gave a description that there would be a single currency in all cities in the kingdom but the list of cities included more of the south with cities such as London and Kent, not on this list were the northern regions such as Wessex. In the early years of Ethelstan”s reign different coins existed in the cities but after the conquest of all of Britain he minted a single coin with the inscription “Rex Tottus Brettanica” but they were minted in areas such as Wessex, York and Mercury, they were not minted in the east of England and Danelaw. In the early 930s a new type of coin was introduced which on one side showed the head of the king wearing a crown with three crowns, Mercury only refused the coin with the king”s head according to Sarah Foote because Ethelstan”s popularity there was greatly diminished. The church had great powers in the Anglo-Saxon period both socially and politically, regularly participating in royal councils. In the Ethelstan period the powers became even greater especially after the conquest of the north of England which came under the jurisdiction of the Archbishopric of Canterbury.

Collector of sacred objects

Ethelstan appointed members of the royal circle to the dioceses of Wessex possibly to counter the influence of Freethesan, Bishop of Winchester. Alfhich, a member of the royal council, became bishop of the Welsh and Beaornstan another member of the royal council succeeded Fritheshtan as bishop of Winchester, Beaornstan was succeeded by another member of the royal council also named Alfhich. Two of the greatest ecclesiastical figures of the 10th century who had led the revival of the Benedictine monasteries by Edgar Dunstan and Ethelwald had served at the court of Ethelstan, were brought into the clergy by Alfhich Bishop of Winchester at the behest of the king himself. Ethelgold”s biographer Wulfstan notes that “Ethelgold lived a long time at the court of Ethelstan, listening to many of the king”s blessings and advice which greatly helped him in his later ecclesiastical career.” Oda the future Archbishop of Canterbury was also a member of the royal court of Ethelstan who had appointed him Bishop of Ramsbury. Oda appears to have participated on the King”s side at the Battle of Brunanbury.

Ethelstan was a leading famous collector of sacred relics a practice very common at that time, formalized by the great extent of his collection and the perfection of its contents. The abbot of St. Samson sent the king a letter in which he stressed “we know that you value holy relics more than earthly treasure” Ethelstan is known to have been a generous donor of relics to churches and monasteries, his reputation was so great that monks falsely wrote later that they had benefited from his great kindness. He was extremely devoted to the worship of St Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street, his gifts to the community included Bebe”s work ”The Life of St Cuthbert”. All of his manuscripts as presented at Chester-le-Street had a strong religious tone, this particular script was prevalent throughout England at the time. The manuscript for the book on St. Cuthbert also features a bust of the king, it was the first appearance of an English king in manuscript. Historian Janet Nelson (b. 1942) states that “extensive worship ceremonies in places of supernatural power manifest unified royal power in imperial form”

Church policy

Ethelstan had a strong reputation as a church planter but it is unclear how much he was involved, according to sources he later founded several abbeys in Dorset and Somerset. Historian John Blair (b. 1955) notes “traditions that portray him as a founder later transformed him as a hero in various myths.” In fact while he was very generous to the monasteries he made very few donations of land and tried to rebuild areas which had been destroyed in the north and east by Viking raids. His aim was to build churches on the mainland, Kenwald who was a royal priest until his appointment to the archbishopric of Worcester accompanied (929) two of Ethelstan”s half-sisters to the court of the king of Saxony where the future Otto I of Germany was to choose one of them as a bride. Kentwald made a tour of most of the German monasteries bestowing many gifts while asking the monks to pray constantly for England and her king. England and Saxony became close allies and German names increasingly appearing in English, Kenwald continued his correspondence trying in every way possible to pass on English reforms.

Ethelstan continued his father”s efforts to strengthen ecclesiastical education, which had experienced a significant decline in the second half of the 9th century. The author John Blair mentions “decisive reconstruction of the broken religious education through the writing and circulation of books”. He was known for his keen interest in poetry and learning, was a notorious collector of books and sacred relics and invited many ecclesiastical teachers to his court, particularly British and Irish. Ethelstan particularly helped the clergy who had fled to Brittany especially after the Viking conquest of the country (919). He made an agreement with the clergy of Dole Cathedral who were in exile in central France and they handed over the bones of British saints to him, this meeting created a keen interest among the British people in his saints. One of the most important teachers at the court of Ethelstan was Israel the Grammarian who was British, Ethelstan”s court in general was prominent in the English religious reform.

Internal policy

The court of Ethelstan became the centre of the renaissance of the last period of Latin literature, influenced by the Saxon writer Adhelm (639-709) and the French monastic community of the 10th century. Foreign masters at his court such as Israel the Grammarian had key roles, the style was many complex sentences with many riddles and puzzles. Simon Keynes states that it is no coincidence that this situation arose after the unification of England by Ethelstan at a time when a high intellectual level and a monarchy that began to take a new form appeared abruptly. This style at the court of Ethelstan also greatly influenced later 10th century reformers such as Ethelwald and Dunstan who became a strong supporter of the new movement.

The historian William Stevenson (1858 – 1924) states:

“The purpose of these statutes was to record the sentences with as many words as possible and with words that were not in heavy use at that time in the vocabulary so that the text would be incomprehensible to the reader. Each expression is overloaded with useless unnecessary words with the meaning of the sentence buried behind the reading, the reader is in a form of uncertainty as if blinded behind the smoke without being able to understand the meaning of the text most of the time”

The historian Michael Lapitz (b. 1942) says “however obnoxious this style may seem, it was a fashionable form associated with the latter years of the Anglo-Saxons”. The historian David Godman finally states that behind this style of writing the author wanted to astonish his reader and leave the impression that some genius was behind the text, in any case Ethelstan largely put his stamp on the creation of the English nation. Historians are often heavily concerned with Ethelstan”s pompous titles since on his coins and statutes he always used the title “King of all Britons”. A book which he donated to the Archdiocese of Canterbury states : “Ethelstan King of the English and ruler of all Britain, dedicated with reverence to the church of Canterbury, the church which was created by the grace of Jesus Christ”. In the statutes after 931 he is called “King of the English and King of all Britain” using Byzantine titles as well. Historian Alex Wolfe (b. 1963) says that Ethelstan was a man of ambition; Simon Keynes (b. 1952) says that he became king of all Britons through his piety. George Mullinux similarly states that English kings until the 10th century had loose power with minor titles; Ethelstan”s changes marked the situation that would dominate England in the centuries to come; foreign chroniclers describe Ethelstan”s reign in a more solemn way. The French Flondord describes him as an “overseas king” and the Ulster Chronicles as the “pillar of dignity in the western world” . Michael Wood describes him as a modern Charlemagne and the most powerful ruler England has known since the Roman Empire. Veronica Hortenberg goes even further by stating that with his total victory over the Vikings he restored the Carolingian Empire and he is the new Charlemagne, specifically writing :

“The kings of Wessex became increasingly powerful after the 920s. The Vikings had destroyed the western world with their raids and had fragmented Charlemagne”s empire into countless small kingdoms with rulers without power. Ethelstan, after his heroic successes, managed to reunite the Carolingian empire, he had the reputation that created a new powerful dynasty of warriors that can only be compared to Charlemagne”s.

External relations

The links between the kingdom of the West Saxons and the Carolingian dynasty were very deep-rooted. They began with the marriage of his great-grandfather Ethelwulf of Wessex to Judith of Flanders, daughter of the West Frankish King Charles of Falacca, and the marriage of his aunt Elfthrith of Flanders to Baldwin II of Flanders, son of Judith of Flanders. One of Ethelstan”s half-sisters Engifu of England married Charles the Simple King of the Western Franks in the late 910s, was deposed and their son Louis IV of France escaped to England. In Ethelstan”s reign the links between the two dynasties became more pronounced and the king himself established the coronation ceremony for Carolingian kings. The coins minted by Ethelstan in the period 933 – 938 were the first coins of the Wessex kings to be made in accordance with Carolingian iconography. Ethelstan, like his father, did not wish to marry members of his family to the offspring of aristocrats so those sisters who did not marry foreign husbands became nuns. His great interest in strengthening his ties down the canal was the threat of the Vikings which was needed to counter powerful alliances. In 926 Hugo the Great, Duke of the Franks sent his cousin Ethelstan Adedolf, Count of Boulogne to the English court to ask one of Ethelstan”s own sisters to marry him. William of Malmesbury reports that he brought him magnificent gifts among which were jewels, horses, golden crowns, the sword of Constantine the Great, Charlemagne”s spear and a part of the crown of thorns, and Ethelstan gave him his half-sister Inchild as a wife.

Ethelstan”s most important alliances were with the powerful new European House of Othonides. The House of Charlemagne had been wiped out by the end of the 10th century and the German King Henry I of Orange needed a powerful ally to secure his rights to succession to the imperial throne. The Western Saxon kings claimed descent from Saint Oswald who was Germanic and lived in the 9th century. Ethelstan sent two of his half-sisters and Henry the Ornithologist”s son, Otto I chose Edith as his wife; the other of his sisters married a prince from the Alps whose identity has not been determined. In Europe in the early medieval years kings were in the habit of bringing up children of foreign kings, Ethelstan was known for the support he had given to many of his adopted sons. He sent an English fleet (936) to help his adopted son Alain II of Brittany regain his lands which had been conquered by the Vikings. On another occasion he assisted Louis son of his half-sister Idfigus in his efforts to regain the kingdom of the western Franks, he sent another English fleet (939) which failed to deal with the rebellious nobles. Scandinavian annals further mention that his stepson was also Haakon the Good son of Harald Horfagre whom he helped to become king of Norway.


The court of Ethelstan in England was the most cosmopolitan in the entire Anglo-Saxon period. The many contacts with the other European courts were cut off after his death, but his court still had a strong standing with the other families. The historian Frank Stenton (1880-1967) notes that ”between Ophas of Mercury and Knut no other king has been found who has played such an important role in European affairs”. Ethelstan died on 27 October 939 at Gloucester, his grandfather Alfred and his half-brother Elfwyrd preferred to be buried in Winchester but Ethelstan did not prefer to be buried in the city which was associated with the resistance he encountered during his reign. He was buried in Malmesbury Abbey, the same abbey in which his cousins who fell at the Battle of Brunanburgh were buried. No other member of the royal Anglo-Saxon family was buried there, according to William of Malmesbury this reflects his devotion to the 7th century St. Andrew in whose memory the abbey was built. William of Malmesbury states that ”his bones were bound with golden thread”, his bones disappeared during the Reformation but his cult is held in a 15th century cenotaph. After Ethelstan”s death the men of York elected the Viking warlord Olaf Guthfrithson as the new King of Dublin and the English rule in the north which had been strong after Brunanburgh”s victory collapsed. His successors and half-brothers Edmund I of England and Edmund of England tried to regain control in the north. Olaf gained control of the East Minlands but died (941) and Edmond I regained control of the East Minlands and York (944). After Edmund”s death the Vikings regained control but the Northumbrian nobles managed to drive Eric Haraldson out and restore control of the area to Edmund.


Sources on Ethelstan”s life are limited; the first biography of him was published by Sarah Fund (2011). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not detail his victories. The most important source for him in the 12th century was the annals of William of Malmesbury but is considered by many to be unreliable because it is not corroborated by other sources. David Dumville goes even further by accusing William”s work of being “treasonable testimony”. Sarah Foote, however, agrees with Michael Wood that the Chronicles of William of Malmesbury report on the occult life of Ethelstan without being sure of the degree to which they are relevant to reality. In David Dumville”s view, Ethelstan is an obscure historical figure for whom there are insufficient sources. The statutes, codes and laws are the most reliable sources which could enlighten us about his reign. The inscription known as Ethelstan-A which was created by Elfwin of Lichfield is the most reliable information about Ethelstan. Sources for the period 910 – 924 are scarce, there is a large gap of information relating to the reigns of both Edward and Ethelstan. Various other sources about Ethelstan can be found in the prayers and in modern poetry.

Ethelstan”s reign was overshadowed by that of his great grandfather Alfred the Great but he was always considered one of the leading kings of the West Saxon dynasty. Modern historians embrace the theory of the 12th century chronicler William of Malmesbury that ”no other man ever learned to rule his kingdom better”. Frank Stendon and Simon Keynes state that Ethelstan was the only Anglo-Saxon king who could be compared to Alfred. Keynes more specifically states that ”he was a leading figure of the 10th century and the first Anglo-Saxon king of international standing”. David Dumville states that Ethelstan is considered ”the father of medieval and modern England”. Michael Wood states that Alfred, Ethelstan and Ophas were the three leading Anglo-Saxon kings and Ethelstan was “the leading legislator in Anglo-Saxon history”. Ethelstan is regarded by modern historians as the first king of England, although Edgar was the king who completed the unification of England, Ethelstan is the king who paved the way. Edgar”s nephew named himself King of England reviving his right to reign over all the peoples of Britain. Simon Keynes states : “the titles used by Edgar were no more than an affirmation of the titles created by Ethelred in the 930s” . Historian Charles Inslee states that Ethelstan”s reign was fragile : “Britain did not see the level of hegemony it experienced with Ethelstan again until the reign of Edward I”.

Unfair treatment by historians

Historian George Mullinux states:

“The tendency of modern historians to refer to Ethelstan as the first king of the English is problematic; there is little evidence that the title of king of the English in his time applied to England as we see it today. His reign, however, did relate to the whole island as a geographical entity.”

Simon Keynes says that Ethelstan”s legal reforms were a great achievement. The creation of a central government seen in his reign laid the foundations for his successors to create one of the most developed systems of government in all of Europe. His religious reforms which were based on those of his grandfather Alfred laid the foundations for the later creation of the monastic renaissance.Ethelstan”s reputation was at its height at the time of his death. Sarah Fund notes : “his reputation was supreme both as a ruler, as a military leader, as a religious and legal reformer, and as a patron of letters and the arts”. He was honoured by all subsequent kings, Ethelred of Wessex named the eldest son by his first marriage Ethelstan Etheling after him. His memory was subsequently lost but revived in the 12th century by William of Malmesbury who took a keen interest in Ethelstan particularly because of the place he chose for his burial, William kept his memory alive for all subsequent historians. William Tyndall (1494 – 1536) states that the translation of the Bible into Anglo-Saxon was the work of Ethelstan. By the 16th century the reputation of Alfred”s grandfather became the dominant one among Anglo-Saxons and the figure of Ethelstan gradually began to disappear from popular consciousness. The historian Sharon Turner (1767 – 1848) who published his work “History of the Anglo-Saxons” in the period (1799 – 1805) gives the Battle of Brunanburg the most important role in English history but significantly underestimated Ethelstan compared to his grandfather Alfred. Charles Dickens in turn devotes only one paragraph in his work to Ethelstan, the Royal Academy in the period (1769 – 1904) presents numerous portrayals of Alfred without devoting any to Ethelstan.Michael Wood states : “Of all the kings who have ever passed through Britain, Ethelstan has been the most underrated”. Ann Williams states : “If Ethelstan was so much wronged by history it is due to the fact that he had no personal biographer to record his exploits in detail, in his day he was the greatest honour in the western world”.


  1. Έθελσταν της Αγγλίας
  2. Æthelstan
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