Athelstan

First King of All England

King Athelstan of England
Depiction of Athelstan in a stained glass window at All Souls College Chapel, Oxford. Public domain; courtesy of Wikimedia.

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Who's Who in Medieval History

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Athelstan was also known as:

"The first king of all England" and Rex totius Britanniae ("King of all Britain"). His name may also be spelled Aethelstan or Ethelstan.

Athelstan was known for:

Expanding the borders of the kingdom, and strengthening royal control of his lands through a series of laws.

He received his byname by politically unifying most of what would become England, and ruled effectively over his united lands.

Occupations:

King
Military Leader

Places of Residence and Influence:

Britain: England

Important Dates:

Born: c. 895
Crowned king of all England: Sept. 4, 925
Died: Oct. 27, 939

About Athelstan:

Athelstan was the son of Edward the Elder and the grandson of Alfred the Great. He was raised in Mercia by his aunt, Aethelflaed, who had ruled that kingdom in her own right after the death of her husband. When Aethelflaed died, her brother Edward, who ruled Wessex, took control of Mercia.

When Edward died in 924, Athelstan became king of the united lands of Wessex and Mercia. He succeeded through election, and in September of 925 he had a coronation at Kingston-upon-Thames that officially made him king of the entire country.

It wasn't long before Athelstan had the opportunity to demonstrate his skill and boldness on the battlefield.

In 927 he set his sights on York, which was controlled by the Danes, and swiftly annexed it to his holdings. Not long after, he forced King Constantine of Scotland to submit to the English, and other rulers of northern kingdoms followed suit. All the kings in Wales agreed to pay a substantial annual tribute, and all opposition in Cornwall was eliminated.

In 937, Athelstan's foes joined forces against him. Olaf Guthfrithson, who laid claim to York and was supported by a force of Danes from Dublin, allied with Constantine of Scotland, Owain of Strathclyde, and kings of Wales to invade England. But they were no match for Athelstan, who soundly defeated them at Brunanburh.

Though clearly a talented military leader, Athelstan was more than just a warrior king. He had a keen instinct for justice and passed laws that not only punished and defended against crime, but alleviated the suffering of the poor and even sought leniency for youthful offenders. The law codes still in existence show signs that he may have had a staff of skilled clerks in his employ.

Edward the Elder had fathered many children, and by marrying off several half-sisters to rulers in Europe, Athelstan was able to form some strong international alliances. He also took a direct interest in the economy. He regulated the coinage, issuing silver coins from carefully monitored local mints that bore the imprint Rex totius Britanniae ("King of all Britain"). For the most part, trade took place in the burhs, which led to the growth of towns.

Athelstan was also a supporter of the arts and had an interest in religious relics.

He established good relationships with individuals of cultural influence and built a considerable collection of art and artifacts. As part of cementing his relationship with the clergy, he donated many relics and works of art to churches and clergymen.

In 939, at the height of his power, Athelstan died. He was buried in Malmesbury Abbey, which he had vigorously supported and generously endowed during his lifetime. As Athelstan had never married and had fathered no children, the crown passed to his half-brother Edmund, who had proved a helpful ally and fought alongside him at Brunanburh.

 

More Athelstan Resources:

Athelstan in Print

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Aethelstan: The First King of England
(The English Monarchs Series)
by Sarah Foot
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The Age of Athelstan: Britain's Forgotten History
(Revealing History)
by Paul Hill
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Athelstan on the Web

Athelstan (r.924-939)
Informative biography at the official site of the British Monarchy.

Athelstan (c. 895 - 939 AD)
Concise bio at the BBC's History website.

King Athelstan (924 - 940)
Useful collection of data and a timeline at the British Royal Family History site.

Early Medieval Britain


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