1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Æthelstan

ÆTHELSTAN (c. 894-940), Saxon king, was the son (probably illegitimate) of Edward the elder. He had been the favourite of his grandfather Alfred, and was brought up in the household of his aunt Æthelflaed, the "Lady of the Mercians." On the death of his father in 924, at some date after the 12th of November, Æthelstan succeeded him and was crowned at Kingston shortly after. The succession did not, however, take place without opposition. One Ælfred, probably a descendant of Æthelred I., formed a plot to seize the king at Winchester; the plot was discovered and Ælfred was sent to Rome to defend himself, but died shortly after. The king's own legitimate brother Edwin made no attempt on the throne, but in 933 he was drowned at sea under somewhat mysterious circumstances; the later chroniclers ascribe his death to foul play on the part of the king, but this seems more than doubtful.

One of Æthelstan's first public acts was to hold a conference at Tamworth with Sihtric, the Scandinavian king of Northumbria, and as a result Sihtric received Æthelstan's sister in marriage. In the next year Sihtric died and Æthelstan took over the Northumbrian kingdom. He now received, at Dacre in Cumberland, the submission of all the kings of the island, viz. Howel Dda, king of West Wales, Owen, king of Cumbria, Constantine, king of the Scots, and Ealdred of Bamburgh, and henceforth he calls himself "rex totius Britanniae." About this time (the exact chronology is uncertain) Æthelstan expelled Sihtric's brother Guthfrith, destroyed the Danish fortress at York, received the submission of the Welsh at Hereford, fixing their boundary along the line of the Wye, and drove the Cornishmen west of the Tamar, fortifying Exeter as an English city.

In 934 he invaded Scotland by land and sea, perhaps owing to an alliance between Constantine and Anlaf Sihtricsson. The army advanced as far north as Dunottar, in Kincardineshire, while the navy sailed to Caithness. Simeon of Durham speaks of a submission of Scotland as a result; if it ever took place it was a mere form, for three years later we find a great confederacy formed in Scotland against Æthelstan. This confederacy of 937 was joined by Constantine, king of Scotland, the Welsh of Strathclyde, and the Norwegian chieftains Anlaf Sihtricsson and Anlaf Godfredsson, who, though they came from Ireland, had powerful English connexions. A great battle was fought at Brunanburh (perhaps Brunswark or Birrenswark hill in S.E. Dumfriesshire), in which Æthelstan and his brother Edmund were completely victorious. England had been freed from its greatest danger since the days of the struggle of Alfred against Guthrum.

Æthelstan was the first Saxon king who could claim in any real sense to be lord paramount of Britain. In his charters he is continually called "rex totius Britanniae," and he adopts for the first time the Greek title basileus. This was not merely an idle flourish, for some of his charters are signed by Welsh and Scottish kings as subreguli. Further, Æthelstan was the first king to bring England into close touch with continental Europe. By the marriage of his half-sisters he was brought into connexion with the chief royal and princely houses of France and Germany. His sister Eadgifu married Charles the Simple, Eadhild became the wife of Hugh the Great, duke of France, Eadgyth was married to the emperor Otto the Great, and her sister Ælfgifu to a petty German prince. Embassies passed between Æthelstan and Harold Fairhair, first king of Norway, with the result that Harold's son Haakon was brought up in England and is known in Scandinavian history as Haakon Adalsteinsfóstri.

Æthelstan died at Gloucester in 940, and was buried at Malmesbury, an abbey which he had munificently endowed during his lifetime. Apparently he was never married, and he certainly had no issue.

A considerable body of law has come down to us in Æthelstan's name. The chief collections are those issued at Grately in Hampshire, at Exeter, at Thunresfeld, and the Judicia civitatis Lundonie. In the last-named one personal touch is found when the king tells the archbishop how grievous it is to put to death persons of twelve winters for stealing. The king secured the raising of the age limit to fifteen.

Authorities.—Primary: The Saxon Chronicle, sub ann.; William of Malmesbury, Gestal Regum, i. 141-157, Rolls Series, containing valuable original information (v. Stubbs' Introduction, II. lx-lxvii.); Birch, Cartul. Saxon. vol. ii. Nos. 641-747; A.S. Laws. (ed. Liebermann), i. 146-183; Æthelweard, Florence of Worcester. Secondary: Saxon Chronicle (ed. Plummer), vol. ii. pp. 132-142; D.N.B., s.v.

(A. Mw.)