Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Athelstan
ATHELSTAN or ÆTHELSTAN (895–940), king of the West-Saxons and Mercians, and afterwards of all the English, was the son of Eadward the Elder, and of a noble lady Ecgwyn, according to Florence of Worcester; but another and later story represents his mother as a shepherd's daughter, and not the lawful wife of Eadward. In all probability he was illegitimate, but by a recognised mistress of noble birth. Born during the lifetime of his grandfather Ælfred, Æthelstan was a favourite of the great West-Saxon king, who gave him as a boy a purple cloak, a jewelled belt, and a sword with a golden scabbard, no doubt to mark him out, in spite of his illegitimacy, as a right ætheling. When the young prince was six years old, Ælfred died, and during the stormy years when Eadward was slowly recovering the overlordship of Mercia and Northumbria from the Danish hosts, Æthelstan was sent to be brought up by his aunt Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, and her husband the ealdorman Æthelred. Probably he took part in the great series of campaigns by which Æthelflæd and Eadward gradually extended the power of the West-Saxon dynasty over the whole of northern England. His education seems to have been sound and literary; the catalogue of his later library (among the Cottonian MSS.) included several good Latin works. In 925, when Æthelstan was aged thirty, Eadward the Elder died, and the ætheling was at once chosen to succeed him. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle specially mentions that he was elected by the Mercians, who still retained their separate national gemót. The West-Saxon election apparently came later. Æthelstan was crowned at Kingston in Surrey (perhaps as being near the borders of Mercia and Wessex), as were most succeeding kings till the building of Eadward the Confessor's abbey at Westminster. Doubts, however, were cast upon the election, on the ground of Æthelstan's dubious legitimacy; and an ætheling named Ælfred (whose exact relationship to the kingly house is unknown) endeavoured to upset the arrangement. A legendary tale in William of Malmesbury states that Ælfred, being accused of conspiracy against the king, went to Rome to clear himself, and there, having sworn a false oath, at once fell down in the pope's presence, and died three days later at the English college. The materials for Æthelstan's personal and regnal history are somewhat deficient. The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ and Florence of Worcester (translating from a lost copy of the ‘Chronicle’) are here very meagre, while William of Malmesbury, who is very full on this reign, is uncritical, and evidently derives much of his information from ballads and other legendary sources. It is quite clear, however, that ‘glorious Æthelstan’ was a personally vigorous and able king, a worthy successor of Ælfred and Eadward, and a precursor of Edward I, definitely pursuing an imperial policy, by which he hoped to unite all Great Britain under the overlordship of a single West-Saxon king. In the year following his accession he had a conference at Tamworth (the royal burgh of Mercia) with Sihtric, Danish king of Northumbria, to whom he gave his sister in marriage, and whom he apparently compelled to acknowledge his suzerainty. A year later Sihtric died, whereupon Æthelstan drove out his son Guthfrith, and annexed Northumbria to his own immediate dominions. A coalition of the minor kings was then formed to resist Æthelstan's imperial policy, and was joined by Howel, king of the West-Welsh (perhaps the Cornish, but more probably Howel Dda of Dyved), Owen, king of Gwent (Monmouthshire), Constantine, king of the Scots, and Ealdred, lord of Bamborough, and leader of the English remnant in the modern county of Northumberland. Æthelstan crushed this coalition, and compelled all the underkings to acknowledge his supremacy ‘with pledge and with oaths,’ at a congress held at Emmet in 926. He thus perhaps deserves the title of first king of all the English far more fully than Ecgberht or any other prince before Eadgar. At the same time his overlordship was of a loose character; he did not attempt to govern the whole kingdom directly, but left the native princes everywhere as his vassals (to use the language of later feudalism), it being one of his favourite sayings that it was more glorious ‘regem facere quam regem esse.’ Still he expelled Ealdred of Bamborough altogether, as well as Guthfrith, so that he became direct king of all English and Danish Britain, leaving only the Celtic princes of the west and north as underkings. Towards the Welsh his policy was one of mixed firmness and conciliation. He made the princes of Wales proper do homage to him at Hereford, paying him a stipulated tribute of coin and cattle; and he fixed the Wye as the political boundary between the two races. In West Wales or Damnonia he also pushed forward the West-Saxon boundary, subjugating the Welsh in the northern half of Exeter city, which they had previously held as their own, while the English held the southern half, and fortifying the town as a border fortress with stone fortifications—the earliest mentioned in Anglo-Saxon history. He then conquered the western half of Devonshire, and restricted the Cornish princes to the country beyond the Tamar. At the same time he adopted a conciliatory tone to the conquered Welsh in Wessex itself, dedicating churches and colleges in Dorset and Devon to Welsh saints, and holding his gemót at Exeter, whence some of his laws are dated. As a legislator his enactments are mainly of the nature of amendments of custom, and do not (like those of Ælfred and Cnut) aspire to the character of a code. In 933, according to the ‘Chronicle,’ or in 934, according to Simeon of Durham (a safer guide on northern matters), Constantine, king of Scots, rebelled (William of Malmesbury says by receiving the banished Guthfrith), and Æthelstan then invaded Scotland ‘with land host and ship host, and overharried much of it.’ On his way he destroyed the Danish tower at York, which Guthfrith had endeavoured to occupy. In 937 occurred the final grand victory of Æthelstan's life, the campaign and battle of Brunanburh. A dangerous rebellion and coalition of the subject princes with the Danish pirate kings then took place, and threatened seriously to overthrow the newly founded West-Saxon supremacy. One Anlaf, of whom nothing certain is known, came from Ireland with a fleet of long-ships, and stirred up Constantine of Scotland, Owain, Celtic king of Cumberland, and all the Northumbrian Danes and Welshkind to a great revolt. Æthelstan and his brother the ætheling Eadmund led a hasty levy against the combined host, and defeated them with great slaughter at a place called Brunanburh, the exact locality of which is uncertain, but it is probably somewhere in Northumbria. This battle practically established for the time the unity of England and the supremacy of the West-Saxon house. It is commemorated by a fine alliterative ballad, inserted in the ‘Chronicle,’ and frequently translated into modern English. The battle is there described as the greatest of English victories over the native Welshkind since the first invasion of Britain. The great personal popularity of Æthelstan is shown, not only by the tone of this fine war-song, but also by the numerous ballads and legends implied in William of Malmesbury's narrative. Three years later, on 27 Oct. 940, Æthelstan died at Gloucester, after a reign of fourteen years and ten weeks. We have no record that Æthelstan was ever married or had any children. But the splendour of his family alliances on the continent, unexampled in the case of any other English king before the Norman conquest, specially marks the unusual dignity of his position. Five of his sisters married continental princes, including Charles the Simple, king of the West Franks, Louis, king of Arles, and Hugh the Great, duke of the French; while Henry, king of the East Franks, actually sent ambassadors to ask of Æthelstan one of his sisters in marriage for his son Otto, afterwards the Emperor Otto the Great. Æthelstan royally sent a selection of two, one of whom Otto kept, and passed on the other to a nameless German princeling. After the murder of Charles the Simple, his widow and her son Louis (d'Outremer) took refuge with Æthelstan, at whose court Louis was brought up. Later on his uncle Hugh sent for Louis to return, and he acquired his familiar surname (Ultramarinus) from this sojourn beyond the sea with his English relations. Æthelstan was buried in Malmesbury Abbey, to which (as to other Celtic shrines) he had been a great benefactor, and where a later mediæval tomb (perhaps remade) is still shown as his. He was succeeded by his brother Eadmund, the hero of Brunanburh. Another brother, the ætheling Eadwine, is said by Simeon of Durham (a late authority) to have been drowned at sea by Æthelstan's orders. William of Malmesbury expands this story, by obviously legendary additions, into an ugly romance; but the ‘Chronicle’ merely mentions briefly that Eadwine was drowned in 933, an entry which Henry of Huntingdon amplifies by adding (after his usual groundless fashion) that it was much to Æthelstan's sorrow. We may probably acquit the king's memory of the doubtful fratricide.
[The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (here contemporary, but slight); Florence of Worcester (translating a contemporary, but almost equally meagre); William of Malmesbury (full but untrustworthy); Simeon of Durham; Henry of Huntingdon—all under dates 924–940; Kemble's Codex Diplomaticus Ævi Saxonici has many of Æthelstan's charters; Thorpe's Ancient Laws and Institutes of the Anglo-Saxons contains Æthelstan's Laws; Freeman's Old-English History (the chief modern critical authority), p. 145; Freeman's Norman Conquest, vol. i.; Palgrave's History of the Anglo-Saxons, p. 165; Sharon Turner's History of the Anglo-Saxons, ii. 177; Lappenberg; Thomas Kerslake, The Welsh in Dorset, and other pamphlets (Bristol, 1870 and onward).]