Athelstan


Athelstan
(Aethelstan)
(ca. 895–939)
   Son of King Edward the elder and grandson of ALFRED THE GREAT, King Athelstan was perhaps the most powerful monarch of all the royal house of Wessex, and indeed the first who could legitimately claim to be king of all England. His greatest triumph was the major victory he won over the combined forces of the kings of Scotland and Strathclude (in Wales) and the Norse king of Dublin who claimed the throne of Northumbria— a victory that ensured Northumbria would be part of a united England, and provided the matter for one of the great OLD ENGLISH heroic poems, The BATTLE OF BRUNANBURH.
   Athelstan was probably the illegitimate son of King Edward, and was raised in the household of his aunt,Athelfled, at Gloucester in Mercia.He became king upon the death of his father in 924, and quickly began to extend his power over the Celts and Britons in the west and over the Viking lords of the north. The Norse king Sitric Caech of York did recognize Athelstan’s sovereignty almost immediately, and to strengthen their alliance Athelstan gave Sitric the hand of his sister Eadgyth in marriage in 926, and Athelstan marched into York as their king when Sitric died the next year. Athelstan was adept at creating alliances through marriage and diplomacy. Four other sisters were married to European princes, including Charles III (“the Simple”) of France and Otto I of Germany. He was also foster father to Hakon the Good, later king of Norway. When diplomacy failed, Athelstan found that the threat of force could be a valuable tool.He forced the Welsh to accept a boundary of his making, and stopped Welsh raids on Mercia while exacting tribute from their leaders. He defeated the Cornish and established a boundary with them, taking their King Hoel hostage.He reached an alliance with the Scots that lasted for seven years. During the peace, Athelstan strengthened his power through new law codes and regulated currency. He also was a collector of holy relics and works of art and a generous patron of a number of religious houses, no doubt to consolidate their support.
   The crisis of Athelstan’s reign occurred when Constantine II, king of Scotland, married his daughter to Olaf Guthfrithsson, future king of Dublin and potential heir of his kinsman Sitric Caech’s Northumbrian throne. Perceiving this as a threat to his power, Athelstan invaded Scotland and devastated Constantine’s army. In response, Olaf brought his Norse army from Dublin, joined forces with Constantine and the Welsh king of Strathclude, and began raiding in Mercia. Athelstan and his brother Edmund met this enemy alliance in 937 at a place called Brunanburh and won the most decisive battle of his time, virtually ensuring a unified England. The battle passed into legend, and Athelstan’s courage and leadership were celebrated in Old English verse within a few years of the battle. The poem, The Battle of Brunanburh, was inserted into The ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE as the entry for the year 937. Athelstan died in Gloucester two years later.He was buried in Malmesbury Abbey, one of the religious houses he had generously supported. Unmarried and childless, Athelstan was succeeded on the throne by his brother, Edmund.
   Bibliography
   ■ Campbell, Alistair, ed., The Battle of Brunanburh. London:W. Heinemann, 1938.
   ■ Muir, Bernard James, ed., Leo´?: Six Old English Poems: A Handbook. New York: Gordon and Breach, 1989.
   ■ Rodrigues, Louis J., trans., Three Anglo-Saxon Battle Poems. Felinfach, U.K.: Llanerch Publishers, 1996.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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