Athelstan the Great?


With each successive generation after Alfred, it seemed, the monarch was not as great. Edward, Alfred’s son, came close. His son, Athelstan, was not so great still. It’s tough to follow a luminous act like Alfred, but Athelstan did try.

The first thing he did was marry his sister Eadgyth off to Sitric of York, to cement an alliance between Northumbria and Mercia-Wessex. This alliance came to a sticking point, however, when Sitric refused to accept Christianity.

Athelstan made quite a name for himself in 927, two years after he ascended to the throne, by conquering Northumbria. (It should be said here that such a feat was not what it once was: Northumbria, used to being the crown jewel of Saxon territories in Bede’s time, was weak and prone to Danish invasion in the years leading up to Alfred’s reign. Then, it was taken over completely by the Danes. After Alfred, the Saxons regained control, but the Saxon ironfist hold was never quite as tough or frightening.)

It should be noted here that Athelstan, being Mercian-reared, naturally had the affinity and sympathy of Mercia, something neither his father nor his grandfather enjoyed. Athelstan was a great patron of the arts, particularly architecture and education. He was a great promoter of both, commissioning great abbeys and fortresses and donating many personal gifts to the church.

He even made a friend of Harald Fairhair, the ruler of Norway, who sent Athelstan gifts and even his son to the English court for a good education. The name and legend of Athelstan grew in stature as his bloodlines increased throughout Europe. At one time or another, he was related to most of the monarchs on the Continent. And his military successes, impressive as they were, were common conversation in courts and commons in Europe. One battle, in particular, still has people talking: Brunanburh.

Constantine, king of Scotland, married his daughter off to Olaf Gothfrithson of Dublin. Athelstan didn’t like this too much because Olaf was the son of Gothfrith, the Danish leader with whom Athelstan had forbidden the kings of Scotland and Strathclyde to have contact. Athelstan’s response was to march into Scotland and raise hell. He did just that, advancing far into the north, bringing Constantine and Scotland to their knees. The Scots king bided his time, regrouped, joined up with Olaf, and marched south. Massive army met massive army at Brunanburh, near Nottingham. The Saxons prevailed, and Athelstan’s reign was safe.

At this point, he could call himself master of the great majority of what we now call England. He even had hold of part of Wales and Scotland. His political reach was long indeed.

Athelstan held onto his ambitions and the throne for five more years. He died in 939 and was succeeded by his brother Edmund.