Sunday, November 13, 2011

Athelstan (893/894-939), King of All Britain

Athelstan, c.895-939. Detail of stained glass window, All Souls College Chapel, Oxford. Originally obtained from Warden and Fellows of All Souls, Oxford. According to this, "The large stained glass window [containing this image] in the west wall is known as the Royal Window. Dating from the mid-15th-century but much restored, it was originally located in the Old Library of All Souls."

Athelstan in "Child's Book of Warriors"

Carrying Prince Hakon in his arms, Hauk stepped before the King Athelstan. in "Stories of the Vikings"

The tomb of King Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey, Malmesbury, England. There is nothing in the tomb beneath the statue, the relics of the king having been lost in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. Perhaps the remains were destroyed by the Kings Commissioners or they were hidden before the Commissioners arrived to close down the Abbey. Taken by Adrian Pingstone in February 2005 and released to the public domain

Coronation Stone of the Saxon Kings of England, Kingston Upon Thames, showing the name of Athelstan

Athelstan (or Æthelstan) (Old English: Æþelstan, Æðelstān) (c. 893 / 894 – 27 October 939), called the Glorious, was the King of England from 924 or 925 to 939. He was the son of King Edward the Elder, grandson of Alfred the Great and nephew of Æthelflæd of Mercia. Æthelstan's success in securing the submission of Constantine II, King of Scots, at the Treaty of Eamont Bridge in 927 through to the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 led to his claiming the title "king of all Britain".[2] His reign is frequently overlooked, with much focus going to Alfred the Great before him, and Edmund after. However, it was of fundamental importance to political developments in the 10th century. Athelstan was the first King of a unified England from 927 A.D.

Crowned on the King’s Stone at Kingston-upon-Thames (with a claim to be the first undisputed king of all England), Æthelstan is most remembered for his warfare against the Scots and Welsh. According to several sources, he was born in either 894 or 895, the son of Edward the Elder (870–924), who served as king of England from 899 to 924, and Edward’s wife Egwina (or Ecgwyn). Edward’s father was Alfred the Great (ca. 849–899), the great Saxon king whose battles to save England from Danish invasions culminated in the capture of London and victory at the battle of Edington (878). When Edward the Elder died, his son Æthelstan succeeded on 4 September 924, and he was crowned at Kingston-upon-Thames shortly afterward. A year later, the new monarch signed a treaty with Sihtric of York, to avoid warfare for Northumbria. However, when Sihtric died in 927, Æthelstan expelled Sihtric’s brother, Guthfrith, and as his forces moved into Northumbria. He met with several tribes, including the Northumbrians and Strathclyde Britons, who agreed to allow him to take control, the first southern English king to do so. Thereafter he called himself rex totius Britanniae (king of all Britain).

In 934, Æthelstan’s forces invaded Scotland by land and sea; his land forces quickly moved as far north as Dunottar, while the navy seized Caithness. He took control over Scotland, but three years later a mighty confederation formed by King Constantine III of Scotland, the Welsh of Strathclyde, Owen of Cumberland, and two Norwegian leaders, Anlaf Godfredsson and Anlaf Sihtricsson, set out to end his reign. These forces confronted Æthelstan’s army—which was supported by his half brother Edmund—at Brunanburh. Since the 12th century, historians have tried to locate the exact site of the battle, to no avail; many historians believe it was fought in either northwestern England or southwestern Scotland, near the Solway Firth. What little information that exists comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 937:

In this year King Aethelstan, Lord of warriors,
ring-giver to men, and his brother also,
Prince Eadmund, won eternal glory
in battle with sword edges
around Brunanburh. They split the shield-wall,
they hewed battle shields with
the remnants of hammers.
The sons of Eadweard, it was only befitting
their noble descent
from their ancestors that they should often
defend their land in battle against
each hostile people,
horde and home. The enemy perished,
Scots men and seamen,
fated they fell. The field flowed
with blood of warriors, from sun up
in the morning, when the glorious star
glided over the earth, God’s bright candle,
eternal lord, till that noble creation
sank to its seat. There lay many a warrior
by spears destroyed;
Northern men
shot over shield, likewise Scottish as well,
weary, war sated.

It remains unknown whether this “account” was written by an observer or a mere writer wishing to catalog this great battle. Few historians mention the casualties inflicted at Brunanburh; historian George Bruce reports that there was “great slaughter.” In any event, Æthelstan prevailed.

Æthelstan lived for two years following his great victory at Brunanburh. He died on 27 October 939, was buried at Malmesbury Abbey, just south of Wiltshire, and was succeeded by his half brother Edmund. His reign had lasted a short 15 years, but in that time he established himself as a significant figure in English history. Æthelstan was the first English king to develop relations with other European rulers, and his half sisters married into the royal families of France and the Holy Roman Empire.

Sources :
Book "World Military Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary" by Mark Grossman

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