King Æthelstan – Sarah Foot

This extract from Sarah Foot’s book, Aethelstan: The First King of England, looks at the early life of King Æthelstan. You can find out more information about the book and get a 30% discount off the purchase price at the end of this post.

Frontispiece of Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert, showing King Æthelstan (924–39) presenting a copy of the book to the saint himself. Source: MS 183, f.1v at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

King Æthelstan has a substantial claim to the epithet ‘the fist English monarch’, for no ruler before him governed all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms as a single realm. He succeeded in 924 to an expanded kingdom of Wessex that encompassed all of England south of the River Humber, and assumed responsibility for a dominion created by the military achievements of his grandfather, Alfred the Great, and father, Edward the Elder [1]. Yet, by the time of his death in 939, Æthelstan ruled as king over all the English peoples of Britain. In the creation of this wide hegemony, he built on foundations laid by his predecessors both militarily and administratively. Needing swiftly to devise effective mechanisms for the retention and control of an extended realm, Æthelstan created a more centralized governmental machine than England had previously seen. Those administrative and legal systems he matched with novel expressions in word and image of his own conceptions of royal power and authority fit or his changed status. Scribes and artists in Æthelstan’s court circle not only had to invent discourses suitable for his assumption of kingship over the English and the unification of England, but also increasingly had to assert his claims to quasi-imperial rule over other parts of Britain. His leading men, meeting with their king in council at different places across his realm, worked strategically to ensure the acceptance and maintenance of the West Saxon king’s authority and of obedience to his law. Their efforts laid the foundations on which Æthelstan’s brothers and nephews would build later in the tenth century, their collective endeavours creating one of the wealthiest and most sophisticated governments in contemporary Western Europe.

Æthelstan’s Early Life c.894-c.909

The early years of Æthelstan’s life remain unfortunately the most opaque to the historian, for we know neither the date nor place of the future king’s birth and can only guess at where he spent his infancy and childhood. His father Edward, the eldest son of King Alfred, was by the last decade of the ninth century the acknowledged heir to the West Saxon throne. He probably married around 893and his fist child Æthelstan may have been born in c.894. Following Alfred’s decisive victory over an invading Danish army in 878, Wessex the southernmost English kingdom – then stretching from Kent in the east to Cornwall in the west and as far north as the River Thames – had experienced a prolonged period of peace. In the years after 878, King Alfred had extended his realm north of the traditional boundary of Wessex, acquiring control of London and also of the western part of the midland kingdom of England, Mercia. At the time of Æthelstan’s birth, Mercia was governed as a dependency of Wessex by Ealdorman Æthelred, who had married Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd and ruled the midland kingdom under his father-in-law’s overlordship. The formerly independent kingdoms of East Anglia and Northumbria lay in Scandinavian hands, their native royal lines supplanted.

We have no information about where the young prince Æthelstan spent his early life, and can only assume that it was in one or more of the royal palaces in Wessex. Danish forces attacked England again between 892 and 896. Although King Alfred’s defensive strategies implemented in the more peaceful 880s proved sufficient to prevent the Viking armies from inflicting undue damage on Wessex or western Mercia, the necessity to participate in the realm’s military defence must have taken the prince’s father away from home during much of his eldest son’s infancy, leaving Æthelstan with his mother. Later sources give her name as Ecgwynn, but otherwise we know little about her; she had one other child (a daughter) with whom Æthelstan was brought up. Combined military (and naval) responses and better organized defences ensured the eventual defeat of the attacking Danes; from 896 Wessex and England lay once more at peace. Once able to walk and talk, the child Æthelstan apparently became a favourite of his grandfather, who elected at some point late in his own reign (certainly before his death in 899) to perform a formal ceremony on his grandson. Alfred thereby marked out the boy, if not as his designated future heir, at least as one who might in time prove worthy to accede to his grandfather’s throne. At or around the time of his father’s death in 899 and his own succession to the West Saxon realm, Edward remarried. Whether Æthelstan’s mother had died, or Edward had tired of her and wanted a new wife, we cannot know; whatever the underlying reasons for the remarriage, it had a significant impact on Edward’s fist-born son. Ælfflæd proved a fertile mother, producing not just several daughters but also two further sons, Ælfweard and Edwin, whose future claim to succeed their father on the West Saxon throne was bolstered by the fact that (unlike their eldest half-brother) they had been born to a ruling king. Æthelstan’s presence at Edward and Ælfflæds court scarcely benefited the future royal careers of his younger brothers, and William of Malmesbury tells us that Æthelstan was thus sent away to be reared by his aunt Æthelflæ (Edward’s sister) and uncle, Ealdorman Æthelred in Mercia [2]. We know no more of Æthelstan’s supposed education in Mercia than of his early years in Wessex.

Once old enough to bear arms Æthelstan assisted his uncle and, after Æthelred’s death in 911,his aunt,in their conquest of northern Mercia from the Danes, and the fortification of a network of burhs over their newly acquired territory. In that process the Mercian leaders acted as deputies under King Edward’s overall authority, playing their part in his wider vision for the conquest of the Danelaw. As Æthelstan,and the eldest of his brothers Ælfweard, came to maturity they, too, shared in the military campaigns to drive out the Scandinavian rulers and settlers.

About the Author

Sarah Foot is Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Christ Church, Oxford, and a foremost scholar of tenth-century history.

About the Book

The First King of England

Sarah Foot

The English Monarchs Series

‘Æthelstan was perhaps the most important king of tenth-century England, but we know very little about him, and he has no modern biography. Sarah Foot triumphantly fills this gap, and adds to the richness of our understanding of the period in a way that few others have managed.’
Chris Wickham, author of Medieval Europe

In this nuanced portrait of Æthelstan, Sarah Foot offers the first full account of the king ever written. She traces his life through the various spheres in which he lived and worked, beginning with the intimate context of his family, then extending outward to his unusual multiethnic royal court, the Church and his kingdom, the wars he conducted, and finally his death and legacy. Foot describes a sophisticated man who was not only a great military leader but also a worthy king. He governed brilliantly, developed creative ways to project his image as a ruler, and devised strategic marriage treaties and gift exchanges to cement alliances with the leading royal and ducal houses of Europe. Æthelstan’s legacy, seen in the new light of this masterful biography, is inextricably connected to the very forging of England and early English identity.

Find out more about the book here, use the code Y2323 when prompted at checkout to get a 30% discount off the book with free p&p in the UK until 31/5/2023.

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1. The epithet for Æthelstan’s father was coined by Wulfstan of Winchester in his Life of St Æthelwold, presumably to distinguish Alfred’s son from the later tenth-century king, Edward the Martyr.

2. GR, ii,133(pp.210–11). No other source supports William’s assertion here.

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