Æthelstan: The First King of England

September 22, 2011

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described him as "lord of nobles, treasure-giver to men". The Welsh called him mechteyrn, "great king". The 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury said: "The whole of Europe sang his praises and extolled his merits to the sky."

This paragon is Æthelstan, the earliest of the kings to be afforded his own volume in the prestigious Yale English Monarchs series. He ruled from 924 to 939 and can legitimately be hailed, as Sarah Foot does in this outstanding biography, as the first king of all the English peoples of Britain. There are relatively few surviving records of his life and even fewer that are contemporary with his reign, suggesting a life lived in the shadow of his famous father, Edward, and his even more famous grandfather, Alfred the Great. From a wide range of sources, particularly William of Malmesbury's account of Æthelstan's life, Foot has pieced together a narrative that speaks of the realities of a vanished world.

Æthelstan's path towards a united kingdom began with his coronation at Kingston, Surrey in 925, when he inherited his father's title of "king of the Anglo-Saxons". But Æthelstan's vision went beyond the unification of Wessex and Mercia: he aspired to a new title, rex Anglorum, "king of the English", which would bring all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms under his rule. His annexation of Northumbria in 9 and the subsequent submission of the king of the Scots and the princes of Wales delivered all the English into his realm and gave Æthelstan a "quasi-imperial" rule over the island of Britain.

As well as a devout believer and a conscientious brother to his large family of siblings and half-siblings, Æthelstan was a formidable battle leader whose victory over the Scots in 934 was celebrated in one of the most famous poems written in Old English, The Battle of Brunanburh. Recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the poem celebrates the heroic deeds of the English forces led by Æthelstan and his younger brother Edmund against a combined army of Scots, Strathclyde Britons and Dublin Norsemen. This was a victory, claims Foot, not just of Wessex but of a nation, brought into being by Æthelstan's decisive defeat of the Scandinavians in the North.

Foot has amassed and arranged the evidence for Æthelstan's life with great skill and flair, beginning with a useful chronological overview and moving on to a series of themed chapters on topics that include kingdom, court, church, war and family. Since Æthelstan's father was married three times, his family had all the intricacy of a 19th-century novel, and indeed Foot wittily channels Jane Austen when she says: "Any man whose parents managed to provide him with eight or even nine sisters deserves our sympathy."

While Foot theorises her own practice as a biographer, she is perhaps less willing to admit to the dominant ideology of the book, which is the immanent status of England as a (single) nation ruling over the whole of Britain. The book's subtitle refers to Æthelstan as the first king of England, but the narrative tends to conflate two different things - the nation of England and the kingdom of the English, that is, the Anglo-Saxon territories brought together under Æthelstan's rule. This conflation works to locate Æthelstan within a modern rhetoric of English nationalism that underplays the political complexity of what was a very multicultural and fragmented Britain in the Anglo-Saxon period.

The book remains, however, a triumph of historiography that celebrates a life rich in spiritual, intellectual and martial endeavour. Revisionary, thoughtful, beautifully written and exhaustively researched, this biography of Æthelstan is set to become a classic.

Æthelstan: The First King of England

By Sarah Foot, Yale University Press, 336pp, £30.00, ISBN 9780300125351, Published 12 July 2011.

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