Thursday, October 4, 2012

Æthelstan—The Forgotten King

In the history of the Middle Ages, there must be many "forgotten kings"—those whose rules were too short or too obscure or too trivial to add any momentous events to the modern consciousness (many people know the phrase "The Norman Conquest" even if they couldn't tell you details). In the case of Æthelstan (c.894-939), however, his reign was significant enough for the history of England that it is a shame that he is not known better.

Perhaps there is irony that part of his undeserved obscurity is actually paired with elements that should have helped to make him more noteworthy. To a modern world who wants only a few highlights from studying the past, his accomplishments are overshadowed in classrooms by those of his grandfather, Alfred, the only king in English history to have earned the epithet "the Great."

Also, we have an account about him from William of Malmesbury (c.1095-1143) who said of Æthelstan "no one more just or more learned ever governed the kingdom." Most modern scholars, however, mistrust the Malmesbury account (although some have argued that internal evidence suggests that Malmesbury is actually drawing on an earlier and probably reliable biography). A 10th century Latin poem says of him: "Holy King Æthelstan, whose esteem flourishes and whose honor endures everywhere."

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle often only mentions military engagements, and therefore neglects his administrative and economic achievements. But in his lifetime, he was praised as "the English Charlemagne." He financed Catholic churches. He regulated currency and controlled the weight of silver coins and passed laws to penalize currency fraud. (In the image below of the Æthelstan penny, note the "braiding" around the edge that prevents "coin clippers" from shaving off silver in order to spend a coin of less weight.) He regulated commerce, confining it to the burh (Anglo-Saxon "town"; think Modern English "burg"), encouraging the growth of towns. He consolidated the wilderness areas and settlements in the Midlands, creating new shires, asserting royal control and law more consistently over the entire country.

Æthelstan silver penny
He also made valuable alliances. He married off his half-sisters to European noble families, so that he had connections with brothers-in-law such as the future Holy Roman Emperor Otto. King Harald Fair-Hair of Norway sent his son Haakon to foster at Æthelstan's court. When Harald died and Haakon's brother Eirik Bloodaxe proclaimed himself king, Æthelstan equipped Haakon with ships and men to take his rightful place as King of Norway (which he did).

He won a decisive battle, the Battle of Brunanburh in 937; summed up by Winston Churchill:
The whole of North Britain—Celtic, Danish and Norwegian, pagan and Christian—together presented a hostile front under Constantine, king of the Scots, and Olaf of Dublin, with Viking reinforcements from Norway. [History of the English-Speaking People]
After Æthelstan's victory, he could rightfully call himself "the King of all the English"—the first ruler on that island to be able to do so.

Upon his death in 939, he was laid to rest in Malmesbury Abbey—a place for which he had great affection—rather than the traditional Winchester, which was the seat of power for the royal family of Wessex.

Perhaps, as one fan of Æthelstan put it, his fame is tenuous because there are too many things about his life that cannot be grasped succinctly and with certainty: did he possess the greatest collection of sacred relics at the time, including the Spear of Longinus? Why did he not marry and have children? Did he have a half-brother killed? Was his mother a concubine? These questions, however, should not prevent knowing something about a remarkable and forward-looking figure from England's past.

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