Æthelstan the Glorious: part 3 – the making of a king

Statue of Alfred at Wantage [Source: Odejea, Wikimedia]

Æthelstan remembered when his grandfather, Alfred, had marked him out as the future king.

He had been a boy, not yet ten. Alfred, grandfather, king, stood in front of him, as tall as a tree, while all around the great men of the king’s court watched in silence, his own father among them. Then Alfred had fixed round his waist a sword belt and placed over his thin shoulders a purple cloak. Alfred, king, looked round the assembly of the great men of his realm, marking that all well understood the significance of what he had done. For he had marked his grandson, Æthelstan, for kingship, putting his seal upon him.

This was at a time when there were no fixed rules of royal inheritance. Æthelstan was first-born son of Edward, Alfred’s eldest child, but who would be king was a matter for the witan, the assembly of the magnates of the realm, to decide. Blood mattered, Alfred’s choice counted, but when it came time to make a new king, that king would have to command the support of the men who now watched in silence.

Among the most silent of the watching men was Æthelstan’s own father. Edward had been taught many of the skills of kingship by Alfred, he had been his chief general during the Viking assault that took place in the final decade of Alfred’s rule, but there was one area of rule in which he followed his own counsel. The women who would be his queens.

Æthelstan remembered the desperate struggle his father fought to retain the crown after Alfred’s death. Edward’s own cousin, Æthelwold, had rebelled against him, even going so far as to raise a Viking army in his efforts to claim the throne. Æthelwold had failed, his claim and his life sucked down into the clutching mud of the Fens where Edward had made war on his cousin and his ally, the Viking king of the Danelaw.

Edward had seen off one challenge, but to cement his rule, he needed to bind the warring halves of the royal family together. He did this by putting aside Æthelstan’s mother and taking a new wife, Æthelwold’s niece, Ælflæd, who promptly produced a son for her new husband. Acting with cold logic but at least a grain of compassion, Edward put his eldest son from him but gave him into the keeping of his sister, Alfred’s wise and determined daughter, Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians. It was the son of his marriage to Æthelwold’s niece, Ælflæd, that Edward intended to be king in succession to him. Edward moved Æthelstan out of the way.


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