Æthelstan the Glorious part 5: Taking the Crown

The oldest portrait of an English king: Æthelstan as portrayed in a copy of Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert dating from 934.

Æthelstan’s father, Edward the Elder, died on 17 July 924. However, it was by no means certain that Æthelstan would be the next king. Edward had sons by his wife, Ælflæd, who had been brought up in Wessex, whereas Æthelstan was almost unknown there. So when Edward died, the question of who would be king after him, and king of where, was very much open.

Æthelstan was acclaimed king by the witan of Mercia but there was a son, Ælfweard, in Wessex who expected a crown too. Perhaps the most likely outcome would have been for the two kingdoms to split apart again, each ruled by one of Edward’s sons. But then, barely two weeks later, Ælfweard followed Edward into death. So convenient a death could not but arouse suspicion, even though Æthelstan appears to have had no hand in it.

It was a year before Æthelstan was finally consecrated king, his coronation, for coronation it was, the first in these islands, taking place in Kingston, Surrey, on the River Thames, the traditional border between Wessex and Mercia. By placing his coronation there, Æthelstan was making a clear political point: he would be king of both kingdoms, cleaving neither to one nor the other, but ruling both justly and well, to the limit of his abilities.

Æthelstan’s commitment to this service was total. Uniquely among early Medieval kings, Æthelstan never married and there are no records of bastard children born to him. His father, who had moved on to wife number three during his lifetime when his rule needed reinforcement from a different direction, had left no shortage of heirs. Seeing the realm come close to descending to civil war on his accession, Æthelstan vowed himself to chastity, thus ensuring that one of Edward’s younger sons would eventually succeed him. By doing this, he prevented a political schism between partisans of factions supporting him or his brothers, at the price of a lifetime of celibacy.

In this hard road he had chosen, Æthelstan was supported by his fervent faith. He believed, to the core of his being, that God had given him the kingship for the purpose of the safeguarding and care of his people, and that failure to act thus would come at the price of his soul. As king, Æthelstan enacted a stream of legislation to better protect his people, from outlawing the death penalty on those under the age of 15 to requiring his royal officials and the stewards of royal estates to care for the needy and provide food for the destitute: Æthelstan was determined that none of his people should die for lack of food, for God had given him the duty to feed them.

Æthelstan the Glorious part 4: Woman’s Work

Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, by Annatoone – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79279400

Although his father had put him aside, Æthelstan could have had no better mentor than his aunt, Æthelflæd. Alfred had regained half the ancient and historic kingdom of Mercia on signing the treaty with Guthrum that had divided the country into the Danelaw and Anglo-Saxon territory. Mindful of Mercian sensibilities, Alfred had installed a local alderman, Æthelred, to govern it rather than imposing direct rule from Wessex upon a proud and independent kingdom. But to ensure that he was kept informed of what the Mercians were doing, Alfred married his eldest daughter, the clever and determined Æthelflæd, to Æthelred.

When Æthelred fell victim to a long and debilitating illness, it was Æthelflæd who took control of the kingdom. This was unique in Anglo-Saxon history: a woman as de facto ruler of a kingdom. But Æthelflæd had already proven herself to her people: she was known ever after as Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.

When Alfred died, Æthelflæd continued to align Mercian strategy with that of her brother, Edward. It was the strategy laid out by their father, Alfred, and one that he had entrusted to his children to see through: first the securing of their realms and then the reconquest of the Danelaw.

Teaching her nephew, Æthelstan, as she went, the Lady of the Mercians advanced inexorably into what had been Viking-held territory, turning the defensive strategy of burhs, fortified towns, into an offensive tactic by fortifying towns as she captured them. By 918, Edward and Æthelflæd had done what two decades earlier must have seemed impossible: they had reconquered the Danelaw. But Æthelflæd died on 12 June 918, and it was to Edward that “all the people who had settled in Mercia, both Danish and English, submitted”, and following Æthelflæd’s death he moved quickly to incorporate Mercia into his realm, removing Æthelflæd’s daughter, Ælfwynn, from power and putting her into a convent.

Edward was now king of Wessex and Mercia but he had sons with his queen consort whom he favoured and who could certainly count on more support in Wessex than Æthelstan. What would happen on Edward’s death remained an open question.

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.

Æthelstan the Glorious: part 2 – Brunanburh

Picture Antonio Borrillo

The battle that would define Æthelstan’s reign took place at Brunanburh. For a century and more, people talking of it simply had to say ‘the great battle’ and everyone would have known of what they spoke. After it was over, five kings and seven earls lay dead on the field of blood. Æthelstan and his weary men held the field, as Olaf Guthfrithson, the Viking King of Dublin, fled in a boat with his few remaining men back to Ireland, and King Constantine of Scotland spurred his horse north, leaving his dead son behind.

Brunanburgh was perhaps the most significant battle along the long road to making of England a country. Now, in the 21st millennium, after centuries united, we find it difficult to imagine just how remarkable this was. But England is the oldest unified country in Europe, its roots so deep we barely see them. It was Alfred, Edward, Æthelflæd and Æthelstan who planted the tree and rooted it, and Æthelstan who, at Brunanburgh, defended it when the axe was poised to bring it down before it had chance to make those roots firm. Those roots have become so strong that few even remember who planted them and even the location of the ‘great battle’ has been forgotten.

As Æthelstan leaned on his sword, looking over the carnage, he must have felt his age. He was 43, a young man no longer, and his life had been one of toil. Giving thanks to God for victory, his memory turned also to his grandfather, and he remembered…

Æthelstan the Glorious: I

No king of England is more important and less remembered than Æthelstan.

It had been the great family enterprise, started by Alfred, continued by Edward and Æthelflæd, Alfred’s son and daughter, and brought to completion by Alfred’s grandson, Æthelstan. These three generations had made it their lives’ work first to save their land from the depredations of the pagan raiders who had laid kingdoms waste, then to wrest back control of the country from the pagans, and finally to make the many realms of Britain into one country.

These tasks, through the long labours of his grandfather, his father and aunt, and Æthelstan’s own toil, had finally been accomplished. Æthelstan was now ‘by grace of God king of the English and equally guardian of the whole country of Britain’. But when, in 937, news reached Æthelstan that the kings of Scotland, Dublin and Strathclyde had united against him and were bringing fire and ruin down upon his realm, it seemed that all his family had worked towards for the previous 70 years was on the verge of being undone. Even Æthelstan, the most decisive of kings, became all but helpless with indecision, dithering as to whether he dared face such a host of enemies. But he was the grandson of Alfred, son of Edward and nephew of Æthelflæd. None of them would have given up, even when faced with such odds. So Æthelstan regathered himself, summoned the men of Wessex and Mercia, and marched north for the great battle of his time.

New God for Old 5: Oswald, the King Returns

Oswald: Return of the King

King Edwin was dead. As such, it seemed that the new faith had failed. But away to the north, living in exile in the sea-spanning kingdom of Dál Riata was an ætheling, an eminently throne worthy man, named Oswald. The son of Æthelfrith, Oswald had fled into exile with his mother and younger brother, Oswiu, when Edwin, his Uncle Edwin, had killed his father. In exile, Oswald had embraced the new faith, learning its tenets and drinking its beauty from the monks of Iona.

In 634, Oswald, the king in exile, returned from over the sea and, meeting Cadwallon in battle near Heavenfield, was victorious. Cadwallon was killed. Oswald, in the tumultuous manner of 7th-century kingship, had vaulted from exile to being the most powerful king in the land in the course of a single battle. And where Edwin’s conversion to Christianity was clearly at least in part political, Oswald’s was just as clearly heart deep and personal: he ascribed his victory at Heavenfield to the intercession of St Columba, the founder of the monastery at Iona, and the king immediately sent to Iona for monks to come over to bring his people to the new faith.

The monk who came was named Aidan. Founding a monastery on the tidal island of Lindisfarne, within sight of the royal stronghold at Bamburgh, Aidan set about the conversion of the Northumbrians with the vocal support of the king – who undertook to translate for Aidan until he learned to speak English. Together, king and abbot created something that had not existed in Britain for centuries: a kingdom that could survive the death of its king. For Oswald died after a reign of eight years, falling in battle with Penda of Mercia, who had remained resolutely pagan when the other kings of the Anglo-Saxons had sought to ally themselves with Oswald by accepting baptism.

But even though Oswald had died, the kingdom held together, bound by the glue of the new religion that Aidan had inculcated in its people. Oswald’s younger brother, Oswiu, took over as king in a somewhat shrunken Northumbria, playing for time against the overweening might of Penda, who rampaged across the country for the next 13 years, removing kings almost at will. In 655, however, the pressure from Penda had become intolerable and Oswiu risked everything on one throw of the battle dice.

Despite having to face Penda’s much larger army, Oswiu marched to battle. The two armies met at the River Winwæd, probably in the vicinity of Leeds, on 15 November 655 in driving rain. In the appalling conditions, Penda’s army broke and fled, more dying in the waters of the flooded river than fell to the sword, and Penda himself was killed. The last great pagan king of the Anglo-Saxons was dead. The gods of battle had chosen the winner in the contest for the soul of the English, and he was the God whose name is peace. (And the story is told in my novels, Oswald: Return of the King and Oswiu: King of Kings.)

New God for Old 4: Edwin, High King of Britain

Edwin: High King of Britain

In 616, Æthelberht, the first Christian Anglo-Saxon king, died. His queen, Bertha, had predeceased him and he had married again, taking a member of the local nobility for his new wife. When Æthelberht died, his son, Eadbald, married Æthelberht’s widow in an effort to shore up his rule, while abjuring the religion of his father, presumably also to win the support of major families who had not become reconciled to the new religion. There was a similar reaction against the new religion among the East Saxons when their king died. It seemed that the whole mission was on the brink of failure.

However, in East Anglia, a fugitive prince named Edwin had taken refuge with Rædwald. He was being pursued by Æthelfrith, the king of Northumbria (who was married to Edwin’s sister, Acha). Æthelfrith was the most feared warrior king in Britain and, learning of Edwin’s whereabouts, Æthelfrith sent a series of increasingly peremptory demands to Rædwald that he deliver Edwin’s person or his head to the king of Northumbria. Fearful of Æthelfrith’s reputation, Rædwald was on the point of doing so when his wife shamed him into remembering the obligations due to him as Edwin’s host and the man who had given him sanctuary. Rædwald decided to fight. With Edwin beside him, Rædwald rode out with his war band and, catching Æthelfrith by surprise on the banks of the River Idle, killed the man his enemies had nicknamed the ‘Twister’. With Æthelberht but lately dead, this immediately made Rædwald the most powerful king among the Anglo-Saxons, and his first move was to install Edwin as the new king of Northumbria.

The unknown man buried in splendour at Sutton Hoo is most probably Rædwald, king of the East Angles. We don’t know exactly when he died, but it was probably around 624, and with his passing Edwin, king of Northumbria, who had been steadily annexing minor kingdoms since his accession to the throne, was now indubitably the most powerful king in the land. But he was a king in search of a queen, his first wife having died.

Edwin found one in Kent, in Æthelburh, the Christian daughter of King Æthelberht. Eadbald, Æthelburh’s brother, had renounced his pagan flirtation and returned to Christianity. Although not the dominant figure his father was, an alliance with Kent, the oldest of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, was a good match for Edwin. As part of the marriage negotiations, Edwin, still a pagan, agreed that Æthelburh, like her mother before her, could continue to practise her faith and permitted her to bring north, as a member of her household, the Italian Paulinus.

A cautious and careful man, Edwin knew well that this marriage carried the invitation to conversion to the new religion. With his wife and Paulinus as members of his itinerant court, he could consider such a momentous change carefully. In the end, despite signs and portents, the decision came down to whether he could carry his leading men with him. Edwin summoned the witan and the case for the new religion was placed before them. Then, according to Bede, one of the warriors present stood and, likening the present world to a well-lit hall sealed against the winds and cold of winter, spoke of a bird flying for a few minutes into the light and warmth, only to flight out again into the night. Such, he said, was the life of men: of that which comes before and after their life on earth they knew nothing. If the new religion offered greater knowledge of their origins and their fate, then they should adopt it. The witan had been won over.

Paulinus embarked on a mission of preaching and baptising. Edwin had adopted the new faith and, with God on his side, his reign would assure the adoption of the new faith among all the Anglo-Saxons, for the kings all wanted to be winners in this world as much as the next.

But God, it turned out, did not necessarily back his own side. On 12 October 632 Edwin met in battle Cadwallon, the Britonnic king of Gwynedd, and Penda of Mercia, and lost. Badly. Terminally, in his case and that of one his sons, and proximately for another, for he was taken prisoner and later executed.

Edwin’s kingdom fell apart. Queen Æthelburh fled with her young children (the two sons who took part in the battle were from Edwin’s first marriage) and Paulinus went with her, taking ship from York with whatever effects they could carry and sailing back to Kent. Without Paulinus, the religion newly adopted by the Northumbrians collapsed. Penda was a pagan. Cadwallon was a Christian but his animosity towards the Northumbrians was deep and unaffected by their conversion, and the memory of his ravaging lingered long in the kingdom. In despair of the new god, the Northumbrians reverted to their old ones, only for Woden and Thunor and the rest to fail them: Cadwallon killed their new king too.

New God for Old 3: the conversion of Æthelberht, king of Kent

Augustine preaching to Æthelberht, king of Kent

Augustine landed in Kent in 597. It was vital for his mission that he make a good impression on Æthelberht, king of Kent. But when Æthelberht met the strange man from far away, he had many different considerations to bear in mind.

Æthelberht was regarded as Bretwalda, a term which has produced reams of scholarly debate but one that at the least meant a pre-eminence over the other kings in Britain. Usually a Bretwalda owed his dominance to success on the battlefield, but there is surprisingly little evidence for Æthelberht’s military domination, although given his exceptionally long reign (possibly over 50 years) he must have been more than able to hold his place in the shieldwall.

What really gave Kent its dominance under Æthelberht was its links to the kingdom of the Franks, across the Channel, links that had been cemented by Æthelberht’s marriage to Bertha, his Frankish princess. Marriage into the Merovingian dynasty brought Æthelberht great prestige – the Merovingian kings ruled over a vast area when compared with the petty kingdoms of Britain – and access to the continental trading networks and the high-value goods that brought prestige to barbarian kings. Essentially, a king attracted warriors to his court by giving them bling: gold arm rings were most favoured but any shiny gold treasure would attract glory hound warriors to a king’s court. Through his marriage to Bertha, Æthelberht had access to more and better bling than any other king in Britain, and he used these treasures to secure an unprecedented half century in power and his status as Bretwalda.

So it was vital for Augustine to convert the king. While it would be overstating it to say that as the king prayed, so did his kingdom – the king had to keep the support of the witan, the assembly of the most important men in the kingdom – having the foremost king in Britain adopt Christianity would be a huge step towards the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. After Æthelberht’s initial wariness, as manifest in his decision to meet Augustine away from any structures, the king, under the influence of his queen, accepted the new religion fairly quickly and, by 601, was baptized.

Æthelberht gave his support to the new religion, installing Augustine and his companions in two churches that dated from the Roman era, St Martin’s and Christchurch. With Æthelberht’s support, Augustine’s mission made rapid progress, converting the king of the East Saxons in 604 and shortly afterwards Rædwald, the king of the East Angles, who adopted a rather à la carte approach to religion, keeping altars to both the new god, Christ, and the old gods in his sanctuary.

New God for Old 2: what happened when the Romans left

Grendel, the monster Beowulf has to destroy.

In the first part of New God for Old, we looked at the traditional story of how Christianity returned to England following its extirpation after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. At least, that’s how Bede tells it in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

We now know it wasn’t quite like that. But Bede was writing more than a century after these events took place. Without him, we would know almost nothing about what happened in Britain in the years after AD 410 and the withdrawal of the Roman legions. In the fifth and sixth centuries, the east and central regions of Britain had been settled by pagan peoples of Germanic origin, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes (with other tribes such as the Frisians also likely arriving). The culture and people they displaced were Romano/Celtic and Christian.

According to Bede, these Christian Britons were displaced by the incoming Anglo-Saxons. Also according to Bede, during the centuries of conflict between the ethnic groups, the Britons made no effort to share their Christianity with the Anglo-Saxons. It’s now clear that both of these are exaggerations.

While in some areas, particularly in the east, the native Britons were clearly displaced, in other areas there is evidence for settlements of Britons and Anglo-Saxons existing in close proximity, although with considerable barriers existing between the two communities and little mixing: think of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. In these cases, though, warbands of Anglo-Saxons often displaced the Britonnic rulers, thereby imposing their language and culture on the villages and hamlets under their rule.

Similarly, while there is some evidence that Britons under pagan Anglo-Saxon rule in some places retained their faith, there was little incentive for the new rulers to adopt the religion of the people whom they had defeated. This was an age when warriors were above all pragmatic in their religious choices: they worshipped the gods that could provide them with victory on the battlefield.

New God for Old 1: the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons

St Augustine preaching to King Æthelberht and Queen Bertha

It was 597 and a group of 40 Italians stood shivering on the Isle of Thanet, in the furthest south-east corner of Kent. They were waiting for the king of Kent, a barbarian with the uncouth name of Æthelberht, and they really didn’t want to be there. They had been dispatched from Rome the year before because the pope, Gregory, had developed the mad notion of sending a mission out beyond the ends of the world to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity all because, so he said, he had seen a group of fair-haired Anglo-Saxon youths for sale in Rome’s market and, seeing them, had asked of what people they came from. On being told they were Angles, Gregory had remarked, “Non Angli, sed angeli” (“Not Angles but angels”) and promptly conceived the idea of sending a mission to bring them out of darkness.

And who better to make up the mission than monks from Gregory’s own monastery of St Andrew on the Coelian Hill in Rome? And who better to lead it than his own dear friend, Augustine? As Augustine wrapped his cloak more tightly against the wind and stood on the chalk uprising that formed the Isle of Thanet, looking down to the broad expanse of the Wantsum Channel and the boat making its way across the channel, he thought again that, with a friend like Gregory, what need had he of enemies?

To get to this benighted corner of the world that had been cut off from the light of civilization for nearly two centuries, he and his companions had had to risk their lives crossing the unruly waters of the Great Ocean, so different from the warm blue of the Mediterranean, only to be told to wait on this wind-blasted promontory until the king of what passed for a kingdom on this island could come to meet them. At least King Æthelberht, although a pagan, was married to a Christian. His wife, Bertha, was a Frank, great-granddaughter of Clovis, the first Merovingian king. Another barbarian, but at least a half-civilised one.

The royal boat drew up on the strand and the king got out with his entourage of warriors and, Augustine was glad to see, his queen too, with her chaplain Liudhard. A condition of the marriage contract had been that Bertha could continue to practice her religion after marrying Æthelberht and she had brought a Frankish priest to Kent as part of her household that she might continue to have access to the sacraments.

The king’s reeve, who had met them when they landed on the isle, had told them to wait on the king’s pleasure but they had learned, while waiting for Æthelberht to arrive, that the king feared meeting this group of monks from far away under a roof lest they cast a spell upon him. Apparently the open air was safer so far as magic was concerned. So, with his cloak wrapped tight round his shoulders – did the wind never stop in this country? – Augustine waited on the king’s arrival.