New College of the Humanities

Giving Life To Æthelstan

In a reign of just 15 years Æthelstan united the English for the first time. Yet many of the facts about him remain elusive. Sarah Foot describes the challenges of writing his biography.

Æthelstan's tomb at Malmesbury Abbey, photographed by the authorKing Æthelstan’s name now resonates in few places in contemporary Britain and finds little recognition beyond these shores. Yet during his own reign (924-939) Æthelstan’s contemporaries regarded him – in the words of a Breton abbot – as ‘one of the most excellent and illustrious among the earthly kings of our own day’. As the first Anglo-Saxon king to have united all the English peoples under one rule following his conquest of Northumbria in 927, Æthelstan enjoyed a deservedly high reputation at home and abroad. His contemporaries recognised him as a successful warrior who defeated native British and Scandinavian rivals for his throne, as well as a powerful administrator, innovative law-maker and devout supporter of the Church. Later in the tenth century a West Saxon chronicler, Æthelweard (died. c. 998), deemed Æthelstan the most powerful ruler in Britain since the Romans, observing that in his days ‘the fields of Britain were consolidated into one’.

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