King Athelstan

"Struck his enemies with fear, by terror of his name alone". A royal son prolonged a noble line, when a splendid gem lit up our darkness. Great Athelstan, glory of the country, way of rectitude, noble integrity, unswervable from the truth".

Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, became king in 925. In his early years he had been taught to read and write and, like all Anglo-Saxon nobles, was trained to fight from a young age. Before Alfred the Great died in 899 Athelstan, a young boy of 5 or 6, was presented to his grandfather who "affectionately embraced him and gave him a Saxon sword, a jewelled scabbard, a belt and cloak". Later in life, he was to put the sword to good use.

His father, Edward the Elder, carried on Alfred's work, conquering permanently the populations of the Midlands and eastern England from the Danes. Athelstan pushed even further and turned the kingdom of England into a fact, "the first to rule what previously many kings shared between them". Even though he was the most powerful ruler Britain had seen since the Romans, he was surrounded by enemies. In Scotland, Strathclyde, Wales and in Viking Northumbria many feared and resented the growing power of the English. In order to forestall the coming invasion, Athelstan invaded Scotland as far as Dunnottar in Kincairdineshire and his fleet of ships struck up into Caithness.

Crunch time came three years later in 937 when a huge coalition of England's enemies, drawn from all over Britain and Ireland, invaded. The Celts threatened the Saxon "palefaces" as they called them; "Now we will pay them back for the 404 years" wrote a Welsh poet, "We will drive them out at Aber Sanwic" (Sandwich, where it is said the Anglo-Saxons first landed in the fifth century). The Celts awaited the forthcoming "gigantic battle" in which the English king would surely be humiliated for his arrogance. Faced with such odds it seemed touch and go whether England would survive at all.

Finally, later on in the year, the now ageing Athelstan, with his back to the wall, gathered his army together and struck forward to meet the invaders. In a huge and savage battle that was said to rage over a thirty mile front, the English won a decisive victory and completely smashed the opposing army. The Battle of Brunanburgh was the most famous battle of the time and was recorded in Irish, Welsh and Scottish annals, as well as on the continent. Geoffrey of Monmouth writing in the twelfth century described the battle as "a turning point for the Celts".

The Welsh kings were forced to submit to Athelstan at Hereford and pay a huge levy of gold, silver, cattle, falcons and hunting dogs. A contemporary Welsh poem expresses fury, dismay and disbelief at the size of the tribute. It was years before the Scots recovered from the battle and the son of the Scottish King was forced to be baptised at an English monastery as an act of submission. The Vikings at York were removed, their fortress destroyed and their treasure handed out among Athelstan's armed thegns. Northumbria came under English control and with that, in 927, England emerged roughly as we find her borders today. The empire of Britain followed swiftly after, with all ten Celtic rulers of the British mainland acknowledging Athelstan's overlordship.

You might be interested in...