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16 May 2016updated 12 Oct 2023 10:42am

Me and my monarch: Athelstan (924-949)

The most important English king you know nothing about.

By Jonn Elledge

The first Roman emperor was Augustus. The first US president was George Washington.

The first English monarch, though, is a surprisingly contested matter. Some accounts start with Egbert of Wessex (802-839), or even Offa or Mercia (757-796), both of whom seem to have ruled large chunks of the country, at least briefly, before being succeeded by descendents who didn’t. Traditionally, though, lists of English kings have generally begun with Alfred the Great (871-899): the first man to proclaim himself “king of the Anglo-Saxons”, it was he who started the process of unifying the various English kingdoms in their fightback against the Viking invaders.

Alfred, though, never actually managed to take back the whole country, and the east and the north remained in Danish hands at his death. And there’s another plausible, if less famous, candidate for the title of first king of England.

Alfred’s grandson Athelstan conquered vast chunks of modern England that his grandfather never managed. Even better, from a “first king of England” point of view, his heirs didn’t instantly let the whole thing crumble again.

Let’s count off some things we should probably all know about Athelstan.

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He unified England

When Athelstan became king, at around the age of 30, there wasn’t really an England, as such: there were simply a collection of kingdoms, held together largely by their terror of the Vikings.

For that reason, he actually sort of became king in stages, acquiring the throne of Mercia (the modern Midlands) in 924, but not getting Wessex (the south) until the following year. His title at first, in fact, was still “King of the Anglo-Saxons”.

But Athelstan changed that, and from 927 on he became the first monarch to style himself “king of the English”. (Whether or not this was because his accession had been such a pain in the bum is sadly lost to history.) And the big achievement that allowed him to do this was…

He reconquered the north

When Athelstan’s his father Edward the Elder died in 924, England still stopped at the Humber: to the north there was still a Viking Kindom, Jorvik, then ruled by a Danish king, Sitric. (Or Sihtric, or Sitrik, or possibly Sigtrygg: 10th century spelling is maddeningly inconsistent.)

In theory, the kings of Jorvik acknowledged the Kings of the Anglo-Saxons as their overlords; in practice, this didn’t stop Sitric from attempting to invade Mercia in 926, which suggests that English control was imperfect, to say the least.

Athelstan initially dealt with this rival powerbase through the standard medieval diplomatic technique of marrying one of his sisters off to Sitric: a sort of non-aggression pact, under which the two kings promised not to invade each other. The following year, though, the Dane helpfully snuffed it, and Athelstan immediately took the opportunity to march in with an army, and nab his kingdom. 

He unified the whole of Britain (almost)

Athelstan’s invasion was apparently a bit unpopular with the locals: however they felt about being ruled by Danes, being ruled by southerners was beyond the pale. And, sensing an opportunity, another Viking king, Guthfirth of Dublin, tried to invade.

He failed – the invasion only served to illustrate that Athelstan was now firmly in control of the north. Then, to consolidate his power, Athelstan also forced the submission of various of Scottish kings, and managed to get tribute out of the Welsh too.

This didn’t last, of course: but for a period of several decades, beginning with reign of Athelstan, the kings of the English were a sort of overlord of all of Britain.

He created an English state

So. Athelstan was clearly good at war, but he was also pretty good at peace. He made marriage alliances with the kings of what would become both France (Hugh the Great) and Germany (Otto the Great; the early 10th century was clearly a great time for kings).

Perhaps more importantly, Athelstan was the first king to create a proper national administration. Large chunks of England’s early law codes date to his reign. He regulated coinage for the first time, and consolidated the Midlands and the north into the shires we’d still recognise today.

All of this means that, in so much as we can credit the creation of England to any individual ruler, Athelstan has as good a claim as any. And perhaps most impressively….

He did all this really, really fast

…he only ruled for 15 years. That is not a long time to kick out the Vikings, subdue the Scots and the Welsh, and lay the foundations of an actual English state.

And yet, he remains obscure – remarkably so, when you consider his achievements.

Perhaps Athelstan’s lack of reputation can be blamed on the fact he’s been overshadowed by his more famous grandfather. Or perhaps it’s because he didn’t found a dynasty: he died childless, and was followed as king by his half brother Edmund.

Or perhaps it’s simply because his Anglo-Saxon name is not one that even a hipster medievalist would dream of giving their kid today: Athelstan gets forgotten in an endless sea of names beginning Athel- and Ed-.

Personally, though, I blame the French. We have a tendency to treat 1066 as the Year Zero of English history: the Norman Conquest meant the arrival of an entirely new ruling class, and our national story has tended to understate the importance of those who came before. Athelstan, for all his achievements, simply gets lost in the fog of a period we tend to ignore.

This article is part of the New Statesman’s Monarchy Week. Find more here.

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