Æthelstan: England’s First King – Who Nearly Wasn’t

England’s First King, and greatest some say, almost didn't make it.
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England’s First King

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (specifically the Winchester Manuscript, also known as version [A]), the entry for the year 925 [924] states:

“Here, King Edward [The Elder] passed away, and Æthelstan, his son, succeeded to the kingdom.”

Taken at face value, one might be forgiven for thinking that the transition of power from one to the other was uneventful. Just as night follows day, so to the crown passed from father to eldest son. Simple. Nothing to see here, right?

It is the accepted story, of course; the history that might be taught at school. But probe a little more deeply into the sources and another story emerges; one in which Æthelstan’s succession to the throne of Wessex – and his eventual path to become the first king of something we would now recognise as England – was anything but a certainty.

The first clue we find that something might be amiss seems innocuous at first glance. King Edward died in July 924; yet Æthelstan was not crowned until September 925. Whilst coronations were not always immediate – it was acclamation by the Witan (the king’s council) that conferred kingship, rather than the prayers of a bishop – such a long gap is, nevertheless, remarkable.

One of the first things to point out was that, prior to 1066, succession by the eldest son was by no means a certainty. Æthelstan’s grandfather – King Alfred the Great – was a recent and glaring example of this. Alfred was the youngest of five brothers, and – you might think – very unlikely to succeed. But in 871, his chance came when his brother, King Æthelred, died. Even though Æthelred had two living sons (Æthelhelm and Æthelwold), the crown passed to Alfred – presumably because of his age and experience in war against the Danes at a time when the Great Heathen Army was still ravaging the country. He was simply the best choice in the circumstances: the proven war leader instead of an untested youngster.

So, having established that primogeniture was not an established custom at this time, what of Æthelstan’s situation? At the time of his father’s death, he was around thirty years of age. For more than a decade, he’d been cutting his teeth as a war-leader in the ongoing campaign to rid Mercia of Danish invaders. First alongside his aunt – Æthelflæd – at whose court he had been brought up for many years and then – after her death in 918 – as de facto leader of Mercia, often fighting alongside his father’s warriors.

He was the right age. He knew how to win a battle. He was well educated and had been groomed for every aspect of kingship. So, what was going on behind the bland words of the monks in Winchester in that short Chronicle entry?

The answer – as is so often the case – can be found in the question of dynastic politics. Æthelstan’s mother – King Edward’s first wife – was a noble woman by the name of Ecgwynn. Little is known of her origins, but it is tempting to see her as lacking the status required of a West Saxon queen; perhaps she brought little of tangible value to Edward, a man who might need to marry wealth and power to help secure his hold on the throne in the event of a threat from a rival claimant – such as his cousins referred to above.

There may be an interesting parallel here with King Edward’s later namesake (the IV) who married a woman of lower station with whom he was said to be infatuated. But whereas Edward IV remained married to Elizabeth Woodville, Edward the Elder did not.

At the point of his accession to Alfred’s throne, a rebellion broke out. His cousin, Æthelwold, so long overlooked for a crown he thought was – perhaps justifiably – rightfully his, saw an opportunity to seize power before Edward could establish himself fully. Although he failed in his initial bid for the throne, the fact that he fled to York, where he was gladly accepted by the Danes, made him an altogether more dangerous threat.

Edward’s response was swift; he moved to shore up his rule by taking a new wife – and one who hailed from a more thoroughbred lineage than Ecgwynn. In a move born of necessity, his first wife had to go – put aside in favour of more pressing dynastic concerns.

Edward’s new wife was called Ælfflæd. Again, little is known of her other than the fact that her father was called Æthelhelm. Though some historians have suggested that Æthelhelm might have been an ealdorman from a West Saxon shire, there is a strong case to be made for him being Edward’s cousin, the son of Alfred’s older brother, King Æthelred. With her royal pedigree, it would be a match as strong as Edward could make and the offspring of such a marriage would therefore be doubly royal.

The setting aside of Ecgwynn also put Æthelstan’s position in doubt. With no mother to protect the boy – not much older than a toddler at this time – and with Ælfflaed keen to exert her influence and protect the inheritance of any future sons that she might bear, there was little hope that Æthelstan might remain close by his father’s side. In fact, as soon as Ælfflaed’s first son was born, his half-brother’s demotion in status was almost immediate. From document evidence, we can see that the new child, Ælfweard, was witnessing charters (even though still a baby) and his name was listed immediately after that of his father. Æthelstan, although still a witness, was pushed further down the pecking order. The implication could not have been starker.

Æthelstan with Saint John of Beverley

Any lingering doubt was removed when Æthelstan was packed off to the court of his aunt, Æthelflaed in Mercia. Ostensibly so that he might be raised in the art of ruling and war, you can’t imagine Queen Ælfflaed being upset at the prospect of her stepson being pushed to the side. Quite what Edward himself made of it is unclear. As long as he had sons to succeed him, his throne would be secure; it mattered less the order in which they were born.

And so it remained for twenty or so years, until one fateful day in July 924 when Edward, apparently in Mercia to deal with a rebellion of disaffected Mercian nobles, supported by Welsh factions, died. No one records the cause of his death – he would have been in his early fifties – but a wound received in battle is not beyond the bounds of possibility. This is supported by the location of his death: a royal vill called Farndon, just to the south of Chester.

That Æthelstan fought at his side in this rebellion seems likely, which meant that he was on hand at the moment of his father’s death. The Worcester version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle then records that Æthelstan was declared king by the Mercian nobility, a fact that was to be greeted with dismay in Wessex once delivered by the rider who galloped south with news of the king’s demise.

To the West Saxons. Æthelstan was an outsider. We cannot even be sure whether he had even returned to Wessex at any point during the last two decades. For them, Edward’s second son – now just out of his teens – had been groomed to succeed from birth. With the Mercians declaring for Æthelstan, the safety of the Anglo-Saxon speaking people hung in the balance. The future of King Alfred’s vision for a united realm, fighting back against the Danes was on the brink of collapse.

But then, just sixteen days later, the whole picture changed dramatically; Ælfweard died at Oxford. Once again, no explanation is offered and – it should be said – no rumour of foul play ever gained any traction (though, clearly, cannot be ruled out from this distance).

Presented with such an opportunity, Æthelstan lost no time in pressing his claim for the throne of Wessex. Though Ælfflaed had another son – Edwin – he was too young and insufficiently established to be able to rally support to his banner. But resentment did not go away immediately. The Bishop of Winchester refused to witness the new king’s charters and there were whispers of a plot to seize Æthelstan and put out his eyes – thereby rendering him unfit to rule.

With so much ill-feeling, it is perhaps no wonder that the coronation was delayed for more than a year. Perhaps it took that long for Æthelstan to feel secure enough to proceed. But when he did, it was a coronation like no other. For one thing, it did not take place in Winchester as all other West Saxon ceremonies had. Rather, Æthelstan chose a location – Cyninges tun – that stood on the border between Wessex and Mercia. The message could not have been clearer.

Finally, it should be noted that Æthelstan never married and – consequently – never produced an heir; on his death the throne passed to his stepbrother (the son of Edward’s third wife). At a time when one of the king’s most important duties was to produce children to secure the future of the dynasty, such a decision is incredible. Perhaps it was the price he had to pay to secure West Saxon support; you can be king for your lifetime, but then we want it back.

Further Reading

If this little vignette has whetted your appetite to learn more about England’s first (and perhaps greatest king – as proven by the World Cup of kings of England as presented by the Rest is History podcast (I’d recommend a subscription if you haven’t already)), then you could do worse than have a read of:

Sarah Foot: Æthelstan (Yale University Press)

Tom Holland: Æthelstan – the making of England (Penguin Books)

Michael Livingston: Never Greater Slaughter (Osprey)

Paul Bernardi is the author of Thurkill’s Revengepublished by Sharpe Books.