King Alfred the Great had become one of the most powerful kings of the Anglo-Saxons before he died in 899, bringing his son, Edward the Elder to the throne.
Edward had cemented the Kingdom of Wessex as the most powerful of the three Kingdoms, of which Mercia (in the East) and Northumbria (in the North) were part. Mercia was ruled by Edward and only Northumbria remained under Viking rule.
When Edward died on 17 July 924, after having put down a Mercian and Welsh revolt, his son Ethelstan ascended to the throne.
Ethelstan was the son of Edward the Elder and his first wife, Ecgwynn, born in 894 in Wessex. Ethelstan was the only child of Edward and Ecgwynn, but had many half-brothers and sisters as Edward married twice more, first to Elfflaed and then to Eadgifu.
Edward and Elfflaed had two sons, Elfweard and Edwin while Eadgifu produced two sons Edmund and Eadred – future kings of England.
Edward had many daughters – as much as nine but Ethelstan’s future looked bleak as Elfflaed favoured her own sons ahead of Ethelstan.
Based on historical evidence, it is assumed that Ethelstan received his education and military training in Mercia with his aunt and uncle, Ethelflaed and Ethelred.
When Edward died, it was thought that Ethelstan would rule over Mercia while Elfweard would rule over Wessex, however, Elfweard survived his father by only 16 days, paving the way for Ethelstan’s coronation in 925.
When the Danish King Sihtric, who ruled York in Northumbria, passed away, Ethelstan seized the chance to invade Northumbria and claim the throne. In capturing York, Ethelstan received the submission of the Danish people and on 12 July 927, King Constantine II of Alba (Scotland), King Hywel Dda of Deheubarth (South Wales), Ealdred of Bamburgh (region of Northumbria) and King Owain of Strathclyde (Western Scotland) accepted Ethelstan’s overlordship.
This triumph led to several years of peace in the north. Ethelstan tried to reconcile with the nobles in Northumbria, lavishing gifts and territory, however, he was still resented as an outsider and the northern British kingdoms preferred to ally with the pagan Norse of Dublin, making his position in the north a tenuous one.
In 934, Ethelstan would do what many kings to follow would do – invade Scotland!
There are varying opinions as to his reason for doing so, and there are no recorded battles but Ethelstan’s army reached as far north as Dunnottar in the north-east of Scotland, the furthest any English army had achieved since Ecgfrith’s disastrous invasion some 250 years prior.
Just four months later and Ethelstan was back in the south of England where Constantine acknowledged Ethalstan’s overlordship. In 935, a charter was attested by Constantine, Owain of Strathclyde, Hywel Dda, Idwal Foel and Morgan ap Owain.
Kings of the Anglo-Saxons ruled through eldormen, who ruled over shires but Ethelstan changed this to a much wider area, owing to his greater kingdom.
Ethelstan truly was the first real king of England, having united the warring kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria into one dominion. His coinage stated, “Rex totius Britanniae” which in Latin means “King of the whole Britain.”
Many documents, bequeathed to the church, were styled with inscriptions such as “King of the English” and “Ruler over whole Britain”.
Like his great-grandfather Ethelwulf and grandfather Alfred the Great, Ethelstan continued the tradition of not marrying off his sisters to local subjects, but rather to European nobles, thereby strengthening ties with other European kingdoms, especially against the raiding Viking hoards.
However, this tradition would ultimately change the royal character of England in just over 100 years with the invasion of William the Conqueror.
Ethelstan died in October 939, and unlike his grandfather Alfred, his father Edward or his half-brother Elfweard who had been buried in the capital of Wessex, Winchester, Ethelstan had chosen to be buried in Gloucester.
Ethelstan’s death resulted in the Vikings taking back control of York and Northumbria, as well as the east midlands, leading to a frontier at Watling Street.
Ethalstan’s half-brothers Edmund and Eadred devoted most of their rules to taking back control and finally driving the Vikings out of England – however, they would return!
**In our next adventure, we shall delve into the period from Ethelstan’s death in 939 up until 1016 when England lost it’s control to a foreign power.