Tom Holland’s “Athelstan” – book review

“It was the most terrible conflict that anyone could remember. Entire kingdoms were mobilized for combat. Slaughter fit to stupefy poets was visited on the ranks of the rival combatants. The memory of it would long endure. (…) 

“Æðelstan cyning lædde fyrde to Brunanbyrig”: Athelstan the king led the levy to Brunanburh. (…) At stake, though, was not just the future of Athelstan’s kingdom. Beyond the world of men, in skies and lonely forests, the shudder of looming battle was also felt. As the King of England rode northwards, the numbers in his train swelling with his advance, ravens as well as warriors began to follow in his wake. The birds were notorious creatures of ill omen: clamorous, untrustworthy, hungry for human flesh.”

If you think this sounds a little bit like an imitation of Tolkien, you would not be far off. 

Tom Holland’s biography of Athelstan definitely has that vibe to it. Though it scrupulously cites its sources, the atmosphere is very much Tolkienesque. That said, the sources for Athelstan’s story are pretty scarce and far between. Though he is credited with creation of a united England, the sources for his reign are not very plentiful. 

They are mostly the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and William of Malmesbury, from which the quote cited above comes. But modern scholars apparently can’t even agree on where exactly the famous battle of Brunnanburh took place.

The story of his life is interesting. He was the grandson of Alfred and knew his grandfather. Alfred’s son, Edward,the King of Wessex, sent away Athelstan’s mother to a monastery to make a political alliance with a rebellious relative. His son, potential competition for the inheritance got sent away to the neighbouring kingdom of Mercia. Mercia was ruled by Æthelflæd, Alfred’s eldest daughter, known as the Lady of the Mercians. She had a husband, older than herself, but it was clear to everyone who was actually ruling the place. 

“Æthelflæd was devout, learned, and no less martial in her ambitions than any man… Shield of her people, she wore about her the palpable aura of queens from ancient song. In 909 (…) ”the body of Saint Oswald was brought from Bardney to Mercia.” Escorted in triumph from the depths of Viking held territory, the relics were laid to rest in Gloucester: a favourite place of Æthelflæd and her husband.”

Moving the saint’s relics was, of course, a political move, as much as anything else. Æthelflæd was underlining the Christian authority of her own dynasty’s rule. 

Æthelflæd (from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, c. 1220)
Æthelflæd (from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, c. 1220)

I’m just going to point out that I’m totally fan-girling about Æthelflæd here. The discovery of her existence was probably the most exciting piece of information I got out of this book – as I had never heard of her before!

There’s another matter of which I was simply unaware. In Poland school-children are always forced to memorize the distinction between the first ruler of Poland (Mieszko) and the first ruler of Poland who was crowned king: his son, Bolesław Chrobry (in 1025). 

But I would be hard pressed to answer who was the first English ruler to be crowned. Spoiler alert: some historians claim it was Athelstan at Kingston in 925. Though bishops had consecrated kings with oil before, Athelstan was the first to give up the customary helmet and wear a circlet of gold instead. He also had coins made with the title rex Anglorum, after he recaptured the city of York from the Vikings. In 927, he became still more ambitious and went for the title “rex totius Britanniae”.

“The Primates of both Canterbury and York; kings from Wales; jarls from the Danelaw; ealdormen and bishops from every corner of his kingdom: all were now obliged to head for Wessex when the summons from Athelstan went out. Never before in Britain had there been a royal council which comprised so many different people from different corners of the island.”

All the island seemed to be subjugated. All except for Scotland. And Cumbria. 

Soon enough, Athelstan was organizing an attack against Scotland, stopping at the shrine of St. Cuthbert for some saintly support. Apparently, St. Cuthbert had appeared in a vision to Alfred, Athelstan’s grandfather. He had promised him victory over the Vikings “Be faithful to me and to my people, for all Albion has been given to you and your sons.”  No wonder that Athelstan found himself seeking advice from St. Cuthbert. After that came the battle of Brunnanburh – a  very bloody victory for Athelstan’s forces against Scotland and the Vikings (who were trying to regain their dominion over York). 

I really enjoyed reading Old English poetry at university, but we were taught surprisingly little about Old English history. This was a really enjoyable method to catch up -even though I assume it would raise proper historian’s eyebrows slightly. 

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