Æthelstan was King of the Anglo-Saxons from 924 to 927 and then King of the English from 927 to 939. He was the son of Edward the Elder and grandson of Alfred the Great. He is often regarded as the first King of England and has a reputation of being an able and successful ruler. According to the twelfth century chronicler William of Malmesbury "...no one more just or more learned ever governed the kingdom".
On Edward's death his realm appears to have been divided with the Mercians recognising Æthelstan and the West Saxons recognising his brother, Ælfweard. Ælfweard would however be dead within weeks of his father and Æthelstan was inaugurated as king of all of Edward's lands, being crowned on the 4th September 925, having finally eliminated any remaining resistance to his succession.
He was a talented military leader, in 927 conquering the last remaining Viking kingdom, York, and in doing so becoming the first Anglo-Saxon ruler of the whole of England. His lands may even have extended as far north as the Firth of Forth in present day Scotland. His relationship with the Kingdom of Scotland, known then by the Gaelic name Alba, would be fractious and in 934 he led an army against it, perhaps reaching as far north as Dunnottar and Fortriu in present day Aberdeenshire. No significant battles appear to have been fought and a settlement negotiated, with the Scottish King Constantine II acknowledging Æthelstan's overlordship, on September 13th 934. However, in 937 he would face an invasion from an alliance of Scots, Britons of Strathclyde and Vikings from Dublin. The resulting Battle of Brunanburh is reported in the Annals of Ulster as follows:
“…a great battle, lamentable and terrible was cruelly fought... in which fell uncounted thousands of the Northmen. ...And on the other side, a multitude of Saxons fell; but Æthelstan, the king of the Saxons, obtained a great victory".
At home Æthelstan centralised government, increasing control over the production of charters and summoning leading figures from distant areas to his councils. These meetings were also attended by rulers from outside his territory, especially Welsh kings, who thus acknowledged his overlordship. More legal texts survive from his reign than from any other 10th-century English king. They show his concern about widespread robberies, and the threat they posed to social order. His legal reforms built on those of his grandfather, Alfred the Great.
He was also known for his piety, collecting many relics and founding many churches. His household was the centre of English learning during his reign, and it laid the foundation for the Benedictine monastic reform later in the century. No other West Saxon king played as important a role in European politics as Æthelstan, and he arranged the marriages of several of his sisters to continental ruler
Æthelstan died at Gloucester on October 27th 939 and was buried at Malmesbury Abbey. He had no legitimate children and was succeeded by his by his half-brother Edmund, then aged 18. His empire collapsed in little more than a year after his death when the Viking chief Olaf Guthfrithson sailed from Ireland and seized Northumbria and the Mercian Danelaw. Edmund would rule between 939 and 946 and his brother Eadred between 946 and 955; most their reigns would be spent attempting to regain control of the lost lands. This would not be achieved until 954.
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