First King of All England

King Athelstan by Ron Bartholomew


From the view of popular English history, the trauma and drama of the Norman conquest has rather hidden the importance of what occurred in the two centuries preceding the conquest. The Normans, however, came as conquerors and rulers but not as colonisers; in fact very few of them settled here and they regarded ‘home’ as being Normandy and France. Norman rule was harsh, as one contemporary Norse poet put it, ‘cold heart and bloody hand, now rule the English land’. Eventually, after two hundred years or so, the English nation slowly re-emerged from under the Norman yoke.

The Viking invasions of the 9th and 10th centuries were very different in character. The Danes came to conquer and to settle. Had they achieved ultimate success the infant English nation would have been strangled at birth.

It is arguable that the 75 years which started with Alfred’s victory at Edington, in Wiltshire, and the subsequent struggle, which culminated in Athelstan establishing his government over the whole of England, were the most important of our national history.

The three kings, Alfred, Edward and Athelstan, presided over the affairs of the English during this vital time in our nation’s foundation. We in Malmesbury are naturally most interested in Athelstan because he chose to be buried here in the monastic church.

The First King of All England

In the year 924 A.D. Edward the Elder, King of Wessex, died. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Athelstan. What was the condition of the realm that he inherited? To appreciate this we need to go back more than a hundred years before Athelstan became king.

The Danish Raids

From the end of the 8th century until the middle of the 9th century these islands were subject to frequent raids by the Vikings. Generally these were of limited duration, just a few weeks, and were solely for the purpose of plunder. Communities within a few miles of the coast were terrorised by these assaults; often the men and children were killed while the womenfolk were carried off as slaves. Monasteries were commonly attacked as gold, silver and precious jewels were to be found in them. The usual practice was to kill the monks and lay brothers, even though they offered no resistance. As a final insult animals and any foodstuff were carried away and buildings fired.

In the autumn of the year 865 A.D. there was a major change in the Viking strategy the consequences of which were to be even more dire for the English population. There landed on the coast of East Anglia what later became known as The Great Army. This army came with the intention of remaining in the country for several years. They spent the first twelve months commandeering the horses in East Anglia in order to become a mounted force. In the autumn of 866 A.D. they moved on to, and occupied, York, the principal town in the kingdom of Northumbria. The pattern for future years was established by the Danes as they systematically ravaged the surrounding countryside to the point where the inhabitants bought peace. Each autumn the Great Army would move to a new defensible location and fortify it before pillaging the area and demanding ‘Danegeld’ be paid. Over the twelve years to 877 A.D. considerable areas of the midlands and the north came under direct Danish rule, the ‘Danelaw’ as it was known. Client kings had been installed in the Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia.

These kings, although Saxon, had to accept Danish overlordship. In the case of Mercia the king, Ceolwulf, was made to cede the northern half of his kingdom to direct Danish control. It is believed this northern half comprised the present day counties of Lincoln, Leicester, Derby and Nottingham.

Wessex and the Danes

In the year 877 A.D. Wessex was still free of Danish control although it was very hard pressed. The Kingdom was ruled by the famous Alfred, later to become known as Alfred the Great although that title was not coined until Victorian times.

Late in 875 A.D. part of the Great Army under King Guthrum moved from Cambridge to Wareham on the south coast of Wessex and, as was their practise, ravaged the country around until confronted by Alfred and his army. The Danes took money from the West Saxons and undertook to depart from Wessex. In spite of this agreement they in fact moved into Exeter where they were held on the defensive by Alfred, until the summer of 877 A.D. when they were compelled to move to Gloucester which was then in Mercia.

Christmas 877 A.D. found the two armies encamped; the Danish army in Gloucester and that of the West Saxons in Chippenham in Wiltshire. Early in the January of 878 A.D. the Danes struck camp and marched on Chippenham. This caught Alfred and the men of Wessex completely off guard as it was usual for all fighting to be suspended during the winter months. The Danes gained a victory and the army of the West Saxons were scattered. Alfred was fortunate to make good his escape and reassembled some of his forces at Athelney in Somerset where they were able to take refuge in the peat marshes. By Easter Alfred was able to harry the Danish raiding parties and after a few weeks of this guerrilla warfare he summoned the men of Somerset, Hampshire and Wiltshire so that he could now again challenge the main Danish army.

The confrontation took place at Edington in Wiltshire and this time Alfred won conclusively. Guthrum and his army withdrew to Chippenham while negotiations took place. The outcome was that Guthrum agreed to become a Christian and that his men would withdraw from Wessex. This they duly did in the autumn of 878 A.D., first to Cirencester which was in Mercia and then, after a further twelve months, to East Anglia where, indue time, the Great Army disbanded.

The Turning of the Tide

The victory at Edington marked a change in the fortunes of Saxon arms so that for the remaining 21 years of his reign Alfred was able to slowly increase the amount of the country that was under his direct control. By 899 A.D., when Alfred died, all of the southern counties up to the River Thames as well as the English part of Mercia (in general terms the present day Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and London) were subject to Saxon government. The whole of Wales also accepted Alfred as their overlord. As it was put in the Saxon Chronicles ‘all the English people submitted to Alfred except those who were under the power of the Danes’.

Edward the Elder, son of Alfred, succeeded his father and continued the battles against the Danes. As in the reign of Alfred it was not a case of victory succeeded by victory. There were defeats along the way but none of the Danish victories were conclusive and the trend was always favourable to the Saxon cause. By the end of his reign in 924 A.D. the area of England under Edward’s control was extended especially on the eastern side of the country to include all of the counties up to the River Humber. Affairs in the north were now complicated by invasions through the north-western coast by the Norse armies. It was a Norse king who ruled in York. Further north, however, there were still Saxon rulers in Northumbria and in Strathclyde who were independent of Edward’s control.

The Accession of Athelstan

When Edward died in 924 A.D. his son, Athelstan, now 30 years of age, became king. Although a descendant of the Wessex royal family he was, nevertheless acceptable as king to the Mercians also. This was because Athelstan A.D. spent most of his younger years in Mercia with his aunt Queen Æthelflæd, a daughter of Alfred. She was married to the king of Mercia, and when he died she was acknowledged as ruler at a very difficult time and shared in the subsequent successes of the Saxon cause. She was known as ‘The Lady of Mercia’. On her death in 918 A.D., Edward’s rule in Mercia was tolerated with some reluctance. Athelstan, however, had no such opposition and was quickly accepted by Mercia and, eventually Wessex, as king and was crowned at Kingston-on-Thames in 925 A.D.. There was a tradition that, when a child, Athelstan was regarded by Alfred as the future heir to the Kingdom of the West Saxons. We learn, from the account given by the noted historian, William of Malmesbury, that Alfred gave to Athelstan a scarlet cloak, a jewel encrusted belt and a sword with a golden hilt. These were intended as marks of future dignity.

Saxon Supremacy

Shortly after Athelstan became king, Sihtric, the Danish ruler of Northumbria whose base was in York, proposed an alliance with Athelstan, something he had never been prepared to offer Edward. This alliance was consolidated by Sihtric marrying a sister of Athelstan. This was in 926 A.D.. Unfortunately Sihtric died in the following year to be succeeded by a son of an earlier marriage, Olaf. Olaf did not support his father’s position and so, with his uncle Gulfrith, king of the Norsemen in Ireland who came over to support his nephew, he endeavoured to re-establish his independence from English rule. This prompted an invasion of Northumbria by Athelstan. After a short war both Olaf and uncle were driven out of the country. Thus it was, in 927 A.D., Athelstan was able to accept at Eamont, near to Penrith, from the kings of Scotland and Strathclyde recognition of his overlordship. So, from that position of near defeat in 878 A.D., in less than fifty years, the rulers of Wessex now held sway over virtually all that is England today. We can now call Athelstan, as he proclaimed himself, ‘The First King of All England’. If one seeks a date for the birth of England as a political entity, then 12th July 927 A.D. when the agreement was sealed at Eamont, is a strong contender.

Athelstan did not stop here. Over the following four years he established dominance over all of the Welsh rulers bringing them to a meeting at Hereford where they promised to make annual tribute to Athelstan of an amount in gold and livestock which, if William of Malmesbury is to be believed, was of enormous value. Twenty pounds of gold, three hundred pounds of silver and 25,000 head of cattle consisted the principal part of the annual tribute by William’s account. Whatever the agreement it is doubtful if such an enormous tribute was ever paid.


There still remained for Athelstan, one final confrontation with his enemies. In 937 A.D. there were kings who felt they had cause to be aggrieved with Athelstan and the English. First there was Olaf, son of Gulfrith, the king of the Irish Norsemen in Dublin. Gulfrith had died in 934 A.D. to be succeeded by Olaf. Olaf clearly had the ambition to regain the kingdom of Northumbria from which Olaf Sihtricson, had been driven in 927 A.D.. The kings of Scotland and Strathclyde also felt they had reason to fear this strong southern neighbour who had so recently ravaged their countries.

In the year 937 A.D. Olaf came with a large fleet carrying his Norse army. Whether they made Landfall on the north-west coast of England or perhaps sailed around the north of Scotland to land in the Humber estuary is not clear. Their ships were very well able to make the longer journey and many historians favour the belief that they did so. It is certain that Athelstan and his men came from the south on the eastern side of the country passing through Beverly. Olaf united his men with those of the kingdoms of Scotland and Strathclyde. William of Malmesbury tells us that these armies penetrated far into English lands before they were finally met by the combined army of Wessex and Mercia at a place called Brunanburh. It is not certain where Brunanburh is located but a strong possibility is a little north of Sheffield in an area defined by the juncture of the Don and Rother river valleys. Athelstan was victorious and as a consequence was accepted as the ruler of the whole of England, the first time there had been one accepted ruler since the departure of the Romans in the 5th century.

Who was Athelstan

Athelstan was born in 896 A.D., the son of Edward the Elder and grandson of Alfred. There is some doubt regarding the identity of his mother. Edward married three times and at the time of Athelstan’s birth was still in his first marriage, to Ecgwynn. There is however some suggestion that Athelstan was born outside of wedlock. This may explain why Athelstan was not brought up in the West Saxon court but in the Mercian court of his uncle and aunt, Æthelred and Æthelflæd. So it was, in 924 A.D. on the death of Edward, Athelstan was nominated as king by the Mercian aristocracy even before the West Saxons did so. Athelstan was consecrated and crowned in 925 A.D. at Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey, the place where Mercian kings were crowned.

There is no record of Athelstan being married although he may have been. There is a suggestion, but no certainty, that he had a daughter named Æthida but nothing is known of her or what became of her. Altogether his private life is a closed book to us. We do, however, have left to us, from William of Malmesbury, a description of his appearance. According to William Athelstan was ‘of middle height, thin in person, his hair flaxen as I have seen by his relics, and beautifully wreathed with golden threads‘.

Athelstan and Europe

As his power at home grew so Athelstan’s influence abroad increased, an influence never held by either of his illustrious predecessors, Alfred or Edward. It was in the interest of many European rulers to be associated with and allied to such a powerful figure. This enabled Athelstan to arrange advantageous marriages for several of his half-sisters.

One of these marriages has particular interest for Malmesbury. This concerns the half-sister named Eadhild. In 926 A.D. Duke Hugh of the Franks sent a mission to meet with King Athelstan seeking the hand of Eadhild in marriage. The mission, which met with the king and his advisers at the monastery at Abingdon in Oxfordshire, brought with them many precious gifts and these included:-

        The Sword of Constantine with a nail from the Cross in its hilt.
        The lance of Charlemagne with which the centurion pierced our Lord’s side.
        Fragments of the Cross and the crown of thorns set in crystal.

These gifts are mentioned particularly as they were subsequently presented to the monastery at Malmesbury. These relics were to have great importance over the following centuries in attracting pilgrims to Malmesbury. The pilgrims would pay the monastery to permit them to approach the relics in order to pray for the intercession, they hoped for, by the associated saint or of Christ for the cure of their ills.

Of the other half-sisters, Aedgifu married Charles the Simple, King of the Franks, Edith married Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor and Ælgifu married Conrad Of the Burgundian ruling family. Of all our monarchs through history only Queen Victoria had more European in-laws.

The Malmesbury Connection

After the battle of Brunanburh, Athelstan caused two of his cousins, Ælfwine and Æthelwine, who were killed in the battle, to be brought to Malmesbury for burial beside the High Altar. Just two years later, Athelstan himself died at Gloucester and in obedience to the instruction he had given he was brought to Malmesbury to be buried.

Why to Malmesbury? Some have since said that the reason was that Malmesbury was then the capital of England but this is to misread the position. In those times there was no place that could be called ‘the capital’. The King was the source and authority of all government and so the seat of Government was in the person of the King rather than at one city or another. The King governed with the advice of his council. The council meeting places are recorded in the Saxon Chronicles but there is no record of it ever meeting in Malmesbury, although it did meet in many of the towns in the vicinity including Chippenham, Cirencester, Calne and Bath.

So what was the reason for Athelstan’s regard for Malmesbury? A regard so high that he arranged for his cousins and himself to be buried here.

A discovery, made as a result of an aerial survey showed there to be the remains of several large structures on a site at Cowage farm, a mile or so to the south-west of the town. A later excavation on the site revealed the remains of several large wooden buildings dating from the early Saxon period. Such buildings, typically, had a life of at least two centuries and in many cases much longer. It is believed that the complex could have been a royal manor or hunting lodge and so, perhaps, Athelstan’s affection for Malmesbury derives from the times he spent here hunting and feasting.

The largest building was aligned east-west and slightly apart with a semi-circular extension at the east end. Was this, perhaps, an early church?

The Attainments of Athelstan

From the foregoing it might be thought that the prowess of Athelstan was limited to the battlefield but this is far from being the case. He was a noted collector of sacred relics and, to add to his collection, sent emissaries to many parts of Europe to obtain relics that he particularly wanted. Knowing of this interest, many European rulers sent precious relics as presents.

Many precious books were collected by Athelstan and a comprehensive list of these is provided by Simon Keynes in his book ‘King Athelstan’s Books‘. It was Athelstan who gave instruction that the Bible be translated into the Saxon language, however there is no evidence available to us today as to whether this instruction was carried out either in whole or in part.

Although an avid collector Athelstan was most generous in making gifts of these artefacts to many monasteries and churches around his kingdom.

Athelstan established a reputation as a wise ruler and a merciful one. It was an act of his that forbade the death penalty for anyone under the age of 15 years unless they resisted arrest. Another act established the requirement on all citizens to give any necessary assistance to the manorial constables in order to maintain the laws and to catch miscreants. The raising of a ‘hue and cry’ had real meaning in those times.

A major concern of kings in those times was that the coinage should not be debased and to this Athelstan was no exception. Coins could only be made and issued by licensed mints in the towns designated as ‘burghs’. The dies used to stamp out the coins were centrally produced and distributed to the official mints. This provided for a unified currency of the silver penny bearing an effigy of the king’s crowned head.

Athelstan in Malmesbury Today

The name of Athelstan is, today, well to the forefront of Malmesbury life. There is in the Abbey a Tomb-chest commemorating him. This tomb is empty, the relics of the King being lost at the time of the dissolution of the monastery in 1539. It may be that they were destroyed or scattered by the Kings commissioners or perhaps they were secretly hidden by a supporter of the ‘old religion’. Whether Athelstan’s remains were ever contained within this tomb is an open question. It would appear to have been made around 1300, some 350 years after Athelstan died. At some time the head of the king as well as the head of the lion at his feet, have both been removed and subsequently replaced. Was this the result of deliberate damage during the civil war?

The name of Athelstan is remembered locally in several ways; the town museum is named after him, there is an Athelstan Road, and an Athelstan Probus Club. The Athelstan Players is the name of the local amateur dramatic society, and, in the recent past, there was an Athelstan Coach company, an Athelstan Garage and an Athelstan Cinema. In 2009 a newly constructed retreat for the town’s more elderly citizens has been named St Athelstan’s House.

The Old Corporation

There has for many centuries existed in this town an organisation which today is known as ‘The Old Corporation of Malmesbury‘ whose members are The Warden and Freemen of the Corporation. It is their claim that their foundation goes back to the time of King Athelstan who gave 5 hides (600 acres) of land, to the south-west of the town on the borders of the villages of Foxley and Norton, to the men of Malmesbury. It is said this gift by the King was in gratitude for the services rendered by the men of Malmesbury at the battle of Brunanburh referred to above.

The earliest record of this favour extended by Athelstan now extant, is that written in the year 1381 in the reign of Richard II. This accepted the claim to be valid. There is, however, no record in the Domesday Book, compiled in 1087, of any land in or around Malmesbury being held by the Old Corporation or by any person or group that may be the Old Corporation by some earlier name. “The land at Norton now owned by The Old Corporation, is shown to be held by the monastery of Malmesbury. The Victoria County History describes the claim to be ‘implausible’.

It is fact, nevertheless, that the Old Corporation still own the 600 acres of land which is known today as Kings Heath and that more than 400 people living in the town today have inherited the right to be commoners: an ancestral tree perhaps over a 1000 years old! It was also on the basis of this claim the 13 Capital Burgesses of the Old Corporation returned 2 Members of Parliament right up until the Great Reform Act of 1831. Even after this The Old Corporation provided the local government of the town until 1886.

Athelstan’s Legacy

When Athelstan died in 939 A.D. he was at first succeeded by his cousin, Edmund, followed by another cousin, Edred. In 955 A.D. nephew Edwy came to the throne and after just four years he was succeeded by another of Athelstan’s nephews, Edgar. With the arrival of Edgar the new English nation, comprising its Saxon, British and Danish inhabitants, entered into a golden age, albeit a brief one. Edgar presided over a sustained period of peace for the nation and, together with Dunstan, his Archbishop of Canterbury, he re-established Christianity on a firm base throughout the country. In particular the old monasteries were re-founded as well as many new ones established. After Edgar died in 975 A.D. he was followed, in 978 A.D. by the ill-starred Ethelread-the-Unready. During his long reign, lasting until 1016, the fortunes of the English steadily deteriorated until, finally, the whole country came under Danish rule. This was followed by the Norman conquest resulting from which the English nation was subjected to foreign rule for some three centuries. That it was then able to emerge and with a national identity, an English identity, testifies to the strength of that which had been forged by that remarkable trio of West Saxon kings, Alfred, Edward and Athelstan, the ’First King of All England’.

Friends of Malmesbury Abbey
Founded St Aldhelm’s Day 1945
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The Friends of Malmesbury Abbey was founded to forward two objectives. The first and primary objective is to assist in the restoration and upkeep of the fabric of the Abbey, its furniture, ornaments and contents.

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