Athelstan was born in 894AD we think but no-one really knows the day or where as no-one wrote it down. This is how my research started. A little part of me died!
Although I’m now a storyteller my first career was as a pharmacologist so I am well versed in scientific research. Science is all about facts. There are figures and numbers and people who have actually proven stuff without a shadow of a doubt. It is like baking – a list of precise ingredients which can be reproduced time and time again.
History however is much more like cooking. Throw in a bit of this, a bit of that and hope that what comes out onto your plate tastes nice and isn’t on fire. When researching as far back as Athelstan’s birth you have to rely on patchy sources, some of which are copies or rely on other sources that the damn Normans came and conquested. In short there is no way to get all of the facts and know for sure what happened. This does however leave the story open to interpretation which as a writer is incredibly appealing.
So he’s born to Prince Edward whose father, King Alfred the Great, has been kicking Viking ass and is now in charge of Wessex and Mercia. Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed has been despatched off to Mercia to marry the Lord of Mercians. Edward has probably married Athelstan’s mother but they were having a pen shortage that day as well!
Nothing is really known of Athelstan until he turns 5 at which point King Alfred bestows a service of Investiture upon his favourite Grandchild. At this service he gave Athelstan a purple cloak, a broach, a jewelled scabbard and an enormous sword because that’s what every 5 year old boy needs! Poems were written, songs were sung, but what King Alfred was very clearly saying was that Athelstan was his choice to be King one day. During the war (the guerrilla war that Alfred fought against the Vikings) Alfred had various visions from saints who told him that one of his descendants would fulfil his dream of a united England. King Alfred clearly thought that would be Athelstan.
Shortly after this ceremony King Alfred died and his eldest son, King Edward, took the throne. King Edward put aside his first wife and took a new one. Athelstan and his sister were sent to live with Edward’s sister Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians. The reasons for this are not documented so no-one can say for sure why Edward sent Athelstan away. I tell the kids it’s because Edward was really busy but another hypothesis is that the new wife, the Queen, wants her own children to have a claim on the throne. In Anglo-Saxon times children born to a Queen would have as much right to contest the throne as children born to a lady. OR maybe King Alfred was an overbearing father who forced Edward to marry his first wife and then went on to tell him that he wasn’t going to unite England because a 5 year old boy was going to do it which made him remarkably bitter so, when his father died, he took great joy in going against what his father wanted! We’ll never know but it would make a great episode in the 10 part BBC drama of Athelstan’s life that I’ll write one day!
So off Athelstan goes to live with his Aunt, the Lady of the Mercians, in Tamworth. Turns out that’s just up the road from my Mum and Dad and the castle is still there so I dragged my parents and family to Tamworth for the day to see where he grew up. See photo’s below! The castle that stands there now is post conquest (a term which, if used liberally, makes it sound like you know loads about history).
In Aethelflaed’s time the castle was probably built from wood and would certainly have had a military presence. Nowadays it’s guarded by flower soldiers!
You approach the castle through Lady Meadow (picture in the middle) and then go over Lady Bridge. I asked the chap in the cafe why they were called the Lady Meadow and bridge. He told me it’s because Lady Guinevere and Sir Lancelot used to meet there. I rolled my eyes at him. He knows he’s wrong!
Aethelflaed was one of the original feminists. She owned land, she had a title in her own right and when her husband died she became the leader of the Mercians. She was adored by her people and Vikings feared her. She and her brother, King Edward, lead a campaign against the Vikings which pushed their boundaries even further north. Some cities surrendered as soon as she knocked on the door. She was the perfect woman to bring up a Warrior King. That’s why they named the Meadow and the Bridge after her.
Athelstan is likely to have fought in some of his Aunt’s campaigns against the Vikings. He is also documented as having fought alongside his father and some of his step-brothers in the Kings campaigns.
By the time he was old enough to be counted as a man he was a fully fledged warrior. A big, blond, good looking warrior. Is anyone else thinking Daniel Craig!!! He had also captured the hearts of the people of Mercia. When it came to choosing their next leader they chose Athelstan not as their lord, but as their King.