PART 3– Athelstan becomes the First King of Britain


Fig 1 – Athelstan giving a bible to Saint Cuthbert.  Or maybe he’s reading to him.  Perhaps they’re playing scrabble and Athelstan is reading a dictionary to see if Saint Cuthbert is using false words again!!

Athelstan is crowned King of the Anglo Saxons on the 4th September 925AD in Kingston Upon Thames.  Part 1 of his mission is completed.

To fulfil his destiny and become the King of all England is his next mission.

In the meantime he has another pressing issue.  Thanks to his father’s meandering ways he now has 4,000 sisters to marry off!  Perhaps the two problems can be solved with one stone!

King Sihtric, Viking King of the North came all the way to Tamworth just after Athelstan’s coronation to pay his respects.  It was  a long way into enemy territory but such was Athelstan’s reputation that the King felt he needed to make that journey.  Whilst at Tamworth King Sihtric and Athelstan’s sister were bethrothed.  Athelstan also insisted that King Sihtric take baptism.  King Sihtric embraced christianity and agreed that the pagan theme that Vikings normally preferred for a wedding would be dropped!

However the following year, in 927AD the Anglo Saxon chronicle tells us that ‘Fiery Lights’ appeared in the sky and with them King Sihtric changed his mind!  He threw out his wife and got back to paganism quick smart but then, he suddenly died.  Did he know he was dying?  Did he think the lights were a sign from god?  Maybe his wife killed him – I bet she wanted to!

It could be that Athelstan took those lights as a sign from god – there had certainly been ‘signs’ throughout his life which could have been interpreted that way.  Whether he saw it that way or not Athelstan seized his chance and marched in to the North.  Viking King Guthfrith from Ireland came to claim his birthright but Athelstan drove him back to Ireland.  He was not happy about getting his botty kicked by an Anglo Saxon.

Athelstan took all of Northumbria – he is now the King of all England.

Not content to stop there he called a ‘Peace conference’ with King Constantine of Scotland, King Howel of West Wales, King Owen of Monmouth and Aldred of Bamburgh who was not a King!   They travelled a long way to come and meet up with Athelstan in Cumbria.  They agreed to become Christian, to work together and that he would Athelstan would be their overlord.

Athelstan is now King of all Britain.

He is the first man to be the King of Britain.

But it’s not official until the fat lady sings.  In this case the fat lady is the pope and so a party was despatched to Rome to ask for their blessing of the new christian Kingdom.  They took with them many holy relics to help sweeten the deal.  It worked and the pope gave his blessing to Athelstan’s new look Britain.

Athelstan now starts to rule.  He works hard and brings in fundamental changes to society, many of which still exist today.  He was a man ahead of his time, choosing to negotiate (or perhaps threaten!) rather than take up arms.  It was for the way he ruled Britain that he deserves to be remembered.  Highlights include:

CHARITY – His first acts were to set out an ordinance on charity.  Life got better for the widows and orphans under his rule and land owners were told very clearly how they needed to help.

LAW – Athelstan created new laws and had a massive crack down on crime.  He passed six sets of laws trying to stop people from thieving.  He also raised the age at which children could be put to death to 15.  Given that the average life expectancy of an Anglo Saxon was some point in their 30’s that was quite lenient!!!

EDUCATION  – As his Grandfather Alfred the Great focussed on literacy so did Athelstan.  He got the monks and scribes hard at work copying all the important texts of the time and made sure that the bible was translated into English so that the peasants could at least understand what was being said even if they couldn’t read it themselves.

INFRASTRUCTURE – He rebuilt Roman walls, created defences and laid out streets to encourage trade which helped to create some of the market towns that we know today.

COINS – He created a single currency for the whole country and was the first monarch to have his head printed on the coins wearing a crown.

And to enforce all this he went on a journey round the country.  He visited his lords and he had them swear fealty to him.  They swore to uphold the Kings laws and their men in turn did the same.  Then when he realised that being on the road the whole time was rubbish he made the lords come to him!

Things got better under Athelstan.  Life was better for many people.  But of course a few noses had been put out of joint to create this new shiny country and they weren’t about to let Athelstan get away with it!!!

Tune in next time for how to put down a rebellion the Athelstan way!


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