Fig 1 – Athelstan’s Head from the top of his tomb in Malmesbury Abbey.
Athelstan spent the next few years of his life, ruling, putting down rebellions and when those two were quiet, chilling in Malmesbury!
He was a great ruler, fair to all and continued his abstinence from the ladies. There is not even a hint of him having had an affair or a love child. I’m not sure that the Anglo Saxon chronicle covered love children but unusually the Anglo Saxon Chronicle stopped being written during Athelstan’s reign. So controversial was his coming to the throne that it was only 16 years after his death that events were written into this source.
There were three rebellions of note. The first we assume from his step brother although no reason is given for Athelstan’s actions. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle says that in 933AD “Edwin the Atheling was drowned in the sea”.
Scholars believe that Athelstan ordered his brother, Edwin, drowned at sea. Details are sketchy but it would seem Edwin was put adrift in a row boat with no oars and only one servant!!!! At the time it was legal for a King to kill his brother in this fashion in the same way that it’s OK to kill some-one in Nottingham with a bow and arrow as long as you don’t fire the arrow with the bow. I’m not sure you’d get away with it.
Athelstan went on to build a church and dedicated it to his brother, it is assumed out of profound guilt. But as I said, details are sketchy and it’s an assumption that Athelstan placed this order with no indication of why. Could the church be a shrine to a brother who drowned at sea because his ship sank in a storm and Athelstan loved and missed him? We’ll never know and quite frankly it’s infuriating!
The following year King Constantine of Scotland gave it a proper go for the normal reason that he didn’t like being British! No team GB for him. He reneged on his treaty with Athelstan.
The Anglo Saxon chronicle tells us that in response “King Athelstan [went] into Scotland, both with a land-force and a naval armament, and laid waste a great part of it”. Boy was he mad! Team GB all the way for our Athelstan!! To re-enforce the point that once you’re in Team GB you don’t get out Athelstan returned south with King Constantine’s son as a hostage. Documents indicate that King Constantine was also with the party. Presumably he was being taken to the naughty step in Winchester.
This was an extraordinary campaign and secured Athelstan’s reputation as an exceptional military strategist. The land and sea force were co-ordinated throughout their entire journey north, as was there efforts when they reached their target. They communicated effectively to ensure a whopping victory. Remember that episode of Band of Brothers where Damien Lewis takes a small team of men, they take out the German guns and it’s such a good manoeuvre that it’s still in the text books that the military use today – it would have been like that!!!
But three years later unrest reared it’s head again. King Constantine joined forces with the Vikings in Ireland who still claimed York as their ‘birth right’. The Welsh Kings also turned their backs on Team GB and joined this force. The started to march down the country, burning and pillaging everything south of the Humber as they travelled. For a while Athelstan did nothing. Scholars are at a loss as to why this was but my own theory is that he was waiting for his sign from god. They had been there all the way along. Visions from saints, fire lights in the sky. But this time there was nothing and the signs had been lacking somewhat since the death of his brother.
Soon he could wait no longer. He took his army to Brunanburh and there was victorious in one of the bloodiest battles to be seen in English history. Athelstan and his brother Edmund lead the army in destroying the enemy. A poem is written about this battle which tells us that
“No Slaughter yet was greater made e’er in this island,
of people slain, before this same, with the edge of the sword”
Isn’t that lovely!
After Brunanburh nobody had another pop. There was nobody left – Athelstan had killed most of them! Team GB must have been full of women at this point. And he still resisted.
King Athelstan died on the 27th October 939AD, in his early 40s. He was taken to be laid to rest in Malmesbury, a town where he’d actually found some peace in his life. Unfortunately as English history became more tumultuous Athelstan’s bones disappeared so nobody knows where he truly lies.
I went to Malmesbury as part of my research as I wanted to understand Athelstan a little better. It’s certainly a charming place and I really enjoyed walking around it. They have King Athelstan museum where I met Roger and Roy who were just fab (hello boys!)
Local legend has it that his bones might be in the Abbey House gardens. I went in search of this. As is often the case the gardens have now been sold to a private buyer but they open them to the public for a fee. I decided to go in. I started walking up the long driveway. Then I saw this….
Yep, two men wrestling with their todgers out. At this point I assumed it was just art. Photographed it. Kept walking. And then I saw that within the garden clothing was optional!
I got in my car and drove back to London.
My time blogging about Athelstan is now sadly at an end. He’s been virtually an obsession for the past 6 months and I feel I’ve almost made a friend! What has surprised me most is how much I’ve enjoyed delving into history. For years I’ve thought that it was a silly subject. Now that I realise the amazing wealth of stories that are there to be read I’m completely hooked.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these blogs as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.