The Heroic Age
Athelstan of England
Christian King and Hero
by Kent G. Hare
Northwestern State University of Louisiana
Despite his obscurity in modern memory, the tenth-century English King Athelstan enjoyed great fame in the Middle Ages. The Old English chronicle-poem The Battle of Brunanburh provides just one example of tenth- to twelfth-century lore and legend that celebrated his renown as Christian king and hero.
Issue and Journal
© 2004 by Kent Hare. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2004 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.
Athelstan (r. 924-39) is one of the most interesting although lesser known of the late Anglo-Saxon kings of England. He was more than any other tenth-century king of central importance in consolidating the kingdom of England based upon the foundations of Alfred the Great. Athelstan is probably most often recalled as the hero of the famous poetic entry to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 937, known as The Battle of Brunanburh. The exultation that caused the Chronicler literally to break into song with that annal in the midst of an otherwise dry listing of consecrations and deaths is symptomatic of the contemporary fame the warrior king Athelstan enjoyed, which made him the focus of tenth- to twelfth-century lore and legend. This article examines that body of evidence for Athelstan of England as Christian king and hero.
Athelstan was the grandson of Alfred the Great (r. 871-99). The overriding challenge of Alfred's reign was the descent of the Danish Vikings in force on England. In a bare five years, from 866 to 870, the raiders-become-invaders had shattered three of the four old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms - Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia - leaving only Wessex unfallen. Coming to the West Saxon throne in 871, Alfred managed to hold out and in 878 even to force the Vikings to a truce, sundering England into a West Saxon sphere of dominance in the southwest and the Viking "Danelaw" in the northeast. Alfred then instituted a series of famous reforms, military and cultural, that laid the groundwork for his son, Edward the Elder (r. 899-924), and his descendants in the tenth century to expand across the Danelaw and transform Wessex into England, a process that would be completed by the reign of King Edgar the Peaceable (r. 959-75). This feat was foreshadowed, however, as early as 927 when Edward's son Athelstan first extended West Saxon rule over Northumbria, gained the submission of the northern kings in Britain, and ten years later preserved his dominance, whereupon he claimed an imperial title and called himself "king of the Anglo-Saxons and emperor of the Northumbrians, ruler of the pagans and champion of the Britons". At the end of the tenth century, during the reign of the unfortunate Aethelred II (r. 978-1016)  when Scandinavian invaders again threatened England, the homilist Aelfric of Eynsham looked back across the preceding century and ranked Athelstan as the key figure between Alfred the Great and Edgar the Peaceable as "kings [who] were often victorious through God". Athelstan carried forward the work of the former and made possible the glory of the latter.
An aura of religious significance surrounded these events. For the Christian Anglo-Saxons, the defining characteristic of the Viking invaders was their paganism . In the late ninth century, when the Christian kingdoms of England faced annihilation, notions of Christian service and sacrifice crystallized with the heroic tradition expressed in such Old English poems as Beowulf to form a new heroic ideal. In the tenth century, the new ethos of Christian heroism was employed to great effect by the West Saxon kings in their creation of a unified kingdom of England.
Athelstan was a central figure in these developments. Yet to most casual students of history, he is just another of the seemingly endless "Athels," "Aethels," and "Ethels" who litter the landscape of late Anglo-Saxon England. The question of why Athelstan's fame flourished and then faded is outside the scope of this article, but merits further study. One explanation, perhaps the most likely, might be simply that historical perspective ultimately focused on Alfred the Great, whose achievement was arguably the greater in that it made Athelstan's possible. Another might be, as suggested by Michael Wood, the "dubious" circumstances by which Athelstan came to the throne - he was an illegitimate son of Edward the Elder, with younger half-brothers who did not carry that taint - and that later West Saxon royalists "maintained an ambivalent attitude to him and played down his achievements in favour of the true Alfredian-Edwardian line" (Wood 1987:126). Neither theory is ultimately satisfying. Fascination with Alfred above and beyond his most notable successors seems to have been long in developing, even to have been a product of post-Conquest, Anglo-Norman historiography. Aelfric of Eynsham, cited above, ranked the more recent kings Athelstan and Edgar with Alfred, and based on the names of his predecessors that Aethelred II chose to bestow upon his sons (Athelstan for his first son, Alfred only for his eighth and youngest, once every other predecessor's name had been exhausted), Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge speculate that the real hero of the tenth-century consolidation of the House of Wessex to rulership of all England was Athelstan (Keynes and Lapidge 1983:45-6). Those same Anglo-Norman historians who seem to have set Alfred's reputation on its trajectory of development toward his being styled "the Great" by the seventeenth century continued to have a fascination with Athelstan - most notably William of Malmesbury, whose account provides the major narrative of the later king. Enduring legends surrounding this king would ultimately make him the subject of a Middle English romance as late as the fourteenth century (ed. Trounce 1951). Ultimately, however, the much greater fame of his grandfather would eclipse Athelstan's own reputation.
Despite which, Athelstan was likely a more important figure to tenth-century contemporaries, particularly to his peers on the continent, than were any of his predecessors. Athelstan's pride of place within that larger European context can be inferred from the marriage alliances formed in his generation between his sisters and the most powerful men on the continent. The marriages of West Saxon princesses to Hugh the Great in West Francia and the future Otto the Great in East Francia in 926 and 928 respectively are significant in the context of early tenth-century continental history. In both cases the dynasties that supplanted the Carolingians in old Francia gained alliance with a ruling family claiming a pedigree even more venerable than the Carolingians, namely the West Saxon House of Cerdic (Williams, et al., 1991, s.v. "Athelstan"). Nevertheless, it was their current successes in winning back those areas of England which had fallen under Viking rule that made the West Saxon kings such attractive allies in the wider world (Stenton 1971:344). In that achievement, Athelstan was as key a figure as was his grandfather. This fact was doubtless recognized by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler in his poetic celebration of the battle at Brunanburh in 937 whereby Athelstan preserved his overlordship in the north of England against an alliance between Olaf Guthfrithson, the son of the Norse king whom Athelstan had driven out of York ten years before, and Constantine, king of the Scots, reduced to submission by Athelstan in 927 and again in 934 .
That famous poem - for despite S. A. J. Bradley's caveat  the stark contrast between the Chronicle entry for 937 and especially the brief annotations that immediately precede it make it obvious that here we have an annal of a different color, so to speak - merits at least brief discussion. It deploys the traditional formulaic diction of Germanic heroic poetry in lauding Athelstan's crucial victory at Brunanburh. Oddly enough, although one (manuscript F) of the two Chronicle manuscripts (mss. E and F) mentioning the battle in a much shorter, non-poetic entry makes clear that "with the help of Christ they had the victory," such an explicit sense of Christian militancy is missing from the poem itself. But the poem does convey an indefinable "feel" of Christian exultation and almost seems to invoke the watchful eye of God over the battlefield:
The field grew wet with men's blood from when in the morning-tide that glorious star, the sun, glided aloft and over earth's plains, the bright candle of God the everlasting Lord, to when that noble creation sank to rest .
There are certain similarities between The Battle of Brunanburh and the Old High German Ludwigslied, a short poem celebrating in clearly martial Christian terms (and within one year of the event) the 881 victory won by the West Frankish King Louis III over the Vikings at the Battle of Saucourt . John Bostock (1976:241) bluntly assessed the latter poem as "a glorification of the Church Militant, and of the king, its servant." The historical events are portrayed as entirely in God's hands, from the coming of the Vikings as a scourge on the Frankish people because of their sins, to Christ's calling Louis to battle to help the repentant people, to the Frankish victory through the valor of Louis. In his discussion of the fundamental literary nature of Brunanburh and Ludwigslied, Alois Wolf (1991:81) saw the two texts as comparably "steeped in patriotism, king, Christianity, and territory." For Brunanburh, John Hill would recently agree in a perceptive discussion of the poem as one in a series of late ninth- to tenth-century chronicle entries having as their purpose the construction of a new mythology of Christian kingship in service to the House of Wessex (Hill 2000:93-107). It is interesting that specific notice is taken in the first lines of the presence of Athelstan's half-brother and successor Edmund I (r. 939-46), fighting at his side (Hill 2000:95, 105). Edmund would, of course, be the subject of another of those aforementioned entries in a poem commemorating his own 942 conquest of five boroughs in the by now Christianized Danelaw as a "redemption" of an oppressed Christian people:
Long had the Danes under the Norsemen
Been subjected by force to heathen bondage,
Until finally liberated by the valour of Edward's son,
King Edmund, protector of warriors .
The view presented in both these poems had been set within a short time, by 955, when both entries were written into the so-called "Parker Chronicle" (= ASC ms. A; Fulk and Cain 2003:223; Whitelock 1955:109).
The fame of King Athelstan, the hero of the first of these nearly contemporary tenth-century English chronicle-poems, "putting all his predecessors to shade by his piety, and all the glories of their triumphs by the splendour of his own," was such that he became a focal point around whom accrued a great deal of perhaps legendary material. The major narrative account of Athelstan appears in the twelfth-century De Gestis Regum by William of Malmesbury (whence the above quotation regarding Athelstan's piety). It has long been accepted, based on William's word and reputation as a historian , that he based his account of Athelstan upon a no longer extant tenth-century Latin poem concerning the deeds of Athelstan-- William was for his part unambiguous:
Concerning this king, a firm opinion is current among the English, that no one more just or learned administered the State. A few days ago I discovered that he was versed in letters, from a certain very old book, in which the author struggled with the difficulty of his matter, unable to express his meaning as he wished. I would append here his words for the sake of brevity, if he did not range beyond belief in praise of the prince, in that kind of expression which Tullius [Cicero], the king of Roman eloquence, in his book on rhetoric calls bombastic. The custom of that time excuses the diction; the affection for Athelstan, who was still alive, lends colour to the excess of praise. I shall add, therefore, in a familiar style a few matters which may seem to augment the record of his greatness .
The nature of William's source, and whether it was authentically tenth-century has, however, been the subject of considerable debate in recent years. On the basis that extracts from two extended verse quotations included by William do not display the arcane style and vocabulary, called "hermeneutic," that appears almost without exception in tenth- to eleventh-century Anglo-Latin compositions. Michael Lapidge seemed to overturn the historical orthodoxy when he rejected a tenth-century source for William's poems, and by implication for the narrative as a whole. There followed a polarization of opinions, from those regarding William's reliability as a source for Athelstan to be irredeemably tarnished to those who have risen to William's defense . Most notable among the defenders is Michael Wood, who soon responded to Lapidge that a genuinely contemporary tenth-century poem - perhaps the "bella ethel[s]tani regis" which appears in a thirteenth-century catalogue entry at Glastonbury (presently in Trinity College, Cambridge, Ms. R S 33 [f. 103v]), noticed by Lapidge himself (1981:61 n. 6) but apparently rejected by him as William's source - does indeed underlie William of Malmesbury's twelfth-century account. Wood proposed that William paraphrased the verses from the tenth-century hermeneutic poem, a practice William demonstrably followed elsewhere (Wood 1983:265-6 incl. 265 n. 78). William's words reveal his own recognition and assessment of the tenth-century style - "[t]he custom of that time excuses the diction" - and he stated his own intention to tell the story "in a familiar style." More recently, Wood has persuasively analyzed William's narrative, demonstrating how well the events he described - from a quaint story of Alfred the Great's honoring his very young grandson (Athelstan was born in 894; Alfred died in 899) with arms and royal insignia, through the lad's fostering in Mercia with his aunt, Aethelflaed, and her husband, ealdorman Aethelred, even to a surprising report of criticism regarding the king's complacency before the battle at Brunanburh - fit into the realities of the tenth century and have not the character that would be expected of a twelfth-century forger, especially one at Malmesbury where Athelstan was revered as a benefactor (Wood 1999:149-68). Despite Lapidge's objection, the old consensus that the poetic source which William claimed for his Athelstan-material "ha[s] the authority of a contemporary" (Stenton 1971:339 n. 2) has not been refuted. It remains possible, if not probable, that not only in the Old English Chronicler's heroic meter was the hero of Brunanburh judged worthy of early poetic celebration.
Lapidge's more unassailable contribution in that same aforementioned article is his recovery from obscurity, edition, and extensive discussion of three other tenth-century Latin poems associated with Athelstan. Two of these poems in particular demonstrate indisputably how contemporaries viewed that king . One, the Carta Dirige Gressus, Lapidge assigned to the immediate aftermath of the events of 927 when Athelstan expelled Olaf Sihtricson from York, entered into a pact with Constantine, king of the Scots, and gained the submission of the princes of the north. In Lapidge's meticulous reconstruction based upon one of the two independent, but both corrupted, versions of the poem, the poet exulted:
Whom he now rules with this
England [now] made whole:
King Athelstan lives
glorious through his deeds!
The other poem, the Rex Pius Æðelstan, comes from a similar historical context. Lapidge strongly suggests that it is in fact associated with the aftermath of Athelstan's 937 triumph at Brunanburh (Lapidge 1981:97, incl. n. 158). Consider the first few lines of the Latin poem:
Holy king Athelstan, renowned through the whole world,
- whose esteem flourishes and whose honour endures everywhere,
- whom God set as king over the English, sustained by the foundation
- of the throne, and as leader of [His] earthly forces,
- plainly so that this king himself, mighty in war, might be able
- to conquer other fierce kings, treading down their fierce necks .
Athelstan is God's warrior, whom He has set over the English to lead His people, supported by God to victory in war. The last verse quoted above uses terms recalling some of the more martial among the Psalms (e.g., Psalm 58).
A vaguely Old Testament flavor imparted to Athelstan's kingship in the Rex Pius Æðelstan becomes explicit in a prayer for victory traditionally associated with this same king. It appears immediately adjacent to one version of the Carta Dirige Gressus in a manuscript of unknown provenance. Both poem and prayer were written into the manuscript by the same hand, which probably dates to the early eleventh century. In the nineteenth century, Walter de Gray Birch printed in his Cartularium Saxonicum what he entitled the "Prayer of Aethelstan" in both Latin and, from yet another manuscript, in Old English:
O Lord God Almighty King of Kings and Lord of Lords in Whose might every victory lies and every war is crushed, grant to me that Thy might may fortify my heart so that, relying on Thy strength and relying on my own hands and powers I may fight well and act manfully, so that my enemies may fall in my sight and may collapse just as Goliath collapsed before Thy servant David and just as the people of Pharaoh before Moses in the Red Sea; and just as the Philistines fell before the people of Israel; and [just as] Amalek collapsed before Moses and the Canaanites before Joshua, so let my enemies fall under my feet, and let them come against me by one path and let them flee from me by seven paths; and may God crush their arms and smash their swords and melt them in my sight just as wax melts before a fire, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the name of Our Lord Jesus has been invoked upon me; and let Thy name be magnified, O Lord, among my adversaries, O Lord God of Israel .
Despite Birch's endorsement, the tradition associating this prayer specifically with Athelstan is considered doubtful by modern commentators . Nevertheless, an early eleventh-century copyist's placement of the prayer adjacent to a poem clearly celebrating the king's overlordship in Northumbria testifies to the early date of just such a tradition.
Taken together, the poems and the prayer quoted above reveal the view of Athelstan as a powerful warrior king that was current in the tenth and early eleventh centuries. The prayer is replete with stark martial imagery, drawn from the Old Testament, which would be appropriately assigned to God's own warrior celebrated by the author of the Rex Pius Æðelstan. The manuscript contexts of both the Carta Dirige Gressus and the Rex Pius Æðelstan furthermore highlight the reputation of Athelstan as a great benefactor of the church in England, which can be seen through a number of manuscripts associated with him in one way or another. As catalogued, surveyed, and interpreted by Simon Keynes (1985), these books afford us a glimpse at a warrior king who, like his grandfather Alfred, actively supported scholarship (at least one of the manuscripts, as noted below, was likely a product of Athelstan's own court) and thus in a different way than noted by Aelfric of Eynsham carried forward the work of Alfred and made possible the reform of the English church during the reign of Edgar. In the context of the age, such benefaction as Athelstan practiced inevitably carried political and military connotations.
The Rex Pius Æðelstan was written into a late ninth- or early tenth-century Gospel manuscript of continental origin on the occasion of Athelstan's donation of the Gospel to Christ Church Canterbury (Lapidge 1981:94; Keynes 1985:150-51). The manuscript context of the Carta Dirige Gressus is even more significant for the relationship of king and church in the military context of the early- to mid-tenth century. One of the two extant versions of the poem appears in a Durham manuscript known to have been at Chester-le-Street in the tenth century (Lapidge 1981:84). Athelstan was quite generous to the congregation of St. Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street. From the later (after 995) residence of the monks, Symeon of Durham in his early twelfth-century compilation, the Historia Regum, included the news, based upon an annal embellishing the bare Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 934 that "King Athelstan went into Scotland . . . and ravaged much of it," that Athelstan "came to the tomb of St. Cuthbert, commended himself and his expedition to his protection, and conferred on him many and diverse gifts befitting a king . . . He then subdued his enemies, laid waste Scotland." By his many gifts, Athelstan marshaled the Northumbrian saint's aid against his enemies.
There is earlier evidence than the Historia Regum for an increasingly close association of the tenth-century English kings with the guardians of St. Cuthbert's relics, and for that association in the unsettled conditions of the north to be cast in military terms. The Historia de Sancto Cuthberto, a curious document the bulk of which dates from the mid-tenth century (Simpson 1989:397-411; Rollason 1989:144-9), seems largely motivated by such connections - sections 26 and 27 are the likely source regarding the tale of Athelstan's donation. This work pushes the relationship back to the days of King Alfred. On the eve of Alfred's decisive triumph at Edington in 878, St. Cuthbert is said to have appeared to him and assured the king of his own and God's aid to victory. The Durham monks posited a tradition of West Saxon devotion to St. Cuthbert, urged on Edward the Elder by his father Alfred and by Edward on his own son Athelstan, and continuing under Athelstan's brother and successor Edmund.
There is also evidence for West Saxon overtures to St. Cuthbert independent of the Durham monks' own tradition. Among the gifts of Athelstan to Chester-le-Street was a tenth-century West Saxon codex most likely prepared especially for the occasion of this royal donation, containing Bede's eighth-century prose and verse Lives of the sixth-century St. Cuthbert, with a frontispiece illustrating the king presenting the book to St. Cuthbert. In the first half of the tenth century a relationship between the West Saxon kings and the congregation of St. Cuthbert would have been mutually beneficial. The monks would gain a measure of protection against threats from the Scots to the north and the Viking kings still intermittently reigning in York to the immediate south; the West Saxons gained powerful spiritual support and hence a measure of legitimacy in their bid to dominate Northumbria, where they had no historic claim. The inclusion of various episcopal and royal records in this book, including a list of popes, alongside the Cuthbert material may have had the purpose of fostering a sense of unity, both ecclesiastical and national, between the north and south of England (Keynes 1985:181). Such a strategy of spiritual or ecclesiastical patronage was employed by tenth-century West Saxon kings elsewhere. There is later evidence that Athelstan also supported the shrines of St. John of Beverley and St. Wilfrid at Ripon. A ring preserved at Bury St. Edmunds in East Anglia bears as its inscription the names of St. John of Beverley and Athelstan (Rollason 1989:152-3, incl. fig. 6.4). In the 990s, Abbo of Fleury attested an independent tradition that Athelstan solicited tales of the East Anglian royal martyr to Viking aggression, St. Edmund .
In addition to gifts of books as described above, holy relics played a crucial role in the West Saxon program of marshaling the cults of non-West Saxon saints to their cause . The royal relic-collection made up the king's haligdom, which accompanied him always, from at least the late ninth century, when Asser testified that King Alfred kept candles burning "in the presence of the holy relics of a number of God's chosen saints which the king had with him everywhere". Royal possession of relics from throughout England is a clear indication of the breadth of West Saxon influence (Rollason 1989:153 ff.). King Athelstan stands out among the relic-collectors of late Saxon England. Several churches' traditions attributed their own collections to his religious largesse - one of them was Malmesbury, perhaps explaining that abbey's devotion to him . Athelstan was well-known as an ardent collector of relics from far and wide. The prologue to an Old English relic-list from Exeter (which church received one-third of Athelstan's collection) (Rollason 1989:160), tells how royal agents purchased "with the king's earthly treasure the most valuable treasures of all - holy relics". A letter from the prior at St. Samson's at Dol in Brittany testifies to knowledge of Athelstan's interest in relics even beyond the shores of England.
Such a widely known reputation attached to the West Saxon king probably prompted the gifts which Hugh the Great, the count of Paris whose son would be the first Capetian king, sent to Athelstan in 926 when he solicited Athelstan's sister's hand in marriage as mentioned above. The nature of the relics sent by Hugh is intriguing with regard to the question of the saints' aid in war and the consequent sanctification of the warrior. According to William of Malmesbury, among Hugh's gifts were:
the sword of Constantine the Great, on which could be read the name of the ancient owner in letters of gold; on the pommel also above thick plates of gold you could see an iron nail fixed, one of the four which the Jewish faction prepared for the crucifixion of our Lord's body; the spear of Charles the Great, which, whenever that most invincible emperor, leading an army against the Saracens, hurled it against the enemy, never let him depart without the victory; it was said to be the same which, driven by the hand of the centurion into our Lord's side, opened by the gash of that precious wound Paradise for wretched mortals; the standard of Maurice, the most blessed martyr and prince of the Theban legion, by which the same king was wont in the Spanish war to break asunder the battalions of the enemies, however fierce and dense, and to force them to flight .
The significance of these gifts has been much discussed. Michael Wood speculated that for William they symbolized a "translatio imperii," "transfer of imperium," from the Carolingians to the West Saxon Cerdicings, and that Athelstan through receipt of these gifts and their Carolingian associations aspired to the Carolingian legacy of empire (Wood 1983:267). More significant here are the martial associations of the relics.
The three relics described by William of Malmesbury include not only a banner associated with a martyred soldier of the early church (St. Maurice, killed with the Theban Legion ca. 287 for refusing to make pagan sacrifice) but also relics of the Passion either used as a weapon (the Holy Lance) or used to hallow a weapon (the Nails from the Crucifixion fixed into Constantine's sword). The Sword of Constantine and its pommel-relic find curious parallel in the Abingdon sword-hilt, originating in Alfredian Wessex, incorporating the symbols of the Four Evangelists . The association of the gift relics with the Emperors Constantine and Charlemagne is interesting beyond the idea of a "translatio imperii" - the two emperors were warriors championing Christendom against enemies both pagan and Muslim. Finally, the timing of the gifts in the context of continental developments associating relics with warfare is interesting. Although evidence is scarce for England, it is known that in this period relics were increasingly brought onto continental battlefields, serving as standards which invoked the aid of the saints (Erdmann 1977:24). Much later tradition did portray Athelstan wearing into battle at Brunanburh in 937 what may well have been another of the gifts sent by Hugh. According to a fourteenth-century Malmesbury monk, "the holy cross which he [Athelstan] bore around his neck in battle is yet venerated at Malmesbury among the holy relics, as is fitting".
Interestingly, the military relics described above did not exhaust Hugh's gifts to Athelstan in 926, which also included:
a piece of the holy and adorable Cross enclosed in crystal, where the eye, penetrating the substance of the stone, could discern what was the colour of the wood and what was the quantity.
Wood calls attention to a piece of "Carolingian rock crystal which hangs today in the Early Medieval Room in the British Museum, still in the chain by which it could be hung round the neck, its back grooved to hold a wooden sliver of the True Cross" (Wood 1999:165). Although records fail regarding the provenance of this amulet before the modern period, Wood makes the obvious connection with the fourteenth-century chronicler's Cross-relic worn by Athelstan in battle at Brunanburh.
And here we have come full circle, because current at least by the early twelfth century, perhaps much earlier if William did indeed derive the following incident from his tenth-century source, was the tradition that King Athelstan of England benefitted from direct and open divine intervention at Brunanburh . During that celebrated battle,
by chance his [Athelstan's] sword [gladius] fell from its scabbard; wherefore, when all things were full of dread and blind confusion, he invoked God and St. Aldhelm [of Malmesbury], and replacing his hand on the scabbard he found a sword [invenit ensem], which today is kept in the kings' treasury on account of the miracle. It can, as they say, be engraved on one side, but never inlaid with gold or silver. Relying on this gift from God, and at the same time, because it was now getting light, attacking the Norseman [Olaf Guthfrithson], unwearied he put him to flight with his army the whole day until evening .
Considering the passage as a whole, it is doubtful that invenit ensem would be better translated "found the sword," i.e., that the ensis found was the gladius lost. The intriguing possibility that Athelstan carried into battle at Brunanburh the relic-laden sword of Constantine must be rejected in favor of the more intriguing probability that here we have a second "holy sword" associated with Athelstan. Whence came that sword - with its reportedly mysterious qualities - later ages are left only to speculate, although for William of Malmesbury's twelfth-century readership I imagine that certain conclusions were obvious, that "gift from God" would be taken literally.
King Athelstan of England stands squarely in the middle of a trajectory of development in ideas of Christian heroism and kingship in the late Anglo-Saxon period. His grandfather, King Alfred the Great of Wessex, had cultivated such notions in rallying his Christian kingdom to defend against the pagan Vikings in the ninth century. The Viking age would ultimately transform the map of England. Over the course of the tenth century, Alfred's successors - most notably Athelstan - would take the offensive in a West Saxon conquest of those areas of England that had fallen to the invaders, and create a situation in which further developments in the idea of Christian kingship would in effect split it off from ideas of Christian heroism. Just consider the "Christological kingship" exemplified by Edgar the Peaceable's famous and highly symbolic coronation on Pentecost 973 and the heroic defeat suffered by ealdorman Byrthnoth of Essex at Maldon in 991 at the hands of new Scandinavian raiders. With the exception of the single notice regarding his brother, comrade at Brunanburh, and successor Edmund as the rescuer of the "Five Boroughs," the kings of later Anglo-Saxon England were not celebrated in such heroic terms as had been Athelstan. By no stretch of literary convention could Aethelred II, "the Unready," (r. 978-1016) be rendered a hero. But in the same age, even in defeat, Byrhtnoth, a non-royal warrior of the nobility, did gain such renown as a saint and martyr .
From the sources examined here, it is clear that Athelstan held a crucial place in tenth-century English affairs, recognized in an early but enduring fame, cultivated by his own piety and use of religious bonds and symbolism to rally support for the West Saxon royal program of expansion. As celebrated in various martial poems and relics traditionally associated with his reign and battles, Athelstan captured the imagination of an age as the exemplar of the kind of Christian king and hero who had conquered the Danelaw and created England.