The Heroic Age

Issue 7

Spring 2004

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.

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© 2004 by Kent Hare. All rights reserved.
This edition copyright © 2004 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.



1. "Rex Angulsexna and Norþhymbra imperator . paganorum gubernator . Brittanorumque propugnator," Grant by King Athelstan to Byrthelm (Birch 1887 doc. 746, 2:466-7, my translation). See also Sawyer 1978 no. 392, p.167.

2. "Aethelred the Unready" is, unfortunately, one of the better-known names from Anglo-Saxon, even medieval, history. The modern form of the nickname stems from a corruption which distorts the original meaning and irony of a pun that was, in any case, first attested in the thirteenth century. The literal Æðel-ræd is "noble council"; un-ræd can mean "no-council," "evil council," and even (perhaps most significant with regard to how Aethelred attained the throne, by the assassination of his brother, Edward the Martyr) "a treacherous plot" (Brooke 1961:58-59). On the other hand, Aethelred seems not to have been ready, either.

3. "On Engla lande eac oft wæron cyningas sigefæste þurh God, swa swa we secgan gehyrdon, swa swa wæs Ælfred cining, þe oft gefeaht wið Denan, oþ þæt he sige gewann & bewerode his leode; swa gelice Æðestan, þe wið Anlaf gefeaht & his firde ofsloh & aflimde hine sylfne, & he on sibbe wunuðe siþþan mid his leode. Eadgar, se æðela & se anræda cining, arærde Godes lof on his leode gehwær, ealra cininga swiðost ofer Engla ðeode, & him God gewilde his wiðerwinnan a, ciningas & eorlas, þæt hi comon him to buton ælcum gefeohte friðes wilniende, him underþeodde to þam þe he wolde, & he wæs gewurðod wide geond land." Aelfric, Judges (Epilogue) (ed. Crawford 1922:416-17, trans. Whitelock 1955:854).

4. See especially Asser's Life of King Alfred but also the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

5. See William of Malmesbury, De Gestis Regum Anglorum sec. 135 (ed. Stubbs 1887, 1:149-50, trans. Whitelock 1955:281-2).

6. The location of Brunanburh is uncertain. Speculation has ranged from Scotland to southern England. Michael Wood (1980), however, made a compelling case for placing the site in the region of Brinsworth, about 40 miles south of York - on the frontier between Northumbria and southern England. In his "excellent television programme on King Æthelstan" part of the series upon which is based his In Search of the Dark Ages (1987), Wood reportedly surveyed the field from helicopter (Keynes 1993:38 [G73]). The assessment of the quality of the television program is Keynes'.

7. "[S]ince no distinction of layout was observed between prose and poetry in AS manuscripts it is hardly less arbitrary to print the annal for 937 according to the typographical conventions of poetry than it would be to print large tracts of Wulfstan . . . in the same way" (Bradley 1982:515, introd. to The Battle of Brunanburh).


8. "Her Æðelstan cing and Eadmund his broðer lædde fyrde to Brunan byri . . . and [Crist]e fultumegende sige hæfde," Anglo-Saxon Chronicle [hereafter ASC] s.a. 937 ms. F (ed. Earle 1865:113, trans. Garmonsway 1972:107). (N.B.: Garmonsway translated according to the sense of the passage, which has a dual subject, rather than adhering to the grammatically incorrect singular verb hæfde.) Ms. F is a twelfth-century bilingual (Old English and Latin) version of the ASC. The compiler, who derived the Old English from ms. E, which has merely a single-line prose notice that Athelstan led the fyrd to Brunanburh, also worked from a Latin text closely related to a lost Winchester chronicle, from which he translated the attribution of the victory to Christ (Campbell 1938:149-50, app. 4.A.2 "Notices of the Battle Not Derived from the Poem").


Feld dunnade
secga swate, siðþan sunne up
on morgentid, mære tungol,
glad ofer grundas, Godes condel beorht,
eces Drihtnes, oð sio æþele gesceaft
sah to setle.

The Battle of Brunanburh
(= ASC s.a. 937) lines 12-17 (ed. Campbell 1938:93, trans. Bradley 1982:516).

10. Recently discussed in some detail by Alois Wolf (1991), particularly pp. 75-6 and 80-81.

11. See translation in Bostock 1976:239-41.


Dæne wæran ær .
under Norðmannum . nyde gebegde .
on hæþenra . hæfte clommum .
lange þraga . oþ hie alysde eft .
for his weorþscipe . wiggendra hleo .
afera Eadweardes . Eadmund cyning .

ASC s.a. 942 (mss. ABCD) (ed. [ms. A] Earle 1865:116, trans. Garmonsway 1972:110-11). See also Mawer (1923:551-7) as well as Hill (2000:96,107-10).

13. "omnes antecessores devotione mentis, omnes eorum adoreas triumphorum suorum splendore obscuravit," William of Malmesbury, De Gestis Regum sec. 131 (ed. Stubbs 1887, 1:142, trans. Whitelock 1955:277).

14. Dumville 1992:142-3 n. 9, 168-9 n. 183; Wright 1939:74, 76, 144-5, and esp. 146, 156; Wilson 1952:47-50.

15. On which see Gransden 1974:167-8, 173, 175-8, 185, as well as Thomson 1987:11-38. See also, with specific reference to the argument for the authenticity of the "Athelstan Panegyric," Loomis (1950:201): "In 1125, if any learned man in England was qualified to recognize an ancient book when he saw it, that man was William of Malmesbury."

16. Stenton 1971:319 n. 1, 339 n. 2; Campbell 1938:49 and n. 5; Whitelock 1955:277; Loomis 1950:201-205; Gransden 1974:53-5

17. "De hoc rege non invalida apud Anglos fama seritur, quod nemo legalius vel litteratius rempublicam administraverit. Quanquam litteras illum scisse, pauci admodum dies sunt quod didicerim in quodam sane volumine vetusto, in quo scriptor cum difficultate materiae luctabatur, judicium animi sui non valens pro voto proferre. Cujus hic verba pro compendio subjicerem, nisi quia ultra opinionem in laudibus principis vagatur, eo dicendi genere quod suffultum rex facundiae Romanae Tullius in rhetoricis appellat. Eloquium excusat consuetudo illius temporis, laudum nimietatem adornat favor Ethelstani adhuc viventis. Pauca igitur familiari stylo subnectam, quæ videantur aliquod conferre emolumentum ad dignitatis ejus documentum." William of Malmesbury, De Gestis Regum sec. 132 (ed. Stubbs 1887, 1:144, trans. Whitelock 1955:278-9).

18. Lapidge 1981:62-71; see also Lapidge 1975:67-111

19. e.g., Dumville 1992:142 at n. 9, 146, 168-9 at n. 183.

20. Thomson (1999:116-18) has a recent overview of the controversy

21. Thomson (1999:117) agrees substantially with Wood's arguments.

22. The third poem (the first discussed by Lapidge 1981:72-83) is an eight-line acrostic Lapidge believes to have been written, possibly by John the Old Saxon (part of the Alfredian circle of scholars - see Asser, Life of King Alfred, chaps. 78, 94) on the occasion of the ceremony involving young Athelstan and his grandfather Alfred. (Note that Lapidge implicitly accepted this story from William of Malmesbury's account, which raises the question of whether subsequent scholars have perhaps made more of Lapidge's own argument than he himself intended [see Wood 1999:154; also Thomson 1999:117]. I intend to explore these issues further.)


Quos iam regit cum ista
perfecta Saxonia:
uiuit rex Æþelstanus
per facta gloriosus!

Carta Dirige Gressus
stanza 3 (ed. and trans. Lapidge 1981:98). "Quos iam regit cum ista" apparently refers back to stanza 2, which identifies those over whom Athelstan rules - the queen, the prince, ealdormen and thanes.


Rex pius Æðelstan, patulo famosus in orbo,
cuius ubique uiget gloria lausque manet,
quem Deus Angligenis solii fundamine nixum
constituit regem terrigenisque ducem,
scilicet ut ualeat reges rex ipse feroces
uincere bellipotens, colla superba terrens.

Rex Pius Æðelstan lines 1-6 (ed. and trans. Lapidge 1981:95-96).

25. London British Library Cotton Nero A.ii: f. 10v-11v, Carta Dirige Gressus; f. 11v-12v, prayer beginning "Domine Deus omnipotens" (Lapidge 1981:84 n. 111, 85 n. 115). Lapidge proposed as place of origin St. German's in Cornwall.

26. London, British Library Cotton Galba A. xiv, f. 4v, from ca. 1000 or very early eleventh century - date per Ker (1957:198-9). The Old English version appears immediately after another Latin version of the same prayer (f. 3), which has two minor differences from Cotton Nero A. ii., which are noted parenthetically in the transcription below, following Birch (1887:332 nn. 2 and 3).


"Domine Deus omnipotens rex regum et dominus dominantium in cujus manu omnis victoria consistit et omne bellum conteritur concede mihi ut tua manus cor meum corroboret ut in virtute tua in manibus viribusque meis bene pugnare viriliterque agere valeam ut inimici mei in conspectu meo cadent et corruant sicut corruit Golias ante faciem pueri tui David et sicut populus Pharaonis coram Moysi in mare rubro. Et sicut Philistini coram populo Israhel ceciderunt. Et Amalech coram Moysi et Chananei coram Jesu corruerunt sic cadant inimici mei sub pedibus meis et per viam unam conveniant adversum me et per septem fugiant a me et conteret Deus arma eorum et confringet framea eorum et eliquisce [liquiscent] in conspectu meo sicut cera a facie ignis ut sciant omnes populi terre quia invocatum est nomen domini nostri Jhesu [add Christi] super me et magnificetur nomen tuum domine in adversariis meis domine Deus Israhel."

"Æla þu dryhten æla ðu ælmihtiga God . æla cing ealra cyninga . & hlaford ealra waldendra . on þæs mihta wunaþ ælc sige . & ælc gewin weorþ to bryt . for gif me drihten þ[æt] þin seo mihtigu hand mines unstrangan heortan gestrangie & þ[æt] ic þurh þine þa miclan mihte mid handum minum & mihte stranglice & werlice ongan mine fynd . winnan mæge swa þ[æt] hy on minre gisihþe feallan . & gereosan swa swa gereas Golias ætforan Dauides ansyne . þines cnihtes . & swa swa gereas & wearþ besenct Faraones folc on þære readan sæ . ætforan Moyses ansene . & swa swa feollan Filistei . beforan Israela folce . & swa swa gerias Amaleh . ætforan Moisen . & Chananei ætforan Iesu Naue. Swa feallan & gereosan mine find under minum fotum . & hi ealle samod þurh ænne weg ongan me cumen . & þurh seofan wegas hie fram me gewican; For bryt drihten heora wapna & heora sweord to bret & do drihten þ[æt] hy for meltan on minre gesihþe . swa swa weax mylt fram fyres ansyne . þ[æt] eall eorþas folc wite & ongyte þ[æt] ofer me is geciged noma ures drihtnes hælendes Cristes . & þ[æt] þin noma drihten sy geweorþad on minum wiþer winum . þu þe eart drihten Israela God."

Ed. Birch (1885, 2:332-3, docs. 656 and 657). My translation is based upon the Latin. On the bracketed annotations to the Latin, see note above.

28 Lapidge 1981:84 n. 111; see also Robinson 1923:68; Campbell 1938:161

29. The ms. is London, British Library Cotton Tiberius A.ii.

30. The ms. is Durham, Cathedral Library, A. II. 17, pt. 1. The other version appears in the aforementioned London, British Library Cotton Nero A.ii, immediately before the so-called "Prayer of Athelstan."

31. For Athelstan and St. Cuthbert, see Robinson (1923:51-5). In the chaotic conditions of late 9th-c. Viking-ravaged Northumbria, the guardians of St. Cuthbert's relics had finally in 875 abandoned the exposed Holy Isle of Lindisfarne (site of the first documented Viking raid back in 793). Seven years' wandering brought them to Chester-le-Street, where the congregation and relics found refuge for over a century, until the move to Durham. See Historia Regum s.a. 875, 883, 995; idem, Historia Dunelmensis Ecclesiae 2.6-13, 3.1; as well as the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto sec. 20 (all three of the latter are ed. Arnold 1882-1885, vols. 2, 1, and 1 respectively).

32. "for Æþelstan cyning in on Scotland . . . and his micel oferhergade," ASC s.a. 933 ms. A, recte 934 (ed. Earle 1865:110, trans. Whitelock 1955:200).

33. "ad sepulcrum Sancti Cuthberti venit, illius patrocinio se suumque iter commendavit, multa ac diversa dona quæ regem decerent ei obtulit . . . . Deinde hostes subegit, Scotiam . . . vastavit," Historia Regum s.a. 934 (ed. Arnold 1885, 2:93, trans. Whitelock 1955:252). The Historia Regum is a composite work attributed to Symeon of Durham (d. ca. 1130) by a pair of rubrics beginning and ending the sole surviving manuscript, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 139, written ca. 1164 (Rollason 2000:xlviii; his n. 149 quotes the incipit and explicit from Arnold 1885, 2:3 and 283). The authors of most of the sections of the Historia Regum (or at least the compilers from whom Symeon himself drew) have been identified. Most notably, the first sections (ed. Arnold 1885, 2:3-91), comprising various material and annals to 887, come from an earlier compilation by Byrhtferth of Ramsey (Lapidge 1982), while later sections (ed. Arnold 1885, 2:95-98 and 98-253, respectively) are identifiably derived from such authors as William of Malmesbury and John of Worcester (Rollason 2000:xlix). Authorship for the intervening section (ed. Arnold 1885, 2:91-5), wherein the present annal appears, has to my knowledge not been identified. For a possible source of the information for the events of 934, however, see below.

34. Historia de Sancto Cuthberto sec. 16 (ed. Arnold 1882, 1:205; trans. Rollason 1989:149). The story is very similar to and probably derives from St. Columba's appearance to King Oswald of Northumbria before the seventh-century battle at Heavenfield by which Oswald won kingship in Northumbria - see Adomnán, Life of Columba 1.1 (ed. and trans. Anderson and Anderson 1991:14-15). The account of St. Cuthbert and Alfred in the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto probably inspired another account of such militarily-oriented visions received by Alfred, with appropriate substitution of St. Neot for St. Cuthbert, as recorded in the Vita Prima Sancti Neoti et Translatio secs. 13, 16 (ed. Lapidge in Dumville and Lapidge 1983: 126-8, 130-32).

35. Historia de Sancto Cuthberto secs. 19, 25, 28 (ed. Arnold 1882, 1:207, 210-11, 212); Rollason (1989:146).

36. Cambridge, Corpus Christi College ms. 183. For the frontispiece, see Plate 6 in Wormald et al. (1983) to accompany Wood (1983), and also Plate 9 in Lapidge and Gneuss (1985), to accompany Keynes (1985). This traditional interpretation is stated succinctly by Robinson (1923:53-4) and also Keynes (1985:180). See, however, Rollason's alternative interpretation of the action in the scene - that Athelstan is reading from the book as St. Cuthbert appears to him in a vision, and that the ms. was in fact Athelstan's own devotional book and only later made its way to Durham (Rollason 1989:150 and fig. 6.3). Either way, the illustration associates Athelstan with the northern saint in one of a set of portraits standing in an iconographical tradition going back through ninth-century Carolingian exemplars (another was in the now lost ms., British Library Cotton Otho B.ix.).

37. Abbo, Life of Edmund Preface (ed. Winterbottom 1972:67).

38. Rollason (1989), chap. 6, "The Cult of Saints and the Unification of England," esp. pp. 159 ff., "Kings and Relics."

39. "coram sanctis multorum electorum Dei reliquiis, quae semper eum ubique comitabantur," Asser, Life of Alfred, chap. 104 (ed. Stevenson 1904:90, trans. Keynes and Lapidge 1983:108); Rollason (1989:159). See also Deanesly (1961:337). On the specificity of the term haligdom for "relic-collection," see Rollason (1989:162-3).

40. William of Malmesbury, De Gestis Regum sec. 135 (ed. Stubbs 1887, 1:151, trans. Whitelock 1955:282). Athelstan was also buried at Malmesbury.

41. Rollason (1989:159) quotes the relic-list prologue from M. Förster, ed., Zur Geschichte des Reliquienkultus in Altengland (Munich, 1943), pp. 63-5. The Athelstan Donation to Exeter is also translated by Swanton (1993:19-24); for editions see Swanton's introduction (1993:19). See also Robinson (1923:71-80, 159-90) for a general discussion of Athelstan and his relics and donations.

42. William of Malmesbury transcribed the letter in his De Gestis Pontificum (ed. Hamilton 1870:399-400).

43. "ensem Constantini magni, in quo litteris aureis nomen antiqui possessoris legebatur; in capulo quoque super crassas auri laminas clavum ferreum affixum cerneres, unum ex quatuor quos Judaica factio Dominici corporis aptarat supplicio: lanceam Caroli magni, quam imperator invictissimus, contra Saracenos exercitum ducens, si quando in hostem vibrabat, nunquam nisi victor abibat; ferebatur eadem esse quæ, Dominico lateri centurionis manu impacta, pretiosi vulneris hiatu Paradisum miseris mortalibus aperuit: vexillum Mauricii beatissimi martyris, et Thebææ legionis principis, quo idem rex in bello Hispano quamlibet infestos et confertos inimicorum cuneos dirumpere, et in fugam solitus erat cogere" William of Malmesbury, De Gestis Regum sec. 135 (ed. Stubbs 1887, 1:150, trans. Whitelock 1955:282). See Loomis (1950:210 ff.).

44. This idea finds support in increasingly exalted titles claimed by the West Saxon kings during this period when they were claiming lordship over England. The title quoted near the beginning of this article is but one example from the reign of Athelstan; several of the books surveyed by Keynes (1985) sport similar royal titles in the dedications. The concept of the West Saxon kings' new realm as an orbis Britanniae, a world apart from the classical tripartite world of Europe, Asia, and Africa, played a part in these aspirations as well (John 1966; Wood 1999:151).

45. Abingdon Sword-Hilt (Campbell 1982:156 fig. 144); see also Tyerman regarding its significance (1988:10).

46. The latter emphasis would have been appropriate to William of Malmesbury writing in the generation after the First Crusade.

47. Prinz (1979:305) refers to canonical permission granted as early as the eighth century to priests to accompany the Carolingian army bearing "(victory bringing) relics" [his parentheses]. At the Battle of the Lechfeld in 955, Otto the Great bore another Holy Lance - Widukind of Corvey, Res gestae Saxonicae 3.49 (excerpt re Lechfeld trans. Pullan 1966:116-17). (See Loomis [1950:209-20] for discussion of this multiplicity of Lances.)

48. "Sancta . . . crux quod circa collum suum in bellis gestabat adhuc Malmesburiae inter sacras reliquias, ut decet, veneratur," Eulogium chap. 84 (ed. Haydon 1863, 3:10-11, my trans.)

49. "particulam sanctae et adorandae crucis crystallo inclusam, ubi soliditatem lapidis oculus penetrans potest discernere qualis sit ligni color, et quae quantitas," William of Malmesbury, De Gestis Regum sec. 135 (ed. Stubbs 1887:1:151, trans. Whitelock 1955:282). The tradition that Malmesbury held this relic was reported by William: "partem vero crucis et coronae Malmesbiriae delegavit," ibid.

50. William's source for the following passage is unclear, because it precedes his description of the "very old book."

51. "gladius ejus fortuitu vagina excidit. Quocirca, cum omnia formidinis et caeci tumultus plena essent, inclamato Deo et sancto Aldhelmo, reductaque ad vaginam manu, invenit ensem, qui hodieque pro miraculo in thesauro regum servatur. Est sane, ut aiunt, una parte sectilis, nec unquam auri aut argenti receptibilis. Hoc Dei dono fretus, simulque quia jam illucescebat, Noricum adorsus, tota die usque ad vesperum indefessus fugavit cum exercitu," William of Malmesbury, De Gestis Regum sec. 131 (ed. Stubbs 1887, 1:143-4, trans. Whitelock 1955:278).

52. The characterization of Byrhtnoth, the hero of The Battle of Maldon, is the subject of a long-standing debate, but one contemporary view, promoted by the monks of Ely whom he had long supported, was that he had sacrificed his life defending a Christian society against pagan attack (Bradley 1982:518-19).


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