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England’s First King – Who Nearly Wasn’t

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (particularly the Winchester Manuscript, also referred to as model [A]), the entry for the yr 925 [924] states:

“Here, King Edward [The Elder] passed away, and Aethelstan, his son, succeeded to the kingdom.”

Taken at face worth, one may be forgiven for pondering that the transition of energy from one to the opposite was uneventful. Just as evening follows day, so to the crown handed from father to eldest son. Simple. Nothing to see right here, proper?

Aethelstan - Public Domain

Aethelstan – Public Domain

It is the accepted story, in fact; the historical past that may be taught at college. But probe somewhat extra deeply into the sources and one other story emerges; one through which Aethelstan’s succession to the throne of Wessex – and his eventual path to turn into the primary king of one thing we might now recognise as England – was something however a certainty.

The first clue we discover that one thing may be amiss appears innocuous at first look. King Edward died in July 924; but Aethelstan was not topped till September 925. Whilst coronations weren’t at all times instant – it was acclamation by the Witan (the king’s council) that conferred kingship, reasonably than the prayers of a bishop – such an extended hole is, nonetheless, exceptional.

One of the primary issues to level out was that, previous to 1066, succession by the eldest son was on no account a certainty. Aethelstan’s grandfather – King Alfred the Great – was a latest and obvious instance of this. Alfred was the youngest of 5 brothers, and – you would possibly assume – most unlikely to succeed. But in 871, his likelihood got here when his brother, King Aethelred, died. Even although Aethelred had two dwelling sons (Aethelhelm and Aethelwold), the crown handed to Alfred – presumably due to his age and expertise in conflict in opposition to the Danes at a time when the Great Heathen Army was nonetheless ravaging the nation. He was merely the only option within the circumstances: the confirmed conflict chief as an alternative of an untested teenager.

So, having established that primogeniture was not a longtime customized right now, what of Aethelstan’s scenario? At the time of his father’s demise, he was round thirty years of age. For greater than a decade, he’d been chopping his enamel as a war-leader within the ongoing marketing campaign to rid Mercia of Danish invaders. First alongside his aunt – Aethelflaed – at whose courtroom he had been introduced up for a few years after which – after her demise in 918 – as de facto chief of Mercia, usually combating alongside his father’s warriors.

He was the precise age. He knew easy methods to win a battle. He was effectively educated and had been groomed for each facet of kingship. So, what was happening behind the tasteless phrases of the monks in Winchester in that brief Chronicle entry?

The reply – as is so usually the case – could be discovered within the query of dynastic politics. Aethelstan’s mom – King Edward’s first spouse – was a noble lady by the identify of Ecgwynn. Little is understood of her origins, however it’s tempting to see her as missing the standing required of a West Saxon queen; maybe she introduced little of tangible worth to Edward, a person who would possibly must marry wealth and energy to assist safe his maintain on the throne within the occasion of a risk from a rival claimant – equivalent to his cousins referred to above.

There could also be an fascinating parallel right here with King Edward’s later namesake (the IV) who married a lady of decrease station with whom he was mentioned to be infatuated. But whereas Edward IV remained married to Elizabeth Woodville, Edward the Elder didn’t.

At the purpose of his accession to Alfred’s throne, a rebel broke out. His cousin, Aethelwold, so lengthy neglected for a crown he thought was – maybe justifiably – rightfully his, noticed a chance to grab energy earlier than Edward might set up himself totally. Although he failed in his preliminary bid for the throne, the truth that he fled to York, the place he was gladly accepted by the Danes, made him an altogether extra harmful risk.

Edward’s response was swift; he moved to shore up his rule by taking a brand new spouse – and one who hailed from a extra thoroughbred lineage than Ecgwynn. In a transfer born of necessity, his first spouse needed to go – put apart in favour of extra urgent dynastic issues.

Edward’s new spouse was known as Aelfflaed. Again, little is understood of her aside from the truth that her father was known as Aethelhelm. Though some historians have steered that Aethelhelm might need been an ealdorman from a West Saxon shire, there’s a robust case to be made for him being Edward’s cousin, the son of Alfred’s older brother, King Aethelred. With her royal pedigree, it might be a match as robust as Edward might make and the offspring of such a wedding would subsequently be doubly royal.

Aethelstan - Public Domain

Aethelstan – Public Domain

The setting apart of Ecgwynn additionally put Aethelstan’s place doubtful. With no mom to guard the boy – not a lot older than a toddler right now – and with Aelfflaed eager to exert her affect and defend the inheritance of any future sons that she would possibly bear, there was little hope that Aethelstan would possibly stay shut by his father’s facet. In reality, as quickly as Aelfflaed’s first son was born, his half-brother’s demotion in standing was nearly instant. From doc proof, we will see that the brand new little one, Aelfweard, was witnessing charters (though nonetheless a child) and his identify was listed instantly after that of his father. Aethelstan, though nonetheless a witness, was pushed additional down the pecking order. The implication couldn’t have been starker.

Any lingering doubt was eliminated when Aethelstan was packed off to the courtroom of his aunt, Aethelflaed in Mercia. Ostensibly in order that he may be raised within the artwork of ruling and conflict, you’ll be able to’t think about Queen Aelfflaed being upset on the prospect of her stepson being pushed to the facet. Quite what Edward himself product of it’s unclear. As lengthy as he had sons to succeed him, his throne could be safe; it mattered much less the order through which they had been born.

And so, it remained for twenty or so years, till one fateful day in July 924 when Edward, apparently in Mercia to cope with a rebel of disaffected Mercian nobles, supported by Welsh factions, died. No one data the reason for his demise – he would have been in his early fifties – however a wound acquired in battle just isn’t past the bounds of risk. This is supported by the situation of his demise: a royal vill known as Farndon, simply to the south of Chester.

That Aethelstan fought at his facet on this rebel appears probably, which meant that he was readily available in the meanwhile of his father’s demise. The Worcester model of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle then data that Aethelstan was declared king by the Mercian the Aristocracy, a proven fact that was to be greeted with dismay in Wessex as soon as delivered by the rider who galloped south with information of the king’s demise.

To the West Saxons. Aethelstan was an outsider. We can not even be certain whether or not he had even returned to Wessex at any level over the past 20 years. For them, Edward’s second son – now simply out of his teenagers – had been groomed to succeed from delivery. With the Mercians declaring for Aethelstan, the protection of the Anglo-Saxon talking folks hung within the steadiness. The way forward for King Alfred’s imaginative and prescient for a united realm, combating again in opposition to the Danes was on the point of collapse.

But then, simply sixteen days later, the entire image modified dramatically; Aelfweard died at Oxford. Once once more, no rationalization is obtainable and – it needs to be mentioned – no hearsay of foul play ever gained any traction (although, clearly, can’t be dominated out from this distance).

Presented with such a chance, Aethelstan misplaced no time in urgent his declare for the throne of Wessex. Though Aelfflaed had one other son – Edwin – he was too younger and insufficiently established to have the ability to rally assist to his banner. But resentment didn’t go away instantly. The Bishop of Winchester refused to witness the brand new king’s charters and there have been whispers of a plot to grab Aethelstan and put out his eyes – thereby rendering him unfit to rule.

With a lot ill-feeling, it’s maybe no surprise that the coronation was delayed for greater than a yr. Perhaps it took that lengthy for Aethelstan to really feel safe sufficient to proceed. But when he did, it was a coronation like no different. For one factor, it didn’t happen in Winchester as all different West Saxon ceremonies had. Rather, Aethelstan selected a location – Cyninges tun – that stood on the border between Wessex and Mercia. The message couldn’t have been clearer.

Finally, it needs to be famous that Aethelstan by no means married and – consequently – by no means produced an inheritor; on his demise the throne handed to his stepbrother (the son of Edward’s third spouse). At a time when one of many king’s most necessary duties was to supply kids to safe the way forward for the dynasty, such a choice is unbelievable. Perhaps it was the worth he needed to pay to safe West Saxon assist; you could be king to your lifetime, however then we would like it again.

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First revealed on Aspects of History by Paul Bernardi

Further Reading

If this little vignette has whetted your urge for food to be taught extra about England’s first (and maybe best king – as confirmed by the World Cup of kings of England as offered by the Rest is History podcast (I’d advocate a subscription for those who haven’t already)), then you may do worse than have a learn of:

Sarah Foot: Aethelstan (Yale University Press)

Tom Holland: Athelstan – the making of England (Penguin Books)

Michael Livingston: Never Greater Slaughter (Osprey)


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