In this year King Edward [Eadweard] died, and Athelstan [Æþelstan] his son succeeded to the kingdom.
However, the Mercian Register, in its final entry (s.a. 924), shows that the situation was rather more complicated:
In this year King Edward died in Mercia at Farndon; and very shortly after [“16 days after”, says Manuscript D] his son Ælfweard died at Oxford; and their bodies lie at Winchester. And Athelstan was chosen king by the Mercians, and hallowed at Kingston.
The date of Edward’s death is given as 17th July in the Introduction to the Liber Vitae of the New Minster, Winchester.[*]William of Malmesbury preserves details from “a certain old volume”.[*] He writes (GR II §133):
Athelstan, as his father had commanded in his will, was then hailed king – recommended by his years, for he was now thirty, and the maturity of his wisdom. For even his grandfather Alfred, seeing and embracing him affectionately, when a boy of astonishing beauty and graceful manners, had most devoutly prayed that his government might be prosperous; indeed, he had made him a knight unusually early, giving him a scarlet cloak, a belt studded with jewels, and a Saxon sword with a golden scabbard. Next he had provided that he should be educated in the court of Æthelflæd his daughter, and of his son-in-law Æthelred; so that, having been brought up in expectation of succeeding to the kingdom by the tender care of his aunt and of this celebrated prince, he repressed and destroyed all envy by the lustre of his good qualities; and after the death of his father and decease of his brother, he was crowned at Kingston.
It would appear, then, that, though Athelstan was Edward’s eldest son, by his first wife, Edward’s intended successor was Ælfweard, whose mother was Edward’s second wife. Or it may be that, although Edward had latterly ruled Mercia directly, the intention was that his two sons should divide his kingdom between them – with Athelstan, who had been raised in the Mercian court (and may well have already been Edward’s representative there), ruling Mercia. Whatever the original intention was, as events panned out, Ælfweard died soon after his father – he is allotted a reign of “4 weeks” in a West Saxon Regnal List preserved in an early-12th century manuscript (Rochester, Cathedral Library MS A.3.5) – and Athelstan became sole king. According to charter evidence (S394), however, Athelstan’s coronation, at Kingston upon Thames, did not take place until 4th September 925 – more than a year after Ælfweard’s death. The delay may well have been the result of opposition to Athelstan in Wessex.
The security of Athelstan’s position in Mercia may have given him more credibility than his father had enjoyed with Sihtric, Viking king of York. William of Malmesbury (GR II §134) says that Sihtric:
… though he ridiculed the power of preceding kings, humbly solicited affinity with Athelstan, sending messengers expressly for the purpose; and he himself, shortly following, confirmed the proposals of the ambassadors.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript D):
In this year  King Athelstan and Sihtric king of the Northumbrians, came together at Tamworth on the 3rd of the Kalends of February [30th January]; and Athelstan gave him his sister.
Athelstan and Sihtric’s treaty did not last long. The following year:
Sitriuc [Sihtric] grandson of Ímar, king of the dark foreigners and the fair foreigners, died at an immature age.[*]
Annals of Ulsters.a. 927
The Annals of Ulster then announce the departure from Dublin of, Sihtric’s kinsman, Guthfrith (Gothfrith). It becomes apparent that he had gone to Northumbria to secure the throne of York. Athelstan invaded Northumbria. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Manuscript E), s.a. 927:
In this year King Athelstan expelled King Guthfrith.
William of Malmesbury says (GR II §134) that Sihtric’s son, Olaf, was also driven out. Whilst Olaf fled to Ireland, Guthfrith (whom William identifies as Sihtric’s brother) sought refuge with the Scots.[*] Athelstan sent messengers to Constantine, king of Alba, and also to Owain (Eugenius), king of Strathclyde, threatening war unless Guthfrith was handed over. Constantine and Owain promptly set-off to meet with Athelstan. Guthfrith, however, escaped, and, in cahoots with a Viking chief called Thurfrith, besieged York. When the townsmen refused to surrender, the two Vikings abandoned the siege. Soon after they were taken prisoner, but managed to get away. Athelstan took control of York, and:
… levelled with the ground the castle which the Danes had formerly fortified in York, that there might be no place for disloyalty to shelter in; and the booty which had been found there, which was very considerable, he generously divided among the whole army man by man; for he had prescribed himself this rule of conduct, never to hoard up riches, but liberally to expend all his acquisitions either on monasteries, or on his faithful followers.
Thurfrith was shipwrecked and drowned whilst attempting to make good his escape from Athelstan’s clutches. Guthfrith, though, having suffered many miseries whilst on the run, eventually gave himself up, and was taken to Athelstan:
Being amicably received by the king, and sumptuously entertained for four days, he resought his ships – an incorrigible pirate, and accustomed to live in the water like a fish.
According to the Annals of Ulster (s.a. 927), Guthfrith was back in Dublin within six months of his departure. Meanwhile, Constantine and Owain had met with Athelstan, on what was probably the Northumbria/Strathclyde border, where:
… they surrendered themselves and their kingdoms to the sovereign of England. Out of regard to this treaty, the king himself stood as sponsor for the son of Constantine, who was ordered to be baptized at the sacred font.
William of Malmesbury GR II §134
According to 14th century Scottish chronicler, John of Fordun, Owain (Eugenius in Latin) was the son of Constantine’s predecessor in Alba, Donald II. John says (IV, 21) that Owain was Constantine’s heir, and that, “in the sixteenth year of his reign” (Constantine became king in 900), he gave Owain “the lordship of the region of Cumbria [i.e. Strathclyde] to rule over” until such time as he should succeed to the throne of Alba. John claims that it was Constantine’s wish that all future heirs to the throne of Alba be given Strathclyde to rule. John’s nationalistic claim, that Strathclyde became a sub-kingdom of Alba to be ruled by the chosen successor of the incumbent king of Alba, seemed to be given substance by the Scottish Chronicle (as preserved in the Poppleton Manuscript), but if it is accepted that the reading which apparently made another Donald, the otherwise unknown brother of Constantine, king of Strathclyde before Owain is erroneous (see Constantine II), then this plank of support is removed. There now seems to be a developing scholarly consensus that Owain was not the son of Donald II, but was, as his name suggests, a Briton, and that the kingdom of Strathclyde continued to be ruled by Britons into the 11th century.
Archaeological evidence suggests that, after the fall of their fortress on Dumbarton Rock to “Amlaíb and Ímar, two kings of the Northmen” (Annals of Ulster) in 870, the Strathclyde Britons transferred their ‘capital’ some 11 miles upriver – to Govan (about 2½ miles west of the centre of Glasgow). It seems that by 927 the Britons had advanced their southern border to the river Eamont (just below Penrith), which is on the border of the traditional English counties of Cumberland (to the north) and Westmorland. In 1974, Cumberland and Westmorland (with a part of Lancashire) were merged to form the new county of Cumbria. Originally, though, ‘Cumbria’ was synonymous with ‘the kingdom of Strathclyde’. Whilst the name Strathclyde, i.e. ‘Valley of the Clyde’, is geographically derived, the name Cumbria (and Cumberland) is derived from the ethnicity of the inhabitants. Indeed, it derives from the Britons’ own name for themselves – in modern Welsh, Wales is Cymru (pronounced: Cum-ri), and the Welsh are Cymry (also pronounced: Cum-ri).
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records this meeting only in Manuscript D. Its list of attendees is rather different to what might be expected from William of Malmesbury’s account:
In this year  fiery beams of light appeared in the north part of the sky. And Sihtric died; and King Athelstan succeeded to the kingdom of the Northumbrians, and he subjugated all the kings that were in this island: first, Hywel king of the West Welsh, and Constantine king of the Scots, and Owain king of Gwent, and Ealdred son of Eadwulf from Bamburgh[*]: and with pledge and with oaths they confirmed peace, in the place called Eamont, on the 4th of the Ides of July [12th July], and renounced every kind of idolatry; and after that departed in peace.[*]
It may be that the anonymous author of the above Manuscript D annal has merged two events into one. William of Malmesbury (GR II §134) asserts that Athelstan summoned the rulers of Wales:
… to meet him at the city of Hereford, and after some opposition to surrender to his power: so that he actually brought to pass what no king before him had even presumed to think of, which was, that they should pay annually, by way of tribute, twenty pounds of gold, three hundred of silver, twenty-five thousand oxen,[*] besides as many dogs as he might choose, which from their sagacious scent could discover the retreats and hiding places of wild beasts, and birds trained to make prey of others in the air.
In view of William’s account, it seems possible that in Manuscript D the meetings at Eamont and Hereford have been conflated. It would make sense that Athelstan accepted the submissions of Constantine, Owain of Strathclyde (not mentioned in Manuscript D) and Ealdred of Bamburgh at Eamont – that they “renounced every kind of idolatry” being a reference to the heathen practices of the Irish Vikings (often called the Hiberno-Norse) living amongst them – whilst the Welsh rulers submitted at Hereford.
The Britons of Cornwall had been brought under West Saxon control in the previous century, but it would appear that they were in revolt at this time. William says (GR II §134) that, departing from Hereford, Athelstan:
At this time (927), Wales can be considered to have been divided into four blocs. In the south-eastern corner was Glywysing (of which Gwent was the eastern part). Around 930, Morgan abOwain, known as Morgan Hen (the Old), became the dominant force in Glywysing, though his brothers, Gruffudd and Cadwgan, and their cousin, Cadell ab Arthfael, also shared in the government.[*] Such was Morgan’s impact, Glywysing became known as Morgannwg or Gwlad Morgan (Morgan’s land).
To the immediate north of Morgannwg was the small kingdom of Brycheiniog. To all intents and purposes, Brycheiniog vanishes from history after its king, Tewdwr, appears as a witness to a charter of Athelstan (S425) in 934.[*]
Most of Wales, however, was ruled by two grandsons of a king of Gwynedd known as Rhodri Mawr (Rhodri the Great). Northern Wales (Gwynedd, incorporating Powys) was ruled by Idwal ab Anarawd, known as Idwal Foel (the Bald), whilst the territories of south-western Wales (Dyfed, Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi,[*] which became known, collectively, as Deheubarth – meaning ‘southern part’) were ruled by Hywel ap Cadell, who would be remembered by posterity as Hywel Dda (the Good).[*]
Hywel obviously had total confidence in the security of his position, since, in 928, he made a pilgrimage to Rome.[*] Around 935, Gruffudd ab Owain (brother of Morgan) is reported (Brut y Tywysogion) to have been “slain by the men of Ceredigion”, but no other information is provided. It is believed that Hywel annexed Brycheiniog at some stage after Tewdwr’s disappearance from the record.
Between 928 and 935, Welsh kings feature in the witness-lists of Athelstan’s charters, where Hywel’s name takes precedence over the others.
… turned towards the Western Britons, who are called the Cornwallish … Fiercely attacking, he obliged them to retreat from Exeter, which till that time they had inhabited with equal privileges with the English, fixing the boundary of their province on the other side of the river Tamar, as he had appointed the river Wye to the North Britons [i.e. the Welsh]. This city, then, which he had cleansed by purging it of its contaminated race, he fortified with towers, and surrounded by a wall of squared stone: and though the barren and unfruitful soil can scarcely produce indifferent oats, and frequently only the empty husk without the grain, yet, owing to the magnificence of the city, the opulence of its inhabitants, and the constant resort of strangers, every kind of merchandise is there so abundant that nothing is wanting which can conduce to human comfort. Many noble traces of him are to be seen in that city, as well as in the neighbouring district, which will be better described by the conversation of the natives than by my narrative.
Charter evidence (S400) shows that Athelstan spent the Easter of 928 at Exeter, in the company of three Welsh rulers: Howel (Hywel Dda), Juþwal (Idwal Foel) and a not certainly identified Wurgeat (Gwriad?). Athelstan is titled rex Anglorum, ‘king of the English’, whilst the Welsh rulers are subregulus, ‘sub-king’.
In the normal course of government, Athelstan rarely strayed too far from Wessex. He maintained order across his kingdom by holding large scale councils, which would be attended by magnates from the whole realm. These assemblies, which were often also attended by Welsh kings, are known from the considerable number of charters which have survived from his reign.
In 934, on 28th May, a large assembly took place at Winchester. A land-grant (S425) was witnessed by Athelstan, the archbishop of Canterbury, the archbishop of York, four Welsh kings (Hywel, Idwal, Morgan and Tewdwr – all referred to as subregulus), several bishops and abbots, twelve duces (five of whom have Scandinavian names), and many thegns. On 7th June, much the same group (Tewdwr’s name being conspicuous by its absence) were at Nottingham, where another land-grant (S407) was witnessed.
The northward progress of Athelstan, and presumably, most of the same entourage, continued. He was, in fact, about to invade Alba. His route is indicated by the privileges (famously, the right of sanctuary) he apparently granted to Beverley and Ripon; and Symeon of Durham (HR Chronicle One s.a. 934) reports:
King Athelstan, going with a large army to Scotland [i.e. Alba], came to the tomb of St Cuthbert [at Chester-le-Street?], commended himself and his expedition to the protection of the saint, bestowed on him many and divers gifts becoming a king, and lands; delivering to the torments of eternal fire whoever should take away any of these from him.
According to legend – the earliest version of which is in the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto – Athelstan’s grandfather, Alfred the Great, had been spurred to his decisive victory over the Danes, at Edington in 878, by a vision of Cuthbert (bishop of Lindisfarne, died in 687). The Historia de Sancto Cuthberto tells (§25) how Athelstan’s father, Edward the Elder, on his death bed, impressed upon his son the great debt that was owed to Cuthbert. So (§26), when he was on his way to Scotland, Athelstan made a diversion to “the church of St Cuthbert”, and lavished gifts on the saint. He is said (§27) to have instructed his (half) brother, Edmund (who would have been thirteen years old in 934), that if he were killed during the forthcoming campaign, his body should be brought to this church for burial.
According to Symeon of Durham, St Cuthbert’s body was at Chester-le-Street, on the river Wear, in 934, from where it was translated to Durham, a few miles upstream, in 995. There is, however, evidence which raises the possibility that St Cuthbert’s body was at Norham, on the Tweed, in 935, from where it was translated to Durham in the early-11th century (after 1013).[*]
The remains of vestments, evidently presented to St Cuthbert by Athelstan, were discovered in Cuthbert’s coffin when it was opened in 1827 (apparently the first time since 1542, when, following the destruction of Cuthbert’s shrine during the Dissolution, it had been buried under the floor on the same site in Durham Cathedral that the shrine had previously occupied). Words embroidered on the vestments say they were commissioned by Ælfflæd, Edward the Elder’s second wife, for Frithestan, bishop of Winchester from 909 to 931. Edward and Ælfflæd’s marriage ended round-about 918 (Edward then married Eadgifu, Edmund’s mother), so the vestments would have been made in the decade after 909.
Pictured right is a piece of one of the vestments, a long slim band known as a ‘maniple’, in which Peter the Deacon (PETRVS DIΛCONVS) is depicted holding a maniple in his left hand.
Pictured below is a piece of one of the vestments, a long slim band known as a ‘maniple’, in which Peter the Deacon (PETRVS DIΛCONVS) is depicted holding a maniple in his left hand.
According to a story being told at Beverley in the 12th century (part of a collection of miracle-stories concerning St John of Beverley, associated with one William Ketell, a cleric at Beverley), when Athelstan’s army was in the vicinity of Lincoln, the king encountered a crowd of poor folk who were returning from a pilgrimage to Beverley. Athelstan was impressed by their accounts of the cures that St John had effected amongst them (John, having been bishop of Hexham, then bishop of York, died at his monastery of Beverley in 721), and decided that, whilst his army marched onwards, he and a few companions would take a detour via Beverley, to enlist the saint’s backing for his cause. He placed his dagger on the altar with the promise that he would redeem it very generously if St John helped him defeat his adversaries. Athelstan went to war. John appeared to him in a vision, assuring him that he would have divine assistance, and he was victorious. Keeping his word, Athelstan returned to Beverley, and bestowed many gifts and privileges, including the right of sanctuary, on the church.
The local saint at Ripon was Wilfrid, who died in 709.[*] There is a, quite famous, Middle English rhyming version (S457 – possibly dating from the late-13th century) of what purports to be the charter (S456 – it is a post-Conquest forgery) in which Athelstan grants a mile of sanctuary around St Wilfrid’s church (“On ilke side the kyrke a mile, for all ill deedes and ylke agyle”, i.e. ‘For a mile on each side of the church, for all evil works and each guilty act’). There is a reference to this “mile” at Ripon, but none to Athelstan, in an early-11th century record kept at York. The one mile limit applied at Beverley too, and in one version of the above mentioned 12th century story, a list of penalties is given for anyone who violated the sanctuary instituted by Athelstan, rising from eight pounds of silver at the outer limits, to 216 pounds of silver within the church itself. If anyone “with malevolent daring” violated sanctuary near the altar, then there was no financial penalty great enough, and the perpetrator: “had to be entrusted to the mercy and judgement of God only, and thus had to be judged in the same way as a great sickness requires immeasurable treatment.” (Translation by Susan E. Wilson, under the title Alia Miracula I.)
There was also an English fleet on its way to ‘Scotland’. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a.934:
In this year King Athelstan went into Scotland, with both a land-force and a ship-force, and ravaged a great part of it.
Symeon of Durham (HR Chronicle One s.a. 934) provides more detail:
… he subdued his enemies, laid waste Scotland with his land force as far as Dunnottar and Wertermorum, and with his navy he ravaged as far as Caithness.
… the Scottishmen compelled him to return without any great victory.
By 13th September, Athelstan was in Buckingham, as, indeed was Constantine, who witnessed a charter (S426) on that date, with the title subregulus. Which other luminaries were present isn’t known, since the witness-list has been abbreviated – Constantine’s name being followed by the comment: “with many others”. At some time during the next year, i.e. 935, Constantine was attending on Athelstan at Cirencester (S1792), in company with the other subreguli: Owain (Eugenius) of Strathclyde, and, from Wales, Hywel, Idwal and Morgan.[*]
In Ireland, meanwhile, in 934:
Gothfrith, grandson of Ímar, a most cruel king of the Northmen, died of a sickness.[*]
Annals of Ulster
Guthfrith was succeeded in Dublin by his son, Olaf (Old English: Anlaf ), who apparently established himself as leader of all the Vikings of eastern Ireland. At some stage, Constantine gave his daughter in marriage to Olaf. Constantine seems to have seen Olaf as the means of getting his revenge on Athelstan, whilst Olaf had his sights set on the throne of York. In 937, Olaf set sail for England. It might be expected that he would land on the west coast, but, according to Florence of Worcester:
Olaf, the pagan king of Ireland and many other isles, at the instigation of his father-in-law, Constantine, king of the Scots, entered the mouth of the Humber with a powerful fleet.
At the beginning of August 937, Olaf was at Lough Ree, in the middle of Ireland, so it can hardly have been earlier than September that he, in company with Constantine, and also Owain of Strathclyde, invaded England. According to William of Malmesbury, in his first summary of Athelstan’s reign (GR II §131), Olaf was allowed to advance “far into England”, whilst Athelstan assembled his finest forces to oppose him.[*] William calls the site that Athelstan eventually confronted Olaf Brunefeld. The name, however, varies according to source.
A great, lamentable and horrible battle was cruelly fought between the Saxons and the Northmen, in which several thousands of Northmen, who are uncounted, fell, but their king, Amlaíb [Olaf], escaped with a few followers. A large number of Saxons fell on the other side,[*] but Athelstan, king of the Saxons, enjoyed a great victory.
Annals of Ulster
King Athelstan, and his brother Edmund the ætheling [clito], encountered him [Olaf] at the head of their army at a place called Brunanburh, and the battle, in which five tributary kings [regulos] and seven earls [duces] were slain, having lasted from daybreak until evening, and been more sanguinary than any that was ever fought before in England, the conquerors retired in triumph, having driven the kings Olaf and Constantine to their ships; who, overwhelmed with sorrow at the destruction of their army, returned to their own countries with very few followers.
Florence of Worcester
King Athelstan fought at Wendune and put to flight King Olaf, with 615 ships; also Constantine king of the Scots and the king of the Cumbrians [i.e. of Strathclyde], with all their host.
Symeon of Durham HR Chronicle One
… Athelstan fought at Weondune (which is called by another name Etbrunnanwerc, or Brunnanbyrig) against Olaf, the son of Guthred, the late king,[*] who had arrived with a fleet of 615 ships, supported by auxiliaries of the kings recently spoken of, that is to say, the Scots and the Cumbrians.[*] But trusting in the protection of St Cuthbert, he slew a countless multitude of these people, and drove those kings out of his realm; earning for his own soldiers a glorious victory.”
Symeon of Durham LDE II, 18
And the battle of Duinbrunde [took place] in his [Constantine’s] 34th year; and in it fell Constantine’s son.”
Awley [Olaf] with all the Danes of Dublin and north part of Ireland departed and went over seas. The Danes that departed from Dublin arrived in England, & by the help of the Danes of that kingdom, they gave battle to the Saxons on the plaines of othlyn, where there was a great slaughter of Normans [i.e. Northmen] and Danes, among which these ensueing captaines were slaine, vizt. Sithfrey and Oísle ye 2 sones of Sithrick, Galey, Awley ffroit, and Moylemorrey the sonn of Cosse Warce, Moyle Isa, Gebeachan king of the islands, Ceallagh prince of Scotland with 30000 together with 800 captives about Awley mcGodfrey [Olaf son of Guthfrith], and abbot of Arick mcBrith, Iloa Deck, Imar, the king of Denmarks owen son with 4000 soldiers in his guard were all slaine.[*]
Annals of Clonmacnoise
… so severe a battle was fought against the barbarians at Brunandune, that even at the present time it is commonly called ‘the great fight’: then the hosts of the barbarians were everywhere subdued, and could no longer remain masters, and were driven beyond the sea. The Scots and Picts also bend their necks [i.e. they submitted];[*] the lands of Britain are united together; there is peace everywhere, and abundance of all things: and no fleet ever approached these shores again without entering into treaty with the English.”
Athelstan’s resounding victory at Brunanburh is famously celebrated in verse by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is as Brunanburh that the battle is generally known today, but, surprisingly for such a celebrated triumph, its location is quite uncertain.[*]
The poem (it is written in alliterative verse) celebrating the battle of Brunanburh is the whole entry for the year 937 in Manuscripts A, B, C and D of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It seems likely that it was an existing work, pressed into service by the compiler of the Chronicle – the word Her (the conventional way of beginning an annal; often translated as ‘In this year’) simply being added at the beginning. The following translation is by Dorothy Whitelock (1961):
In this year King Athelstan, lord of nobles, dispenser of treasure to men, and his brother also, Edmund ætheling, won by the sword’s edge undying glory in battle round Brunanburh. Edward’s sons clove the shield-wall, hewed the linden-wood shields with hammered swords, for it was natural to men of their lineage to defend their land, their treasure, and their homes, in frequent battle against every foe. Their enemies perished; the people of the Scots and the pirates fell doomed. The field grew dark [?] with the blood of men, from the time when the sun, that glorious luminary, the bright candle of God, of the Lord Eternal, moved over the earth in the hours of morning, until that noble creation sank at its setting. There lay many a man destroyed by the spears, many a northern warrior shot over his shield; and likewise many a Scot lay weary, sated with battle. The whole day long the West Saxons with mounted companies kept in pursuit of the hostile peoples, grievously they cut down the fugitives from behind with their whetted swords. The Mercians refused-not hard conflict to any men who with Olaf had sought this land in the bosom of a ship over the tumult of waters, coming doomed to the fight. Five young kings lay on that field of battle, slain by the swords, and also seven of Olaf’s earls, and a countless host of seamen and Scots. There the prince of the Northmen was put to flight, driven perforce to the prow of his ship with a small company; the vessel pressed on in the water, the king set out over the fallow flood and saved his life. There also the aged Constantine, the hoary-haired warrior, came north to his own land by flight. He had no cause to exult in that crossing of swords. He was shorn of his kinsmen and deprived of his friends at that meeting-place, bereaved in battle, and he left his young son on the field of slaughter, brought low by wounds in the battle. The grey-haired warrior, the old and wily one, had no cause to vaunt of that sword-clash; no more had Olaf. They had no need to gloat with the remnants of their armies, that they were superior in warlike deeds on the field of battle, in the clash of standards, the meeting of spears, the encounter of men, and the crossing of weapons, after they had contended on the field of slaughter with the sons of Edward. Then the Northmen, the sorry survivors from the spears, put out in their studded ships on to Ding’s mere, to make for Dublin across the deep water, back to Ireland humbled at heart. Also the two brothers, king and ætheling, returned together to their own country, the land of the West Saxons, exulting in the battle. They left behind them the dusky-coated one, the black raven with its horned beak, to share the corpses, and the dun-coated, white-tailed eagle, the greedy war-hawk, to enjoy the carrion, and that grey beast, the wolf of the forest. Never yet in this island before this, by what books tell us and our ancient sages, was a greater slaughter of a host made by the edge of the sword, since the Angles and Saxons came hither from the east, invading Britain over the broad seas, and the proud assailants, warriors eager for glory, overcame the Britons and won a country.
In contrast, Manuscript E’s annal 937 simply states:
In this year King Athelstan[^]led a force to Brunanbyrig[^].
Athelstan, king of the Saxons, pillar of the dignity of the western world, died an untroubled death.
Annals of Ulsters.a. 939
Completing his earthly course, and that a short one, Athelstan died at Gloucester. His noble remains were conveyed to Malmesbury, and buried under the altar. Many gifts both in gold and silver, as well as relics of saints, purchased abroad in Brittany, were carried before the body; for in such things, admonished as they say in a dream, he expended the treasures of his father, which he himself had for a long time kept whole and untouched.
William of Malmesbury GR II §140
He [Athelstan] was, as we have heard, of middle height, thin in person; his hair flaxen, as I have seen by his relics, and beautifully wreathed with golden threads.
William of Malmesbury GR II §134
It would appear that Athelstan had never married. He was succeeded by his eighteen year old half-brother Edmund (Eadmund), who had fought at Brunanburh two years previously.[*] On the other side of the Irish Sea, this was seen as an opportunity not to be missed.
The year number has been changed, in error, to 925, by a later scribe.
In contemporary records, the combined kingdom of Picts and Scots is Pictland (Latin: Pictavia) until the year 900, when the Gaelic name Alba (Latin: Albania) comes into use – Pictish identity simply fades away and all its people become Scots.
At the start of the 10th century, Alba’s territory was, roughly, the mainland of Britain from the Forth-Clyde line northwards, but the far north, Caithness and Sutherland, was in Viking hands – as were the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and the Western Isles. (The Orkney and Shetland Islands were Norwegian dependencies until 1472.) The western side of what is now southern Scotland was the territory of the Strathclyde Britons; the eastern side was in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.
In Welsh, ap and ab both mean ‘son of’ – ab being used if the name it precedes begins with a vowel.
Owain was the “king of Gwent” reported (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscript D) to have submitted to Athelstan at Eamont, though it seems possible that the anonymous annalist has confused this Owain with Owain of Strathclyde, and, whilst the latter submitted at Eamont, Owain of Gwent submitted at Hereford.
Owain and Arthfael were sons of Hywel ap Rhys, king of Glywysing. According to Asser (§80), Hywel, along with brothers Brochfael and Ffernfael, kings of Gwent, voluntarily submitted to Alfred the Great in order to get protection against the “violence and tyranny” of his son-in-law, Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians.
Tewdwr (Teowdor) is given no patronymic, nor is he assigned a kingdom, in S425. However, a Tewdwr ab Elise, king of Brycheiniog, appears in the Book of Llandaff (Pages 237–9, Evans & Rhys edition) in association with a Bishop Libiau. Wendy Davies, who is well known for her analysis of the Book of Llandaff’s charters, dates this appearance c.925. It appears, then, that Teowdor equates to Tewdwr ab Elise, king of Brycheiniog. It is probable that this Elise is Elise ap Tewdwr, the king of Brycheiniog who Asser says (§80) chose to submit to Alfred the Great in order to get protection against the “sons of Rhodri”.
The Book of Llandaff, however, seems to have missed out a generation. The final sequence of names in the genealogy associated with Brycheiniog (§8) in Jesus College MS 20 is: Tewdwr ap Griffri ab Elise ap Tewdwr. By this token, the Tewdwr who witnessed S425 was the grandson, not son, of the Elise who submitted to Alfred.
Tradition has it that (around the mid-8th century) Seisyll, the king of Ceredigion, brought the territory of Ystrad Tywi (‘Vale of Towy’ – to the south of Ceredigion) under his rule, and that the enlarged kingdom was thenceforth called Seisyllwg in his honour. There is, however, no early evidence for this.
Asser (§80) notes that, like Elise ap Tewdwr of Brycheiniog, King Hyfaidd of Dyfed had also sought the protection of Alfred the Great against the “sons of Rhodri”. Idwal Foel’s father, Anarawd, and Hywel Dda’s father, Cadell, were, of course, “sons of Rhodri”. In the fullness of time, apparently following the breakdown of an alliance with the Vikings of York, Rhodri’s sons themselves also chose to submit to Alfred’s overlordship. (See Altered States.)
Although not mentioned by the Harleian version (A-text) of the Annales Cambriae, the later texts note that Hywel’s wife, Elen, died in the same year.
William says he could find “no written record” of this sister’s name. According to Roger of Wendover (s.a. 925), however, she was called Eadgyth, i.e. Edith. Roger claims that Sihtric adopted Christianity on his marriage, but quickly abandoned both Christianity and Eadgyth, who had preserved her virginity. Roger equates Eadgyth with St Edith of Polesworth (in Warwickshire).
In 911 Charles had concluded a treaty with the Viking leader Rollo. In return for Rollo’s allegiance and adoption of Christianity, Charles ceded the territory which would become the nucleus of Normandy.
Hugh’s mission was led by Adelolf, count of Boulogne, who was Athelstan’s cousin. Alfred the Great had married-off a daughter, Ælfthryth, to Baldwin II, count of Flanders – Adelolf was one of their sons. In William of Malmesbury’s account of this mission (GR II §135) there are several errors – Hugh is called king, not duke, of the Franks; Adelolf’s mother is called Æthelswith, not Ælfthryth, and she is described as Edward’s daughter, not his sister.
William of Malmesbury says (GR II §126) that Ælfflæd’s father was a certain Ealdorman Æthelhelm (Ethelmi comitis), who may be Æthelhelm, ealdorman of Wiltshire, whose death in 897 is noted by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
West Francia evolved into modern France.
East Francia evolved into modern Germany.
William of Malmesbury, who had access to Æthelweard’s chronicle, says that the last of Edward and Ælfflæd’s daughters married “a certain duke near the Alps”. He actually states this twice, and both times he gives the daughter’s name. However, in the first instance (GR II §112) he names her Ealdgyth (rendered Aldgitha by William), whilst in the second (GR II §126) he names her Ælfgifu (Elfgiva) – on this second occasion he wrongly has Otto marry Ælfgifu, not Eadgyth (Edgitha).
According to William (GR II §126), Edward and his third wife, Eadgifu (who Edward apparently married round-about 918), had two daughters: Eadburh (Edburga), “a virgin dedicated to Christ”; and another Eadgifu (Edgiva), “a lady of incomparable beauty”, who Athelstan gave in marriage to a “Louis prince of Aquitaine”. William was clearly a trifle confused in regard to the many daughters of Edward, and there are scholarly suspicions that this last Eadgifu is a figment of William’s confusion – a double-up of the daughter of Edward and Ælfflæd who married “a certain duke near the Alps”. By this token, the mysterious duke is identified as Louis, the brother of King Rudolf II of Burgundy.
According to saga tradition, after succeeding his father, Halfdan the Black, king of Vestfold (south-eastern Norway), Harald initiated a series of battles against other local rulers – culminating in a great victory at Hafrsfjord (round-about 890). Egil’s Saga (Chapter 9) says: "This was the last battle king Harald had within the land; after this none withstood him; he was supreme over all Norway." Harald Fairhair is regarded as the first king of Norway.
Roughly, a slab of territory between East Francia and West Francia, stretching from the Jura Mountains to the North Sea (north-east of Flanders).
Edmund was the eldest surviving son (he had a younger brother called Eadred) of Edward the Elder by his third wife, Eadgifu. Barbara Yorke (Bishop Æthelwold: His Career and Influence, 1988, Chapter 3) writes: “His [Athelstan’s] single status is surprising and may indicate an alliance with his father’s third wife, Eadgifu, whereby on Athelstan’s death the succession of one of Eadgifu’s sons was assured.”
Spelled Brunanburh in Manuscripts A and D; Brunnanburh in Manuscripts B and C. A later scribe has added another ‘n’ to Manuscript A – above the line, between the first ‘u’ and ‘n’.
It is generally supposed that dinges mere is a place-name, but, if so, it is unidentified.
A burh (dative: byrig) – from which the modern word ‘borough’ – is a fortified site.
Having summed-up Athelstan’s reign (GR II §131), William interrupts himself (§132): “Concerning this king [i.e. Athelstan], a strong persuasion is prevalent among the English, that one more just or learned never governed the kingdom. That he was versed in literature I discovered a few days since, in a certain old volume, wherein the writer struggles with the difficulty of his task, unable to express his meaning as he wished. Indeed, I would subjoin his words for brevity sake were they not extravagant beyond belief in the praises of the king, and just in that style of writing which Cicero, the prince of Roman eloquence, in his book on Rhetoric, denominates “bombast”. The custom of that time excuses the diction, and the affection for Athelstan, who as yet living, gave countenance to the excess of praise. I shall subjoin therefore, in familiar language, some few circumstances which may tend to augment his reputation.” William then recaps Athelstan’s reign (§133–§135) employing material derived from the ‘old volume’.
(Suggestions that William’s source was not a 10th century ‘old volume’ have been convincingly refuted by Michael Wood: In Search of England, 1999, Chapter 8.)
In its Liber Vitae (Book of Life), a religious establishment would record the names of its supporters. The idea being that the people named in a Liber Vitae on earth, would also be named in the heavenly Liber Vitae, which would be opened on Judgement Day. The New Minster at Winchester was founded by Edward the Elder. The Introduction to its Liber Vitae (British Library MS Stowe 944) is an account of the Minster’s history, evidently composed in the 980s.
Viking factions distinguished by the prefixes dub, i.e. ‘black’ or ‘dark’, and finn, i.e. ‘white’ or ‘fair’, first appear in the Annals of Ulsters.a. 851. Another Irish source, sometimes called the Three Fragments, equates the black/dark faction to Danes and the white/fair faction to Norwegians. Some modern scholars, however, dispute this identification. See Black Vikings and White Vikings.
though the annal is dated 925.
though the annal is dated 926.
In fact, the same story is told in another dubious charter (S414), where Athelstan grants lands forfeited by Alfred to Bath Abbey.
“Figures which verge on but perhaps do not quite reach the incredible”, remarks Frank Stenton (Anglo-Saxon England, Third Edition, 1971, Chapter 10).
A Nowy ap Gwriad appears as a king in Gwent c.950. Possibly Nowy’s father, Gwriad, is Wurgeat.
Ætheling: a male of royal blood; an eligible candidate for the throne. (The equivalent term in Latin is clito.) Æthel (Æþel), meaning ‘noble’, features as an element of many Anglo-Saxon names – Athelstan (Æþelstan) = ‘Noble stone’.
In Old English, the character ‘thorn’ – uppercase: Þ, lowercase: þ – is used interchangeably with the character ‘eth’ – uppercase: Ð, lowercase: ð – to represent sounds that, in modern English, are written ‘th’. Hence, ‘Æthel’ can be found as Æþel or Æðel. The character ‘ash’ (æsc) – uppercase: Æ, lowercase: æ – is pronounced like the ‘a’ in ‘ash’, but as the Old English characters fell into disuse it was sometimes rendered as ‘a’ and sometimes as ‘e’.
The English rank immediately below king was ‘ealdorman’. The equivalent rank among Scandinavians was ‘earl’ (Old Norse: jarl). Latin-writers, however, employed old Roman titles – usually comes (plural: comites; genitive singular: comitis), source of the modern English word ‘count’, or dux (plural: duces; genitive singular: ducis), source of the modern English word ‘duke’ – to represent the vernacular titles.
In the form S407 has survived, it actually indicates two different years. The year is given as Anno Domini 930, and this agrees with Athelstan’s regnal year, which is given as 6. However, other dating indicators (indiction, epact, concurrent), and, indeed, the witnesses and location, date it to 934. The latter date is generally accepted as being correct.
The entry is in all manuscripts of the Chronicle – s.a. 934 in Manuscripts C,D,E and F, but s.a. 933 in A; and, as usual, is undated in B.
Athelstan’s death appears s.a. 940 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (though Manuscript A’s date has been tampered with, and at one time read 941). Other indicators, however, securely place the event in 939 (as demonstrated by M.L.R. Beaven, ‘The Regnal Dates of Alfred, Edward the Elder, and Athelstan’, English Historical Review Vol. 32, 1917). If the convention of beginning the year in September was being used (see Anno Domini), then an event occurring in October 939 would be consigned to 940.
Guthfrith’s death would appear to have occurred later in 934 than Athelstan’s campaign in Alba. The Annals of Clonmacnoise, having placed Athelstan’s campaign s.a. 928, place Guthfrith’s death s.a. 929.
William calls Olaf ‘son of Sihtric’. It may be recalled that Olaf son of Sihtric had been driven out of England in 927. He may well have been present, but it was certainly Olaf son of Guthfrith, king of Dublin, who was in charge of the invasion force.
S1792 survives only as an extract plus witnesses. Constantine’s name is first, after Athelstan, the others follow in the order given.
Constantine became king in 900, so this is a scribal error – xxxiiii (34) being copied instead of xxxvii (37).
The Scots and Picts were, of course, one nation by this time.
This account appears s.a. 931.
William says, in error, that Constantine was killed in the battle.
In the material derived from his ‘old volume’, William of Malmesbury notes (GR II §135) that Ælfwine and Æthelwine, two sons of Æthelweard, the youngest son of Alfred the Great, were killed in the battle. Athelstan had them buried at Malmesbury.
The location of Brunanburh has not been convincingly identified, though there is no shortage of suggestions.
The story is reminiscent of one previously told by William (GR II §121), in which, prior to Edington, Alfred the Great infiltrated the Danes’ camp in the guise of a jester.
In his Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (Deeds of the Bishops of England), William identifies the bishop as Wærstan, bishop of Sherborne (II §80). However, Wærstan would seem to have been dead by 925 at the latest. The bishop of Sherborne in 937 was one Alfred, who died between 939 and 943.
In the text Wealas, i.e. Welsh.
and Edmund his brother
Manuscript F adds the highlighted phrase at this point.
, and there fought against Olaf, and, Christ aiding, had victory; and they there slew 5 kings and 7 earls
Manuscript F adds the highlighted phrase at this point.
Symeon had just named Constantine and Owain in connection with Athelstan’s assault on Alba in 934.
The Old English is beahgifa – literally ‘ring-giver’. The term ‘ring-giver’ is called a ‘kenning’ – a metaphorical compound word or phrase, used especially in Old English and Old Norse literature – and has the meaning ‘lord’ or ‘king’.
In the manuscript, the highlighted phrase is: Ealdred Ealdulfing from Bebbanbyrig. There appears to be a scribal slip-up here that has named Ealdred’s father Ealdwulf (Ealdulf), when his name was actually Eadwulf (without an ‘L’).
Guthfrith may well have been Sihtric’s brother. Both men are identified as “grandson of Ímar” in the Annals of Ulster.
Florence of Worcester (in his annal dated 926, though it actually refers to 927) combines Guthfrith with Sihtric’s son, Olaf, to produce a single character, Guthfrith son of Sihtric, whom Athelstan expels.
Olaf was the son of Guthfrith (d.934), not Guthred. Symeon of Durham evidently believed that Olaf’s father was the Guthred who ruled at York from c.883 until his death c.894, to whom he had referred just a few sentences previously. (To add to the confusion, the king of York called Guthred by Symeon seems to be called Guthfrith by the chronicler Æthelweard.)
Florence of Worcester, in his Latin version of this entry, correctly names Ealdred’s father, but the use of the phrase from Bebbanbyrig in the Old English original appears to have caused a misunderstanding: “[Athelstan] expelled Ealdred [Aldred] son of Eadwulf [Eadulf] from the royal town which is called in the English tongue Bebbanbyrig.” Florence’s annal also supposes that Athelstan’s subjugation of the other kings of Britain was achieved by victory in battle: “he routed and put to flight all the kings throughout Albion”.
In his first run-down of Athelstan’s career (GR II §131), William of Malmesbury presents a passage that seems to be based on a similar interpretation of the annal preserved in Manuscript D, but with added elaboration. William claims that, following Sihtric’s death, Athelstan: “took that province under his own government, expelling one Ealdwulf [Aldulf – presumably, Ealdred is meant?], who resisted him. And as a noble mind, when once roused aspires to greater things, he [Athelstan] compelled Idwal, king of the Welsh [actually, of Gwynedd], and Constantine, king of the Scots, to quit their kingdoms. But not long after, moved with commiseration, he restored them to their original state, that they might reign under him; saying it was more glorious to make a king than to be a king.”
Historia de Sancto Cuthberto (History of St Cuthbert), an anonymous, apparently mid-11th century, compilation. The work survives in three manuscripts, none of which is the original. The scribe of the copy thought to be the earliest (now incomplete, in: Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 596) is believed to have been Symeon of Durham.
Libellus de Exordio atque Procursu istius, hoc est Dunhelmensis, Ecclesie (Tract on the Origins and Progress of this the Church of Durham).
In Manuscripts B and C of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, after the entry for 915, is inserted a block of material, covering the years 902–924 and chiefly concerned with Mercian affairs, known as the Mercian Register. In Manuscript D, a not entirely successful attempt has been made to integrate this material with the rest of the Chronicle. It is a peculiarity of Manuscript B that after 652 the year-number is generally omitted, though two entries are dated in the Mercian Register section (904, 905), and these agree with the dates in Manuscript C. The chronology of the period the Register covers is somewhat confused in the main Chronicle, but the dates provided by Manuscript C’s version of the Register are generally considered to be reliable.
The Book of Llandaff (Liber Landavensis), dating from the early-12th century, is noted for a collection of 159 charters that purport to record grants of property made to bishops of Llandaff from the fifth century to the eleventh century. In that respect, the charters are a fiction, designed to provide the diocese of Llandaff, southeast Wales, with an antiquity it did not in fact possess. It would seem, though, that they are generally based on genuine grants made to other churches – that it is possible to detect the later Llandaff accretions, and to infer rough dates for most. Having said that, the charters’ authenticity is the subject of continuing debate.
Gesta Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of England).
John of Fordun’s Chronica Gentis Scotorum (Chronicle of the Scottish Nation) is the earliest full-scale history of Scotland – from legendary origins to the year 1153 in five books. John would appear to have composed his chronicle in the mid-1380s – in the concluding passages of Book V, there is reproduced a genealogy of King David I (r.1124–1153) that the writer says he got from Walter Wardlow, bishop of Glasgow, to whom he gives the title Lord Cardinal of Scotland, which would only be appropriate for the period 1384–1387.
Gesta Abbatum S.Bertini (Deeds of the Abbots of St Bertin’s), by Folcwin the Deacon (Chapter 107), finished in 962.