Last week I posted on the most popular names among baby boys in England. The name Athelstan, one of the great Kings of England, was not one of them. I’ve never met an Athelstan, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone of the name. The fact is, you rarely hear Anglo-Saxon names at all. I have an old school friend called Edwin, though we usually shortened this to Ed, and another friend whose great shame was his middle name – Edrick – the name of an 11th century rebel against Norman rule. There seems to have been a trend in England in the seventies for reclaiming some of these old Anglo-Saxon names as opposed to the Biblical names that had dominated since the Norman conquest, and a parallel movement in Wales with old Welsh Gruff, Rhys, Rhodri and the like. But most Anglo-Saxon names sound rather clumsy on the modern English tongue: Edred, Ethelweard, Osric, for example, more so, strangely, than their mellifluous Celtic counterparts; and that is why you will meet more Connors, Calumns and Morgans in an average English primary school than even Edmunds, Oswalds or Edgars. (Talking of Celts, however, there are two notable Scottish poets of the 20th Century called Edwin. I wonder why. Could it be because the realm of the Northumbrian King Edwin encompassed much of the south east of present day Scotland, and he can thus be considered a kind of honorary Scot? Probably not…)
There are exceptions to this Anglo-Saxon name cringe, however. Two in particular are Edward and Alfred. Edward was the name of a number of Anglo-Saxon kings, but has survived to the modern age because of the Plantagenets: Henry III was a devotee of Saint Edward the Confessor, and named his son after him – that was Edward I, (who was, of course, not really the first) the warlike king who kick-started a line of three Edwards in a row, with England racking up seven in total across the centuries. So it is thanks to a French speaking descendent of the Normans who displaced the Anglo-Saxon kings that Edward sounds like a ‘normal English name’, and has remained in popular usage. Alfred is of course the one pre-Norman king that everyone knows, and his name has deservedly survived 11 centuries or so. Most people of my parents’ generation could tell you at least one thing about him: he once burned some cakes! And many would know that he once camped out in the marshes of Somerset at the lowest ebb of his campaign against the Vikings. More importantly, some might have been able to tell you – though these things are barely taught nowadays – that Alfred was resolute in Christianising Wessex and Mercia, and that his reign turned the tide against the Vikings and began the process of turning the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms into the single realm of England.
But the war against the Danes, the union of the Kingdoms and the Christianisation of the realm was not the work of a single reign. Alfred’s reign had seen the first major pushback against the Vikings, and the beginnings of cross-country cooperation between the different kingdoms of England. But at the end of Alfred’s reign, the country was still divided between a resurgent Wessex (which had swallowed up Sussex and Kent), combined with a tenuously English chunk of western Mercia, which stood against a huge ‘Dane Law’ stretching across eastern England from the Tees to the Thames. The lands north of the Tees were, like Wessex, ruled by the English – Angles rather than Saxons – but seem to have been under a kind of Danish suzerainty, and London at that period, though large and important, was no English capital, but rather a kind of giant Anglo-Danish border town. Far from being the first part of an inevitable roll out of English power across the land, Alfred’s successes were hard-fought, and could be easily reversed – in fact there were those even in Wessex who would work with Alfred’s enemies to try to do just that. Alfred’s son Edward, the real Edward I, later dubbed Edward the Elder, did much to consolidate his father’s wins, bringing London, East Anglia and much of eastern Mercia into the Wessex camp. His son, Athelstan (sometimes written Aethelstan) took the fight to north of the Humber to the heavily Danicised lands of Viking Northumbria (modern day Yorkshire and most of Lancashire), and even to bring the non-Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of the far north under heel. It was he who faced a decisive battle at Brunanburgh to make his own kingdom of England the dominant power of the whole island of Britain, defeating a coalition of Gaelic-speaking Scots, Welsh speaking Strathclydians and Norse Vikings invading from Dublin.
Athelstan should really be a more widely-known name, even if it is unlikely to catch on in 21st century England. He can credibly be described as the first king of the whole of England, perhaps even the first overlord of the whole of Britain. It is for this reason that Penguin start their Penguin Monarchs series with him. The writer, Tom Holland, starts with a lurid description of the battle of Brunanburgh, before tracing back the roots of the Wessex resistance and the gains made through Alfred and Edward’s reigns, describing Athelstan’s own trials growing up in Wessex and Mercia and finally the great challenges of his own reign. During the first chapter, about Brunanburgh, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy the book – Tom Holland has some literary talent, I think, besides his merits as a historian, but if he had kept up this sort of throughout the whole book, it could have got somewhat wearying:
Beyond the world of men, in skies and lonely forests, the shudder of the looming battle was also being felt. As the King of the English rode northwards, the number in his train swelling with his advance, ravens and warriors began to follow in his wake. The birds were notorious creatures of ill omen: clamorous, untrustworthy, hungry for human flesh. (page 6)
Actually, the more fantastical descriptions are used sparingly, but are entirely appropriate to describe an age with few written sources, which takes a little more imagination to evoke than better recorded eras. In any case, Holland adopts a more relaxed (and more strictly factual) style for most of the book and ably weaves the complex infightings of the house of Wessex and the relations between the kingdoms of Britain into a compelling narrative, while exploring in surprising depth (for such a short book) the running of his kingdoms, including his far-reaching foreign policy.
I came away from the book with a great appreciation of the achievements of Alfred, Edward and Athelstan. They were masters not just of war, but statecraft too – England was, in a way, their own creation. England was not a homogenous entity that, save for the interference of outsiders, would inevitably and naturally coalesce into a single realm. Even before huge swathes of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria became effectively Anglo-Danish, the Kingdoms that would comprise England had been separate entities – Wessex, Essex and Sussex were Saxon; Kent and the Isle of Wight were Jutish; East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria were Anglian – all with varying admixtures of Celtic and Roman blood and cultural influences . Northumbria and Kent had been most resolutely Christian, with pagan elements stronger the further one travelled from Canterbury or Lindisfarne, Mercia being the great backslider. These Wessex kings’ England was a resolutely Christian one – their view of Kingship was formed as much by the examples in the Bible, some of which Alfred translated into Old English, as in the stories of their pagan forebears. And, as Holland details, Christianity informed Athelstan’s kingship in very significant ways – he was the first ruler to bring in a kind of poor law, forcing the better off to provide for the poor to prevent starvation; and, inspired both by Old Testament Law makers and the words of Jesus, he took frequent measures to reduce murder and robbery in his realm, while acting with clemency towards criminals, the young in particular. These kings’ strong faith tied them to what was, geographically, the furthest English realm from Wessex. One of Edward’s most significant acts was the capture of the relics of the 7th century Northumbrian King and saint, Oswald, from Danish territory to be interred reverently in Wessex-controlled Gloucester. Oswald was a king reared in the far northern Gaelic kingdom of Dal-Riata, before returning home to reign Northumbria, a realm recently made from the joining together of Deira and Bernicia. He was killed by Mercian pagans, and so it is significant that he could still be revered by an army that included many Mercians. Certainly kinship was one of the elements of this imaginative forging of the English nation, but Christianity, not ethnicity, was the glue that bound that glorious past to the present and the kingdoms of the north to those of the south.