Aethelstan, Great Anglo-Saxon king, or Greatest Anglo-Saxon King?

Few among the line of the House of Wessex stand out above their peers as being remembered not only for great bloodshed, but great sources of law and order. Chief among these would have been Alfred the Great, who smashed Viking and fellow Anglo-Saxons alike, yet also sought to Christianize them, to restore order and rebuild an even greater kingdom. Following in the wake of such a meteoric king would be no easy task, yet Aethelstan, grandson of Alfred was certainly up to the task.

Aethelstan took the throne in 924 A.D, succeeding his father, Edward the Elder. Upon taking the throne it appeared that the Anglo-Saxon unity Alfred the Great had fought for would be shattered by rival claims to the throne. Luckily, Aethelstan’s chief competitor, Aelfweard died spontaneously. Aethelstan still had to deal with doubts as to the legitimacy of his claim, such as a plot to blind him in the Byzantine style. To remove such doubts he had his brother Edwin exiled, possibly having him drowned at sea as well.

Aethelstan inherited a difficult situation, surrounded by internal and external enemies/frenemies in the form of Cornish, Welsh, Cumbrians, Scots, Northumbrians, and Vikings. With such a complex political tapestry, the only way to legitimize rule and quell resistance was through a show of force, exemplified by Aethelstan’s defeat of the Northumbrians in 926, possibly without shedding a single drop of blood.

Aethelstan’s greatest challenge would be the union of his chief competitors, Strathclyde, Alba, and the Kingdom of Dublin. Once again, Aethelstan’s unified army emerged victorious at the Battle of Brunanburh, although the details are hazy at best. After this stunning victory, Aethelstan was now recognized as the high king of England.

Aethelstan is not only remembered for his military victories, he also engaged in well thought out political alliances across Western Europe, marrying his sisters into various royal households. He also legislated proper religious observance, regulated trade, and set criminal law. Aethelstan’s law code, built upon oral tradition and ordeals sought to preserve peace, especially against theft. Although, Aethelstan’s law code is most well-known for allowing leniency in executing thieves below the age of twelve. To create his laws, Aethelstan sought to create an actual royal administration, relying on bureaucrats rather than random monks.

Alas, Aethelstans reign ended moderately early in 939 A.D. Determind to set a model as the exemplary Christian king, Aethelstan never married and may have been celibate, leaving little to remember him by. What sources are available stem mostly from William of Malmsbury from the 12th century. Aethelstan is also documented in a glut of images, being the first Anglo-Saxon king portrayed wearing a crown, rather than a helmet, the first true king of England.

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