Today we celebrate our unification day
England’s first king remains sadly neglected
A few years back, I visited Malmesbury Abbey with my young children in tow for a fascinating tour of yet another old church. It was here, I explained, that the eccentric Eilmer had tested human flight back in the 11th century (with admittedly limited success). It is here, I announced with gleeful excitement, where you will see the tomb of the very first king of England.
In we went, to be greeted by the sound of loud hip-hop being played from speakers, and the clatter of skateboards, the abbey having been turned over to some yoof event. There he lay in the corner, obscured behind some scaffolding, the tomb of our great founder, King Athelstan, or at least an effigy explaining he was buried somewhere under the building. With the soundtrack it felt like a moment of pure decline, the founder of our nation lying underneath, above him someone rapping about God knows what.
Such is Athelstan’s obscurity that few would know that today is in fact England’s unification day. It was on this date, in the year 927, that the kings of Alba, Strathclyde and various other realms in northern Britain met near Penrith to acknowledge the rule of King Athelstan over all the lands of the Angles and Saxons.
The story begins with the arrival of the Viking great army in 865; within six years the Danes had conquered all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms except for Wessex, which came close to collapse until its young king Alfred heroically turned back the tide.
Alfred had saved Wessex during its darkest hour, and under his peace with the Norsemen neighbouring Mercia was partitioned between the two sides; but after his death in 899 his son Edward and daughter Æthelflæd took the war to the enemy.
Æthelflæd had been married to a leading Mercian nobleman, Ethelred, and then as a widow ruled the middle kingdom as ‘Lady of the Mercians’. In 907 Æthelflæd had driven the Vikings away from Chester, a Roman town she had refounded as a burh, the English pouring boiling beer on the besieging force. Three years later a large Viking army attacked western Mercia but was repulsed, with three Danish kings ‘hastening to the hall of the Infernal One’ as the scribes put it. Pushing back, in 917 Æthelflæd conquered Derby, a former Viking stronghold, then Colchester. By Christmas all the Vikings of East Anglia had pledged their loyalty.
Æthelflæd died in 918, and after her death the Mercian nobles wanted her daughter as their monarch, but instead her brother Edward took over, putting his niece in a convent. Such ruthlessness was typical. Before the old king died Edward had had a liaison with a woman called Egwinna, and while the details are unclear, soon a son was born, named Athelstan, who came to be doted on by his grandfather before the old man’s death.
However, Edward took a new wife, Elflaed, for dynastic reasons, and Egwinna was packed off to a convent (or died — we don’t know) and their young son was sent to live with his aunt. Wife number two was also later sent off to a convent — very convenient places! — when Edward needed a new marriage alliance.
And so Athelstan was raised by his aunt Æthelflæd in Mercia, and when Edward died in 924 his supporters in the midlands were able to ensure he took the throne of the two kingdoms, against competition from various half-brothers, a couple of whom providentially died. Yet the young man would outshine even his grandfather.
The Vikings still ruled most of the north from their capital in York, but in 927 their king Sitric died and Athelstan rode in and declared himself ruler. No southern king had ever claimed the north but after Athelstan defeated a Viking army raised from Dublin, soon afterwards the various kings of northern Britain recognised his rule. This new kingdom included not just York but also the northern half of Northumbria, modern-day Co. Durham and Northumberland, a part of the northern Anglian kingdom that had largely resisted Viking rule. And so July 12, 927 was the date of English unification.
Athelstan’s coins, including those minted in York, now proclaimed him by the title Rex Anglorum, King of the English.