Æthelstan, “King of all Britain” : royal and imperial ideology in tenth-century England
By Shane Bobrycki
Honors Thesis, Williams College, 2007
Introduction: On June 7,934 the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelstan (r. 924-939) held a great assembly at Nottingham. In attendance were the luminaries of his kingdom: king’s thegns, ealdormen of both Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian descent, over a dozen bishops, the archbishops of Canterbury and York, and at least three Welsh sub-kings, all with their respective retinues. This vast crowd had convened eleven days earlier at Winchester, 160 miles to the south, whence they had traveled. The king was on his way to war against Constantine II, king of the Scots, who had ruled in the north since the reign of Æthelstan’s father Edward. The exact reasons for this expedition remain unclear, but it seems that Constantine had broken an oath of allegiance which he had sworn to Æthelstan in 927. In the late spring of 934 Æthelstan, having raised an m y and a fleet, headed north to bring the king of Scots to heel.
At the Nottingham assembly, where he must have spent some time discussing military matters, the king granted “a certain piece of land of no small size in the place which the inhabitants call Amounderness” (in modern-day Lancashire) to the Church of St. Peter at York. A charter recording and authorizing this grant was drawn up, and the most important attendees attested their consent in strict hierarchical order. Æthelstan was the first, “corroborating and subscribing” as “king endowed with the holy rule (ierarchia) of special privilege,” followed by Archbishop Wulfhelm of Canterbury and then Archbishop Wulfstan of York, the recipient of the grant. Next were the three Welsh kings Hywel of Deheubarth, Morgan of Glywysing and Gwent and Idwal Foe of Greater Gwynedd, “consenting and subscribing” as sub-kings (subreguli). After these were the bishops, then the ealdormen (duces), followed by the king’s thegns (ministri), and finally, according to the archivist who copied the charter down, many other milites whose names he did not record. The charter served as an opportunity to assert Æthelstan’s power and status in writing; thus, he is expansively described as “king of the English, raised by the right hand of the Almighty, which is Christ, to the throne of the kingdom of all Britain.”
This lofty title, mirrored in charters, coins, poems, depictions, and chronicles, is a classic expression of Æthelstan’s royal ideology at its height. Æthelstan was a powerful king. He ruled over almost all of modern-day England, an unprecedented achievement. But he could also compel autonomous kings in Britain-Welsh, Scottish, and Norse alike-to trek hundreds of miles to honor, advise and fight for him. And when they did not submit, he had the power to force them to. He had vast estates to grant to subordinates and riches to make generous donations to churches and foreign allies. He was well aware of his own power, and portrayed himself as a king of the English people, but also as an emperor in the mold of Charlemagne, a ruler over all the peoples of the island of Britain, and justified in that rule by God.
This thesis examines how King Æthelstan legitimized and systematized his claims of power and status through a royal ideology, how that ideology emerged, what it consisted of, and how it manifested itself in his kingship and diplomacy. In doing so, this thesis questions some of the teleological assumptions which dominate the scholarship on Æthelstan. Scholars traditionally downplay Æthelstan’s imperial claim to rule the peoples of the “kingdom of all Britain,” while emphasizing his royal claim to rule a “kingdom of the English” that roughly corresponds to the historical borders of modern England. This teleological approach misunderstands the intentions of Æthelstan’s ideology apparent from the sources that survive. More generally, this study makes the case for a sophisticated, centralized royal ideology in tenth-century England, one which was ultimately effective in legitimating both imperial and royal pretensions, and attempts to dispel the myth that pre-modern institutions automatically preclude ambitious or complex political systems.