Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Secrets of a Saxon King

 By Nancy Bilyeau

“Holy King Athelstan, renowned through the whole world, whose esteem flourishes and whose honour endures everywhere,” said a 10th century Latin poem.

In his own lifetime, Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred of Great, was praised as  “the English Charlemagne.” By defeating the combined armies of Danes, Scots and Welsh in the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 AD, Athelstan could rightly claim the title of “King of all Britain.” In his 15-year reign, he also established laws, financed Catholic monasteries, and made key alliances with European royalty.

Yet today, Athelstan is mostly forgotten.

While researching this Anglo-Saxon king, who plays a crucial role in my historical thriller The Crown, I puzzled over why Athelstan dissolved into obscurity. It’s not all attributable to the time in which he lived—those ill-documented, striving, brutish yet sporadically dazzling centuries between the Roman Occupation and the Norman Conquest. Everyone has heard of Alfred the Great. Why not Athelstan, who arguably accomplished just as much?

I concluded that it was the mysteries surrounding Athelstan—ones that the most determined historians have not been able to solve—that made him too blurry for easy familiarity. His secrets make him tantalizing. But they also prevent his life from hardening into the simple outlines that propel a legend through time.

1.)   Was Athelstan’s mother a concubine?
This is hotly disputed, with biographer Sarah Foot convinced that Athelstan’s mother was an obscure but highly born young woman who had a child or two and died. Sort of a Dark Ages version of a starter wife.  Yet the story persists that Athelstan’s father, Prince Edward, fell in love with a beautiful young shepherdess while visiting his former wet nurse and conceived Athelstan that very night. It’s quite the erotic tale, putting to rest that stereotype of10th century men only caring for their swords. More practically, if there were any truth to Athelstan being illegitimate, it would explain why he did not have strong support when he succeeded his father to the throne at age 30—and it would also explain a serious problem he had with one of his half-brothers…

2.)   Did Athelstan have a half-brother killed?
The story goes that Athelstan suspected young Edwin, the son of his father’s undoubted queen, of conspiring against him with disaffected nobles. As punishment, Edwin was put in an oarless boat without food or water and set out to sea. He threw himself overboard rather than continue to suffer. Later Athelstan is said to have expressed remorse and performed penance. This whole story is far from confirmed but it’s persistent—and historians believe that it flung a shadow across the character of Athelstan.

3.)   Why did Athelstan never marry or have any children?
Thanks to chronicler William of Malmesbury, we know what Athelstan looked like: handsome, slim and blond. He was well educated. He was personally brave—Athelstan “won by the sword’s edge undying glory in battle.” In short, the man is King Arthur material. So why wasn’t there a Guinevere? Historians struggle to explain it: “Athelstan’s decision to remain unmarried seems more readily explicable as a religiously motivated determination on chastity as a way of life.” Still, the concept of celibate warrior monks—such as the Knights Templar—did not come along for another two centuries. A king was expected to marry and beget heirs, in Athelstan’s time and throughout the succeeding dynasties (see Henry the Eighth).  Lacking a Dark Ages Dr. Phil--which is perhaps for the best--we’ll never get to the truth of this one.

4.)   Where did the Battle of Brunanburh take place?
Athelstan’s enemies, determined to put an end to Wessex domination, drew him north for a cataclysmic encounter. Winston Churchill, as only he could, summed up the odds against Athelstan in The Birth of Britain: “The whole of North Britain—Celtic, Danish and Norwegian, pagan and Christian—together presented a hostile front under Constantine, king of the Scots, and Olaf of Dublin, with Viking reinforcements from Norway.” And yet…Athelstan won. Where this battle was fought, no one knows, though Yorkshire is a solid guess. Most of our information about Brunanburh comes from a rapturous Anglo-Saxon poem. There is a great deal of “they hewed the battle shafts with hammered weapons,” but no identifiable landmarks.

5.)   Why did Athelstan request burial at Malmesbury Abbey?
Almost every king of the House of Wessex was laid to rest in Winchester, the family’s seat of power. But Athelstan arranged to be buried at Malmesbury Abbey in Wilstshire. The king had "such a veneration for the place that he thought nowhere more desirable or more sacred." Whatever his reasons, Malmesbury rose to the occasion, and dedicated itself to the memory of the great king. Today you can visit Athelstan's tomb and glimpse his effigy, though his corpse is long gone. Some say it disappeared a few decades after his death, others that it was removed shortly before the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Malmesbury Abbey today

6.)   Did Athelstan possess the most sacred religious relics of his time?
This was the age of relic collecting, and no one pursued them with greater passion than Athelstan. He was so famous for his love of relics than when Hugh Capet, descendant of Charlemagne, was interested in marrying Athelstan’s most beautiful sister, he is said to have delivered an amazing amount of treasure to England—as well as relics that date back to Golgotha. The most famous one was the Spear of Destiny, also known as the Lance of Longinus, that pierced Jesus’s side. 

But Athelstan is said to have possessed other objects of mystical value, too, and that is what I delve into in my novel, The Crown

"The Crown" is the first in a trilogy of historical thrillers, published by Simon & Schuster in North America and Orion in the UK. To learn more, go to 


  1. The intrigue of it! If only a diary would be uncovered. I guess we just have to make up what we want it to have been. Best wishes with The Crown!

  2. Thank you Debbie! I find these early kings so fascinating. A handsome, celibate, relic- collecting warrior. Even in his own time, he was unusual.

  3. A fascinating post, Nancy. A shame that he faded into history without receiving due notice. I am like most; I have never heard of him. Thanks for enlightening us!

  4. Historical fiction is a wonderful genre -- especially when even the most profound research leaves so many blanks to be filled by an author's imagination. Very best of luck with what sounds like a fascinating book, Nancy. Neil

  5. I LOVE Æthelstan and this is the very first book about him I finally find. This goes instantly to my wishlist - thanks so much!

  6. Wanda Luce and BeWrite Books, thank you!

    Rowan, there is a fairly new and excellent nonfiction book called Athelstan: The First King of England, by Sarah Foot

  7. I have heard of Athelstan, but just barely. His life sounds absolutely fascinating. So glad you took it up in your book.

    Thanks for the post!

  8. Truly Fascinating article. I've tried at least half a dozen times to share it on my Facebook author page or my wall, but for some reason it just won't stick...darn't! :(

  9. Good luck with this book. I wish more could be written like it. William of Malmsbury was not a contemporary of the king--it is interesting to see how chronicles like his and other ecclesiastics are treated by writers. How apocryphal are they?

  10. Sophia and Theresa, thank you. Angelyn: William of Malmesbury is NOT all that reliable. Anglo Saxon Chronicles more so. A paucity of sources, that's the problem...

  11. Interesting questions regarding Aethstan. Mysteries like this make history fascinating.

  12. I love these mysteries about him! I feel an inspiration for a story headed my way!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.