Æthelstan, king of England (924 [cons. 4 September 925] - 27 October 939

Æthelstan was king of the Anglo-Saxons (924/5-27) after his father Edward the Elder, and king of all England from 927 until his death (d. 27 October 939). Æthelstan had a treaty with Sihtric of York in 926, but after Sihtric's death the alliance collapsed, and Æthelstan invaded Northumbria to assert his control. In July 927, at a meeting at Eamont (near Penrith), he received the submission of the Northumbrians and the Scots, the Welsh and the Strathclyde Britons. The northerners had previously submitted to Edward, but Æthelstan was the first southern king to exercise real control over Northumbria: he held councils at York in the 930s, and coins were minted there in his name. His supremacy did not go unchallenged. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that he led his army into Scotland in 934, and in 937 the Scots allied with the Norse and invaded England, to be roundly defeated at the Battle of Brunanburh. The Old English poem celebrating that victory is perhaps the best-known product of Æthelstan's reign.

The circumstances of Æthelstan's accession are uncertain. Edward died in July 924. Edward's son Ælfweard succeeded, but died within a month. If Æthelstan had succeeded immediately, he might have become king in August 924, but he was not crowned until 4 September 925, over a year later. Contemporary sources do not explain this, but William of Malmesbury is full of details: he notes that Æthelstan was raised at the Mercian court, and that there was a plot to blind him at Winchester. Civil war between Mercians and West Saxons, with Mercians favouring Æthelstan and West Saxons favouring Ælfweard's brother Eadwine, could explain Æthelstan's delayed coronation. But, as with Æthelred's delayed coronation (March 978 to 4 May 979), other explanations are possible, and it is safer to leave open the question of precisely what happened in 924/5. If there were a disputed succession, perhaps Æthelstan's lack of a wife or heirs, which led to the succession of his step-brother Edmund in 939, was a concession to the other side. The "disturbance in the kingdom" that drove the ætheling Eadwine to his death in a storm at sea in 933 may have been another sign of unresolved internal tensions.

Sources for Æthelstan's reign are much better after 927. The charters from 928 to 934/5 are the work of a single individual, a royal scribe dubbed "Æthelstan A". From 931 the charters give the king much grander titles, claiming not only kingship of the English but lordship over all of Albion or Britannia. A similar development is seen in Æthelstan's coins, which bear the motto "king of the whole of Britain" (REX TOT BRIT). The fact that Scandinavians and Welsh, Scottish and Strathclyde sub-kings appear in the witness-lists of Æthelstan's charters adds substance to this boast. Æthelstan's charters also note the day of the year and not just the year of issue, which means that his itinerary can be traced more accurately than that of any other early king.

Seven lawcodes survive from Æthelstan's reign and throw light on the reign's internal workings. Four are official royal productions, including two general proclamations of laws from the king, one issued at Grately, another issued at Exeter in response to continuing violations of the Grately code. Of the three remaining codes, one is a report back to the king from his officials in Kent on how the Grately code would be implemented and supplemented.

Foreign scholars and dignitaries flocked to the English court. This was not an innovation of Æthelstan's reign: Asser notes scholars from various lands coming to Alfred's court, and one of Alfred's daughters married a count of Flanders. But Æthelstan had more continental contacts than any of his predecessors. At least four of his half-sisters were married into continental noble families, including the royal families of Francia (Eadgifu to King Charles the Simple) and Germany (Edith to Emperor Otto I), as well as the family that would supplant the rulers of Francia (Eadhild to Duke Hugh). When Charles was captured by his enemies, Eadgifu brought his son and heir Louis to be fostered in England until the Franks sued for his return in 936. Also fostered at Æthelstan's court were Alan of Brittany and Hakon, son of King Harald of Norway. Visiting scholars included Germans, Irish, Franks, Bretons, Italians, and even the Icelander Egill Skallagrímsson. From the Continent came large numbers of holy relics, some brought or sent as gifts, as Æthelstan was known to be a keen collector, and some gathered by his agents. Æthelstan was also a liberal bestower of relics and books to many English houses, including Malmesbury, where he was buried.