Athelstan was the son of Edward the Elder and grandson of Alfred the Great. He was illegitimate, at the time of his birth, his mother was Egwina the King’s mistress although she later became his queen.
William of Malmesbury records how fond the king was of Athelstan and he made him a knight at an early age giving him a sword with a golden scabbard. He also describes how handsome he was ‘A boy of astonishing beauty and graceful manners’.
When his father ,King Edward died in 924 Athelstan being the eldest son was quickly proclaimed their king by the Mercians. The West Saxons however proclaimed as king Aelfweard ,Edward’s second eldest son – but the eldest from his second wife and the first born to Edward as reigning king. Aelfweard followed his father to the grave within a month. About a year later on 4th September 925 Athelstan was crowned King of Saxons and Angles at Kingston – upon- Thames situated on the border between Mercia and Wessex.
He soon displayed the strong character and leadership qualities that enabled him to unite England. He is recorded as never having lost a battle and was called ‘Athelstan the Glorious’. He subdued a rebellion in Cornwall and similarly subdued the Welsh who paid him annual tribute of gold, silver and 25,000 oxen. At Eamont Bridge near Penrith on 12th July 927 kings of Scotland and Strathclyde acknowledged him as overlord by swearing allegiance. However, their memories were short and with the Danish King Olaf they rose against Athelstan. At the battle of Brunanburh Athelstan defeated them decisively.
He could now claim to be King of All England. He was determined to forge links with Europe which he did by marrying his four half-sisters to European royalty. He sent two sisters to Otto I, the Holy Roman Emperor telling him to choose which he fancied. Otto chose Eadgyth. Her tomb is in the Cathedral of Magdeburg.
Athelstan is remembered for his piety; he was a great benefactor of religious bodies, bestowing land, holy books and relics to many churches and monasteries. He also had a reputation for founding churches, these included minsters at Milton Abbas in Dorset and Muchelney in Somerset, and he founded a Collegiate Church at Beverley in East Yorkshire.
Duke Hugh of the Franks, when seeking the hand of Eadhild, Athelstan’s half-sister, sent Athelstan relics which included the Lance of Charlemagne which had pierced the side of Jesus. He also gave him the Sword of Constantine which had fragments of the cross including a nail set in crystal in the hilt. Athelstan gave these relics to Malmesbury abbey. Others, more bizarre, like the head of St. Branwaladr or St.Samson’s arm he gave to other churches.
Athelstan oversaw the translation of the bible into English. He established a formal organization for masons which may have led to Freemasonry in England. He encouraged the establishment of burhs where trade would become concentrated. This discouraged fraud and laid the foundation of a rural economy based on the market town. Although keen to promote commerce he banned Sunday trading. He reformed the currency which had become badly debased. Athelstan’s head would be seen on silver pennies cast at the many mints around the country.
Athelstan is reputed to have one of his Palaces at Brokenborough. There is a Saxon complex towards Foxley which could have associations with Athelstan. He certainly had a villa at Norton and land at Foxley. A road still called ‘Kingway’ passes through these and and goes on to Hullavington before returning to Malmesbury. A railway bridge across the A249 is named ‘Kingway Bridge’.
Malmesbury remembers this great king for the grant of land, five hides to the south west of the town (about 600 acres or 260 hectares.) This land is held by the Warden and Freemen of Malmesbury to this day. And he confirmed the charters from his father, Edward and his grandfather, Alfred.
I, Athelstan, King of the English, on behalf of myself and my successors grant to my Burgesses and to their successors of the Burg of Meldufu that they may have and hold always all their tributes and free customs, as they held them in the time of King Edward, my Father, fully and in honour.
And I enjoin on all beneath my rule that they do no wrong to these Burgesses, and I order that they be free from claims and payment of Scot
And I give and grant to them that royal heath land of five hides near my vill of Norton, on account of their assistance in my Struggle against the Danes
(From a 14th century document purporting to be the original charter of King Athelstan.)
Athelstan died on 27th October 939 in his palace at Gloucester after only fourteen years on the throne – what a lot he achieved. He was buried at his beloved Malmesbury, where exactly is not known. The tomb in the Abbey is fifteenth century and is empty, but his name lives on in Malmesbury.