The Medieval Review 11.11.22

Foot, Sarah. Æthelstan: The First King of England. Yale English Monarchs Series. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. Pp. xiv, 283. $40. ISBN 978-0-300-12535-1. . .

Reviewed by:

Christine Senecal
Shippensburg University

Sarah Foot has composed a masterful biography in Æthelstan: The First King of England. That Æthelstan (r. 924-939) has had no full-length treatment of his life and reign is astonishing, given the list of accomplishments he contributed to the unification of England and increased importance of the office of king: Æthelstan was the first to rule over all of England, stylizing himself in charters as "rex Anglorum." He also promoted himself--with validity, according to Foot--as over-king of all Britain, having conquered the formerly Danish-held north of England in 927, undertaken a successful military expedition against Scotland in 934, and triumphed at the battle of Brunanburh in 937 (and was memorialized in the Old English poem by that name) against Welsh, Scottish, and Danish invaders from Ireland. To these achievements can be added Æthelstan's increased connections with the Continent: he engaged in a well-known international trade in relics, he welcomed prelates and clergy from the Continent to England and similarly exported high-ranking English across the channel, perhaps most notably by marrying off his sisters to foreign rulers. Innovations within England also mark Æthelstan's career: he shaped royal presentation by adopting a crown rather than a helmet for his coronation and issued coinage that reflected this image. Furthermore, his patronage of indigenous English saints across his newly united realm can be seen as a policy: an attempt to promote "new holy patrons to protect a newly imagined realm" (204).

So why has there been no biography of this king until now? As often is the case when dealing with medieval history, the key problem is a lack of source material. As Sarah Foot herself notes "his deeds found lengthy narrative treatment only at the hands of a twelfth-century historian, William of Malmesbury, who supposedly drew on a now lost tenth-century account" (2). Professor Foot's ambition, then, is a lofty one: to "push to the limits questions about intention and personality," (8) and so arrive at a genuine biography, rather than an account of the background political, social, or cultural trends of the king's time. In this, Foot succeeds surprisingly well. Certainly, her fluency with the sources and her ability to ask interesting and answerable questions from her material are qualities that alone could have made for this undertaking at all possible. Drawing from a wide range of documents (some of her most utilized are charters, poems, law codes, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, relic donation lists, coins, miniatures, and a multitude of materials from Continental monastic houses), Sarah Foot's biography does give, as much as possible, an understanding of the ambitions and interests of King Æthelstan.

Professor Foot chooses a thematic versus chronological approach to her subject, excepting the first and final chapters. Thus, after her preface and chapter on Æthelstan's early life, readers are introduced to the king's familial relations, his court, his relationship with the Church, his governance, his military endeavors, his focus on saints' cults/relics, and his claims of hegemony over larger Britain. Foot's coverage of these topics plunges her into a myriad of historiographical conversations. For instance, her chapter on Æthelstan's family considers long-standing debates about the king's lineage, and departs from some scholars' opinions (Pauline Stafford, Sheila Sharp) about the king's sisters and their fortunes. (Foot argues that William of Malmesbury recorded an extra, or "phantom," daughter of Edward) (50-52, fig. 1). Foot makes excellent use of regional historiography, whether discussing the geographical importance of Farndon in Æthelstan's support by the Mercians after his father Edward died campaigning against the Welsh (38), the continuity of the practice of commemorating Æthelstan's grant of privileges to the town and church of Beverley (244), or the connections between Æthelstan's patronage of the cult of St. Maurice and the saint's importance to New Minster in the pre-Conquest period (199). In her chapter on Æthelstan's role as over-king for all Britain, Foot turns to numismatics, and argues that both the text and iconography on Æthelstan's coins reflect his consciousness in shaping his image as an imperial ruler. The king's coins utilized a late Roman model of a side-facing profile, perhaps echoing traditions in Carolingian coinage. Foot argues, however, that the shape of Æthelstan's crown on the coins was innovative and likely deliberately modeled on manuscript portraits, perhaps from Carolingian or Ottonian models, and harkened consciously to the king's imperial ambitions (216-219). Foot's work on the identity of the English before the Norman Conquest engages with scholarship concerning the concept of Britain as a particular political construction. Here, Æthelstan emerges as a "ninth bretwalda" (hegemonic ruler), the realization of Bede's ancient notion that a king could be a unifying force for the people of England (223-225).

Specialists in Anglo-Saxon history will be interested to read Foot's theories concerning several particularly contested topics. For instance, in her discussion of the prolific amount of cultural production at Æthelstan's court, Foot articulates a number of reasons why Beowulf might have been created in this milieu, such as the close relation of the pedigree of the Danish kings with Æthelwulf (grandfather of Alfred the Great) and possible references to the poem in Æthelstan's charters and law codes. Her ultimate conclusion is tenuous: "to argue that Beowulf could have been composed in Æthelstan's reign, or even under his patronage, is not to demonstrate that it was" (117). The exact location of the famed battle of Brunanburh is another frequently debated issue. The battle's importance for Foot is paramount: without Æthelstan 's victory, "the West Saxon hegemony over the whole mainland of Britain would have disintegrated" (171). Nonetheless, there is no agreement about where the actual conflict occurred, with over forty different locations suggested at one time or another. Using onomastic evidence and work by Paul Cavill and others, Foot concludes that Bromborough, Cheshire, "is the most likely identification" (179). Finally, Foot has a thorough discussion of the issue of the usability of the "ancient volume" to which the twelfth-century historian William of Malmesbury referred. In a fascinating and helpful appendix, Foot shows how the now-lost text, thought to date from Æthelstan's reign, provides many otherwise uncorroborated details about the king's life (251). On the whole, she argues for a cautionary approach, but believes that William did not invent it.

Although not situated in the forefront of Foot's analysis, weaknesses in Æthelstan's governance do appear. For instance, the king's legislation against theft changed over time, becoming increasingly punitive before shifting strategy to grant amnesty to penitent wrongdoers. This implies that Æthelstan was perhaps not as effective in keeping the peace of the realm as he would have wanted (141). Furthermore, despite Æthelstan's claim to be overlord of all Britain, remaining evidence suggests that he mostly stuck to his family's West Saxon lands, rarely engaging in council with his witan outside of Wessex (128), making his grants of land almost completely from this region, and only in Wessex taking control over the coinage directly (despite pronouncements in legislation that "there was only to be one coinage (an mynet) across the king's dominion") (135). Should this information call us to question Æthelstan's broader political claims, to imagine that his image in propaganda belied a more fragile rule over greater Britain than Foot otherwise suggests? Finally, although Æthelstan inculcated the next generation's monastic reform movement during his reign by housing the future leaders Dunstan and Æthelwold (107) as well as by forming relations with Continental monastic houses that had been infused with Benedictine reform, there were limits to the king's sponsorship of monasticism. For instance, no evidence suggests that he founded any new monasteries, nor did he rebuild any communities destroyed by decades of war in the north or East Midlands (136). Although the king's patronage--particularly his gifts of relics and artwork--to the monasteries of Bath, the community of St. Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street, and Canterbury were notable, Æthelstan seems to have had poor interactions with Winchester for much of his reign.

Overall, Foot's work models the genre of historical biography in her use of sources, depth and range of knowledge, and her ability to synthesize her material to make a convincing argument. This comes across clearly in her appraisal of Æthelstan's charters and law codes, which, read together, reflect a ruler interested in the welfare of the poor as well as the financial stability of the Church. Moreover, we can see Æthelstan concerned about the stability of his newly enlarged--and potentially unstable--kingdom with his legislation against theft, which was his predominant interest in law codes (140). Although he might have been influenced by both Continental and earlier English legislation, Æthelstan pressed his rulings against theft further than other early medieval kings by equating stealing with treason against the king, considering it "tantamount to oath-breaking" (145). Of course, there are limits to our ability to get inside the head of the king, which can be seen with his personal life: he never took a wife, and had no children known to the historical record. Although we simply cannot speculate why this might have been the case, Foot pushes her conclusions thoughtfully to what we can know: that, while Æthelstan managed his many sisters' engagements with close attention, he avoided marriage even for political reasons (or perhaps for political reasons of his own). As a result, "his court lacked the central domestic, familial focus that had characterized the courts of his father and grandfather," (69) making it a decidedly masculine retinue, one that was dominated by men, many of whom appear repeatedly in the witness-lists of charters, as well as the male offspring of important rulers, or the writers of the poems surviving from his reign, or the future abbots who would lead the monastic reform movement of the next generation. This biography will be of great interest to all Anglo-Saxon historians and would be significant for anyone interested in medieval kingship. Through her analysis, Sarah Foot approaches as much as possible the heart and mind of an early medieval king.