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Æthelstan: The First King of England by Sarah Foot (review)

From: Journal of World History
Volume 24, Number 1, March 2013
pp. 189-192 | 10.1353/jwh.2013.0025

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Sarah Foot’s biography of King Æthelstan of England (924–939), grandson of the much more famous King Alfred the Great of Wessex, places this underappreciated monarch firmly in his rightful position as the first king to rule a unified England. That this is the first full account to be written of such an important English king is surprising, and it is made to seem all the more so in light of Foot’s masterful accumulation of source material to elucidate her subject. Foot’s approach, in the greater part of the book, is organized thematically according to various aspects of the king’s life—family, court, church, kingdom, war, and death—which allows her to succeed admirably in keeping Æthelstan at the forefront of her analysis. This methodology, as opposed to a more straightforward chronological narrative, permits the reader a greater understanding of the complex overlapping environments in which Æthelstan operated. In the deft hands of a historian of Foot’s caliber the reader is provided not only with an insight into Æthelstan, the monarch and the man, but also into the “thought-world” of the nascent English nation.

Foot takes as a starting principle the idea that biography can address both how an individual is influenced by the underlying trends of a period and how an individual also has the agency to alter or create those trends. Her approach does, however, come with a number of important caveats, and she does not shy away from addressing these in her prologue, “Writing a Medieval Biography.” We do not know, for example, when Æthelstan was born nor the identity of his mother, but this is often the nature of the evidence from this period and is not a situation peculiar to Æthelstan. Foot answers in the affirmative her own question as to whether or not it is actually possible to write biography without the same kinds of evidence we have for a modern person of note and provides a very clear explanation and justification of her methodology. Readers of this journal working in diverse fields of world history, where similar evidential difficulties are often faced, may find familiarity with Foot’s approach and use of evidence useful, even if they are not especially interested in Anglo-Saxon England.

In the first chapter, Foot provides the uninitiated reader, who may not have realized that England was once a conglomeration of different Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, with sufficient but not overwhelming detail of ninth-and tenth-century English history. She explains how Æthelstan forged a unified English nation out of the legacies of his grandfather, Alfred (871–899), and his father, Edward the Elder (899–924). Alfred, the king of Wessex, the most southerly Anglo-Saxon kingdom and the only one not conquered by Danish Vikings, won an important victory against the Danes in 878 and extended the traditional borders of Wessex. Mercia was then controlled by Alfred’s son-in-law and daughter, but the former Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia and Northumbria were still ruled by Scandinavians. By the time Æthelstan came to the throne East Anglia had been added to Wessex hegemony. The reader, however, is left with no doubt that neither Æthelstan’s accession, nor his eventual taking of Northumbria and crushing of British resistance in order to unify England, were foregone conclusions; on the contrary, they were hard-fought rivalries for power between serious contenders. Foot manages to unravel the complexities of the period very well but does not try to oversimplify it. This is aptly demonstrated by my favorite line in the book: “His father’s brother’s son, Æthelwold, the son of Æthelred, Alfred’s next eldest brother, laid claim to the kingship . . .” (p. 12). Foot manages to make the almost impossibly complex riddle of the familial and ethnic power-struggles of tenth-century England not only make sense to the reader but also brings them vividly alive.

The structure of Foot’s book moves out from the most private into the most public of Æthelstan’s environments. Chapter 2 discusses Æthelstan at various stages of his life in his roles within his family circle, as son, nephew, brother, and as foster father. Æthelstan never...



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