History of War

ÆTHELSTAN & ENGLAND’S FIRST GREAT WAR AN INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL WOOD

Source:   A fragment of a silver penny from the reign of AEthelstan. Some of his coins bore the legend ‘Rex To Bri’, which translates as ‘king of all Britain’  


Left: Michael Wood is one of the most prominent experts on AEthelstan and has made documentaries about the king for the BBC, including episodes of ‘In Search of the Dark Ages’ and ‘King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons’

When King AEthelstan died in 939, an Irish chronicler hailed his legacy in mighty tones: “AEthelstan, king of the English died, the roof tree of the honour of the western world.” This acclamation was remarkable for several reasons. First, many Irishmen had actually attempted – and failed – to topple the king in a devastating campaign in 937. Second, AEthelstan was recognised as ‘king of the English’ by his enemies, when only two generations previously the Anglo-Saxon people had faced complete annihilation. Third, the chronicler’s praise was well founded: AEthelstan was indeed revered throughout Western Europe.

AEthelstan (popularly known to history as ‘Athelstan’) was the grandson of Alfred the Great, and from 924 to his death in 939 he unified the disparate Anglo-Saxons to create a truly unified kingdom of England for the first time. He was the eldest son of King Edward the Elder, but his mother was a concubine, and his accession to ‘king of the Anglo-Saxons’ was by no means guaranteed. Nevertheless, once he gained power he fought relentless campaigns against his Viking and Celtic enemies within Britain and forced them all to submit to his overlordship in 927. He became ‘Emperor of the world of Britain’, and his rapid conquests bred great resentment among his enemies that culminated in a ‘Great War’ in 937.

Led by Anlaf Guthfrithson, the Viking king of Dublin and Constantine II, king of Scots, an unprecedented alliance of Vikings and Celtic peoples from across the British Isles invaded northern England and captured York. Although the details are uncertain, AEthelstan eventually raised an army and comprehensively defeated the invaders in what was described as an “immense, lamentable and horrible” battle at ‘Brunanburh’. Although the location of this mysterious battlefield remains unknown, it was nevertheless decisive. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described how AEthelstan’s warriors, “eager for glory, overcame the Britons and won a country.” In other words, the new kingdom of England was secured.

Despite his importance to English and British history AEthelstan is a largely forgotten king in the popular imagination. Now, 1,080 years after the warrior-king’s great victory at Brunanburh, the historian, broadcaster and Anglo-Saxon expert Michael Wood reveals an England that was ravaged by decades of savage conflict and a monarch whose military achievements made him “renowned through the wide world.”

“A SOCIETY GEARED

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