AEthelstan: The First King of England.
In her biography of AEthelstan (r. 924-39), Sarah Foot gives us the most extensive study of the king to date, and few could surpass her use of all available sources to create a more complete portrait of this early medieval king. AEthelstan has long been cast aside, when remembered at all, as a short-lived, but highly intelligent, ruler. Despite this lack of modern and popular support, Foot contends that AEthelstan deserves not just commemoration, but celebration. She argues that AEthelstan was the "first English monarch," for no ruler before him governed all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms as a single realm. She contends that AEthelstan was not just the first king of the English, but also the first king of England.
Writing the biography of a medieval subject is rarely easy, even with a surplus of sources. Using the barest of references, Foot brings the image of AEthelstan into sharp relief. With this text, Foot places the king squarely in the centre of English history as important traditionally as his grandfather has been in the historical canon. Where AEthelstan's grandfather and father sought to expand Wessex, AEthelstan fought to control Britain from Scotland to the English Channel. This broad goal, achieved through war and diplomacy, created a kingdom larger than either Alfred or Edward imagined. AEthelstan first took the title rex Anglorum in 924/925. Foot shows how this title differed from Alfred's: AEthelstan was not king of the Angles and Saxons--he was king of the English. Further, she argues that AEthelstan, with his victory at Brunanburh, could claim to rule not just the English, but England as well. Beginning in 927, AEthelstan's court, scribes, coins, and foreign rulers all bore witness to the quasi-imperial nature of his rule.
Foot purposely does not follow a timeline of AEthelstan's deeds. Instead, she breaks his life into different spaces, areas where the king and the man performed together. Foot describes every aspect of AEthelstan's life: his family life, court and kingdom, military exploits, and death are given equal weight by the author. This organization allows her look at AEthelstan as more than simply a record of his charters and battles. It does, however, compartmentalize some features of the king's life that may have benefitted from additional connections, such as those of family and court, and court and kingdom.
Despite the paucity of contemporary sources for AEthelstan, Foot provides a full and detailed account of the king's life. She relies heavily on William of Malmesbury and his Gesta regum Anglorum. William had a special interest in AEthelstan, as his abbey directly benefitted from the king's munificence; thus his is the fullest near-contemporary account of the king. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, charters, law codes, and smaller chronicles round out the majority of her sources. AEthelstan's wide influence also led her to use continental, Norse, and Irish sources. Numismatic sources also make an appearance, particularly as Foot describes the imperial iconography AEthelstan employed. These sources add credibility to William's sometimes untrustworthy material and weight to Foot's argument.
With so few sources, it is tempting to recreate pieces of AEthelstan's life where we have little detail. In fact, Foot describes in her appendix how William of Malmesbury may have done just that. She herself, however, shies away from the medieval tendency to exaggerate and presents details with as little extrapolation as possible. Using so many of the available sources for AEthelstan's life allowed Foot to create a full portrait of both the man and the king. The detailed and unbiased use of evidence is one of the strengths of this work.
Foot also presents for us how AEthelstan's deeds and life slipped from popular and academic histories. Two other Anglo-Saxon kings, Alfred and Edward the Confessor, became increasingly prominent in post-Conquest texts, in essence becoming the Anglo-Saxon kings to know. Asser's life of Alfred almost single-handedly created Alfred as the first Anglo-Saxon king, and with Edward's position as the last Anglo-Saxon king, these two men eclipsed AEthelstan's important legacy. Foot's detailed history seeks to redress this issue and place AEthelstan again in the position as the first King of the English and of England.
There are very few weaknesses with this book, and those few are minor stylistic points. Foot's sympathy with AEthelstan is evident--as one might be after researching the same man for so long. Her last paragraph in the "Family" chapter warns against seeing AEthelstan's fostering and close male companionship as anything exceptional. And yet his celibacy was exceptional for the day. Taking a stronger stand on his lack of wife and heirs would have solidified this section of AEthelstan's life.
The "War" chapter makes the "Kingdom" chapter easier to follow; however, switching the two chapters would help with continuity. More connections between the chapters would also be helpful. The compartmentalization between the different sections results in the reader flipping back pages to find relevant connections. For example, Foot describes the iconography of AEthelstan's coins as resembling those of the Frankish King, Charles the Bald and the Ottonian King, Otto I. A quick reminder here of AEthelstan's sisters' marriages into these courts would have been helpful, as two of his sisters counted the continental kings as fathers-in-law. Although the work speaks most directly to an academic audience familiar with Anglo-Saxon England and its politics, Foot's work deserves a wider audience. The book itself is unpretentious and understandable enough for a lay audience, and detailed enough for the rigorous scholar.
Metropolitan State University of Denver
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2012|
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