There’s a dirty secret to history podcasts, and it only becomes clear when you actually start one.
The truth is that many people will SAY that they want to learn something new, and hear new stories and hear new facts. But every time, without fail, the most popular episodes - and the most popular history shows - are about stories and figures that people already know.
Now, this isn’t because the people who say they want to hear something new are lying. It’s just because they’ve forgotten what else they are looking for - they want to know more about stories that are important.
Which is reasonable. But the problem is that this creates a self-defeating loop, because we often judge whether someone or something is important based upon whether or not we have heard about it before. If you have already heard about something, there’s a good chance you’re going to assume it was significant. Similarly, if you haven’t heard about something, you very well may assume that it’s unimportant.Click here to be able to read the full rough transcript.
This is why people have an unquenchable appetite for material about figures like Caesar or Henry VIII, but start to get a bit antsy if you spend more than a handful of episodes on rulers with unfamiliar names like Penda or Offa.
What’s at play here is a cognitive bias. People who go out wanting to learn something new suddenly find themselves asking “If this part of history was important, then wouldn’t we have already heard about it?
This is why the History section of any book store tends to have whole shelves dedicated to individual marquee monarchs. William, Henry VIII, Elizabeth… whole forests have been destroyed in the production of books about their exploits, and part of that is because (as they are already known figures) selling books about them is easy. People are already predisposed to want to know about them, and to assume their importance. They have good press.
Even King Richard the Lionheart, who barely even visited Britain during his reign, has a pretty good ranking in the modern imagination… possibly because he looks kick ass as a disney lion.
Similarly, if you knew anything about this period in history before listening to my show you probably knew about Alfred the Great…. and for good reason, the story of Alfred is an exciting one, and he was a significant figure in history.
But because he was a known quantity before we even got to him, that helped burnish his reputation before you ever learned about his campaign on AEthelney and it signalled to you “hey, this is someone important to pay attention to.”
But that assumption can be dangerous, since it can lead you to discount lesser known figures. Furthermore, it might lead you to assume that if you’ve already heard about something… then it must have been just as important and popular in the past as it is now. Which isn’t always true.
For example, you probably assumed that in the Middle Ages Alfred was seen as the greatest of the Anglo Saxon leaders. Or at least the greatest of the House of Wessex.
After all, it was in the name.
But as we dig into the record we find something interesting.
And I’m talking about one record in particular, the Gesta Regum Anglorum written by William of Malmesbury.
William was writing about 225 years after Alfred’s death, which means that his account of the Anglo Saxons was from a post-Norman Conquest perspective. . Furthermore, he modelled his writing on the style of Bede, which means that he drew his account, not just from previous written records, but also from accounts circulating among the people of 12th century England.
What this means, and why his writing is so important to historians today, is that William is giving us an invaluable look into how the House of Wessex was viewed by people living long after the time of Alfred and AEthelstan… people living in the 12th century. And what he tells us, is that even after the Norman conquest, people were singing praise poems about the House of Wessex. He went to the trouble of even transcribing one of the poems…
“Of royal race a noble stem
Hath chased our darkness like a gem.
Great Athelstan, his country's pride,
Whose virtue never turns aside ;
Sent by his father to the schools,
Patient, he bore their rigid rules.
And drinking deep of science mild.
Passed his first years unlike a child.
Next clothed in youth's bewitching charms.
Studied the harsher lore of arms,
Which soon confessed his knowledge keen.
As after in the sovereign seen.
Soon as his father, good and great,
Yielded, though ever famed, to fate.
The youth was called the realm to guide,
And, like his parent, well preside.
The nobles meet, the crown present.
On rebels, prelates curses vent ;
The people light the festive fires,
And show by turns their kind desires.
Their deeds their loyalty declare,
Though hopes and fears their bosoms share.
With festive treat the court abounds ;
Foams the brisk wine, the hall resounds :
The pages run, the servants haste.
And food and verse regale the taste.
The minstrels sing, the guests commend,
Whilst all in praise to Christ contend.
The king with pleasure all things sees.
And all his kind attentions please.”
Did you catch that? The people of 12th century England weren’t singing about Alfred… they were singing about his grandson. AEthelstan
That means that over a hundred years after AEthelstan’s death…. Long after anyone who knew him personally had died, and even after the rise of a new Norman dynasty, people were /still/ singing praise poems of the bastard King, raised in Mercia, who once ruled over the English… And in that poem, we’re told that he was so magnificent that he ushered in what sounds like a golden age.
And that’s because King AEthelstan is probably the most beloved English king you’ve never heard of.
A quick scan of your local bookstore will reveal that pop history has all but erased him. And while we have one Facebook follower who is such a fan that he’s even given him a nickname… Stan the Man… I’m willing to bet that most of you have been mostly unaware of AEthelstan.
So today, we’re going to shed some light upon AEthelstan as a popular figure… because, like Alfred and AEthelflaed, AEthelstan was a titanic figure in history… but unlike Alfred and AEthelflaed, his legend has largely faded in the popular imagination.
So before we get into the specifics of what AEthelstan did… lets talk about how people spoke of him in the 12th century. Let’s talk about the legend that AEthelstan left behind… a legend that, unfortunately, nearly died.
And the first thing to know is that the legend of AEthelstan, the story that still circulated at the time of William, sounds almost too good to be true. Much like how the praise poem exalts him for essentially ushering the age of aquarius, the image of AEthelstan in the popular imagination feels very close to a King Arthur.
He was also linked in the popular imagination of the time with another well known figure. Alfred. In fact, we are told of how AEthelstan was the old King’s favorite and that (even has a young child) he was exhibiting noble qualities.
“Even his grandfather Alfred, seeing and embracing him affectionately when he was a boy of astonishing beauty and graceful manners, had most devoutly prayed that his government might be prosperous.”
This was a man known to be beautiful… graceful… and blessed by Alfred. Not too bad, so far.
William goes on to tell us that, as a result of being raised by another popular figure in history (AEthelflaed) that young AEthelstan’s noble qualities became so luminous that they banished all envy from those around him. Basically, everyone recognized that he was so wonderful that they weren’t even upset that he was destined to rule. Instead, his behavior (much like his appearance) just reinforced the sense that he was selected by god.
“His manner was charming and well disposed to churchmen, affable and kind to laymen, serious with the nobility out of regard for his majesty; to the poor, setting aside the pride of kingship, he was approachable and serious minded out of sympathy for their poverty.”
Furthermore, during his time in court (and presumably in the field) with AEthelflaed, we’re told that AEthelstan, “at the expiration of his childish years, as he approached manhood, he gave proof by many actions what just expectations of noble qualities might be entertained of him.”
So he didn’t just look good and speak eloquently. He was also a capable leader who had the proven that fact in the field.
“He was, as we have heard, of becoming stature, thin in person, his hair flaxen, as I have seen by his remains, and beautifully wreathed with golden threads.”
So in addition to being pretty much the nicest guy in the world, he also had a reputation for being a stone cold hottie in a time where your virtue and your appearance were believed to be directly linked.
At every turn, William emphasizes how popular and beloved AEthelstan was. It’s a far cry from the story that we’ve been given of AEthelstan’s early life, isn’t it? Here we have a man who was such an outcast that he wasn’t even allowed to be raised in the West Saxon Court, and who had to fend off a violent conspiracy against him when it became clear that he might inherit the throne. A man who’s life was dominated by rumors of his illegitimacy, at a time where the circumstances of his birth didn’t just dictate his right to inherit but reflected the status of his soul…
But give it a couple hundred years and he’s spoken of in terms that sound like the Once and Future King.
It’s a neck breaking rehabilitation of reputation. And to make it even more impressive, the circumstances of AEthelstan’s birth were known to William when he was writing his history. William wrote this even though he and most of his contemporaries believed AEthelstan was a bastard. Whether AEthelstan was truly a bastard is not something that is conclusively established, but in the popular imagination the illegitimacy of his birth appears to have been part of his story… which makes his reputation all the more impressive.
And this almost divine glow that we’re getting from William’s account of AEthelstan isn’t accidental. We’re told that, even when taking into account his illegitimate birth, AEthelstan “cast all his predecessors into the shade by his piety, as well as the glory of all their triumphs, by the splendour of his own.”
That’s right… two hundred years later, AEthelstan was viewed as more pious and more glorious than his predecessors… including Alfred.
WIlliam’s emphasis on AEthelstan’s piety, especially given the scandal of him being a bastard was part of the legend, is an important clue as to why AEthelstan gained and retained medieval rockstar status.
In this show, when we talked about Alfred and Edward, we were largely caught up in their wars. And for good reason, Wessex was dominated by war during that era, but if you imagined that there was a lot of pious behavior that was happening just off camera, you might want to think again.
The House of Wessex had been growing increasingly focused upon secular and administrative matters. And you can see why… the sons of AEthelwulf had been dropping like flies, and the Anglo Saxon kingdoms were collapsing under the weight of the invading Scandinavian armies. If there were spare resources, they needed to go towards the defense of the realm.
But as a consequence of this reprioritization of defensive structures, it meant that Alfred had given relatively little to the Church in comparison with other rulers. He did other things, including promoting literacy, but as for hard and fast granting of properties to the Church, there was a decrease. Furthermore, when he needed to martial Church resources for construction, defense, or other purposes… Alfred doesn’t appear to have shown much hesitation. In fact, the construction of the Burhs during the reign of Alfred were sometimes carried out in a way that lead to a reduction in Church lands, as we saw with the fortification of Worcester.
A survey of the available materials from his reign show us a calculating monarch who was willing and able to exploit any available resources, whether they be from the laity or the clergy.
Similarly, Edward appears to have followed in his father’s footsteps with regard to how he treated the Church. And while you might be thinking “Well, Alfred did begin the construction of New Minster, and Edward finished it” that appears to have been an outlier, rather than the rule… and it very well might have been their efforts at developing a Dynastic Cult (which is a concept we will return to later) rather than an indication of their commitment to piety and generosity towards the Church. Rather, upon looking at the Charters, we don’t see Edward or Alfred granting lands and privileges to the Church to the same degree that we have seen with other monarchs.
And this didn’t go unnoticed, in fact at Old Minster, Edward the Elder was remembered as Rex Avidus… the greedy king.
Contrast that with the stories that were circulating at the same time about AEthelstan…
When speaking of AEthelstan, William praises “how many new and magnificent monasteries he founded” and goes on to tell us that even with the older monasteries there was scarcely one “which he did not embellish, either with buildings, or ornaments, or books, or possessions. Thus he ennobled the new ones expressly, but the old, as though they were only casual objects of his kindness.”
William is telling us of a complete reversal of West Saxon policy. Where his predecessors used their authority to force compliance within the church and to extract resources, AEthelstan as King, appears to have used his time, and his treasury, to expand the wealth and stature of the church.
And he wasn’t just known for constructing religious houses, he was also being praised for endowing them with books and sacred relics. This is a consistent theme with AEthelstan, throughout his reign he acquired numerous relics and bestowed them upon the various religious institutions in his kingdom. And this started early. In fact, if you remember back to last episode, where he received from that delegation from West Frankia, well among those gifts were things like the Lance of Charlemagne… which was said to have been the same lance that pierced Christ’s side.
So in Medieval Europe - this was a pretty big deal. And under his tenure, it came into the possession of the House of Wessex.
AEthelstan was like the Anglo Saxon version of Indiana Jones.
And I can’t emphasize enough how big of a deal these relics were. Especially among the clergy. Relics were essentially magical items in the medieval mind. And AEthelstan was acquiring them in bulk for the kingdom, in addition to the religious construction projects that he was undertaking. And keep in mind that these holy houses weren’t simply religious in nature. They also functioned as repositories of knowledge, schools, clinics, and myriad other functions. What William is speaking of is a grand redevelopment of the intellectual and institutional strength of England… and it was being credited to AEthelstan.
Now AEthelstan was no doubt the beneficiary of the years of war carried out by his predecessors. Had Edward, AEthelflaed, and Alfred not pushed back the Danish boundaries, we might not be hearing of AEthelstan’s religious construction spree…. He might have been too busy building Burhs. But they had… and so AEthelstan, even centuries later, had a reputation for being a remarkably pious man… far more than his predecessors.
And then there’s the other half of that quote. Of how AEthelstan cast into shade the glory of his predecessor’s triumphs in battle, through the splendor of his own.
We will get into AEthelstan’s battles… but what I wanted to share with you, before we get into the politics and the bloodshed of the Age of AEthelstan… is the reputation he earned. The Chronicle can tell us a lot, and it can give us a rough chronology of war and expansion… but it doesn’t do a very good job at telling us who these people were, nor how they were remembered.
But William’s account does, and it paints an image that is remarkably consistent with everything else we’ve been told of AEthelstan. A large part of battle is the booty that’s collected following the victory… it’s something that isn’t discussed all that much in the sources, and for the most part we aren’t told how the various leaders in the Heptarchy handled it. But we are told what AEthelstan did.
When he acquired wealth in battle, WIlliam tells us that AEthelstan “generously divided, man by man, to the whole army. For he had prescribed himself this rule of conduct, never to hoard up riches; but liberally to expend all his acquisition either on monasteries or on his faithful followers.”
AEthelstan is the sort of King that almost makes monarchy sound good… almost. And in this kind of generosity with his army, AEthelstan would have been returning not only to an older model of what it was to be a legitimate Anglo Saxon ruler, but he would have been acting more like the Danish warlords in the area - who kept their bands and armies happy by sharing out the plunder of successful battles.
But there is no plunder from battle without victory. And this is the other side to AEthelstan. Unlike generosity, this quality has different meaning for us today than it did back in the 10th and 12th centuries. AEthelstan exhibited unyielding ruthlessness with his enemies. For our culture, this is often interpreted as a flaw in character, but for this period in medieval ideology… a time when even Bishops would sometimes lead armies... ferocity wasn’t a flaw. Instead, bloodshed… providing that you were shedding the right kind of blood… could be another expression of godliness.
And AEthelstan more than demonstrated his tendency towards the divine. And it’s that aspect that gives us the most famous quote about him.
“He was much beloved by his subjects, out of admiration of his courage and humility, but like a thunderbolt to those who rebelled against him, through his invincible courage.”
AEthelstan, the beautiful, generous, and charming king… was also ruthlessly effective upon the battlefield. He was so successful, he carried a reputation of invincibility and whom people (even people living hundreds of years later) described as a thunderbolt… a divine strike from god.
This is the man who had just taken the throne of Wessex. And he’s the man who will ultimately form England.