284 – AEthelstan the Victorious

Last week, we ended with King AEthelstan’s aggression towards Kingdoms of Wales and Cornwall. We don’t know precisely what occurred, or why AEthelstan demanded crippling tributes from the Welsh and then violently expelled or executed the Cornish of Exeter.

But whatever the reason, AEthelstan’s actions echoed through history. In fact, the Welsh border that was established at the River Wye was still in place by the time of the Norman Conquest. The Welsh Kings become members of AEthelstan’s court. The government of Deheubarth, under King Hywel Dda, began to take on English (and thereby Carolingian) methods of rule… Hywel’s coinage took on an English appearance (and he even used Chester’s mint to produce his coins)… and actually Hywel even gave one of his sons an English name (Edwin).

In the aftermath of AEthelstan’s apparent conquest, southwest Wales cozied up to the First King of England, making sweeping and lasting changes that shaped its society for generations
Northern Wales proved to be the other side of the coin. While the Kings of Gwynedd, Gwent, Brycheiniog, and Morgannwg do appear in AEthelstan’s court on occasion, we don’t see nearly the close English connection that we see with King Hywel Dda who ruled over the Southwestern kingdom of Deheubarth. And even some of his own countrymen seem to have been rather bothered by his relationship with AEthelstan, hence the rather caustic appraisal of Hywel’s rule that appears in the contemporary Welsh poem, the Armes Prydien.

And this apparent split is reflected in an important written document of this period, the Dunsaetan Agreement.

This was a document dated from the 10th or 11th century (so right around where we are right now) and in it we’re told that hostages and tributes from Gwent and Glywysing should be specifically delivered to the West Saxon portion of England.

That’s strange, since Wessex wasn’t an independent Kingdom by the time of this agreement. It was just part of England. So why was it getting its own tributes? And scholars have pointed out that, if it needed to be specified that tributes from Gwent and Glywysing went to Wessex, did that mean that the rest of tributes went to Mercia (AEthelstan’s childhood kingdom)?

And this wasn’t a temporary arrangement. Over a century later, when the Norman conquerors wrote down the Doomsday Book, this same divide between Gwent and Glyswysing and the rest of Wales appears in their assessment. Whatever happened here resulted in a bureaucratic (and very likely a cultural) split that lasted for over 100 years. And considering how close Gwent and Glywysing are to Cornwall and Exeter… I’m wondering if these truly extraordinarily brutal tributes, the ethnic cleansing, the moving of the borders to the River Wye and River Tamar, and the subsequent political sequestration of southeastern Wales from the rest of the region are indicative that historian John Davies was right…that there was a British rebellion against AEthelstan, and it didn’t go well.

For the rest of his reign, the Cornish remain mostly on the margins. Following the purging of Exeter, AEthelstan forced Cornish borders far to the West, to the River Tamar. And while it remains unclear how much power he had on the other side of it, we do see him founding a Bishopric at Saint Germans, and critically the See that it governed extended across the border into Cornish territory even though it was located in English territory. And interestingly, the Bishop who oversaw that See had a British name… which makes me wonder if the blended society that we heard about continued following the attack on Exeter… and honestly, what the hell happened there in general, because we’re getting a bunch of mixed signals.

But whatever happened, and however power was apportioned, the fact remains that following Exeter, Cornwall (even if it remained independent) now only held dominion over a very small portion of their land.

Just the tip.

We’ve clearly lost huge sections of this era, but it is clear that in just a handful of years AEthelstan had seized control of nearly the entire island. Virtually every monarch and kingdom on the island had either bowed to his rule or been annexed by the newly formed England.

And it was just 927… which meant he had only been on the throne for three years. I keep hammering this point because what AEthelstan had accomplished would have been impressive under any rule which had come before him… but considering the headwinds of his background and how he came into the throne, and considering how quickly he pulled this off - AEthelstan appears as a real life legend in his own time. And people were taking note. According to William of Malmesbury, “all Europe resounded with his praises and extolled his valour to the skies.”

And here we have evidence of AEthelstan’s other equally astounding accomplishment. The arrival of Britain onto the continental political stage was a seismic event. This island had, up to this point, been a political and cultural backwater since the days of Rome. And suddenly, under AEthelstan’s rule, the powers of the West were sitting up and taking note.

And the reason for their sudden interest wasn’t just because he had managed to bring the island under his rule, or even that he did it while being young and handsome, it , was because of who he managed to defeat. The Viking King of Dublin and the Viking kingdom of Jorvik.

During this time, the fashionable and monied kingdoms of Brittany and Francia had been suffering devastating losses to the Scandinavians… and AEthelstan managed to, in the space of a couple short years, defeat Scandinavian kings and annex their lands. In response, William tells us that the “foreign princes with justice esteemed themselves happy if they could purchase his friendship either by affinity or by presents” which is borne out in the record… it looked like AEthelstan had figured out the secret sauce to defeating the Danes, and the written record shows that he was suddenly awash with people seeking his favor.

And at the front of the line was Harold… the King of Norway.

I bet you weren’t expecting that.

We’re told that Harold sent a delegation to King AEthelstan, lead by the nobles Helgrim and Offrid… and they brought with them a gift. A ship. But not just any ship… the prow of the ship was cast in gold, and fashioned to look like a beak, and all along the sides of the ship were shields (in the Scandinavian fashion) though these shields were also gilded in gold. And propelling it through the water was a great purple sail.

I’ve read some pop writers referring to this as a princely or a kingly gift, and I think they’re mistaken. It would be kingly if it wasn’t for the sail. But the color of the sail is a dead give away. Purple is a color that was traditionally reserved for only one class of persons.

This was an Imperial gift. AEthelstan was being greeted as an Emperor.

And we’re told that the delegation, along with Offrid and Helgrim, were received by AEthelstan who lavished presents and honors upon them. Now considering that English culture dictated that much of the gift giving and honors take place at feasts, I’m pretty sure that the reception William is telling us about was a grand feast… and considering that AEthelstan had given Guthfrith a three day long feast after capturing him as a prisoner of war… I’m pretty sure that Offrid and Helgrim were in for one hell of a good time.

One thing to note was that this feast didn’t happen where you might expect it to, in an Anglo-Saxon administrative center like Winchester or Tamworth. Instead it was held in the recently conquered town of Jorvik. We aren’t told /why/ Jorvik was the location chosen by AEthelstan and the Norwegian delegation… but I suspect that he was spending a lot of time up there, solidifying his hold on the territory.

After all, he hadn’t simply become the overking of the region… he had completely grabbed all the land. There was a lot of work that needed to be taken care of… furthermore, a Court was a propagandic tool… having the King’s Court in a location ensured that his subjects (particularly his noble subjects) remembered the majesty of the crown. Just in case they started getting any ideas.

But a question remains, why would a Scandinavian King work so hard to flatter a King of England? Especially when that King of England had recently taken akingdom held by Scandinavians? Well, Scandinavia is big and while our sources are often fond of lumping all of the Northmen into one group, the reality is that their association could be described as loose at best. They weren’t all on the same team. Jorvik was a Vikingr kingdom… it was founded by, and ruled over by, men who had made their names by going aviking. So was Dublin. In fact, Dublin wasn’t just governed by pirates, it was also a major slave trading hub for the people who were seized in the Viking raids.

And as you might recall, most Scandinavians didn’t go aviking. They were farmers who were just as afraid of Vikingr crews as their neighbors to the south.

So why would the King of Norway praise an English King for annexing a Viking kingdom, and defeating a Viking king of Dublin? Because they were under just as much threat by Viking raiders as the English were.

And there is some evidence to suggest that on top of taking over these pirate kingdoms, AEthelstan was also very adept at dealing with the pirates themselves. During his reign, we stop hearing about the constant viking attacks that plagued Britain under the rules of his predecessors. Further, there are multiple instances where AEthelstan employs a robust and powerful Navy of his own. Put together, it’s entirely possible that AEthelstan was clearing the seas as well as securing the land.

But whatever the cause, the King of Norway heaped enormous amounts of honor upon AEthelstan, and there in Westfold he was remembered as AEthelstan the Victorious.

Oh and one last thing about this delegation… close listeners probably remember that Haakon, AEthelstan’s foster son, was the son of King Harold of Norway and you’re probably wondering about the timing. Unfortunately, we don’t know if this delegation was how Haakon came to AEthelstan’s court or if he was already there. But regardless, much like how the Frankish envoys treated AEthelstan like an emperor, it seems that the King of Norway was following suit.

England was suddenly the center of the world, and just as suddenly our record goes quiet… and stays that way for about six years. Given the way our Scribes judge newsworthy events, we can assume this means that there weren’t any wars… and also that the birds were doing normal bird things.

But just because Britain was largely peaceful doesn’t mean that nothing important was happening… a crisis was brewing. It was just taking place across the channel… and funnily enough, it involved birds.

Well, a guy who liked birds.

See, when King Charles the Simple of Frankia was imprisoned in 925, a well connected man stepped in and took possession of Lotharingia. His name was Henry the Fowler.

Which, all things aside, is an awesome name.

The problem, though, was that King Henry the Fowler wasn’t Frankish, he was a Saxon, and that didn’t sit well with the Franks. See, ever since the Franks took control they had managed to hold the exclusive right to rule in Germany... until this moment. And it doesn’t matter how cool your name is, if you’re the first person to break through the glass ceiling, you better watch your back. And Henry was in a worse situation than most because AEthelstan had just thrown a wrench into everything.

When AEthelstan had taken the throne of Wessex, it probably wasn’t noticed all that much by the Frankish (and new Saxon) royalty. This new English king was, after all, rumored to be a bastard, he was from a minor kingdom, and even his own people didn’t seem to like him all that much.

And around this same time, Charles the Simple was getting deposed, and new leaders were stepping forward - like Henry the Fowler - so all things being considered he was probably a bit too busy to notice AEthelstan.

The trouble, though, was that AEthelstan’s sister was married to Charles the Simple… and when Charles’ son (the crown prince, Louis) fled to AEthelstan’s court? Well, suddenly this bastard ruling over a backwater kingdom became a lot more important.

And then one of Henry’s potential rivals, King Rudolph, started cozying up to AEthelstan. He sent an envoy seeking the hand of one of AEthelstan’s sisters for Hugh the Great (a potential Frankish heir to the throne). And the intent of this was clear… since Rudolph was opposed to Charles the Simple he was seeking to ensure that there would be no family honor issues that would cause for AEthelstan to intervene on behalf of Louis. The marriage would create an ambivalence, where AEthelstan would have difficulty knowing which side to come down on if there was a conflict. And this would mean that hopefully he would just stay out of it.

AEthelstan agreed to this marriage arrangement, which meant he was now tied to two Frankish dynasties… two dynasties who probably could only agree on one thing… that Saxons shouldn’t sit on Frankish thrones.

If they stopped fighting among themselves, and turned their attentions upon King Henry the Fowler, he could find himself up to his neck in Frankish /and/ English soldiers. That’s not good.

So Henry, the Bird Man of Lotharingia, decided to take a page out of King Rudolph’s book. He’d also seek a marriage alliance. And he’d sweeten the pot. While Rudolph just offered a brother-in-law, for the prospective groom Henry would offer AEthelstan the crown prince.

A man named Otto.

And when the Lotharingian envoy arrived in AEthelstan’s court, the offer was likely a bit of a shock. . The hand of the crown prince? He must have REALLY wanted this alliance.

And he did… though from the West Saxon perspective it probably looked more desperate than it was. Because from AEthelstan’s perspective, this was an enormous gift. Culturally the West Saxons preferred to hold onto the marriage card until after they took the throne. It didn’t always work out that way, but generally that was the idea. So Henry looked like he was breaking with tradition and giving up a major diplomatic card with this match.

And Henry couldn’t have known this, but his offer was well timed for AEthelstan. Annexing Northumbria and gaining the submission of the rest of his neighbors had increased his stature on the world’s stage, but it also came with significant headaches. Acquiring Northumbria was only half of the problem… and in many ways it was the easy part. Administering it, on the other hand… Well, that’s a whole other matter.

After all, we’re still in the era where Court travelled… and that’s not because Wiltshire is lovely this time of year… it’s because it /had/ to travel. Given the limits of their culture and capabilities, a travelling court was the most effective way for a monarch to maintain a grip on power. If you were a King, your subjects (at least the ones who mattered) needed to see you regularly and be reminded of your power… and their duty to you.

It reinforce bonds, it doused rebellious instincts, and it also made matters like taxation and the enforcement of the law possible. After all, these Courts also functioned as… you know… a court.

And all this worked pretty well back in the days of the Heptarchy, because those kingdoms were small and generally had borders that were defined by geographical boundaries that were tough to cross. And even when Kings like Offa formed hegemonies, he still left underkings in charge of their own territories, which meant that he didn’t need to figure out how to administer justice to those people across the fens because those people across the fens were some other king’s problem.

But all that changed by 927. Now that AEthelstan had his double stuffed kingdom, all of the English were AEthelstan’s problem. And it really was a problem.

The Royal Court moved slowly. It was a huge operation, and so it took time to go from place to place. Consequently, they couldn’t effectively govern everything on their own. They needed a way to have some administrative matters carried out without the presence of the Court.

Furthermore, a lot of AEthelstan’s territory had recently been under Danelaw, which meant that the administration (both within the church but also within the local government) was out of keeping with Mercian and West Saxon tradition, and would need to be brought back in line with Anglo Saxon - now English - styles of rule. He needed boots on the ground to reform those institutions, and then ensure that they remained reformed.

So what he needed was a bureaucratic network of people ready to both carry out his administrative duties, and also reform the institutions at hand.

And while Alfred did try to force all of his nobles to learn how to read, it’s not clear how effective he was at getting them to actually do it. Further, the policy was limited to Alfred’s borders - meaning Wessex and parts of Mercia. Alfred never governed anything as large as England.

And learned men don’t just grow on trees. They were rather rare during this era, which meant that if AEthelstan was going to reform to north eastern portion of his kingdom, he’d need some help.

And Henry’s marriage offer was just what he needed. The Franks were experienced at bureaucracy. Further, the continent had large numbers of religious houses, and it was within these houses that learned men resided who had the skills required for administrative work.

A desperate Henry the Fowler looking to make an alliance was a good opportunity for England… and so AEthelstan dispatched two of his half sisters… Eadgyth and AElfgifu. The crown prince Otto could have his pick of whomever he preferred.

Now this sounds disturbingly transactional to us. And that’s because it was. But this also wasn’t unheard of for Dark Age ruling classes. As the head of the household, AEthelstan was likely meeting his cultural duty of providing two unmarried girls to a marriage request.

Which probably isn’t what people have in mind when they say they want to be treated like a princess.

In the end, Otto chose Eadgyth, and in the following year (929) Otto and Eadgyth were married at Quedlingburg. On an emotional level, we can hope this was as happy an arrangement as possible. On a political level, a new (and precariously positioned) Ottonian Dynasty was forming an alliance with a powerful military dynasty. This was an important diplomatic moment - and it demanded an equally impressive celebration.

We’re told the party was extravagant, and that an influential embassy took place at the wedding with AEthelstan sending major figures in his court lead by Bishop Cenwald of Worcester from Mercia.

Notably, the influential bishop of Winchester /wasn’t/ sent, which makes me think that he and AEthelstan were still feuding at this point.

After the wedding, AEthelstan’s envoy lead by Bishop Cenwald went to “all churches” in Germany. This was one part a public relations campaign (with the envoy lavishing gifts on the churches to demonstrate AEthelstan’s piety, singing Princess Eadgyth’s praises and boasting of how she was related to Saint Oswald)...

And one part recruitment campaign. Those gifts, and the stories of AEthelstan’s piety, were attractive to the clergymen residing in these churches. Clergymen with administration skills that England had serious need of. And sure enough, we soon see Theodred, the Bishop of London, working alongside a small army of German clergy. And they quickly set about reforming the East Anglian church which had fallen to tatters under the last two generations of Danish rule.

Also soon thereafter we see the evidence of yet one more of AEthelstan’s lasting legacies - his law codes. In fact, AEthelstan was one of the most law focused of the early English kings, releasing six codes of law in relatively quick succession (with the first codes being focused on reforming church behavior). But by producing these law codes, AEthelstan was able to codify his wishes and expectations. In this way, even if he and his court weren’t present, there were significant detailed treatises on precisely how the King’s Peace was to be maintained… and make no mistake about it, AEthelstan was particularly focused upon the maintenance of the King’s Peace.

But there’s a funny thing about law codes… you need people able to read the laws and empowered to carry them out. And it just so happened that, following this marriage, England now had a wealth of people trained to do exactly that.

Even though it takes place overseas, and occurs in peacetime, and doesn’t involve generals or battlefields… this marriage between Eadgyth and Otto would go on to have cultural and political implications for the Ottonian dynasty, for the House of Wessex, and for England in general for generations…

And for those of you asking “What of the other sister? The one that Otto didn’t choose, AElfgifu?” Well, she married “a prince of the alps” who some scholars believe was King Conrad the Peaceable of Burgundy. Which sounds relaxing. So she probably did ok.

  One Reply to “284 – AEthelstan the Victorious”

  1. Christopher Young
    August 11, 2018 at 2:54 pm

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