Now that I have finished reading the surveys of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy by Richard Humble and Christopher Brooke I can begin my focus on individual monarchs by starting with the available biographies of Æthelstan. He makes for a natural starting point in a number of respects: not only was he the first king of a united England, but he served as a model for English monarchs for centuries, thanks to his successes on the battlefield and his achievements both as a legal reformer and as a diplomat and statesman. His reputation is probably best reflected by the words of the 12th century writer William of Malmesbury, who declared that Æthelstan “cast all his predecessors into the shade by his piety, as well as the glory of all their triumphs, by the splendor of his own.”
For this reason, it is a little disappointing that there are only two modern Æthelstan biographies available to read. This made my choice of where to begin an easy one, though, as I decided to start with the older of the two books, Sarah Foot’s Aethelstan: The First King of England. As a volume of the Yale English Monarchs series – one that I expect I’ll become quite familiar with in the months to come – I have high expectations for the book in terms of its scholarship and level of analysis.
After that I will move on to Tom Holland’s Athelstan: The Making of England. Like Foot’s biography Holland’s book is part of a series on English monarchs – in his case, one of a collection of short studies recently issued by Penguin Books. As an author known primarily for his works about the classical world Holland seems a curious choice for an author of a biography of an Anglo-Saxon monarch, but given the reputation his books enjoy I expect that his contribution will be nothing less than readable.