Review of “Æthelstan: The First King of England” by Sarah Foot

Given all of the books that have been published about English monarchs over the years, it might be a little surprising that Sarah Foot’s 2011 biography of Æthelstan is the first modern attempt to provide an account of the life of the king who could first assert sovereignty over all of England. Why it has taken this long becomes clear from her prologue, as Foot explains the challenges posed by the slender amount of information available, one that compares unfavorably even with those available for Æthelstan’s grandfather, Alfred. Because of this, reconstructing Æthelstan’s life and personality for modern readers is effectively impossible.

Faced with this problem, Foot’s solution is to focus instead on Æthelstan’s roles as a 10th century Anglo-Saxon monarch. In a series of thematic chapters, she describes Æthelstan’s family, his court, his faith and relationship to the Catholic Church, his governance of his realm, and his conduct as a military leader. It’s an inspired choice, one that plays to the strengths of the available sources to describe the aspects of Æthelstan’s reign that truly mattered to both his dynasty and to English history. In a way it functions a lot like those clear diagrams of the systems of the human body that can be found in anatomy textbooks: each one stands alone in describing an important aspect of Æthelstan’s life, yet, when layered together, they combine provide an overview of what Æthelstan was like as a king.

The Æthelstan that emerges from Foot’s approach is a monarch who was an effective ruler in the times in which he reigned. Foot is especially good at explaining his behavior and his decisions within the context of his age, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in her examination of Æthelstan’s decision not to marry and have children. His choice invariably leads many modern readers to certain conclusions about Æthelstan’s sexuality, yet while not dismissing the possibility Foot points to the anachronistic flaw of considering the issue in those terms. With the succession of Anglo-Saxon kings less strictly determined by primogeniture than it would be in later centuries, Æthelstan likely faced little pressure to marry and produce an heir, while his considerable devotion to his faith would have made any decision not to marry one understandable to his peers.

Another consequence of this decision was that Æthelstan’s life was one in which men and masculine activities predominated. While Foot is careful in her use of her sources, she draws upon them creatively to offer a sense of with whom he spent his days and what they did with their time. As a result, she provides her readers a useful reconstruction of his activities during his reign, one that gives us the best impression possible of who Æthelstan was, even if the outline remains frustratingly vague. For most other monarchs the incompleteness of Foot’s portrait would be a criticism, but for her to have teased out what she has about Æthelstan from the limited sources available to us is an impressive accomplishment. While readers seeking a dramatic narrative about a warrior king will likely be disappointed by her deconstructive approach to her subject’s life, her biography is a must-read for anyone interested in learning in detail about Æthelstan’s life or how the first monarch of England governed his realm.

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