Just One Book On . . . Æthelstan

There are many reasons why I embarked on this project and set up this website. The most basic was my desire to learn more about England’s monarchs in a systematic way and one that forced me to stick through reading multiple books, which so far I have found very rewarding.

Another reason, though, is to answer a question that I often ask myself when I’m trying to select a book on a subject – namely, which is the one book to read on it. To me this is related to the question of the “best book,” but not necessarily the same thing: the best book on a subject may not necessarily be the most comprehensive one available or the most accessible work on the subject, but the one that does the best job of explaining its subject within its pages.

With that in mind, I decided that when I completed reading all of the books that I had selected to read I would try to ascertain for myself which is one book someone should read if they want to read a biography of a monarch. I do this with the caveat that my judgment is subjective and shouldn’t be treated as an effort to discourage anyone from reading any of the other books available about a monarch. But, to put it simply, if I’m asked which one biography someone should read about a monarch, which one should it be?

With Æthelstan, the choice is complicated by the fact that the two books I read about him are both fine studies of his life and times.  Of the two, Tom Holland’s biography definitely wins the prize for readability, as he demonstrates in it the talents that have made him such a highly-regarded author. As I mentioned in a previous post, given his background as an ancient historian he seemed a curious choice, but he fully vindicated his selection with an excellent overview of Æthelstan’s reign.

Yet when I consider which of the two is the best book to read on Æthelstan, I have to award the palm to Sarah Foot’s biography. Part of the reason is her creative solution to the problem of the scanty sources available for Æthelstan’s life, which she addresses nicely by expanding her study to consider the institution of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy more generally. Another is her analysis for his actions, which is informed nicely by her background on the period and avoids the trap of reading modern attitudes back on the past. That she does all this, though in a text that while not as narratively dramatic as Holland’s nonetheless explains Æthelstan’s life in clear prose that makes it easily understandable. So if you want to read just one biography of Æthelstan, Foot’s is the one to get.

Review of “Athelstan: The Making of England” by Tom Holland

Tom Holland’s name is one that typically I associate with histories of the ancient Greek and Roman world written for a popular audience. Because of this, I was a little surprised when I first saw that he was writing a volume on Æthelstan for the “Penguin Monarchs” series, as it seemed a little outside of his scholarly bailiwick. My curiosity about his contribution grew while reading my earlier selections on the Anglo-Saxon monarchy and Sarah Foot’s biography on the king. Given what they wrote about him, I wondered what insights a scholar of ancient history might offer into Æthelstan’s life and career.

As I was reading his short book, I began to appreciate why the series’ editors selected Holland to write it. His writing contains more than a degree of flair, as instead of simply describing events he uses his prose to bring the past to life. Yet while occasionally it can border on cliché, Holland never strays from his material into imaginative reconstruction. The result is enjoyable in a way that doesn’t strain a reader’s credulity.

Holland’s scholarly faithfulness, though, forces him to address the same problem facing the other authors, which was how to write about Æthelstan with the limited resources available. His solution is similar to Humble’s, as he fits Æthelstan’s life within the history of 9th and 10th century Wessex. While Æthelstan disappears from Holland’s early pages, this decision helps him to explain the world in which Æthelstan grew up, showing what he inherited and clarifying what he built. Though his narrative lacks many of the insights that Foot’s more analytical approach provides, it provides a coherently chronological account of Æthelstan’s life that is not just informative but engaging as well.

Nevertheless, there is only so much that even a historian of Holland’s skills can achieve with his limited sources. While his book helps to situate Æthelstan’s achievement within the context of the realm-building undertaken by the House of Wessex during these decades, Æthelstan remains stubbornly elusive as a person. Here again Holland stops short of overt speculation, but the absence is a little incongruous in such a fluid and evocative text. In this respect, Holland simply underscores the basic problem facing any author attempting to write about the first king of England. While he succeeds in writing about Anglo-Saxon England in a way that brings the era to life, to do so for the person at the center of his book may well be impossible with the materials available to us. What he does offer is a great short introduction to Æthelstan that explains how he came to dominate England, but one that can only offer so much about who the king was, showing how he is a person who can elude even the most creative of historians.

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.

Starting with Æthelstan

Æthelstan (l) presenting a book to Saint Cuthbert.

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.