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
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.
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.