It is frequently claimed that the Anglo-Saxon King Æthelstan was the illegitimate son of King Edward the Elder and an unnamed concubine (or even a shepherdess). This persistent rumour has become a part of Æthelstan’s mythos as the first King of England, but it is one with little historical support. The fact is, we know nothing definitive about the childhood of the rex totius Britanniae and, given his pivotal role in the tenth-century political transition of Anglo-Saxon England into a single kingdom, this is incredibly frustrating.
So, in a quest to provide this important figure with a backstory, the tale of Æthelstan’s illegitimacy has been constructed through what I will generously describe as a loose reading of the Gesta regum Anglorum by William of Malmesbury. As a corrective to this narrative, I am going to have a look at exactly what William’s history tells us of Æthelstan’s childhood, at William’s own reliability as a historian, and finally at what (if anything) we can confidently state of Æthelstan’s youth.
Everything we know about the childhood of King Æthelstan (r. 924 – 939) is recorded in the pages of William’s Gesta, which was written around two-centuries after Æthelstan’s rule (for a full account of this biography, see my published article). In fact, William is the source of much unique information relating to the Anglo-Saxon king, but it is for this very reason that the veracity of his narrative is often questioned. William is hardly an unbiased historian on the topic of Æthelstan’s kingship. Malmesbury Abbey had materially benefited from Æthelstan’s piety and attributed many of its land-holdings and relics to the king’s generosity and further, Æthelstan had been interred in Malmesbury with his tomb, and those of two royal cousins, present in the abbey. With this in mind, it hardly seems surprising that William sought to construct a narrative that emphasised Æthelstan’s link to Malmesbury, and eulogised his abbey’s royal Anglo-Saxon benefactor.
But before we can turn to William’s account of Æthelstan’s life, we must first turn to the biography of Edward the Elder (r. 899 – 924) which precedes it. William’s narrative of Edward’s reign is less informed that that of Æthelstan as Edward was not as regionally important, yet it contains some important information. For our purposes, the most critical passage is on Edward’s family life:
…the kind reader will not think it out of place if I list [King Edward’s] wives and children by name. His first-born son was Æthelstan, born of a noble lady called Ecgwynn…
Gesta regum Anglorum ii.126.1
Immediately William has flagged that Æthelstan’s mother was a noble, that she can be counted as one of his wives, and that Æthelstan was therefore a legitimate first-born son. So why is this often overlooked? There are a number of reasons. Firstly, this passage sits six chapters before William’s extensive biography of Æthelstan. Secondly, William reports rumours of Æthelstan’s illegitimacy twice within his material on the king, but does not provide a counter-narrative. Thirdly, Ecgwynn was not Edward’s wife when he was crowned king. We do not know if she had died or was set aside, however he took a new wife, a member of powerful Wessex nobility, shortly after the coronation. And lastly, despite being the eldest son, Æthelstan was not the first in the line of succession. That honour went to the first-born son of Edward’s second wife. These last two points in particular have fuelled the speculation that Edward and Ecgwynn were not married (or in a legitimate union). So there is a bit to explore here!
Firstly a brief note on William’s construction of Æthelstan’s life. While there is unique material, there is also a fair bit of repetition and, taken as a whole, it is chronologically nonsensical. There are three distinct sections to the passages, with the first and last taking as their framework the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, with William delving into abbey charters, local oral tradition, and regional material history to augment that narrative. The historicity of these passages is debatable where matters addressed cannot be corroborated externally. The middle section, which provides most of what we know about Æthelstan’s childhood is problematic for a different reason. Here William claims to have discovered an ‘ancient volume’ that recorded Æthelstan’s life in a ‘bombastic style,’ which he then parsed and rendered in an easier form. There is no record of this tome existing in any text after the Gesta, and the debate as to whether it indeed existed or whether William was fabricating the authority of his account remains unresolved. Personally, I side with Rodney Thomson, Sarah Foot, and Michael Wood in believing William’s claim to have access to a source that is no longer extant in the authorship of these passages. But explaining why is a digression too far…
So moving away from historiography (somewhat) I am going to focus on one particular tale within this material which has particular bearing on narratives of Æthelstan’s birth and upbringing: an account of a plot by a noble of Wessex named Alfred to capture and blind the newly crowned Æthelstan, thereby negating the legitimacy of his kingship. Though this was purported to have occurred early in Æthelstan’s kingship (c. 924), it is illuminating both as to misconceptions regarding the king’s conception, and as to his courtly education.
To provide the necessary context to this plot, I will need to start (confusingly) with Æthelstan’s education rather than his birth. As I have noted, the majority of our information regarding Æthelstan’s childhood comes from the material William claims to be reporting from his ancient volume. In this he informs his reader that Æthelstan had received his grandfather Alfred’s favour as a child, personally knighting him and sending him to be educated in the Mercian court under the care of his daughter (and Edward’s sister) Æthelflæd. This tale has the feel of authorial invention designed to infuse Æthelstan’s kingship with a sense of inevitability, and a direct claim to legitimacy via King Alfred. Removing those elements, there remains the central assertion that Æthelstan was sent to be raised in the Mercian court. Whether enacted by Alfred or by Edward, Æthelstan’s presence at the Mercian court would have been useful as an assertion of Wessex hegemony. However, when considered alongside the fact that Ecgwynn does not appear to have been Edward’s consort at the outset of his reign, it is also possible that it was Edward who sent Æthelstan to Æthelflæd in order to avoid any family tension. Any children born to Edward and his new wife were born to a king and, while Edward’s well-connected second wife and her family may have seen these children as having a prior claim to the throne, had Æthelstan remained in the Wessex court he would have been able to garner support for his own claim as first-born.
This impasse was never realised. While the throne did indeed pass to Edward’s first son born in the kingship, Ælfweard, he followed his father to the grave within a month. Æthelstan then claimed the throne in 924. Or at least the throne of Mercia. The throne of Wessex did not come into his possession until September 925. The historical record seems clear that Æthelstan, having been raised in the Mercian court, was seen as a son of Mercia by the kingdom of Wessex, and that his accession to the throne was seen as the assertion of a Mercian hegemony. His status as an outsider in Wessex is further confirmed by his burial in Malmesbury as opposed to the traditional resting places of the Wessex line, Winchester or Glastonbury. Which returns us to the plot to have Æthelstan blinded by a nobleman of Wessex, thus negating his claim to that kingdom.
It is in relation to Alfred’s plot that William of Malmesbury first asserts Æthelstan’s illegitimacy, and unfortunately it is the first source of confusion for the unwary. William tells us that ‘the ground of this opposition, it is said, was Æthelstan’s origin as the son of a concubine.’ It is critical to note that William is reporting a rumour of Æthelstan’s birth and goes on to say ‘apart from this blemish (if indeed there is any truth in it), there was nothing ignoble about the man himself.’ William is clearly distancing himself from the tale of Æthelstan’s illegitimacy, indicating doubt as to its truthfulness, and locating it as the genesis for a wicked plot against a king who he goes on the extensively eulogise. Nonetheless, William delivers this line asserting a narrative of the king’s illegitimate birth within the opening sentences of the biography, and does not provide a counter-narrative within the material dedicated to Æthelstan’s reign. This factor, more than any other, has seen the ‘son of a concubine’ narrative become a dominant one in popular history. William’s identification of Ecgwynn as wife to Edward, mother to Æthelstan, and of a noble family, sits earlier within the Gesta as part of his biography of Edward the Elder – clearly William did not anticipate later generations reading any of the biographies in isolation.
The confusion as to Æthelstan’s legitimacy and early childhood is only enhanced later in the Gesta as William introduces legendary material and local oral tradition into his account. He precedes these passages with an explicit warning for his reader to be on guard, in which he claims no authority or credibility for that which he reports (for which he deserves some significant kudos as a historian):
What I have written of the king so far is perfectly trustworthy; what follows I have learnt more from popular songs which have suffered in transmission than from scholarly books written for the information of posterity. I have added it here not to defend its veracity, but in order not to keep any knowledge from my readers.
Gesta regum Anglorum, ii.138.2
After which William launches into a substantively hagiographical account of Æthelstan’s conception. His mother was a shepherd’s daughter who dreamt an omen in which her belly shone with ‘the brightness of the moon.’ This dream becoming common knowledge, the girl was adopted into a family who served the royal house whereupon she came to the attention of the prince Edward, who ‘asked whether he might sleep with her.’ Draw a discreet curtain over the scene and know that nine months later she gave birth to Æthelstan who ‘made her dream come true,’ as his kingly nature was immediately evident upon attaining adulthood. Both William’s statement that this tale came from popular songs, and the framework of the narrative, indicate a hagiographical tale that had developed as an oral account in local tradition. It is a tale designed to emphasise the innate virtues of a king who was important to the development of the Malmesbury area, not as a record of historical events.
So what can be said of Æthelstan’s childhood after this walk through William of Malmesbury’s account and the difficulties of interpreting it? Firstly, we can entirely dismiss the idea that Æthelstan was the illegitimate son of a concubine. Where represented in the Gesta, William reports it first as the product of malicious rumour, and then as the product of a hortatory local tradition. The likelihood seems that Ecgwynn was either dead by the time Edward ascended the Wessex throne, or set aside to enable Edward a more politically beneficial marriage as king. There is no account that pre-dates the Gesta that can confirm or negate either of these possibilities. The circumstantial evidence – that Æthelstan’s younger brother Ælfweard, born of Edward’s second marriage, was slated to succeed Edward – only supports the idea that Ælfweard’s birth to the ruling monarch, as opposed to a prince, gave him prior claim. Further, granted the Anglo-Saxon principle of elected kingship and Æthelstan’s upbringing in Mercia, the Wessex-raised Ælfweard may have seemed a more politically sound selection as king. If this indeed informed the decision to raise Ælfweard to the kingship, it was an astutely observed political concern, supported in the light of the subsequent difficulties Æthelstan seemed to have in asserting his kingship in Wessex.
Which leaves us with the core of William’s narrative. Æthelstan was the son of a legitimate union between Alfred’s son Edward and his noble wife Ecgwynn. Upon succeeding to the Wessex throne, Edward took a new wife and he sent his son to live with his sister Æthelflæd, thereby removing any potential family conflict while ensuring Æthelstan’s ongoing education, and augmenting the royal presence and Wessex dominance in the Mercian court. Little more can be said with confidence of Æthelstan’s youth. Though Edward’s first son born within his kingship was subsequently named as his successor, he died not long after Edward, and Æthelstan took on the kingship first of Mercia, then of Wessex and then, in 927, of Northumbria. At which point Æthelstan enters the historical record more fully and can make claim to be the first King of England, whatever his origins.
- Feature image: BL Royal MS 14 B VI – Æthelstan.
- R. R. Darlington and P. McGurk (eds.), The Chronicle of John of Worcester: The Annals from 450 – 1066, translated by Jennifer Bray and P. McGurk. 3 vols. Vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).
- David N. Dumville, Wessex and England from Alfred to Edgar: Six Essays on Political, Cultural, and Ecclesiastical Revival (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1992).
- Matthew Firth, ‘Constructing a King: William of Malmesbury and the Life of Æthelstan,’ Journal of the Australian Early Medieval Association, 13, (2017): 67-90.
- Matthew Firth, ‘Integration, Assimilation, Annexation: Æthelstan and the Anglo-Saxon Hegemony in York,’ Melbourne Historical Journal 45 (2011): 89-111.
- Sarah Foot, Æthelstan: The First King of England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).
- Michael Lapidge, ‘Some Latin Poems as Evidence for the Reign of King Athelstan,’ Anglo-Saxon England 10 (1981): 61 – 98.
- Michael Wood, ‘The Making of King Aethelstan’s Empire: an English Charlemagne?’ In Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society, edited by Patrick Wormald, 250 – 272 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983).
- Michael Wood, ‘”Stand strong against the monsters”: Kingship and learning in the empire of king Æthelstan,’ in Lay Intellectuals in the Carolingian World, edited by Patrick Wormald and Janet L. Nelson, 192 – 217 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
- William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum: The History of the English Kings: Volume I, edited and translated by R.A.B. Mynors, R.M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom. 2 vols. Vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).
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