Northern Ambitions – Æthelstan and the Annexation of York and Northumbria

On the death of Sihtric, the Danish King of York, in 927, King Æthelstan seized control of the Viking Kingdom of York. It was an event reasonably early in his reign, Æthelstan had only come to the throne of Mercia in 924 and of Wessex in 925. In 926 he had sought a peaceful co-existence with York and Northumbria, marrying his sister to Sihtric, but with the Dane dying less than a year later, things didn’t go according to plan.

Clearly, we’re back with Æthelstan today. Specifically, I’m going to look at his annexation of north-eastern England – York and the region of Northumbria. Chronologically, in previous articles I have worked through Æthelstan’s youth, and his (potentially) troubled succession to the throne of Wessex (I’ve also published an article on the reliability of our key source for these early years of Æthelstan’s life). So, we’re moving the narrative forward today. Originally, my intent was to do this via the medium of a charter (like our article on Æthelstan and Malmesbury Abbey). The grant of land in question, contained in a charter known as S407, gifts lands at a place called Amounderness to the church of St Peter, York. It provides interesting evidence of Æthelstan’s methods of territorial and political control. But I am going to save that for my next article. You see, I started writing up the context we needed in order to be able to understand the content and strategy behind that charter and, as it grew and grew, I realised that what I had written a full-length article looking at how Æthelstan assumed control of the northern territories without ever getting to the charter! So we’ll stick with the annexation of the Kingdom of York and territories today.

Æthelstan’s ability to concern himself with the territories on his northern borders rested to a large degree on the achievements of his father and grandfather. In 927 Æthelstan found himself in charge of a political stable territory, able to draw freely on the military strength of both Wessex and Mercia. Only forty-years earlier, viking-invaders had occupied Mercia, invaded Wessex and driven Alfred, the king of Wessex and Æthelstan’s grandfather, into exile. Alfred successfully pushed back against the invaders and, by the end of his reign, had established a defensive system that put his territories in good stead to defend against future attacks. From this platform, Alfred’s son and Æthelstan’s father, Edward ‘the Elder’ further built the power and influence of Wessex. His sister Æthelflæd had married the ‘Lord of Mercia’ c. 887 as a means to creating an alliance and functioning relationship between the two kingdoms (which will be something of a theme). When Æthelflæd’s husband died in 911 she simply took control of Mercia. Working together, the royal siblings were then able to use their combined political and military might to claim territories from the autonomously governed regions of Scandinavian settlement in East Anglia and the southern Danelaw, up the Humber River. When Æthelflæd herself died, Edward simply absorbed Mercia under the Wessex crown. With these foundations laid by his grandfather, father, and aunt, Æthelstan found himself in charge of a centralised Anglo-Saxon kingdom that spanned most of southern England (though I will add Æthelstan and Cornwall to my list of articles to write) which granted him political and military ascendency. Moreover, expansion had become something of a habit at this point; Wessex had become accustomed to territorial growth and dominance over its neighbours. So, with this all in mind, it is somewhat unsurprising to find Æthelstan turning his eyes north of the Humber to the lands of the Scandinavian King in York.

It seems that, in 926 though, Æthelstan was not quite ready to turn his military power toward the annexation of York. He sought a diplomatic relationship with the kingdom through which he could bring political influence to bear. It is unclear whether this was due to his uncertainly regarding his military power so early in his reign, whether he found Sihtric to be a man who he could work with, or whether he genuinely just sought peace and stability, not territory. However, with the model of his aunt’s marriage into the Mercian court and the successful addition of that territory into the hegemony of the Wessex kings before him, Æthelstan saw an opportunity. For his first attempt to meddle in northern politics, Æthelstan sought to insinuate his own sister into the court of his rival.

We won’t go into this marriage in a great deal of depth as Sihtric did not long survive his wedding. Suffice it to say that Sihtric travelled to Tamworth to make the deal, which at first glance indicates a subordinance to Æthelstan’s kingship, yet it was only Æthelstan who, in sending his sister north, made a tangible commitment to their alliance. Undoubtedly, Æthelstan saw a great opportunity here to have a member of his family in the court of York to influence policy, intercede on his behalf, and pass information along. However, Sihtric’s death less than a year after the alliance of York left Æthelstan’s sister a politically isolated and vulnerable member of Anglo-Saxon royalty in a foreign city. This both necessitated that Æthelstan pursued different policies towards the north, and provided him with an excuse to invade York. All of which said, there is little support in the extant accounts of the military occupation of York to suggest Æthelstan was engaging in a calculated and pre-planned program of annexation. Indeed, it rather looks like Æthelstan was just reacting to events as they unfolded. Sihtric’s death left a power-vacuum in York, and his death saw an end to Æthelstan’s connection and influence in that court. Those Danes who claimed to be in Sihtric’s line of succession had no kinship ties to the house of Wessex and, as such, Æthelstan’s plan to wield influence in the north through his sister was undone in the moment that the King of York died. Æthelstan undertook the politically sensible move in reacting quickly to the power-vacuum by bringing York under his direct control.

The details of Æthelstan’s annexation of York differs between chronicles. The D-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle just goes for it when it describes Æthelstan’s rise to power, ‘In this year appeared fiery lights in the northern quarter of the sky,’ but on the matter of the northern conquest is a little dull, ‘Sihtric died, and King Æthelstan succeeded to the kingdom of the Northumbrians.’ The implication of the text is an uncontested and seamless absorption of the Yorkish crown. We have to consider our source though. The D-text can be considered the most contemporary manuscript of the Chronicle, both in terms of time and location. This manuscript has some significant variation from other extant version of the Chronicle. It was maintained in York, shows an overt interest in northern affairs, and was far from the centralised Anglo-Saxon administration to the south, so less susceptible to the meddling of politically driven narratives (and silences). Indeed, almost every other version of the Chronicle is silent on the events of the year 927. This makes it difficult to assess what political filters were applied to the narrative of the D-text during the Anglo-Saxon ascendancy in York – we have no basis of comparison. Looking at the length of Æthelstan’s reign, if we take the northern oriented D-text out of the equation, the Chronicle narrative moves from the campaigns of Æthelstan’s predecessor to those of his successor, Edmund, with little attention paid to Æthelstan’s campaigns in the north. It seems possible this was an attempt by Edmund to disguise his own failures in the north in the early years of his reign – York fell to the Danes rather quickly after Æthelstan’s death. What this does meand for the D-text though is that it was being recorded in a region outside of Edmund’s control, thereby making it impossible for him to repress Æthelstan’s Northumbrian campaigns in that document. Thus, some detail entered into the records of York. There is, however, one interesting if very brief statement for 927 in the E-text of the Chronicle: ‘In this year King Æthelstan drove out Guthfrith.’

I’m only going to look at Guthfrith briefly. This is supposed to be a sketch of events after all, and Guthfrith is more important to the history of Viking Dublin than Viking York. A few of our regional chronicles indicate that Guthfrith Sihtric’s son and that he had acceded the throne of York at Sihtric’s death. Returning to our old friend, William of Malmesbury, the monk-historian provides significant detail for the event, though notably diverges from other accounts, removing any concept that Guthfrith was truly ‘driven out’ by any Anglo-Saxon military operation in York. In this version of events, Guthfrith never took the throne of York, fleeing instead to Scotland upon Sihtric’s death, followed by Æthelstan’s envoys who sought to treating with the King of Scots. Realising Scotland was not safe Guthfrith gathered some supporters and attempted to besiege York. It didn’t work, so he legged it again, though eventually gave up, attending Æthelstan’s court in order to surrender himself. Interestingly, William indicates that the Anglo-Saxon court received Guthfrith honourably, and spared him any punishment, perhaps indicating Æthelstan’s desire to project a positive image to the subjects of his newly acquired city. In yet another narrative, the Annals of Ulster indicate that Guthfrith was not in York at the time of Sihtric’s death; making his bid for the throne of York with an invading fleet from Dublin, Guthfrith ‘returned again within six months.’ William’s account and that of the Annals are not necessarily exclusive and the events detailed by William may reflect the truth of that six-month campaign. In the end though, Guthfrith’s actions cannot be known with any certainty. What we can say with some confidence is that he was the only named Danish claimant on the throne, and Æthelstan quickly brushed the threat aside to subsume York into his new kingdom of England.

So I think we’ll leave it there.

In my next article I’ll take a good, hard look at S406, the grant of land at Amounderness. The value of this charter resides not only in the evidence of Æthelstan’s patronage of the religious institutions of York, but in the additional detail of where he granted the land and to whom he granted it. It was a region shared a border with Mercia and had a shoreline facing Ireland – control of the region both protected the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from those of the north, and broke up the Dublin-York axis of Scandinavian movement. Yet Æthelstan did not seek challenge the traditional hegemony of York, rather removing the region from secular control by handing it to the archbishop of York ‘that the bishop may hold it without the yoke of hateful servitude.’ It seems pretty clear that Æthelstan recognised exerting direct regnal control over Northumbria was not practical or desirable. By placing the (extensive) lands within Northumbria under the control of the church, Æthelstan gained favour from an alternative power-base to that of secular lordship, and also ensured a strategically important region was held friendly hands. Considered alongside the Chronicle this grant of land provides compelling contemporary evidence of Æthelstan’s political program in the north. But that is for a different day.

-Matt Firth

References:

  1. Feature image: Æthelstan presents book to S. Cuthbert, Cambridge Corpus Christi MS 183, f. 1v.
  2. The Electronic Sawyer– Online catalogue of Anglo-Saxon Charters
  3. Clare Downham, ‘The Chronology of the Last Scandinavian Kings of York, AD 937 – 954,’ Northern History 40 (No. 1, 2003): 25 – 51.
  4. Matthew Firth, ‘Integration, Assimilation, Annexation: Æthelstan and the Anglo-Saxon Hegemony in York,’ Melbourne Historical Journal 45 (2011): 89-111.
  5. Sarah Foot, Æthelstan: The First King of England(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).
  6. 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).
  7. A. Woodman (ed.), Charters of the Northern Houses, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  8. Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 789 – 1070, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

A Case of Clerical Diplomacy – King Æthelstan and the Church in York

A Case of Clerical Fraud – King Æthelstan and Malmesbury Abbey

Shrouded in Rumour – The Lost Childhood of King Æthelstan

When Justice Cost an Arm & a Leg – The Mutilated Body in Medieval Anglo-Scandinavian Law

See our bibliographies on the Æthelstan and Chronicle Editions

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7 thoughts on “Northern Ambitions – Æthelstan and the Annexation of York and Northumbria”

  1. Fantastic stuff Matt – will we be hearing about the diplomatic dance of the Community of St Cuthbert in the next installment?

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    1. Thanks, Shane. I think the next instalment will focus rather heavily on the grant at Amounderness and the church at York, as it will lead into a discussion of the ABY Wulfstan (who will lead into a discussion of practical/divided loyalties). Those should be enough rabbit-holes to be getting on with!

      St Cuthberts could be a good option for the one after – must do some reading!

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