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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on 4 February 2012
At last a comprehensive analysis of Athelstan and the early 10th Century.
There is nothing else like this book for its comprehensive coverage, coins, charters, continental sources, chronicles, letters etc.
Seems like a lifetime's work, this must be Sarah Foot's magnum opus - or can there be more to come about Anglo-Saxon Britain?
I look forward to that.
many thanks
PS Wouldn't it be great if Michael Wood ever got round to publishing his work on Athelstan. I've just listened to 90 mins of his inspiring lecture at Newcastle University available at
[...]
PPS also worth listening to the author, Sarah Foot and others talking with Melvyn Bragg BBC Radio 4 iplayer
[...]
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 30 September 2013
First, some background to my purchase of this book. I knew virtually nothing of this period in English history, and had no real interest, until I watched Michael Wood's superb TV series "Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons". This was riveting stuff; most people know of Alfred (the cake burner), but his son Edward the Elder, daughter Aethelflaed (Lady of the Mercians), and grandson Aethelstan? No chance. I needed to know more, so having scanned what was available I chose this.

This book did the job admirably. It's quite densely printed, quite lengthy and needed persistence to get through in a reasonable time. Given the relative paucity of hard facts that have survived from the 10th century, maybe, just maybe, the book is padded out a little, but hey, what do I know?

A fascinating and scholarly work, and a super introduction to a little-known king who was hugely important in the birth of modern England.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 21 July 2014
Superb scholarship and a fluid writing style, make this the most authoritative account of the life and achievements of this highly significant Anglo-Saxon king in print today. Athelstan had no contemporary biographer (as Alfred the Great did) and, consequently is far less famous amongst the general public. This account, written by a foremost Anglo-Saxon expert, provides an impressive and meticulously researched academic analysis of this important ruler. This will, no doubt, be the account of Athelstan that will last a generation.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 1 June 2013
For those of us interested in the Saxon Age in England King Athelstan is an important monarch to study. The ability to bring the king alive cannot have been easy when most of the writings of the time tell little about the person and more about the position. However the book provided fascinating glimpses of the man who as a boy was sent away to live with his aunt: The Lady of the Mercia. The warrior who protected and enlarged his kingdom and did not marry: perhaps in order to avoid chaos after his death? Perhaps he would have rather been a monk?
As I am trying to write fiction about Athelstan's era I can only thank Sarah Foot for adding to my knowledge and perceptions of a great but largely forgotten king.
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22 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on 14 December 2011
If one ignores the claims of Bretwaldas (Ethelbert of Kent, Edwin of Northumbria, Offa of Mercia and Egbert of Wessex) who should be styled `King of England'. In pre-Conquest England there are, perhaps, four claimants. However, Alfred (871-99) may have `saved England' but he certainly had no claim over much more than the southern shires. His son, Edward the Elder (899-924) extended his control northwards but, whatever panegyrists might have produced, never had control over Northumbria which remained firmly in the grip of the Danes. In her first-rate biography of 'thelstan (924-39) Sarah Foote puts forward the claim of her subject with strong support.

'thelstan was the eldest child of Edward the Elder's first marriage but appears to have been pushed down the pecking order by the progeny of that king's two subsequent marriages. Indeed, Sarah Foote asserts that 'thelstan spent his early years with his aunt, 'thlflaeda, and her husband who were in charge of those parts of Mercia controlled Edward the Elder. Luck removed 'thelstan's most serious rival by the death of his eldest half-brother, 'lfweard, within weeks of their father. 'thelstan managed to shrug off whatever coups (threatened or actual) were made against him over the next fifteen years. He was to be succeeded by a half-brother, Edmund, the eldest of the third marriage.

After an overview of the reign, Sarah Foote looks more closely at his family. Clearly actual sources are in short supply and much of her effort is concerned with examining the products of post-Conquest annalists (especially William of Malmesbury) in the light of evidence from sources, such as charters and archaeology, more in vogue with post-Victorian historians. Unlike his father, 'thelstan didn't marry off female relatives to Englishmen but used them to forge useful links with foreign rulers. His practice of fostering sons of foreign rulers served much the same purpose. Significantly, Sarah Foote attaches a discussion of the `household' within the chapter on Family, exploiting whatever remains among the sources to explore its composition.

A chapter on the Court follows, demonstrating its itinerant nature, although 'thelstan rarely stirred beyond the boundaries of West Sussex, making the magnates come to him. At the kernel of the system was what the author argues was a royal writing office, exerting control through a proliferation of charters etc.- although the reader is warned of later forgeries distorting the genuine activities of 'thelstan. The author notes the activity of `'thelstan A' as a key participant in this expansion of legal activity. The lofty tone so often adopted in governmental documentation may be part of this trend, but how much of that merely stems from Carolingian models?.

Sarah Foote argues the coronation ceremonial typical of the pre-Conquest court originated during this period, with 'thelstan adopting emblems (e.g. a crown) beyond the warlike symbols of his predecessors. Again this is following continental developments which, in turn, aped Byzantine and Roman practices.
The King's international contacts are stressed, marking him out during a chaotic 10th century. Later the structure of the King's council, later to develop into the Witan, with similar bodies at a lower level are examined. Sarah Foote stresses the blending of both personnel (Saxon, Mercian and even Danish) and function, with their discussions involving both lay and clerical matters. 'thelstan's government is linked with the emerging tithing system and that other typical medieval institution, trial by ordeal, makes its first appearance `in terms which demonstrate clearly the extent to which this was a liturgical as well as a judicial ceremony' (P.147). Religion likewise guided 'thelstan's urge to protect his people, although sanctions against thieves etc. had to be toned down as they were undermined by realism' 'thelstan's coinage, copying Roman models, was perhaps the finest in western Europe, based on the affluence of a realm well-ordered despite its diversity.

Sarah Foote considers the Church, indicating how much 'thelstan recruited bishops from within his own household - a practice increasingly common throughout the Middle Ages. She eschews a study of contemporary religious practices, soon to fall under the influence of Cluny, because this is a BIOGRAPHY and not a history of England. The King proved a generous benefactor to the Church - books, equipment and land - as a devotional son. Indeed, the author does point out how 'thelstan's international contacts assisted such later reforms - and also the attendance at court of two of its later exponents, Dunstan (perhaps) and 'thelwold. Associated with such trends were other aspects of Court life such as the poets cultivated by the King and Sarah Foote teasingly suggests `Beowulf'' may have been produced there - surely stretching the picture too far. As a by-product of this naturally the fascination in relics by 'thelstan and his peers is closely examined; also his devotion and interest in English saints such as the 7th century Oswald and Cuthbert (both northerners!).

Because this is a BIOGRAPHY there is little reference to military equipment, tactics or organisation when dealing with warfare, although repeatedly 'thelstan's reputation as a successful military leader is mentioned. The two major campaigns in Scotland (934) and at Brunanburh (937) are well covered, considering the poverty of sources - which even means that Brunanburh, one of the major battles in British history has no agreed location, Sarah Foote places it in Cheshire after a careful analysis. Perhaps it has been his military reputation which has largely kept alive the memory of this `lord of nobles, dispenser of treasure to men'.

So what are the weaknesses of the work. They derive from the nature of the subject, still largely shrouded in obscurity. It may be interesting to find details about 'thelstan's whereabouts (see Appendix 2 ofr a complete list), for example: `......the king had brought the court back to the south by early in the autumn; on 13 September 934 at his vill at Buckingham he granted land in Wiltshire to one of his thegns.'(p.167) But what else was going on? We can never know so a fluid narrative, present in royal biographies such as those of Edward II or Henry VIII, is missing. The use of Old English orthography (e.g. the `thorn' for `th') or spelling of proper names (e.g. 'lfthryth or 'thelred) although academically correct does help comprehension. It remains a biography for the student rather than the general reader but easily deserves 4 stars..
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 14 November 2013
I have to give this book 5 stars because of the amount of research that has gone into it. But if you are looking for a general history on Aethelstan this book may not be for you. This book anlayzes all the evidence thoroughly which can make it slow going. This book not only states theories and facts about Aethelstan but explains, in detail, the evidence used to come to those conclusions. To know everything there probably is to know about Aethelstan I doubt this book can be bettered. For such an important monarch in English history a crucial piece of work.
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on 2 June 2014
Hearing a lot about this a a Society of St Boniface I have belonged to for 34 years Good to get such an impressive overview of that period. Worth every penny Thank you Sarah.
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on 6 June 2014
We needed more detail on this man. The book gave it to us in spades. A fascinating man, we thought
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on 29 December 2014
A massively appreciated Xmas present
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15 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on 15 July 2011
This well researched, well written book gives comprehensive coverage to the life and times of King Athelstan including information not readily available elsewhere.
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