47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on 12 March 2009
This fine account of a neglected (aren't they all?) figure in English history is also the story of how England came into being. The tale is not uncomplicated. Fortunately the author keeps the reader's interest with a great deal of fascinating and - for me at least - new information.
But then the elite does a wonderful job keeping us 'British'. Simon Schama's 'acclaimed' television history moved from Iron Age to Norman Conquest in one neat opening episode. David Dimbleby's 'Buildings of Britain' went further, reducing the first millennium to a brief aside about Hereward before getting down to the real business of celebrating the usurper.
Did you know that Kingston-upon-Thames boasts a ceremonial coronation stone upon which are said to have been crowned several Anglo-Saxons monarchs - including the great Athelstan?
Did you know the people of Kingston continue to celebrate Athelstan's life, and take pride in their Anglo-Saxon heritage (God bless 'em)? Paul Hill knew. As a former curator of the Kingston Museum he would. As for you, if you've heard of the stone of scone, or remember day-long BBC coverage of the its being processed back to scotland, that should tell you a lot.
The last of England could be traced to a patch of the Somerset Levels called Athelney during the late years of the 9th century. It was from Athelney that a King of the West Saxons, Alfred (whom scholars grudgingly agree deserved the title 'Great'), led his fightback against the Danish invader.
And not just Alfred. His daughter, Aelfleade or Elflaede, known to history as 'Lady of the Mercians', turned out something of a chip off the old block too, giving up sex and domesticity in favour of fortifying Mercian defences and commanding armies in the field. Elflaede it was who raised the young Aetheling (prince), Athelstan.
Anglo-Saxon attitudes to women were comparatively enlightened anyway, but this was a remarkable woman by any standards, and it seems likely she left her young charge in no doubt as to what would be expected of him in the years ahead. (Anyone interested in Elflaede might enjoy the historical novel, 'Lady of Mercia', by Penny Ingham).
Athelstan learned quickly. By the end of his short reign his reputation as a warrior king to be feared was established throughout Europe. Nor did he manage this by relying on armies of footsoldiers. Hill rejects the popular notion that Anglo-Saxon armies lacked mobility, demonstrating instead how lightening quick campaigns using mounted infantry - not cavalry - to track and overtake opponents actually earned the young monarch the name 'Thunderbolt'.
But more than just an astute military commander Athelstan was revered as a just ruler. He abolished the death penalty for offenders under the age of fifteen (those, at least, who did not resist arrest, though he wondered long and hard whether even this wasn't too cruel), an astonishing display of leniency for the period.
He was also implacable in his determination to unite 'Engla-lond', striving to promote a recognizably English sensibility by, for example, encouraging freemen to combine into Peace Guilds, thereby allowing whole communities to assume responsibility for fighting crime and helping to shape what we later came to know as the Common Law.
No book of this kind would be complete without a discussion of Brunanburh and Hill's is suitably detailed. Brunanburh is where Athelstan crushed a large army of scots, Vikings, irish, Dublin-Norse and Strathclyde welch, gathered there for the purpose of dislodging the English once and for all.
The location of this battle has never been fully ascertained (the likeliest candidate appears to be just outside Rotherham). All the various arguments are covered and, while the results are necessarily inconclusive, the author's handling of sometimes complicated material rarely fails to keep us with him.
The book includes a good selection of photographs. One I especially liked was of the statue of Elflaeda at Tamworth. Here the great lady is shown firmly clutching a sword while placing a reassuring arm around the shoulder of a young Athelstan. A picture said to be the tomb of Athelstan himself, this at Malmesbury Abbey, is equally well chosen.
Reservations about the book are few and slight. Athelstan's impact was felt throughout Britain, which presumably explains the title's reference to 'British' history, but I did question the supposed 'diversity' of first millennium England.
Scholarship allied to 21st century political box-ticking is tricky. Were Anglo-Danish populations really 'multicultural'? Did a monument pictured in an English high street in front of a building sporting Chinese characters really deserve a somewhat gratuitous reference to the country enjoying 'diversity' from early times to the present?
Danes, English and Norse were of the same race and quickly integrated. Indeed the faint suggestion that Danes somehow replaced the English needs to be sat on. 'Danelaw' was an administrative convenience. In areas settled by the Danish army (and in contrast to Anglo-Saxon invaders, who brought their own women and operated a system of apartheid) off-comers bred with pre-existing populations.
'Norman England' does not, for example, imply a country full of normans. It just tells us who ran things. Similarly while place-naming confirms substantial Danish influence throughout the eastern side of England these regions were never more than nominally 'Scandinavian'. We just never got round to altering the road signs. It is to the author's credit that he seems well aware how easy it is to be misled in this regard, adding as he does several caveats of his own.
'The Age of Athelstan' is part of a trilogy (other titles being 'The Road to Hastings' and 'Anglo-Saxons - The Verdict of History'). Until very recently out of print (I paid £40 not three months ago) the good news is that Amazon has it on sale again. Incredibly this volume appears to be the only full-length study of a critically important figure in England's history - a man many call the first 'King of the English'. If you can, buy it.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
This book makes quite a lot of hype about Athelstan, his times and "Britain's forgotten history." To some - and perhaps even to a large - extent, this is justified. It may even have been more justified some ten years ago when this book was first published, than it is nowadays. This is especially the case since Sarah Foot's scholarly book on the same topic has been published and I found it even better than this one. Nevertheless, this is also a good book. It is clear and well-written, but the case is not entirely convincing. This shows in the author's narrative.
Rather than writing a biography of King Athelstan, of even a book on King Athelstan and his times, Paul Hill has in fact come up with a history of the unification of England by the West Saxon Kings, from Alfred through Aethelred. Half of the book is about (the first hundred pages or so) Athelstan's predecessors and the last forty pages or so are about his successors so that in fact the reign of Athelstan himself only takes up about sixty pages or so, or some 30% of the total. There are several reasons for this.
One reason, which the author acknowledges, is the limited sources. Another reason, however, which the author chooses not to emphasise, is that the reign of Athelstan can hardly be considered on its own and needs to be considered as part of a continuum from Alfred to Aethelred. A related point here is that Alfred - Athelstan's grandfather - started the unification of what would become "England". Perhaps to be more accurate and to avoid the risk of hindsight and "second-guessing" (to which Paul Hill seems sometimes prone in this book), he made sure that Wessex survived the Viking onslaught and started to turn back the Viking tide. It is not quite sure as to whether he really intended to unify the whole England under his authority and if so, under what form. One reason for this uncertainty is that "England" ever since the Angles, Saxons and Jutes had arrived, had been made up of multiple kingdoms which had never been united before.
When compared to his grandfather, King Athelstan may appear to be "forgotten" to some extent, and one certainly does hear and learn much less about him. However, he is much better known than his warrior-father (Edward the Elder), despite the fact that it is Edward who conquered East Anglia and most of the Five Boroughs, and not Athelstan.
Athelstan is better remembered than his own father and most of his successors for several reasons.
One is that, like his grandfather and like Edgar, he is remembered for what he did for the Church, and remembered in a favourable way thanks to the Church.
Another major reason for Athelstan to be remembered is that he won the battle of Brunanburth against a coalition of his enemies. The author allows a lot of space to this battle, discusses it in detail and spends pages in making a case for the battle taking place on the East coast rather than the more commonly admitted West coast (not very far from Chester). However, he does not really underline what may be a much more important conclusion. By 937, Athelstan's kingdom had become so strong that he was able to fight and destroy a coalition grouping just about all of his enemies at the same time, something that none of his predecessors were able to do because they had not yet the power to do so. This is not to diminish King Athelstan in any way. He certainly was a talented warlord, warrior and sovereign. So was his father and, perhaps more importantly, so were the Lord and Lady of Mercia (his aunt), that is those who had taken care of his upbringing and education.
A third reason is the emphasis he put on his sovereignty, rather than what the author terms his "self-styled basilius" (or rather basileus) and the way he allegedly portrayed himself as "an emperor." In addition, the author also sees him as the first true King of the English, if not of the whole of England, where his predecessors only had this aspiration. Here also, Paul Hill seems to have perhaps exaggerated and over-interpreted a bit. Rather than an Emperor in the initial Carolingian sense, he seems to have been a powerful over-lord who imposed his domination on the other kings in the island, including the Welsh and Scots. Moreover, the future Kingdom of the English was far from unified when he died, as the author shows, however reluctantly, when discussing the reigns of his successors. They would be numerous revolts, and not only in the Danelaw and it would be in fact under Edgar that the Kingdom would really become unified.
Finally, there are yet two more reasons for King Athelstan's good press and it goes under what we would nowadays call his "economic policy" and laws, and his diplomacy. Here again, he was following precedents to some extent and amplifying them. Again, this is something that the author discusses quite a bit, mentioning in particular the increase in commerce and expanding burgh and ports, and his active diplomacy through the marriage of his sisters abroad and his fostering of the heir to the Carolingian Empire. What is not discussed, however, is the impact that this economic expansion and prosperity, which would continue under the next reigns and was largely due to trade with the Continent (and with Germany in particular), had on the military organisation and the burgh system in particular, that had served both his grandfather and father so well when the Saxons were fighting for survival.
To conclude, it is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration to claim that "the age of Athelstan" is "forgotten", for the reasons mentioned above. Nevertheless, I certainly recommend this very interesting book, although the reader will need to take some of the author's assertions with a "pinch of salt". Moreover, rather than recommending it as a reconstruction of "Athelstan life and times", I would rather recommend it for its evolving overview of Anglo-Saxon England from Alfred to Aethelred the Ill-Advised. Four stars.
For those wanting to read more on some of Alfred's successors, I can also recommend, in addition to Sarah Foot's book on Athelstan, the two following ones:
- Edward the Elder, a collection of some 22 scholarly studies on various aspects of his reign (edited by N. Higham and D. Hill, 2001)
- Edgar, King of the English by Peter Rex. Note that there is also a recent collection of studies on King Edgar.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This is a well researched, well written, very readable work spoiled by inadequate maps with much of the place name wording so small that even exceptionally well sighted readers will need a magnifying glass to read them. Worse still, some of the important place names mentioned in the text cannot be found on the maps even with the help of a strong lens. This is such a shame in a work that is so enjoyable to read.
It's important for would be purchasers to realise that the author, Paul Hill, is writing about the AGE of Athelstan and not just about his life and reign. In fact, the book covers most of the Tenth Century in Anglo-Saxon England. Although Athelstan was king for little more than 14 years, his achievements during that relatively short time were immense. Besides being King of all England, he was also recognised as overlord of both Wales and Scotland.. Although the Scots, assisted by Danish and Norwegian Vikings, assembled a large army against Athelstan in 937, his English army inflicted a crushing defeat upon them, thus strengthening his overlord-ship of the whole island. The extraordinary thing is that the precise location of this historic battle is not known other than it was fought somewhere in the north of England.
Althelstan's legacy reached its zenith in a golden age from 959-975 under his first cousin once removed, King Edgar, known as 'Edgar the Pacific.' It was during this century that England became a well governed, rich prize, the envy of other lands. Athelstan was the son of Edward the Elder, the son of Alfred the Great, but through an illegitimate liaison with Edward's mistress Ecgwynn. Athelstan never married and was succeeded as king by his half-brother Edmund, another illegitimate son of Edward the Elder by another mistress, Eadgifu, in 940.
This work encourages us to envisage how it truly came about that the English nation developed in the way it did. I've read elsewhere how Edward III in the Fourteenth Century is 'the father of the English nation.' Not only is this utter nonsense, it's an insult to kings Alfred, Athelstan and Edgar and to the great Queen Aethelflaed. These were the true founders of the English nation who shaped the English way of doing things so strongly that not even William the Conqueror could snuff it out. In fact, it was easy for him. All he had to do was to govern England through the excellent system that already existed as is made clear in the two Domesday books. Edward III was more concerned with conquering large chunks of France, concocting chivalric nonsense out of a legendary King Arthur and robbing England of her true patron saint, Saint Edmund, replacing this historical figure with a legendary George, killer of a mythical dragon. The real life exploits of Athelstan and his contemporaries are far more excitingly inspiring than any of these legends. This book is a great read.
PS The original flag of England, before Edward III landed us with Saint George, is a white griffin on a red background and is available from all good flag makers. I own one.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 21 November 2009
Athelstan was one of the first English kings, but nobody seems to have heard of him today in contrast to other kings of around his time such as Alfred The Great and Athelred the Unready. He achieved a big victory in 937 at an, as yet unconfirmed, location which secured the current kingdom of England for future generations.
Not much is actually know of him apart from what can be derived from the remaining fragmentary sources. Novertheless the book is quite infomrative and gives good background information on this period. Readers expecting a biography of Athelstan should note that this is note such a book; rather it gives an overview of events from roughly the time of Alfred the Great to the early 11th century, albeit that there is a focus on Athelstand's time (he died in AD939).
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 8 August 2010
Doesn't quite do what it says on the tin.
Primarily a military history of the wars between the various factions struggling for dominance. And competent enough given the sketchy sources available. But I had hoped to begin to understand a lot more about 'The Age of Athelstan' than just this aspect, important though it undoubtedly is.
A better title would more accurately reflect the book's nature...but then I probably wouldn't have bought it. So 3 stars only.
4 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 30 September 2012
Paul Hill is clearly an enthusiast and equally as clearly an amateur.
There are possibly a couple of interesting pamphlets hidden in this book, but it contains much baffling material. For example, there is a discussion on Anglo-Saxon horse breeding practice based on a sliver of documentary evidence that leads to no useful conclusion whatever. Many of the illustrations illustrate 19th and 20th century commemorations of Anglo-Saxon events, but there is no consistent discussion of why and how Victorian and Edwardian England took up "anglo-saxonism" and in any case this would seem to run against the thesis that this part of Britain's history was "forgotten". There are tiny points scored - Mr Hill obviously feels he has an important view on the banning of sheepskin covers on shields, but he failed to make this reader care.
Much of this book intends to set the context for Athelstan by providing a history of the Anglo-Saxons, but there are other books that do this better.
The promised centrepiece on the location of the Battle of Brunanburh is not very exciting or even interesting. The wikipedia article is as useful and a lot shorter.
In sum: avoidable.
on 29 September 2014
4 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 1 April 2010
I bought this book after showing a passing interest into the battle of Brunanburh and its whereabouts.After scouring the web for hours on end and coming up with the same information again and again, this book proved to be a mine of information which took me to different websites following leads given by the author.
Having lived in Burnley all my life, i was baffled that no information was freely given or indeed taught to myself while at school about this supposedly "local" battle.
A battle that, in my mind, is as important if not more so than Hastings.This battle united the English people under one King for the first time in history and helped lay the foundations for a "new and improved" government of England.
"The Age Of ATHELSTAN...."is a tribute to a King who is barely mentioned between the leaving of the Romans and the Norman invasion. His Grandfather, Alfred The Great attempted to unite the Kingdom, with some success...but did not totally achieve his goal. Only Athelstan,a true warrior King could. Through his leadership,not only military but socially did he make his mark on history.A mark that is regrettably almost forgotten.
Athelstan is an English "William Wallace" come "Robert the Bruce" figure, and should be remembered accordingly.His name should inspire and empower and not be unknown.We rarely have heroes, lets not forget this one.
Paul Hill has put together a most informative and enjoyable book that should satisfy anybody's thirst for Anglo-Saxon/English history,and hopefully endear Athelstan to his rightful place in history....that of Athelstan the first King of England.
14 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on 23 March 2005
Well written, intresting, inspiring. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and would recommend to anybody.