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Athelstan: The First King of England Yale English Monarchs (The English Monarchs Series) Paperback – 17 Aug 2012
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"[An] enthralling work of historical detection....In the pages of this remarkable biography--a work suffused with a rare empathy--AEthelstan emerges as a character of flesh and blood."--Hywel Williams, "Times Literary Supplement"--Hywel Williams"Times Literary Supplement" (09/30/2011)
"[A] compelling new biography....Foot manages to construct a remarkably clear vision of this king who deserves to be more widely known."--David Musgrove, "BBC History Magazine (Books of the Year)"--David Musgrove"BBC History Magazine (Books of the Year)" (12/01/2011)
"[An] outstanding biography....From a wide range of sources....Foot has pieced together a narrative that speaks of the realities of a vanished world.....Foot has amassed and arranged the evidence for AEthelstan life with great skill and flair....a triumph of historiography that celebrates a life rich in spiritual, intellectual and martial endeavor. Revisionary, thoughtful, beautifully written and exhaustively researched, this biography of AEthelstan is set to become a classic."--Helen Fulton, "Times Higher Education"--Helen Fulton"Times Higher Education" (09/22/2011)
"[A] definitive and comprehensive study that fully does justice to AEthelstan for the first time."--Nicholas Orme, "Church Times"--Nicholas Orme"Church Times" (11/18/2011)
"[An] enthralling work of historical detection. . . . In the pages of this remarkable biography--a work suffused with a rare empathy--AEthelstan emerges as a character of flesh and blood."--Hywel Williams, "Times Literary Supplement"--Hywel Williams"Times Literary Supplement" (09/30/2011)
'Sarah Foot's "AEthelstan" is a major achievement of scholarship which draws back into the light England's most unjustly forgotten king. By examining AEthelstan in the various environments in which he lived and operated rather than through a more traditional chronological framework, Foot creates for the reader a persuasive portrait of a complex man - a pious and intellectual warrior king - who overcame a difficult childhood and disputed succession to become one of tenth-century Europe's most powerful and successful rulers.' - Richard Abels, author of "Alfred the Great: War, Culture and Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England"
'In "AEthelstan", Sarah Foot presents most successfully a remarkably vibrant portrait of a king whose visage has been clouded for many of us far too long.' - Patrick Conner
'Here at last is a biography doing full justice to one of the most important, but least remembered, Anglo-Saxon laymen: Sarah Foot comes as close as anyone can to interpreting AEthelstan's enigmatic personality and varied achievements.' - John Blair, author of "The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society"
"AEthelstan was perhaps the most important king of tenth-century England, but we know very little about him, and he has no modern biography. Sarah Foot triumphantly fills this gap, and adds to the richness of our understanding of the period in a way that few others have managed." - Chris Wickham, author of "The Inheritance Of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000"--Christopher Wickham
'Sarah Foot's impressive portrait of AEthelstan is very well grounded, and informed at every turn by her command of the available "literary" sources, of the evidence of archaeology and art-history, and of course by her own judgment and imagination. She brings many fresh insights and new perspectives to our understanding of AEthelstan's reign, and shows why he can be hailed as the first king of all the English peoples.' - Simon Keynes, University of Cambridge
About the Author
Sarah Foot is Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Christ Church, Oxford, and a foremost scholar of tenth-century history.
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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.
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
'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..
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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