I’m a big fan of Tom Holland. His book Rubicon (following after Robert Harris’ Cicero series) was a large part of what got me back into reading about history. I was a bit surprised then to find this book in the library, having managed to completely miss it. Part of the Penguin Monarchs series, it’s a beautifully presented hard-back book of only 90 or so pages.
The book is largely a discussion of the work that Athelstan (king 924 to 939) did to unify the Anglo-Saxon and Viking kingdoms into a single English kingdom. As such it starts from the roots of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, and it is surprisingly far through the book before Athelstan rears his head. As the book concludes this pacing makes sense; although the existence of a single English kingdom seems simple now, it is something that was never inevitable and often a struggle. This wasn’t concluded in one generation, it was the culmination of work by Athelstan’s predecessors – Edward the Elder and Alfred the Great. All three of these kings struggled with succession, other brothers and cousins laid strong claims to the Kingdom or parts thereof. The single English kingdom could have easily fragmented before it was even born.
Also facing this was the idea of Britain as a whole: the Scots had the kingdom of Alba, a gaelic term referring to the whole island; while the Welsh had prophecies about their reclaiming their old lands across the island. After wars in Scotland, Athelstan was proclaimed “rex totius Britanniae”, King of all Britain, in addition to his title “Rex Anglorum”, King of England. One of these would stick and one would not. As England formed as a single entity, so would Scotland and Wales.
Athelstan is often left as a postscript to the story of King Alfred. It’s good to see him and his achievements presented and discussed in this way, as a crucial period in shaping Britain.