Who was King Athelstan? And why does Ed Davey admire him?

Have you even heard of him?

Ask any child in the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames (there is a clue in the name) and they will tell you that he was the first of the seven Saxon kings who were crowned in Kingston. In fact, one of the primary schools is named after him.

We even have a Coronation stone where he is thought to have been ceremonially placed, although it has now been moved to a spot outside the Guildhall.

In a recent edition of the BBC History Magazine Ed Davey picked King Athelstan as his historical hero. Unfortunately the article is behind a paywall, but you can read the first half here. So why did he choose him?

Athelstan’s coronation took place in 925 and was highly significant because for the first time he united the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex. He was the first to be known as the King of the English. He later added northern Britain to his kingdom.

Kingston upon Thames was already a significant market town. It stood at the boundary of the two kingdoms with a very important river bridge between them – the first bridge upstream from London Bridge.

The Coronation is thought to have taken place in a church which was later replaced by the large Norman church of All Saints. Athelstan could be said to have invented the Coronation ceremony itself, using a ceremonial crown for the first time, a sarsen stone as his throne, and including text that still forms the basis of modern Coronation services.

All Saints Kingston has its own fascinating history, but it proudly proclaims itself as “Where England Began“.

The site of Athelstan’s coronation lies within Ed’s Kingston and Surbiton constituency. He writes:

What made him a hero? He was a sophisticated person: a man of culture, a law-maker, a military leader of some substance and the first king to try to impose one coinage for all of England. He was seen as almost the English Charlemagne.

What was Æthelstan’s finest hour? First and foremost, being the first monarch who could really be called the king of the English – Rex Anglorum – something that could not be said of either Alfred the Great or Edward the Elder. Secondly, his victory at the battle of Brunanburh (the exact location of which remains unknown) over a Viking-led coalition. But for that triumph, the English nation might not have survived and would almost certainly not have developed culturally into the country we know today. And thirdly, his importance as both a law-maker and a great benefactor of the church.

Æthelstan or Athelstan (or Adelstan, as in the photo)? In Kingston we have mainly adopted the modern spelling of Athelstan – just think of the difficulties for that school if its name contained a letter that is not on current keyboards – although the Saxon version does appear on historical sites. His name should be better known, and maybe it will be after Kingston celebrates the 1100th anniversary of his Coronation next year.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Athelstan ?……. Trailing your coat a bit there, Mary.

    “In 934, he invaded Scotland and forced Constantine II to submit to him. Æthelstan’s rule was resented by the Scots and Vikings, and in 937 they invaded England”.

    He didn’t last long – Athelstan was dead two years later so not a paradigm example of how to do it or to be admired…….. never got much of a mention in Huddersfield & Bradford in my young days…….. and, as a son of York living in Scotland I’m not impressed with a policy based on temporary short term gains.

  • According to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scandinavian_York) it was not until 954 and the Wessex King Edgar that the Kingdom of York finally became part of ‘England’. The battle of Stanmore might be more significant for English unity than the battle of Brunanburh. Also it was not until King William II in the 1090s that Cumberland and Westmorland were united in the English kingdom.

  • @Michael BG and @David Raw – yes, the history is more complex than I could cover in a short post. But King Edgar was also crowned in Kingston. The “Where England Began” tag refers to a period of time, not a single event.

  • Phil Gilchrist 15th Feb '24 - 10:47pm

    Mary mentioned that the site of the battle is not known. There are historians who have made the case for a site along the Great North Road (Mike Wood) . It happens that the area of Wirral (the peninsula between the River Dee and the River Mersey) is considered as a strong candidate for the site. The Wirral place name ‘Bromborough’ , with the area to the north and west, towards the Irish Sea , has been put forward for some years now. Amateur archaeologists have, in recent years, been exploring potential sites here. There is a range of place names in Wirral, ending in ‘by’ that stand out with names as Viking settlements As a Lib Dem councillor here in Wirral, with over 44 years on the council, I say that we have a good case. Work on putting that together continues.

  • Of course, the love of Athelstan might not extend the length and breadth of the British Isles. Please remember that to many of us, Celts, the land that is now ‘England’ was once inhabited by our ancestors before the angles etc came across the channel and dug in (oh the irony!). And what you might assume, at first glance, to be lost Scots lands might very well be lost Welsh lands instead.

    Incidentally, the kingdom of Scots was formed long before anything like the modern English state … are we celebrating Kenneth McAlpin too?

  • It is not a “d” in the spelling but one of two Old English ways of spelling the sound “th”.

  • @John Mc – I am half Welsh and share your pain. As I said before – this is not a comprehensive history of the founding of England, nor of its relevance within the British Isles.

  • As Ambighter says, that’s not a “D” that’s an “Д or “eth”.

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