The Athelstan Myth (1916)

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Author(s): Alexander. J. J.; Year published: 1916; Origin: DA Transactions; Pages: 174-179
Topic(s): Anglo-Saxon, Athelstan, and history; Location(s): Cornwall and Exeter

By J. J. Alexander, M.A., J.P.
(Read at Plymouth, 19th July, 1916.)

The personality of Athelstan, eldest grandson of Alfred the Great, is for students of history a singularly attractive one. He seems to have inherited many of Alfred’s noble qualities: his piety, his humility, his fortitude, his sympathy with learning, his devotion to the welfare of England and the happiness of its people.

Unfortunately, however, the accounts of his reign which have been preserved are all too scanty; and, as is usual with national heroes whose careers have not been adequately recorded, tradition has been busy with his name, and has ascribed to him deeds which he probably never performed and never even attempted to perform.

Let us sum up briefly what we learn about Athelstan from the most authentic sources, the early chronicles¹ and the charters of his time.² He was born about 895, some five years before the death of Alfred. He succeeded his father, Edward the Elder, in August or early in September, 924. He died on 27th October, 940.

1. A.-S. Chronicles; Ethelwerd; Florence of Worcester: William of Malmesbury; Simeon of Durham.
2. Birch CS. 659–747; Kemble CD.; Crawford Collection IV and VII.

His military exploits are mainly connected with the North. In 926 he annexed Yorkshire, having expelled its Danish ruler, and in the same year he defeated an alliance of Scots and Welsh, among the latter of whom was Howel, king of Dyfed, described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as “King of the West Welsh”. This war was terminated by the Treaty of Eamot, a village on the Yorkshire borders. In 934 he successfully invaded Scotland, and in 937 he defeated a strong combination of Scots and Danes, the latter from Ireland, at Brunanburgh. The site of the battle is uncertain, but the most probable conjecture places it just north of the Solway Firth;* the incidents have been preserved in a famous Saxon poem.

* Hodgkin, History of England to 1066.

Athelstan was a capable administrator and a good friend of the clergy. He held his Witan at frequent intervals, the place of summons being constantly changed. In the Easter of 928, the Witan was held at Exeter, and that city was also the recipient of various benefits. A mint for coinage was established there by him. Several grants were made to the Exeter churches and monasteries. In 931 he partitioned the See of Crediton into two bishoprics with the Tamar as their dividing line, and appointed Conan to the newly formed bishopric of St. Germans.* Eadulf, the Bishop of Crediton, was in 933 granted enlarged privileges, probably as a consolation for his loss of diocesan territory.

* Crawford Coll. VII.

For the personal touches we are indebted to William of Malmesbury, who tells us of the king’s flaxen hair and graceful appearance, his affable manners, his skill as a negotiator of marriage alliances with foreign princes, as well as some doubtful matters of court gossip. He also states – and this concerns us most – that Athelstan after a fierce attack expelled the West Britons “from Exeter, which till that time they had inhabited with same privileges as the English, fixing the boundary of their province on the other side of the river Tamar, as he had appointed the river Wye to the North Britons.” The monarch then “fortified the city with towers and surrounded it with a wall.” William goes on to inform us that he gathered from conversation with the natives how “many noble traces of him are to be seen in that city, as well as in the neighbouring district.”*

* Gesta Regum.

In analysing these brief quotations from William, there are three things to be remembered. In the first place, William was writing after an interval of two centuries without any known intermediate authority other than monastic and local tradition. In the second place, he was a picturesque narrator whose tale lost nothing in the telling. In the third place, he had a special reason for extolling the deeds of Athelstan, who was a generous benefactor of Malmesbury Abbey, and was buried under the altar there.

The driving out of the Britons may have meant little or much. What it probably did mean was that Athelstan, having received complaints of racial animosities in Devon, tried to solve the difficulty by inducing the dissatisfied Britons to remove into Cornwall, where they were to enjoy their own customs under a separate provincial administration. This concession would be similar to that allowed by Alfred and his successors to the Danes in the north-east. The “fierce attack” is perhaps a rhetorical version of stern measures meted out to a few of the worst offenders.

William’s account can thus be reconciled with Athelstan’s known beneficence and love of peace. The king found Exeter weakened and distracted: weakened by the Danish ravages of fifty years before and distracted by local quarrels. He gave the city military security, took steps to increase its commercial prosperity, and settled the quarrels by removing one of the contending factions. He found the Britons discontented: he gave them a bishop of their own, and compelled them to live under his jurisdiction. It is interesting to observe how he rested his authority on the support of the Church, and readers of his charters may have noticed that he was wont to take a highly devout view of his kingly responsibilities, those who disobeyed his commands being warned that they thereby incurred the danger of everlasting perdition.

We can picture then the real Athelstan, just and merciful to his subjects, brave and successful against his enemies, but always pacific in his aims. So far as the West Country is concerned he was a generous benefactor and a promoter of concord. He was certainly not a man of blood.

We will pass now to the Athelstan of the local antiquaries, the conqueror of Cornwall and Western Devonshire. The accounts of this conquest are conflicting, as accounts of what never happened are likely to be. It seems that Athelstan after driving the Britons from Exeter, was opposed by an army from Cornwall under a king named Howel, who fought at Haldon, or, as the ingenious etymologists name it, Howel Down, where the Cornish were defeated. Athelstan thence pushed westward, overthrew the remains of Howel’s army at Bolleit, near the Land’s End; and then invaded and subdued the Isles of Scilly.* Various traditions have added other incidents, such as Athelstan’s triumphal entry into Barnstaple, and the erection of a palace for him at Umberleigh, “which he bequeathed to John of Gaunt.”

* Daniell, History of Cornwall (Third Ed., 1894).

When we approach the question of the date, the narratives are still more conflicting. Freeman,* professing to follow William of Malmesbury, who gives neither date nor conquest, adopts 926 as the year. One or two writers say 928, the year of the Exeter Witenagemot; Hooker gives 932; Whitaker 935; C. S. Gilbert 936; Carew 937; Polwhele 938; in Hassell’s Chart the date is 939. Borlase, with a fine impartiality, mentions 936 and 938. Other dates are given, some before Athelstan was born, some after his death. One gets the impression that the conquest may have been an annual fixture, and that the paucity of events recorded during Athelstan’s reign is due to his practice of periodically touring the Western Counties with a company of military performers. A few of these inventive chroniclers seem to confirm this by locating near Axminster the site of the battle of Brunanburgh, fought presumably with an imported stage army of Scots and Danes.

* Old English History. See Note A.

We shall search in vain for any confirmation of this conquest from early sources. Four reasons are alleged for believing in it. The first is the possible existence of local traditions which escaped the notice of all the earlier writers.¹ Now William of Malmesbury visited Devon; he had, as he states himself, extensive conversations with the inhabitants in general and with his brother monks in particular. An event of such importance in the life of his great hero, Athelstan, could not have escaped his notice. Also Dunstan, who grew up during Athelstan’s reign, was, less than fifty years after, called in to advise King Ethelred the Unready on a dispute between the Devon and Cornish bishops touching certain manors, the property of the Church, in Cornwall.² He describes Athelstan’s division of the sees, but says nothing about his having waged any war or completed any conquest in the West; what he does state is that Egbert reduced the Cornish to subjection, and gave a tenth part of their lands to the church, the natural thank-offering of a victorious monarch.

1. See Note B.
2. Crawford Coll. VII.

The second reason is the description in the Chronicles of Howel as “King of the West Welsh”. He is coupled in the story with Constantine of Scotland and Owen of Gwent in one place, and in another place with Cledauc and Juthwal of North Wales. He also signs charters with Juthwal and several others, described as “sub-reguli”. Now there was a well-known king of Dyfed, Howel the Good, who reigned from about 915 to 951. Dyfed was between the Teify and Towy, that is, in the south-west of what was then left of Wales. If there had been also a Howel in Cornwall, some definite distinction would have been given to each Howel whenever his name occurred, and it is hardly conceivable that the Cornish Howel and not the Welsh Howel would have been found fighting on the borders of Northumbria in 926. How could he have crossed West Saxon territory without being stopped?

The third reason is the statement in the Annals of Wales that Dungarth, King of Cornwall, was drowned in 875. This does not prove that there was a Cornish king fifty years later. There was a King of Mercia, Burhred, in 874, but Mercia was subject to Wessex from 829.* Possibly Dungarth, like the last kings of Mercia, was allowed to retain the nominal title; perhaps he had obtained this courtesy by submitting promptly to Egbert in 838.

* A.-S. Chronicles.

The last reason is based on William of Malmesbury’s allusion to Athelstan “fiercely attacking” the Britons of Exeter. This, as we have already seen, need not have meant more than the quelling of a local disturbance. And William of Malmesbury is a two-edged sword. For if he is to be faithfully followed, then we must accept his account of Egbert, who, according to him, “first manifested his power against those Britons who inhabit that part of the island which is called Cornwall, and having subjugated them, proceeded to make the Northern Britons, who are separated from the others by an arm of the sea, tributary to him.”¹ Let us note the distinction here conveyed between “subjugating” and “making tributary”. Even if William’s last-quoted statement requires confirmation, as it certainly does, it is supported by the entries under Egbert in the Chronicles, the submission of Kenstec, the narrative of Alfred’s visit to Cornwall and his bestowal of Cornish Manors on Asser,² Alfred’s will,³ Edward the Elder’s redistribution of sees in 909, and Dunstan’s letter to Ethelred.

1. Gesta Regum.
2. Asser, Life of Alfred.
3. Burch CS. 553.

If the extant copy of Dunstan’s missive, instead of lying hidden till 1891 in a collector’s cupboard, had been made available for public perusal fifty years earlier, there might have been now no necessity to disprove the story of Athelstan’s Cornish expedition. But to those who have studied closely the sources of Saxon history, and have not trusted entirely to the judgment of modern compilers, the contents of the missive can cause no surprise. What does cause surprise is that the Athelstan legend should ever have arisen, that it should have gained so much acceptance, and that it should have survived so long. Like the river Arar in a schoolboy’s rendering of Caesar, the historical critic has in this instance moved “with incredible lenity”.

It is time that he moved with greater vigour. The completion of the Saxon conquest is a fact of fundamental importance in the annals of the West Country. For Athelstan’s fame as a conqueror we must seek elsewhere; both Devon and Cornwall came to him as an inheritance, their final subjugation having been accomplished long before.

To those who gained the day at Hingston Down, and to the strenuous old warrior who led them, is due the credit of the achievement.


Note A. Freeman’s references to the supposed conquest seem to imply his belief in the Western Devonshire portion of it; about the Cornish portion he is vague, and he denies the existence of the Cornish Howel.

Note B. There were several prominent persons in Wessex history who possessed the name Athelstan, or the somewhat confusingly similar name Alhstan. Among these were two bishops (Sherborne 817, and Ramsbury 909), four aldermen (two in 826, one in 883, and one in 963), the Danish convert of 878 (better known as Guthrum), and the Kentish viceroy of 839. The last-mentioned, who is said to have been Egbert’s younger son, probably took part in his father’s later Cornish campaigns, and may have been the fighting Athelstan of West Country traditions. Writers of later date than William of Malmesbury would very naturally confound him with his great-grand-nephew. See Matthew Paris (Rolls Series).

Other writings by J. J. Alexander