Æthelstan Unites England and Scotland

On this day in 927, Constantine signed a decree that accepted the primacy of the Anglo-Saxon king, Æthelstan. This was the first occasion which England and Scotland shared a ruler and comprised a single entity.

Mention the name King Æthelstan to most people in England, and you will be greeted with a blank stare. The name is unlikely to cross the radar for even the most keen of Royal watchers, and if the name registers at all, it will most likely be a dim flicker rather than a bright light. But despite his lack of renown, Æthelstan can be considered one of the most influential monarchs of English antiquity, and a significant figure in uniting the island of Britain under one banner.

Æthelstan, born around 893, was the grandson of another great medieval king: Alfred the Great, king of the southern Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. Alfred, the only English monarch to be afforded the epithet “Great,” was one of the most important monarchs of the Middle Ages. He gained his renown through his steadfast refusal to succumb to a wave of Danish invasions, and his reputation for strength and fairness. He was instrumental in establishing the first semblance of what would become England, when he united Wessex with Mercia, a kingdom in the central part of modern-day England.

Æthelstan’s accession is a somewhat mysterious affair. It is thought that his father Edward the Elder had intended for the kingdom to be ruled by two of his sons: Æthelstan, and his older half-brother Æthelweard. The former would rule in Mercia, where he had been raised, the latter in Wessex. But Æthelweard died only a matter of days after his father, leaving Æthelstan to take power on his own. This was apparently to the displeasure of the royal court, as there is an unexplained lapse of some twelve months in between Æthelstan becoming king, and the official coronation in September 925.

Finally crowned, Æthelstan immediately began the task of expanding Anglo-Saxon influence, and his first move was to subordinate the Kingdom of York, which had been showing signs of aggression in the north. He compelled the Norse King Sigtrygg to accept Christianity, and in a cunning move married his sister to the Sigtrygg, bringing the troublesome kingdom under the family yoke.

Æthelstan then ventured further north, where, in a stroke of diplomatic genius, he brokered a deal with the Scottish king Constantine II. The circumstances of the treaty are not entirely clear, but on 12 July 927, Constantine signed a decree that accepted the primacy of the Anglo-Saxon king. This was the first occasion on which England and Scotland could be said to have shared a ruler, and comprise a single political entity. With other such deals further consolidating Æthelstan’s power base, it was not long before he became the effective overlord of the island of Britain; a king presiding over a number of subordinate kingdoms.

As the subordinate kingdoms grew restless, and resentful of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy, so the political boundaries in Britain changed, and Æthelstan’s rule cannot be considered as the permanent establishment of a united Britain. That would not truly occur until the act of Union in 1707. But Æthelstan’s reign, which ended in 939, did bring much to bring about a permanently unified England, and it was with some justification that on the coins minted during Aethelstan’s tenure he was described as Rex totius Britanniae, King of all of Britain.