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Edward Elder Athelstan Essay

History Notes > Anglo-Saxon History (Britain c. AD400-1100) Notes

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'The aims and achievements of Edward the Elder and Athelstan should be viewed on their own terms rather than as stages in the creation of a single kingdom of the English'. Discuss. The creation of a unified kingdom of the English was indeed a process achieved by stages, and in this fact lies the problem of its study. The process by which the numerous Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that existed independently of one another in the ninth century gave way to the political entity of 'England' that existed by 1066 was neither quick nor smooth. The Viking invasions of the ninth century set the stage for the long process of unification by destroying or severely weakening every major kingdom but one, which was later able to extend its authority across the former territory of the others. Alfred of Wessex was thus the first king to call himself 'king of the Anglo-Saxons'. The temptation to see Alfred's reign as the first in a series that would culminate in the creation of a unified England is clear, therefore, but it is equally clear from a study of his reign that the king's actions were dictated by circumstances as much as they were by his aspirations. Further, there is little evidence that Alfred had any real ambitions of overlordship beyond the nearer portion of Mercia, and his claim to an English kingship need not have indicated anything more than a practical need to portray himself as legitimate in his overlordship of the southwest segment of that kingdom and as an opponent to the Scandinavian invaders. Although Alfred's achievement in surviving invasion may have enabled his successors to seek a truly unified kingship of the English, then, this was almost certainly not his own intention. The problem thus becomes how to interpret the reigns of his successors, for although we can easily find similar evidence of grand aspirations, reflected in royal titles, in the nature of government and in court discourse, and although the general trend is towards a territorial expansion of West Saxon power across the territory of the Anglo-Saxons, these do not necessarily indicate a contemporary mind for unification in eleventh century sense. To decipher the actual intentions of rulers like Edward the Elder and Athelstan, and the limits of their aims, should allow us to avoid imposing an anachronistic context - practical and ideological - on the achievements of their reigns. On the other hand, understanding how such kings did conceive of their power allows for a more honest judgement of their success. The task of identifying the ideal and the reality of kingship in the reign of a particular king, of separating one from the other and of tracing the progression of either is made complicated by the nature of our sources. These, for various reasons, tend to emphasise the power of the king and the uniformity of his rule. Our major narrative source for the tenth century is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Being a West Saxon court source, this invariably gives a particularly strong impression of West Saxon royal power, and the personal leadership of the king, which is at times misleading. This, furthermore, is probably better understood as a reflection of the way lordship as a whole was conceptualised in very personal terms, rather than as the result of a desire to stress the right of the kings of Wessex to kingship beyond their borders. Stenton describes the chronicler as portraying an 'inexorable advance' of West Saxon kingship whilst ignoring qualifications to the extent of royal power: for example, the considerable role played by Edward the Elder's sister, Aethelflaed ('the Lady of the Mercians') in the fortification and defence of the Mercian kingdom, which is revealed to us by the Mercian Register, is completely ignored by the Chronicle, which only mentions her in recording her death. If we consider ourselves fortunate to have, in this instance, a

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