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Marlborough LitFest 2016: Writer and historian Tom Holland on King Athelstan

Tom Holland addresses a crowded Town Hall (Copyright Ben Phillips Photography)Tom Holland addresses a crowded Town Hall (Copyright Ben Phillips Photography)The Town Hall was packed on Saturday morning (October 1) for author Tom Holland’s talk about Athelstan, the subject of his latest book published in the Penguin Monarch series.

I wondered why so many people were keen to spend an hour listening to a talk about a tenth century king I had only heard of recently. I soon discovered why they had come.

Tom Holland is an engaging and witty speaker as well as being an impressive academic historian. I had read the book beforehand, but his fluent presentation sent shafts of sunlight into what on paper I had found a rather dense mesh of dates and names which all seemed to begin with Aethel… It was a great talk.

Tom has nursed a passion for Athelstan since childhood. Most of us know nothing about him, and only the merest facts about his grandfather Alfred. Yet Athelstan can rightly be acknowledged as the first real king of England, the foundations for which had been laid by Alfred, by his aunt Aethelflaed, and his father Edward.

The progress of Athelstan and his forebears’ efforts to unite the various kingdoms – Wessex, Kent, Mercia, East Anglia, Northumbria, Strathclyde and Alba – was cleverly illustrated by five coins, which Tom is fortunate enough to own.

The first, produced by Plegmund, the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed by Alfred, was the last coin to be minted by anyone other than royalty.

Next he showed a coin made in Chester, where Aethelflaed, Edward’s sister, the Lady of the Mercians, (and one of Tom’s heroines!) had created a stronghold against the Vikings.

(Photo copyright Ben Phillips Photography)(Photo copyright Ben Phillips Photography)The third was a Viking forgery. In 917 Edward and Aethelflaed brought East Anglia and the Danelaw under their control, and in 918, after Aethelfled’s death, Edward became king of all land south of the Humber.

The fourth coin illustrated Athelstan’s conquest of York, which had long been the capital of the Viking kingdom. He could then call himself rex Anglorum, the king of those who speak English.

When an alliance of two northern leaders and an Irish warlord attempted in 937 to overthrow his power, Athelstan triumphed at the horrifyingly bloody battle of Brunanburh. His aim of uniting the kingdom was secured - and Tom Holland's final coin declared him to be rex totius Brittaniae.

But Athelstan was not merely a warrior. His power was consolidated by the fortification of many towns or burhs. He was a pious and literate man, a lawgiver and an advocate for justice. He encouraged prosperity, but his Christian faith urged him to consider the poor. He decreed that those with wealth and land must provide the destitute with food and shelter.  

The effort to form one nation was immense.  But for all his work, it still had the easy possibility of fracturing into two nations – England and Scotland – a fracture which is still very apparent today.

After his talk, there were several interesting questions which Tom answered fully and thoughtfully.   Asked why Athelstan had taken little interest in Wales, Tom suggested - with a smile - that it was too hilly.  But their language was different, and although his rule in England was acknowledged, there was considerable resentment towards him among the Welsh.

When asked about the intelligibility of the different dialects in the country, we were assured that south of Lothian the inhabitants could understand each other.   There was one word he had made them all understand: Aethel means ‘noble’! 

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