Sunday, February 5News For London

Who was the first king of England and how was he chosen?

Athelstan, detail of a manuscript illumination, 10th century; in the collection of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

The Queen celebrated a Platinum Jubilee on 6th February, for becoming the first British Monarch making 70 years of service to the United Kingdom. The British Monarchy went through many different generations. But, who was the first king of England, and why was he selected to be the first, and not my ancestors or yours?

The first king of all of England was Athelstan (895-939 AD) of the House of Wessex, grandson of Alfred the Great and 30th great-granduncle to Queen Elizabeth II. From 925 to 939 AD, the Anglo-Saxon king destroyed the last of the Viking invaders and stabilised Britain.

Athelstan was an illegitimate son of Edward the Elder, King of Wessex, and a grandson of Alfred the Great.

The dates registered for his reign vary. According to the British Library, for example, he commanded since 927 AD when Athelstan coins and charters began to describe him as ‘king of the English’. His ambitions did not end there, since his charters also began to describe him as ‘king of Britain’ and ‘emperor.’

However, the Museum of London has a timeline available inside the museum which shows that the first King of all England was in power in 954 AD. Other articles, for instance from the Athelstan Museum, in Malmesbury, Wiltshire say Athelstan was crowned king on 17th July 925 at Kingston-upon-Thames.

Timeline from the Museum of London. Image: Picture this UK, 2017.

Why Athelstan?

At that time, the power came from territories conquered. Leaders of small territories gained strength as long as they occupied more lands. There was a kind of succession line followed since that time.

There were four separate English kingdoms at this time – Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, and East Anglia – but since the second half of the previous century all but Wessex had been occupied by Scandinavians.

Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great, was king in Wessex and died in 924 AD. His legitimate son, Aelfweard, would become king in Wessex, however, he died unexpectedly 15 days after his father. Athelstan was illegitimate, at the time of his birth, his mother was Egwina the King’s mistress although she later became his queen. Athelstan took his brother’s place and became king over the whole of southern England. He was crowned king on 17th July 925 at Kingston-upon-Thames.

He set about joining the realm into one single kingdom, rather than the loose federation it had been under his father and grandfather. Three years later, he invaded and conquered Danish Northumbria. For the first time, all of the Anglo-Saxons were under one ruler, who now took the title of “King of the English”.

He was determined to forge links with Europe which he did by marrying his four half-sisters to European royalty.

Athelstan died on 27th October 939 in his palace at Gloucester after only fourteen years on the throne – what a lot he achieved. He was buried at Malmesbury, where exactly is not known.

If you want a visual of previous monarchs this infographic will show you the concise line of succession:

Succession to the British throne. Infographic: Luiza Lanna

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