Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Symbolic Key to a Viking Woman’s Independence

Ancient Origins

By ThorNews

A large number of ornate keys from the Viking Age (c. 800-1066 AD) have been found in female graves and as individual findings. Bronze keys made with superb craftsmanship were used as a status symbol by women and were often small works of art worn on a belt around the waist.

 The key from Heggum farm (Old Norse: Heggheimar) is 9.5 centimeters long and ornamented with intertwined animal figures. It was found in a burial mound and may have belonged to a powerful housewife. The day she got married, she got the keys to the farm doors and treasure chests as a visible sign of her position and power.

Replica: A push key padlock from the Viking Age was found on the Björkö island in Lake Mälaren, Sweden. (Photo:

Women’s Work Duties
A Viking woman’s responsibility was “inside the doorstep,” the man’s outside. Her work duties were housekeeping and making food, including drying and smoking fish and meat, working wool, spinning yarn and sewing and weaving.

 Pregnancy, breastfeeding and raising children also took up time in a woman’s life. In practice, it was probably the women who looked after the elderly.

 She also had to perform heavy work like carrying water and participate in haymaking. In addition, she would have had knowledge of herbs to make medicine for the sick and wounded.

When the man went hunting, fishing, on Viking raids or got sick, the wife had responsibility for the operation of the whole farm, which in wealthy families also included many trells (slaves).

The married woman was seen to belong to the family she had grown up with and for that reason never quite became an integral part of her husband’s family.

Right to Divorce
 If a marriage did not work out, both wife and husband could demand divorce. The Icelandic sagas describe a wide range of divorce laws which testifies to a quite advanced law system.

Silver figure of a woman, perhaps the goddess Frigg or Freya, found at the Tissø lake, Denmark. (Photo: National Museum of Denmark)

The woman could, for example, demand a divorce if the husband had settled in a new country, or had not gone to bed with her in three years. The most common causes of divorce were that her husband failed to provide for the household or was violent. If he had beaten his woman three times, she could leave him.

To carry out the act, she had to summon witnesses and proclaim herself divorced – first at the front door and later at the couple’s bed.

We do not know the divorce rate in the Viking Age, but the right to divorce, property and inheritance shows that women had an independent legal status. Usually infants and small children followed their mother, while the older children were divided between the parents’ families, depending on wealth and status.

The Viking women’s rights lapsed with the introduction of Christianity.

 Top image: This bronze key from Heggum farm in Røyken in the Oslofjord is dated to the Viking Age. (Photo: Eirik Irgens Johnsen, Oldsakssamlingen)

The article ‘Keys Symbols of the Viking Women’s Independence’ by Thor Lanesskog was originally published on Thor News and has been republished with permission.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Family Accidentally Discovers 2,000-Year-Old Roman Stables in Their Backyard

Ancient Origins

A family living in Israel was digging in their backyard when they came upon an opening in the ground. They were stunned when they discovered that it led to a complex network of underground caves. Archaeological investigations revealed it was an elaborate construction dating back 2,000 years, which probably served as stables.

Unexpected Find
Haaretz reported that the underground complex was discovered in a village called Eilabun, located just 11 miles from Nazareth, the ancient city where Jesus was said to have been raised.

Archaeologists suggest that the caves had been dug out by the Romans and probably served for storage and stabling. They came to this conclusion after noticing holes chiseled into the cave walls to which horses could have been tied, and a stone trough used for water or feed.

 Interestingly, the caves are about three meters below the surface as archaeology inspector Nir Distelfeld told Haaretz. This made some archaeologists wonder how the horses could have got down there and why the Romans didn’t build a stable with walls above ground. However, Distelfeld has a logical explanation, “It’s three meters underground today, but 2,000 years ago, when in use, it would have been ground level, maybe half a meter lower but obviously the horse wasn’t lowered down,” he tells Haaretz. And adds, “It shows how much dirt and silt accrues over 2,000 years. Otherwise they would indeed have built stables and storage, not cut them into the rock.”

According to Haaretz, ancient Jews would carve caves out of the chalky, rather soft bedrock. The archaeologists discovered a large central chamber about 4x6 meters, which was at least two meters in height. Smaller chambers branched off that main one.

The village of Eilabun, where the underground stables were found (public domain)

Site Severely Damaged from Looters
Thanks to some broken pieces of pottery left behind by thieves who had looted the site exhaustively before its official discovery, experts were able to estimate that the complex dates back around 2,000 years. Thieves had removed and most likely sold everything of value they found there. What’s even worse, they broke and damaged the rock while searching for more places to loot. “The looters weren’t archaeology experts. When they saw a chamber, they started to deepen it, breaking the rock itself, thinking they would find other interesting stuff,” Distelfeld told Haaretz.

Another object the thieves left behind, other than the broken pieces of Roman-era ceramic storage jars, is a basalt rock with a groove down the middle, which had been part of a flour-grinding apparatus. “The thieves may have found other things but they won’t tell us,” a disappointed Distelfeld said.

The entrance to the cave in the Galilean village of Eilabun. Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

Eilabun’s Interesting Past
The village of Eilabun has a long history. Pottery remains from the Middle Bronze Age, Iron Age II, Persian, early Roman and from the Byzantine era have all been excavated there, while rock-cut sarcophagi have been unearthed to the west of the village.

Elibabun is mentioned as one of the cities associated with one of the twenty-four priestly divisions, the residence of the priestly clan known as Haqoṣ. A stone inscription mentioning the town was discovered in Yemen by orientalist, Walter W. Muller, in 1970, and is considered to have been part of a destroyed synagogue, now turned mosque.

Ultimately, Haaretz reports that soon after the caves’ official discovery by the Israel Antiquities Authority, two thieves were arrested in a joint campaign by the IAA inspectors with police. “At the moment we are working on criminal proceedings. We will look into further excavations there in the future,” Distelfeld told Haaretz, explaining why there are no active excavations at the moment in the area.

Top image: Roman-era stables discovered in the Galilean village of Eilabun, Israel. Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Valuable Jewels, Ornate Lamps and Coins Unearthed from 2,000-Year-Old Tombs in Corinth

Ancient Origins

A team of Greek researchers has unearthed unique jewels, coins and other precious artifacts while excavating tombs near the ruins of the ancient city of Corinth. Experts estimate that the newly found objects date between the fourth and first centuries AD.

 Unique Jewels and Coins Excavated Near Ancient Corinth
Τhe team of scientists led by Elena Korka of the Greek Ministry, discovered the rare artifacts in eastern Corinthia, at the site of the ancient village of Tenea, during excavation works at a burial ground with two characteristic chambers built when Greece was part of the Roman Empire, as Newsweek reports. The Greek Ministry of Culture announced in a statement that the Greco-Roman burial structures were most likely constructed during a Hellenistic period between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, up until the Battle of Corinth in 146 BC. Archaeologists suggest that five of the better equipped tombs probably belonged to rich ancient Corinthian residents. The bodies were found alongside intricate gilded bronze leaves, a golden ring, valuable stones, as well as gold and bronze coins from the surrounding region as Newsweek reports. Other characteristic items of rituals buried with the dead included perfumes, artifacts made of gold, gold foil and beautifully crafted glassware, as well as items of pottery.

Gilded bronze leaves, a gold ring, valuable stone and coins were found. (Image: Greek Ministry of Antiquities)

Several Graves Organized in Circles
Furthermore, the researchers also excavated from the dig site many different burial plots. Interestingly, fourteen of the graves had been organized in circles – a common Roman tradition. These burials yielded gold and silver coins, vases, and lamps depicting the goddess Venus and two cupids. “Roman-period builders also repurposed the limestone foundations of earlier Greek structures to build the tombs for wealthy, Roman-era occupants,” Elena Korka said as Newsweek reports. Evidence of graves from the earlier Greek period was also traced in other areas of the dig site, including a figurine in the shape of a dove.

The Tenea dig site of 2017. (Image: Greek Ministry of Antiquities)

Greek Culture Conquered Its Roman Conquerors
By using the term “Roman Greece”, historians describe the period of Greek history following the Roman victory over the Corinthians, at the Battle of Corinth (146 BC), until the adoption of the city of Byzantium by the Emperor Constantine the Great as the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Regardless, some Greek cities (such as Pergamon) managed to maintain partial independence and avoid taxation. Most importantly, however, the Greeks were able to maintain a cultural autonomy from their Roman conquerors during the early period of empire, thanks to their rich civilization. Many temples and public buildings were built in Greece by emperors and wealthy Roman nobility, while this would become the longest period of peace in Greek history.

Items found included, gold items, glassware and pottery. (Image: Greek Ministry of Antiquities)

Even though a few Roman nobles regarded the Greeks as petty and inferior, the majority of Romans embraced Greek literature and philosophy. The Greek language became a favorite of the educated and elite Roman citizens, such as Scipio Africanus, who tended to study philosophy and regard Greek culture and science as an example to be followed.

Similarly, most Roman emperors maintained an admiration for things Greek in nature. Hadrian, for example, was known to be fond of the Greeks and before he would become emperor he served as an eponymous archon of Athens, where he constructed the famous Arch of Hadrian.

Arch of Hadrian, Athens. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Corinth in particular – which was partially destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC – was rebuilt in 44 BC as a Roman city under Julius Caesar. Roman Corinth prospered more than any other Greek city at the time and according to various historical accounts, it had as many as 800,000 inhabitants by the time of Paul. It was the capital of Roman Greece, equally devoted to merchants and entertainment.

Generally speaking, one could say that life in Greece continued under the Roman Empire much the same as it had previously (minus the civil wars). And even though the exhausted Greek city-states after hundreds of years of wars (against each other in most cases) were conquered by the Roman military on the battlefield, it was Roman culture that was conquered by the Greeks, a fact that is best highlighted on Horace’s quotation, “Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit” (translated: Captive Greece captured her rude conqueror).

Top image: The findings included vases and a series of lamps, notably some included depictions of the Roman goddess Venus and two cupids. (Image: Greek Ministry of Antiquities)

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Q&A: How did pasta come to Europe and when did it first become established in Italy?

History Extra

That the food crops up in so many cultures isn’t surprising: pasta is basically unleavened bread that has been boiled rather than baked.

There was long a fond myth that Marco Polo (1254–1324) brought pasta back to Italy from his travels in China, though what in fact he said was that he had found the Chinese eating lagana (sheets or ribbons of noodles or wheat pasta) similar to that already found in Italy.

Pasta as we know it today, made from durum wheat and water, was being produced in Sicily by the 12th century (and probably much earlier), and was probably introduced by Arab colonists. North Africa’s variation on pasta is, of course, couscous. It’s thought the Arabs used dried noodles on journeys and military campaigns as it kept well for long periods. Dried pasta would later be used by European seafarers.

Pasta spread across Italy where production remained hard, physical work; pasta-makers would generally sit and knead the dough with their feet. For this reason, it was expensive until industrialised kneading and extrusion methods were pioneered in Naples in the late 1700s. Only then did it become part of the diet of most Italians, before spreading across the world.

Answered by Eugene Byrne, author and historian.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Leprechauns: At the End of the Rainbow Lies Richness for Irish Folklore

Ancient Origins

Those little men all dressed in green, obsessed with rainbows and treasure, trickery, and of course shoe-making. These are all common perceptions today regarding the famous characters from Irish folklore: Leprechauns. The characteristics of these mythical creatures has transformed over the years and much of what made the little people special in the original tales has been forgotten.

  Etymology for the Word Leprechaun
Many scholars believe that the origin of the word leprechaun is the old Irish Lú Chorpain meaning small body. Another definition has linked the modern name to luchorpán (a word from the 8th century AD) which is defined as sprite or pygmy. Finally, the word leprechaun has been connected to leath bhrógan (shoe maker). This definition is also a possibility as many stories about leprechauns have shown their profession to be the cobblers of the fairy world.

 The word lubrican, another word associated with leprechaun, first was written in English in 1604 in the play The Honest Whore by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker. The line from the play states: "as for your Irish lubrican, that spirit whom by preposterous charms thy lust hath rais'd in a wrong circle…"

The Ancient Leprechauns
 Leprechauns are thought to have been one of the many types of inhabitants of the fairy forts or fairy rings in ancient Ireland. It has been suggested that the merry tricksters of today may even be a modern incarnation of the Euro-Celtic god Lugh (pronounced “Luck”). Lugh was said to be the sun god, patron of arts and crafts and leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann ("peoples of the goddess Danu"

Altar depicting a tricephalic god identified as Lugus (Lugh), discovered in Reims. (Wikipedia)

Medieval Irish manuscripts (12th -15th Centuries) believed to be associated with leprechauns suggest that leprechauns were originally beings that lived underwater and, contrary to today’s depiction, they weren’t all male. They were depicted as warriors with voracious appetites and the female leprechauns were especially engrossed with luring away human men for secret adventures. These characteristics seemed to continue at least until the aforementioned writing in 1604.

Early leprechauns were described as sly old men that wore red suits and were often found working on a solitary shoe. The word solitary was also applied to the social preferences of leprechauns who seemed to prefer time alone to interacting with other faerie creatures, or even other leprechauns. There friendless nature perhaps was also partly due to others avoiding them – early leprechauns were also thought to be particularly mischievous house-haunting drunkards. These characteristics were later passed on to the leprechaun “cousins” the clobhair-ceann or clurichaun, an Irish fairy that is always drunk and rude. The clurichaun got the blame for noisy nights and messy homes (especially wine cellars).

An illustration of a clurichaun, cousin of the leprechauns. (1862) T.C. Croker (Wikimedia Commons)

Changes in Leprechaun Traits: Now a Wealthy Shoemaker
By 1825, the leprechaun population was limited to only males. T. Crofton Croker's Fairy Traditions and Legends of the South of Ireland provided more insight on traits of these mythical creatures: “They are often described as bearded old men dressed in green and wearing buckled shoes. Sometimes they wear a pointed cap or hat and may smoke a pipe.”

The Leprechauns of the time were thought to be particularly stylish. Both Samuel Lover, writing in 1831, and William Butler Yeats (in 1888) made mention of the importance leprechauns placed in their appearance.

Lover wrote that a leprechaun was:

 “…quite a beau in his dress, notwithstanding, for he wears a red square-cut coat, richly laced with gold, waistcoat and inexpressible of the same, cocked hat, shoes and buckles.”

Following that, Yeats later added:

“He is something of a dandy, and dresses in a red coat with seven rows of buttons, seven buttons on each row, and wears a cocked-hat, upon whose pointed end he is wont in the north-eastern counties, according to McAnally, to spin like a top when the fit seizes him.”

The 18th Century poem by William Allingham entitled The Lepracaun; Or, Fairy Shoemaker further promoted the idea that in the fairy realm occupations are chosen by group, and leprechauns were in charge of keeping the rest of the community’s feet happy. He also provided a hint to people searching for leprechauns (more on why soon) – the presence of leprechauns can be noted by their tapping sounds as they work:

"Lay your ear close to the hill.
Do you not catch the tiny clamor,
Busy click of an elfin hammer,
Voice of the Lepracaun singing shrill
As he merrily plies his trade?"

‘Elves and the Shoemaker’, originally from ‘The Book of Fables and Folk Stories’, by Horace E. Scudder. Illustration by George Cruikshank (Wikipedia)

Allingham is often credited as the creator of the “modern leprechaun”: a short man with a red beard, a green hat in which a golden four-leaf clover (symbol of good luck) is tucked, and a green suit with a large buckle on its belt.

A modern stereotype of a leprechaun. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Moral behind Leprechauns
By the 1800s the perception of leprechauns as wealthy, clever folks was a common notion. Thus the old “wee” (small) fellows were depicted in stories with a strong interest in protecting their gold from the greedy humans that sought it out. Leprechauns are supposed to offer bribes to humans if caught in order to regain their freedom.

Engraving of a Leprechaun counting his gold, 1900 (Wikimedia Commons)

The legends about leprechauns not surprisingly focus mostly on a human catching a leprechaun then trying to attain their wealth. The most common story involves a boy or farmer who finds a leprechaun and forces him to tell where he has hidden his gold. The leprechaun is obliged to show him to the spot, which is below a tree or plant. As the human is without a shovel he ties a red cloth around the nearby tree/plant and makes the leprechaun swear he will not remove the indicator. When the person returns with the shovel he finds that there are now many red cloths and the leprechaun has vanished. Thus the leprechaun has managed to trick the human and maintains possession of his gold.

Another similar story tells of a girl who catches the leprechaun and makes him lead her to his treasure, but along the way hears a noise to which the leprechaun tells her there are bees chasing her. When she turns around to look, the leprechaun disappears.

Also according to some legends a leprechaun carries two leather pouches. He has a silver shilling in one which returns to his pouch whenever it has been given. The other pouch has a gold coin which is said to turn into leaves or ashes once the leprechaun is set free.

Another widespread interpretation of events after humans find and catch leprechauns is the offering of three wishes to which the capturer goes insane or is tricked as his wishes backfire. A popular story of this sort is that of Seamus. Seamus was a man from County Mayo who caught a leprechaun and was offered wishes. He chose to be the richest man on a tropical island. His wish was said to have come true, but there was a catch – there were no pubs, shops or other people on the island. Seamus got bored and eventually wished to be back in Ireland.

All of these stories present the same morals: getting rich quick doesn’t work out in the long run, stealing is wrong, and don’t mess with the Irish faerie folk.

 The Fascination Leprechauns Continue to Hold
Leprechauns are now understood to be the fairy tales of the past and fanciful stories to tell when one sees a rainbow. However there is still a hold these little folk have on modern society. In Dublin there is even a Leprechaun museum which provides tours and detailed information on leprechauns and Irish folklore throughout the ages. Some Irish-themed sites also provide readers with tips and tricks on how to catch a leprechaun (and what to do when you have).

Leprechaun, Wax Museum Plus, Ireland (Wikimedia Commons)

On the other side of the pond, General Mills cereal’s Lucky Charms has “Lucky” the leprechaun to keep children entertained while they consume the sugar-filled product for which he is the mascot. There are also horror/comedy movies that are focused on a monstrous trickster of a leprechaun to torment adults.

Leprechauns may not really provide us a treasure of gold and silver, but they certainly have provided richness to Irish folklore.

Featured Image: A Leprechaun’s hat. (Albund |

By Alicia McDermott

Monday, November 13, 2017

Who Were These Vikings Buried Sitting Upright?

Ancient Origins


Accidentally, in 1963 a burial ground with 24 graves deep inside the bay of Sandvika on the eastern side of the island of Jøa in Central Norway were discovered. The bodies buried in a sitting position dates back to the years 650 to 1000 AD, and analyses show that these Vikings belonged to a very special group of people.

Unlike other Viking Age graves, the graveyard was unknown because the bodies were not placed inside a burial mound that is clearly visible in the terrain, or marked in any other way. These dead Vikings were lowered into cylinder- and funnel-shaped sand holes from flat ground. The question is why.

Sandvika Burial Ground is Unique
The Sandvika burial ground is unique in Scandinavia, and these people are the only ones found with sitting bodies.

The burial custom had been very strenuous: Firstly, the person must have been dead for at least twenty-four hours so that rigor mortis could make it possible to shape the body into a seated position, and secondly, it must have been very difficult to form seats in the porous shell sand.

 However, these are not the only reasons why this particular group of Vikings is a mystery.

One of the skeletons found in the Sandvika sitting graves, Central Norway (Photo: NTNU Museum of Natural History and Archaeology, 1965-66)

Old Women – Small Men
In 14 of the 24 graves there were found skeletons and skeletal remains; 10 graves were empty.

 Of these, seven women and four men have been identified. Analyses shows that the women reached an average age of 47 years, much higher than average for Iron Age people, where the normal life expectancy for women was 39 years.

It has only been possible to determine the age of one of the men, and he died at the age of 40.

The reconstructed Tranås Iron Age farm located only a few hundred meters from Sandvika. (Photo: ThorNews)

The women had an average height of 157.2 centimeters (5ft 2in), and the men 162.6 centimeters (5ft 4in), which is much lower than the normal height for this period.

 The men were as much as 10 centimeters (3.9in) lower than the average for the Viking Age (172.6 cm / 5ft 8in) and 12 centimeters (4.7in) lower than people living in the Iron Age (174.7 cm / 5ft 9in).

The women do not differ so much – they only were 3.7 centimeters (1.5in) lower than the normal for Iron Age women (160.9 cm / 5ft 3in) and 0.9 centimeters (0.35in) lower than Danish Viking women (158.1 cm / 5ft 3in).

Heathen Hof Nearby
The dating of artifacts shows that these Vikings were buried fully clothed in the period 650 – 1000 AD, i.e. from the Merovingian period to the end of the Viking Age, and it seems like the burial custom ended when Christianity was forced with swords upon the Norse society.

Today, on the other side of the small river Hovselva (English: the Hof River) is the Hov (Hof) farm located in the northeast – indicating that there was a pagan temple located close to the burial ground.

In all of the 24 graves there were found remnants of bonfires, so it is natural to assume that there must have been some kind of ritual that included bonfire in connection with the funeral.

Orientation and Knives
Another peculiarity is that about half the bodies were facing north-northeast (facing the Hof) and half to the south-southeast. No one was facing directly east and only one body was facing directly to the west.

An illustration showing the orientation of the bodies. Credit: Thor Lanesskog

As many as ten knifes were found in nine different graves. They vary in length, but none of them has a blade more than 20 centimeters and consequently had not been used as Viking combat weapons. The individuals they belonged to must have used these knives for a different purpose.

There were no other weapons found inside the graves, which is unusual for the Viking Age. However, there were also found beads, brooches, finger rings and keys, but there is no repeating pattern.

Specialists in Their Field
The similarities between the buried Vikings are many:

 Both women and men died at an old age, and the men were much lower than the average height in the Viking Age.

They were buried in a small area close to a heathen Hof, and the dead were put down in a sitting position. There was no marking of the graves but they may have been marked with ornamental shrubs or flowers.

Almost all of the graves contained remnants of bonfire, and there are no traces of weapons. However, there were found many “regular” cut knives.

The bodies were facing north-northeast and south-southeast. No one was facing directly towards the east.

Who was this specialist group of Vikings? Was it “hovgydjer”, meaning pagan priestesses – and were the knives used for sacrifice? If so, the theory that Viking Age priests only were women is not correct.

Maybe Norse pagan priests also were small men with special “feminine qualities”?

Top image: Main image: Screen of Gameplay of the video game War of the Vikings (public domain). Inset: One of the skeletons found in the Sandvika sitting graves, Central Norway (Photo: NTNU Museum of Natural History and Archaeology, 1965-66)

The article ‘Who Were These Vikings Buried Sitting Upright?’ by Thor Lanesskog, was originally published on ThorNews and has been republished with permission.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

If King Alfred was great, was Æthelstan even greater?

History Extra

Æthelstan is shown dressed as a pilgrim with Guy of Warwick in a scene from the 14th-century 'Chronicle of England'. (Bridgeman)

Was King Alfred (reigned 871–99) really the greatest Anglo-Saxon king? Certainly he remains the best-remembered – even if it’s only for burning the cakes. But should it really be his grandson Æthelstan (reigned 924–39) – now largely forgotten – whom we celebrate as the most significant pre-Conquest monarch?

Alfred was a highly successful military leader who, in a battle at Edington in 878, resoundingly defeated the Danish army that had almost conquered Wessex. In the ensuing period of peace he launched a programme of educational reform that transformed the use of English as both a literary and a governmental language. Yet Alfred only ruled the West Saxon people, and those in the western part of the Midland kingdom of Mercia not under subjection to the Danes. When he died (the sole remaining native king in England), the east Midlands, East Anglia and Northumbria all lay in Danish hands.

Æthelstan, on the other hand, was the first king to rule all England and laid claim to an imperial overlordship over the whole of Britain. His military prowess brought him direct authority over not just Wessex and Mercia, but the Danelaw (the name given to the area of northern England where Vikings settled) and the kingdom north of the Humber. Celtic rulers from elsewhere in the British Isles subsequently submitted to his authority. He crushed a rebellion of the Scots king in 934, attacking his realm with a land and sea force and ravaging as far north as Caithness. When Æthelstan defeated a combined Norse-Scots-Northumbrian force at the battle of Brunanburh in 937, a contemporary poem entered into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recalled: “Never yet in this island before this was a greater slaughter of a host made by the edge of the sword since the Angles and Saxons came hither from the east, overcame the Britons and won a country.”

The tomb of King Æthelstan in Malmesbury Abbey. (Alamy)

 Foreigners also recognised Æthelstan’s status. He played a significant role on a European stage, forging alliances with royal and ducal houses across the territories of the former Carolingian empire through marriage and fostering arrangements. Scholars from Britain and abroad flocked to his court, bringing books, precious gifts and the relics of the saints (to which Æthelstan showed particular devotion). Alfred founded a dynasty. Æthelstan (who died childless) paved the way for that royal line (through his brothers and nephews) to govern all the English peoples via an effective administrative machine. When he died, an Irish chronicler lamented the demise of the “pillar of the dignity of the western world”. How can so great a king, once celebrated for his achievements, have fallen into such oblivion today?

Alfred’s posthumous reputation received a substantial boost from the profusion of literature that emanated from his court in the latter years of his reign – including the first version of the collection of year-by-year accounts of early English history we know as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The statue of King Alfred the Great in Wantage, Oxfordshire. Alfred may widely be regarded as the father of the English nation, yet Æthelstan was the first to unite the English people under a single authority and proclaim himself "king of all Britain". (Alamy)

One of his circle, the Welsh priest Asser, also wrote a life of the king in the 890s, giving an unparalleled insight into his personality, his devotion to the saints, his practical and creative abilities and his attitudes to kingship. Texts translated from Latin into English at his court also included passages attributed to the king himself.

By contrast, the reign of Æthelstan is ill-served with narrative sources; the Chronicle offers the sketchiest narrative of events in his reign, there is no surviving biography, nor any writing attributed to his own authorship. Creating a picture of him as a man as well as a royal figurehead involves piecing together information from a disparate range of sources (and a good deal of imaginative licence).

Even so, after his death, Æthelstan enjoyed considerable fame. The West Saxon Latin chronicler Æthelweard saw Æthelstan as a mighty king and drew attention to his victory at Brunanburh (still remembered in the late tenth century as the ‘Great Battle’). Æthelstan’s submission of the Scots and the Picts brought significant and lasting consequences: “The fields of Britain were consolidated into one, there was peace everywhere and abundance of all things, and [since then] no fleet has remained here having advanced against these shores, except under treaty with the English.”

Æthelred the Unready (reigned 978–1016) called his eldest son Æthelstan – and worked through various Old English royal names before he thought to name his eighth son Alfred.

A king to remember
After the Conquest, Æthelstan’s reputation remained strong. To Anglo-Norman writers, he stood out as the founder of a united English realm, and – perhaps more significantly in that era – as having successfully asserted his authority over his Celtic neighbours. William, a monk of Malmesbury Abbey where Æthelstan was buried, paid him particular attention, providing insights not found in any other source, possibly drawing on a now-lost tenth-century life of the king. In William’s hands, Æthelstan became not just a king to remember but one about whom there were many stories, even popular songs worth recalling and repeating.

Various factors combined to diminish Æthelstan’s standing in the literary imagination during the late Middle Ages. Legends about a heroic British king, Arthur, received a substantial boost from the writing of Geoffrey of Monmouth. While Æthelstan’s martial success still gained approval, rumours first reported by William of Malmesbury that Æthelstan’s mother had been a concubine and he was therefore illegitimate gained increasing currency. The mysterious circumstances in which his younger brother, Edwin, was drowned at sea in 933 (supposedly in an open boat without an oar), and Æthelstan’s foundation of the church at Milton Abbas in reparation did him little good either. Æthelstan’s literary reputation reached its nadir in the 14th‑century poem, Æthelston, in which the eponymous hero comes across as a troubled and insecure king, struggling to achieve the moral authority to control his realm.

At the same time, other pre-Conquest kings achieved equal or greater prominence. Attempts to make a saint of Edward the Confessor began soon after his death; he was canonised in 1161. Most problematically for Æthelstan’s cause, Alfred was frequently hailed as the first king to have held sway over all England. Orderic Vitalis, writing in the 12th century, first made that claim, which was energetically promoted by monks at St Albans including Matthew Paris, who went so far as to say that “in view of his merits Alfred was called Great”. King Henry VI even tried in 1441 to get Alfred “the first monarch of the famous kingdom of England” canonised, but without success. No one tried to make a saint of Æthelstan, even though he never married and had such a great reputation for piety in his lifetime.

Æthelstan was overshadowed by the legend of King Arthur, shown in a c1250-80 vellum. (Bridgeman)

 Neither great nor saint, Æthelstan’s place in the popular memory started to slide as the reputation of Alfred increasingly eclipsed that of all Anglo-Saxon kings. Elizabeth’s reign saw an increasing interest in the history of pre-Conquest England; antiquarians collected early English manuscripts and began to publish Anglo-Saxon texts, including Asser’s Life of Alfred. This helped to increase popular understanding of Alfred’s qualities as a ruler and build his reputation as a scholar and statesman at the expense not just of Æthelstan but of all other Anglo-Saxon kings for whom no equivalent biographies survive. William Tyndale had claimed that Æthelstan commissioned an early translation of the Bible. But it was Alfred’s promotion of English over Latin as the language through which to get closer to God that would resonate in the reformed English church, eager to find the historic roots of the Ecclesia Anglicana in the distant past.

Alfred’s reputation flourished further after the publication (in Latin in 1678, and in English in 1709) of John Spelman’s Life of King Alfred, which promoted the king as first founder of the English monarchy. Prince Frederick (son of George II) and his circle of patriots enthusiastically evoked Alfred for his protection of English freedoms and his defeat of foreign enemies, on land and sea. Thomas Arne’s masque Alfred, first performed for Prince Frederick in 1740, concludes famously with the anthem Rule Britannia.

A tenth-century script of the Venerable Bede's 'History of the English People', which was translated during Alfred's reign. (Photoshot)

Thus, gradually during the 18th and 19th centuries, Æthelstan’s memory waned. Only the Freemasons remembered Æthelstan and celebrated him as their mythical founder in England, his ‘son’ (brother) Edwin the first English Grand Master. History books (especially those written for children) found much to celebrate in the deeds for which Alfred was famed, not just his victories over the Danes but his inventions – a candle-clock sheltering inside a horn lantern – and his supposed role in founding the English navy by having ships of a new, longer, design built to try and defeat the enemy at sea.

A national myth
Æthelstan’s right to be considered the first king of all England seemed long forgotten, that epithet given either to Alfred’s grandfather (Ecgberht, d839) or more often to Alfred. Anglo-Saxon topics were popular among Victorian painters but neither Æthelstan nor his great battle at Brunanburh found visual commemoration in any picture exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1769 and 1904; Alfred was however frequently depicted. It was Alfred who took the central role in the creation of a national myth of English and British origins; he became the archetypal symbol of the nation’s own sense of itself. The beginnings of political stability in Britain (which stood in marked contrast to the upheavals elsewhere in 19th‑century Europe) went back to Alfred’s day. As Edward Augustus Freeman argued, Alfred was the most perfect character in history; no other name could compare with his.

Nothing brings out the contrast between the two kings’ reputations better than the marking of the millennial anniversaries of their deaths. Thanks to uncertainty about the precise date of Alfred’s demise, his millennium was celebrated not in 1899 but in 1901. First planned in the aftermath of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897, the celebration was to be a “National commemoration of the king to whom this empire owes so much.”

Crowds travelled to Winchester on Friday 20 September to watch Lord Rosebery unveil Hamo Thornycroft’s massive statue of the king set in the Broadway, Winchester, before proceeding to Winchester Cathedral for a service with the massed choirs of southern English cathedrals, at which the archbishop of Canterbury preached.

Both sides of a silver coin of Æthelstan, which proclaims him as "Rex To Brit" ("King of All Britain"). (British Museum)

 In stark contrast, a single notice in The Times of London for 25 October 1940 (buried under “Ecclesiastical News”), noted the supposed millennium of “Æthelstan the Great” (dating his death to 940, in error for 939). Lamenting that there might in happier times have been some celebration of this event, the correspondent remembered the king as the greatest and most munificent benefactor to St Paul’s Cathedral in London, his donations making that cathedral the richest in England.

Only with the revival of Anglo-Saxonism in the latter years of the 20th century, increased scholarly interest in the Latin and vernacular literature of England before the Conquest, and the critical editing of royal administrative documents, has Æthelstan begun to regain something of his former prominence. His reign lay at the source of many developments. First to unite the English peoples under a single authority, Æthelstan also accepted the submission of all the other rulers of Britain. Welsh kings attended regularly at his court, travelling round the kingdom with him.

 Æthelstan expressed his claim to hegemony over all Britain in a new language of imperial rulership and in visual symbols, most obviously his decision to wear a crown (shown on his coins and in the surviving portrait of the king giving a book to St Cuthbert). His sway over the whole island brought together under one rule peoples that had previously suffered significant political disruption and consequent social breakdown because of the Danish wars and Scandinavian settlements.

Æthelstan created an efficient administrative machine to govern a dispersed realm, and directed much of his legal activity towards the repair and renewal of this fractured and damaged society.

“Very mighty”, “worthy of honour”, “his years filled with glory”, “pillar of the dignity of the western world”, “pious King Æthelstan”: each of these near-contemporary comments reflects aspects of Æthelstan’s achievement and personality. He deserves to be brought out of the shadows that have obscured his memory and celebrated as a key figure in the making of England – and, indeed, the forging of Britain.

Where Æthelstan is remembered
Æthelstan supposedly visited Beverley in the East Riding of Yorkshire on his way to fight a major battle in the north and paused to pray for victory at the shrine of St John of Beverley (a prominent figure in Bede’s History, and an early bishop of Hexham). On his return south, victorious, he refounded Beverley church as a collegiate community of canons and granted it land and a number of privileges including the right of sanctuary. Three monuments in the minster recall the king, including a life-size statue cast in lead in 1781 added to the screen at the entrance to the choir. Æthelstan stands holding a sword in one hand, and in the other the charter of privileges he had given to the town of Beverley. On the opposite side of the archway leading into the choir is a similar statue of Bishop John of Beverley.

Outside the guildhall at Kingston upon Thames in Surrey stands a piece of grey-wether sandstone, believed to be the Anglo-Saxon coronation stone on which Æthelstan was crowned in September 925. The stone once lay in St Mary’s chapel in the town; when that was destroyed, it was moved to the market place, where it served as a mounting block. The Masonic order of Surrey led a campaign in the 1850s to re-situate the relic in a more formal setting, arranging for it to be moved in 1854 to its current location, mounted on a heptagonal base and surrounded by railings. Re-laying the stone involved appropriate Masonic ceremonies, including the sprinkling of the monument with corn, oil and wine.

The coronation stone in Kingston upon Thames on which Æthelstan was crowned in September 925. (Alamy)

In the restored Norman abbey church at Malmesbury in Wiltshire, Æthelstan is commemorated by a late medieval tomb chest in perpendicular style, now in the north aisle.

The king’s recumbent, full-length effigy lies beneath a heavy traced canopy. The original head has been removed and replaced with another of unknown date. Æthelstan was a generous patron of Malmesbury in life and chose to be buried there, near the tomb of St Aldhelm. In the 12th century, William of Malmesbury saw the king’s remains and remarked on his fair hair. During the Reformation his bones were lost and the tomb is now empty.

St Cuthbert and the kings of Wessex
 Both Alfred and Æthelstan are associated with legends relating to St Cuthbert (bishop of Lindisfarne, d687). At his time of greatest need, before the battle of Edington, King Alfred supposedly received a night-time visitation from the saint, who promised him victory and a glorious future for his sons. If Alfred would be faithful to Cuthbert and his people, Albion would be given to him and his sons, and he would be chosen king of all Britain. Æthelstan – who claimed that very title: king of all Britain – showed great devotion to the saint’s shrine on a visit to Chester-le-Street in 934. He gave many precious gifts including a book containing Bede’s life of Cuthbert. The frontispiece to that volume depicts a double portrait of the crowned King Æthelstan presenting the manuscript to Cuthbert.

Sarah Foot is Regius Professor of ecclesiastical history at Christ Church, Oxford and author of Æthelstan: The First King of England.