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Review: Athelstan – The First King of England by Sarah Foot

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Athelstan - The First King of England by Sarah Foot

Category: Non-Fiction/Biography/Anglo-Saxon History – Hardcover: 336 pages – Publisher: Yale University Press – Source: Independent subscription library
First Published: 2011

The powerful and innovative King Athelstan reigned only briefly (924-939), yet his achievements during those eventful twelve years changed the course of English history. He won spectacular military victories (most notably at Brunanburh), forged unprecedented political connections across Europe, and succeeded in creating the first unified kingdom of the English. To claim for him the title of ‘first English monarch’ is no exaggeration. In this nuanced portrait of Athelstan, Sarah Foot offers the first full account of the king ever written. She traces his life through the various spheres in which he lived and worked, beginning with the intimate context of his family, then extending outward to his unusual multi-ethnic royal court, the Church and his kingdom, the wars he conducted, and finally his death and legacy. Foot describes a sophisticated man who was not only a great military leader but also a worthy king. He governed brilliantly, developed creative ways to project his image as a ruler, and devised strategic marriage treaties and gift exchanges to cement alliances with the leading royal and ducal houses of Europe. Athelstan’s legacy, seen in the new light of this masterful biography, is inextricably connected to the very forging of England and early English identity.

A Sample Quote: ‘Given the difficulties of the evidence for this particular reign, a case could of course be made for not even attempting a biographical treatment (and indeed no one has previously tried to write one.)’

I’m on an Anglo-Saxon kick for as part of a goal to read about all the rulers of England.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is almost silent on him and we only have a handful of his charters. So how do you write a biography of a man who ruled for 15 years and left so few fragments of evidence behind?

Foot’s approach is to break his life into threads, writing chapters on what we know of his family, his court, his military acts etc. It makes this a book for a student, not a lay reader. Analysing the same few fragments of charter and poems eight different ways, chapter after chapter leads to lots of repetition, an understandable amount of guesswork and a little padding. It is interesting and I do feel I much better understand the sources Foot uses to build her biography from, for example the tenth century charters. It is very, very dry though and I confess I struggled with it after three chapters. Perhaps this might have been better read over a longer period as separate-but-linked essays rather than trying to read it as the one book it appears at first glance. I am glad that the subscription library had a copy available for me to borrow and I am grateful I had the opportunity to read it.

I do wish Michael Wood would hurry up and write his book on Athelstan though, I am sure it would be far more approachable!

One final thought, I found the multiple footnotes at the bottom of every single page very distracting, and there are a lot of them. In a text like this I much prefer them at the end – I really do feel they’re supposed to be optional to the reader who wants to know more or wishes to query a citation not forced under the nose of every reader to the point of distraction.

List of books read in 2012 / Index of Non-Fiction

Author: Alex in a Library

Reader, book blogger and adventuress. My home appears to be morphing into a library... I can be found on Twitter as @AlexInALibrary.


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