It happened today - July 12, 2016
On July 12 Scotland became part of England. Not entirely and not for the last time. Because I refer to the occasion in 927 when King Constantine II of Scotland accepted the overlordship of Athelstan the Magnificent, along with King Hywel Dda of Deheubarth, Ealdred of Bamburgh and King Owain of Strathclyde.
I like the story partly because I think it’s revealing that England could have had a king deservedly called “the Magnificent” during what are habitually pilloried as “the Dark Ages.” Athelstan was the grandson of Alfred “the Great” (ditto). And after a contested succession he went on to be not just king of Wessex but, it is generally agreed, the first King of England. And when you consider the impact of excessive political fragmentation on national security and therefore on culture including learning, surely it’s good that England was unified.
As for Athelstan himself, he does actually seem to have been magnificent. Not just in his geopolitical accomplishments but as a ruler. His councils included members from all over, not just local favourites, and were attended by Welsh rulers as well as his own subjects. They produced important legal documents and focused on the suppression of robbery and disorder. Athelstan was also a very pious man, founding churches and collecting relics. His court, like that of his grandfather, was a centre of learning. And he played an important role in European politics.
In the end it didn’t really “take”. His 15-year reign from 924-27 as King of Wessex and 927 to 939 as King of the English was followed by a reasonable period of peace and prosperity through that of his nephew Edgar the Peaceful (959-975 but the fourth king after Athelstan), famously rowed on the Thames by roughly eight kings to symbolise his overlordship. But the combination of Aethelred the Unready’s treacherous weakness and renewed Danish invasions meant a very troubled 11th century. His conquest of the last Viking kingdom in England in 927 was followed by revolts including one on his death that re-established Viking rule until the final reconquest in 954. And for that matter the submission of Constantine II only brought about seven years of peace on the chronically turbulent English-Scottish border although Constantine’s revolt failed thanks to Athelstan’s decisive victory at Brunanburh, while Scotland later became independent and did not rejoin England decisively until 1707, something many Scots now unaccountably seem to regret.
The fact that the Danes came back and Aethered made a right mess of their return is not an indictment of Athelstan. Instead his reign is one more proof of Faulkner’s dictum that history isn’t was, it’s is. The desirability of a united, indepedent United Kingdom, and the difficulty of attaining and preserving it, is very much with us to this day.
Unlike Athelstan or any other leader remotely likely to be dubbed “the Magnificent” now or by posterity, I can’t help noticing.