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Chapter IX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1

Reign of Athelstan - Conspiracy against him - Appeal to the Pope - Death of his brother Edwin.
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Elfward, the eldest legitimate son of Edward, having-survived his father but a few days, and his brothers being under age, Athelstan, the son of the concubine Egwina, ascended the throne in a.d. 924, to the secret discontent of many of the nobility and clergy, who were opposed to him from the illegitimacy of his birth; and a conspiracy was soon entered into to dethrone the new monarch, and raise the young Prince Edwin in his place.

Alfred, the chief of the conspirators, had even taken private measures to seize Athelstan at Winchester, and put out his eyes. The plot being discovered, he was apprehended by the king's order, but would confess nothing; he obstinately persisted in protesting his innocency, and offered to purge himself by oath in the presence of the Pope, an ordeal looked upon in that age as infallible in discovering the truth, since he who was rash or wicked enough to forswear himself was certain, according to the superstition of the time, to meet with a signal punishment, Athelstan agreed to this, and sent him to Rome, to take the oath before Pope John. Perhaps he was unwilling to begin his reign with blood, or, as the sequel proved, had taken, effectual means to prevent his returning; for, shortly after the arrival of the accused in Rome, word was sent that Alfred, having sworn to his innocence before the Pope, suddenly fell into a fainting fit, which, lasting three days, ended with his life; and that the Pope, convinced by his death that he had committed perjury, had ordered his body to remain in the English college till the king's pleasure should be known; upon which Athelstan, pleased with being thus rid of his enemy, consented he should have Christian burial. His lands were, however, confiscated, and given to Malmesbury monastery, and the king had inserted in the grant an account of the whole conspiracy, "to testify to the world that he dedicated to-God what was his own."

The death of Edward, and the troubles which succeeded,. affording the Danes, as they imagined, a favourable opportunity to revolt, they had begun to take such measures as obliged Athelstan to march into their country; but as they had not yet drawn their forces together, they were so surprised by the arrival of the king on their frontiers, that, without endeavouring to defend themselves, they returned to their allegiance; and Sithric, one of their kings, sued for peace upon whatever terms the king might be pleased to impose. Athelstan being desirous to live in peace with the Danes, in order that he might have time to establish himself in the throne, not only pardoned his revolt, but gave him his sister Editha in marriage, on condition that he would receive baptism.

The dissensions In the north being appeased, he returned to Wessex, where he soon afterwards heard of the death of Sithric, who left two sons, Anlaff and Godfrid, by a former marriage. Athelstan, instead of disbanding his army, instantly retraced his march, and the two princes only avoided falling into his hands by a hasty flight, which gave him an opportunity of making himself master of all Northumbria, except the castle of York, which alone held out against him.

Although he had taken the precaution of placing garrisons In most of the cities, the conqueror was far from feeling himself secure in his new possessions. The sons of Sithric were still at liberty, as well as Reginald, another Danish prince, who had fled with them. It was not known what had become of the latter. Anlaff had fled to Ireland, whilst his brother, Godfrid, had found an asylum with the King of Scotland, Constantine, whom Athelstan immediately summoned to deliver him into his hands. Constantine being perfectly aware that he was not in a position to refuse anything to the victor at the head of a powerful army, promised to deliver the prince into his hands, and give him a meeting at Dacor; but whilst he was preparing for his journey, Godfrid made his escape, either through the negligence or connivance of Constantine, who, however, met Athelstan, accompanied by Eugenius, King of Cumberland. Athelstan admitted Constantine's excuses for the Danish prince's escape, but, if English historians are to be credited, obliged both the kings to do homage for their kingdoms.

Before Athelstan quitted the north, Godfrid made an attempt upon York, by means of the castle, where he had still some friends; but failing in the attempt, he put to sea, where for a long time he exercised piracy; and when wearied with that way of life, surrendered himself to the King of England, who received him kindly, and allowed him a handsome pension.

Anlaff, a prince of greater abilities than his brother, took better measures for his restoration. He had, as we have observed, retired into Ireland, where, being informed that the King of Scotland was displeased with Athelstan, he believed he might make use of the opportunity to persuade Mm to espouse his cause. To that end he passed over into Scotland, and intimated to Constantine that he had reason to fear the worst from the King of England; and represented to him that Athelstan, having by surprise seized upon Northumbria, without the least right, might proceed in the same manner with regard to Scotland, and therefore it was absolutely necessary to prevent him. To this he added the offer of a powerful aid from Ireland, assuring him, with that increase of strength, he might easily drive Athelstan out of Northumbria, and free himself from a troublesome and dangerous neighbour, by restoring that kingdom to the Danes, who would serve as a barrier against England. Anlaff found no great difficulty to prevail with the King of Scotland, who, being secretly exasperated at the arrogant reception he had met with, yielded readily to his suggestions, and incited the Welsh to keep the Saxon monarch engaged, whilst he and his new ally should invade Northumbria.

Athelstan, by his expedition, defeated all the measures of the King of Scotland; and directly he was informed of the motions of the Welsh, and the aid sent them by Constantine, he marched into Wales, and giving Howel, prince of the West Welsh, battle, obtained a complete victory, in consequence of which he augmented the tribute paid by him to England.

This war being thus happily concluded, Athelstan ap-j preached the borders of Scotland, to revenge himself on | Constantine for assisting the Welsh. As soon as he passed over the borders he took some towns, and gave the Scots reason to dread more considerable losses. As Anlaff had not yet arrived with the promised supplies, Constantine durst not venture to engage alone in a war against a powerful enemy, who had already advanced so far in his dominions, and was in a condition to carry his conquests so much further. To gain time, therefore, until the Irish joined him, he sued for peace; and Athelstan readily granted his request, being extremely desirous to make that prince his friend, for fear he should countenance the insurrections of the Northumbrians. For this reason he restored to him all the places he had conquered in Scotland, in hopes of cementing, by this liberality, an alliance it was then so much his interest to cultivate. Some historians, however, affirm that Athelstan obliged Constantine to do him homage for Scotland; but the Scots peremptorily deny this, nor is there any good authority for the assertion.

Athelstan's generosity was not sufficient to prevent Constantine from pursuing the execution of his first projects. He rather hastened his preparations the more, being indignant that he was compelled to receive obligations from one whom he always considered as a most bitter enemy. Athelstan, meanwhile, had returned into Wessex, in the full hope of enjoying the repose which he expected his successes would have secured him. But he met with domestic calamities which gave him more anxiety than, all the wars he had been engaged in.

One of those fawning flatterers, who are the curse of courts, persuaded the king that his legitimate brother Edwin was secretly conspiring against him. This accusation Athelstan, aware of the defect in his title to the crown, unhappily gave ear to, and affected to believe the charge, whether he did or not. The prince was arrested by his unnatural brother, who, fearing to put him to death publicly, had him conveyed on board a vessel without sails or rudder, and ordered it to be let drift away to sea.

It was in vain that Edwin protested his innocence. Athelstan was inexorable: the prince's real crime was in his birth, and that was the one the jealous monarch punished.

Edwin, to avoid perishing by hunger, cast himself into the waves, and was drowned.

No sooner was the object of his terror removed for ever, than remorse seized upon the murderer, who, to quiet his conscience, founded the Abbey of Middleton, in Dorsetshire, where masses were daily offered for the repose of the victim's soul.

Edwin's accuser had not reason long to rejoice at the success of his malicious calumnies; for one day, as he waited at table with the king's cup, one of his feet slipping, he would have fallen, had he not, by the nimble-ness of the other, recovered himself. Whereupon he jokingly said, "See how one brother helps another!" which senseless jest cost him his life; as Athelstan, who overheard it, and considered it as a covert reproach addressed to himself, ordered him to be immediately executed; and thus, says the old chronicler, revenged his brother's death by that of his false accuser.

Whilst these things were passing at court, Constantine continued his preparations for the execution of the project concerted between him and Anlaff. The latter, whom some groundlessly style King of Ireland, had contrived to engage in the league the Irish, Welsh, and Northumbrian Danes, who ardently desired to have a king of their own nation on the throne. Anlaff appeared as head of this league, though Constantine was no less concerned in it, the war being carried on chiefly at his expense. The project was managed so privately, that Anlaff entered the Humber with a fleet of six hundred sail, and invaded Northumbria before Atheist an had any intelligence of his landing; and with such forces, and the assistance of the Danes settled there, he easily became master of several small ill-guarded towns: but the fortified places that were well garrisoned by the English stopped his progress, and gave Athelstan time to draw his army together; who used such expedition, that ho surprised the two confederate princes upon their march towards Bernicia. It had been agreed that this small kingdom, if conquered, should be apportioned to the King of Scotland; but the prompt measures of Athelstan, by surprising the invaders, totally defeated their plans. The two armies met at Brunanburgh, where a bloody battle was fought, in which victory finally declared for Athelstan; and the allies lost Constantine, King of Scotland, six Irish and Welsh kings, and twelve earls and general officers. This victory was chiefly owing to the valour of Turketul, the king's cousin, who was afterwards Abbot of Croyland. The abbey over which this soldier-priest presided was subsequently destroyed by the Danish invaders, the priests being massacred at the altar as they were singing their aves.

That same night the camp was attacked by the Danes, and a prelate, who had pitched his tent on the same spot where Athelstan's had stood, was slain with his followers.

Athelstan survived his victory three years, and died a natural death in 941, being then forty-six years old, and having reigned seventeen.

Amongst all his works of piety, which consisted chiefly in building and endowing monasteries, there is one act of usefulness which must not be passed over in silence: he caused the Scriptures to be translated into the Saxon tongue, the one generally in use in the island; and appears to have been exceedingly anxious that they should be well done, employing for that purpose the most learned scholars in his kingdom. Though he seemed to be entirely engrossed by military affairs, he found time to cause justice and civil government to flourish in his dominions; which is proved by the excellent laws he, from time to time, added to those of Alfred, his grandfather. From such of his laws as are still extant, it appears that his intent was to create an equality in civil and religious immunities; that he was exceedingly opposed to the privileges the clergy had so much increased, and which he found served only to authorise wickedness, and prove a sanctuary for crime.

The famous Dunstan, who afterwards carried the ecclesiastical power to such a height in England, that it equalled, if it did not surpass that of the crown, was born in his reign.

To form a proper estimate of the character of Athelstan, we must take into consideration, not only the time in which he lived, but the peculiarity of his position. The former was at an age when the strong hand gave right, and men regarded success rather than the means by which it was achieved; when the ceaseless warfare familiarised the nation with deeds of cruelty and oppression. The crime for which historians have most reproached him, was the murder of his brother Edwin.

The difficulty of his position arose from his illegitimacy. Having no lineal claim to the crown, many of the nobility felt humiliated at being governed by a monarch whoso birth they considered to be beneath their own. Hence, many acts of cruelty, unceasing jealousy, and suspicion, which would otherwise have been avoided.

As a military leader, he appears to have been possessed of great courage, no ordinary resolution, and considerable skill. The rapidity of his marches frequently astonished the Danes, who lost ground in the island during his reign; whilst his successes against the Scots were equally remarkable.

Although he left male issue, none were old enough to succeed him; and Edmund, the eldest legitimate surviving son of his father, succeeded him. He was a mere youth, and not destitute of spirit, but far too young and inexperienced to carry out successfully the warlike policy of his predecessor, on whoso death the Danes, Scots, and Welsh once more began to entertain thoughts of retaliation, and freedom from the yoke so successfully imposed.

The events to which these aspirations naturally gave rise will be found recorded in the succeeding reign.

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Pictures for Chapter IX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1

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