Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

King Athelstan


King Athelstan presenting a copy of Bede's two lives of St Cuthbert to the saint in his shrine at Chester-le-Street in 934. This is the earliest surviving royal Anglo-Saxon portrait (Corpus Christi Cambridge MS 183, fol. 1v).

Image: Wikipedia

Last night I was at a very lively and stimulating lecture given by Prof. Sarah Foot to the Oxford University History society. Her subject was King Athelstan, of whom she has recently completed the biography in the Yale English Monarchs series. She started by asking how many of those students present had heard ofAthelstan before the lecture was publicised - not all had.

Her talk concentrated on Athelstan - King for 924 to 939 - not just as first King of an England we would call by that name, but also as the first King of Britain. In that he was to be emulated bt his nephew Edgar 958-975, but not again until Edward I sought, and ultimately failed, to impose unity in the late thirteenth century.

She also had some splendid insights into the practical politics which underlay tenth- century kingship, the political and international marriage alliances and also the significance of relics to Athelstan, whose great collection ended up at Exeter cathedral.

Athelstan was the first English King to wear a crown rather than a ceremonial helmet, and the crown depicted in the manuscript shown above and on some of his coinage portraits well be an attempt to depict what he actually wore.

She also spoke about the way in which from the sixteenth century Athelstan slipped from the historical memory and how his grandfather Alfred emerged as
the unifying English King par excellence., in part because of his part in developing the use of the English language.

I look forward to finding the time to read what will, based on the academic good humour Prof. Foot displayed in her talk, I am sure be a very readable as a well as scholarly book.

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