The Viking Age: King Athelstan’s Influence on Hakon The Good

Today, I wanted to take a closer look at King Athelstan, king of the “English” during the Viking Age, and more specifically, at his possible influence on his foster son, Hakon the Good.

First, let us take a quick peek at Athelstan. His grandfather Alfred may have been called “the Great”, but Athelstan’s achievements are no less remarkable. He came to the throne at the ripe old age of ~31 (comparatively late for rulers of the time), after the death of two of his half-brothers. He made quick use of this time. In two years, he conquered the last remaining Viking kingdom of York and became, for all intents and purposes, the first king of the English, or Rex Anglorum, if only temporarily. Whereas his grandfather Alfred managed to keep the Vikings from completely overrunning the Anglo-Saxons, Athelstan drove the Vikings from York and achieved Alfred’s ultimate vision of a “kingdom” united under one Christian king.

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In the ensuing years, Athelstan achieved many of the goals his grandfather had begun. He centralized government and increased production of laws and charters. Scholars differ in their opinion of the actual laws, but they agree on one point. His pace was “feverish.” More legal texts survive from his reign than from any other 10th-century English king.

Like his grandfather, he was also pious, and was known for collecting relics and supporting churches. His council included many of the leading clergy of the time, including some from continental Europe.

One of Athelstan’s greatest achievements may have been his keen attention to foreign policy, especially with continental Europe. His actions in this area follow a trend that began with his predecessors, but Athelstan redoubled his attention to these matters, most likely to counteract the threat of the Vikings, but also, possibly, to establish himself as a leading ruler in Christendom. Athelstan married several of his sisters to continental royalty, including one to the Duke of the Franks and another to the future Otto the Great. He fostered several sons from these relationships, and he supported those foster sons in their campaigns to retake their kingdoms.

And this is where Hakon Haraldsson’s story intertwines with Athelstan’s. As the sagas recount, Athelstan sent a gift -- a sword -- to King Harald Finehair in Norway. In exchange, Harald sent his bastard child to Athelstan to foster. The “gift” of a bastard child must have been seen as a slight, but Athelstan accepted him nevertheless. There are no texts stating why he did so, though one can guess that he must have viewed this as an opportunity to Christianize a pagan who might ultimately play a role in the politics of his enemy, and hence, reduce the attacks on his kingdom.

If this was his intent, it seems to have worked, at least in part. Hakon became a Christian, and returned to his realm to overthrow his brother Erik. Accounts vary on whether Hakon stuck to his faith or finally gave into the demands of his people to re-convert; but at least initially, Hakon attempted to Christianize his northern kingdom by bringing missionaries to his realm and establishing churches.

Athelstan’s influence, however, went farther than Christianity. Hakon focused much attention on the legal system of his realm. The system of things was in place long before Hakon, but the sagas tell us the Erik made a sham of them. Of Hakon, the sagas write: “He was a man of great understanding also, and bestowed attention on law-Giving.” In fact, Hakon used one law to gain the support of his subjects in his campaign against Erik, the return of odal rights to the landholders. While that may have had nothing to do with Athelstan’s influence, it could be argued that Hakon learned much from his foster-father and saw the benefit of laws from his time in Wessex and therefore, re-created a legitimate legal system that his subjects could trust.

The same could be said for the skipreide system in Norway, which was an administrative division of geography where the residents were collectively responsible for building, holding, equipping and staffing a warship. According to Heimskringla, this legal system was put in place after the first major battle with Erik’s sons, and was enacted all over the land “along the coast as far inland as the salmon leaps.” Did he learn this method of conscription from the English fyrd system, and more specifically, the scip-fyrd, or was it in place before Hakon came to power and he just improved upon it? We don’t know, but it is possible Hakon learned something of defense from his time in Athelstan’s kingdom and as a result, spent time reinvigorating this system.

We may never know the true extent of Athelstan’s influence on his foster son, but it makes for some good conversation. If any of you have other thoughts on the matter, I would love to hear them.