Constructing a King: William of Malmesbury and the Life of Æthelstan

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Abstract

Gesta regum Anglorum, written by William of Malmesbury in the twelfth century, is a key source for the life of the tenth-century Anglo-Saxon king, Æthelstan (924-939). Contemporary narrative histories provide little detail relating to Æthelstan's kingship, and the account of Gesta regum Anglorum purports to grant an unparalleled insight into his life and reign. William's abbey at Malmesbury had a unique connection to Æthelstan-the Anglo-Saxon king had gifted the abbey lands and relics in life, and in death had been laid to rest there. Thus, two-centuries after his death, Malmesbury was perhaps the most likely region in England to retain an affection for Æthelstan. However, due to this regional affinity with the Anglo-Saxon king, William's narrative must be viewed with some suspicion, designed as it is to emphasise Æthelstan's connection to Malmesbury and eulogise the abbey's Anglo-Saxon benefactor. It is a complex literary construction that at times demonstrates an historian's concern for the veracity of sources and the integrity of their interpretation, while at others is wont to delve into hagiographical hyperbole. This paper undertakes to examine critically William's historiographical methodologies as identified within his life of Æthelstan, thereby exposing the intrinsic interrelation between source documents, local tradition, material history, and authorial invention in his construct of the Anglo-Saxon king.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)69-92
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of The Australian Early Medieval Association
Volume13
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Historiography
  • William of Malmesbury
  • Gesta regum Anglorum
  • AEthelstan
  • Anglo-Saxon literature

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