Reinventing Æthelstan: Anglo-Saxon Kingship in the Íslendingasögur

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


In part faithful record of transmitted oral narratives, in part authorial invention, the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Íslendingasögur relate the histories and legends of Iceland in the ninth- and tenth-centuries. The narratives are complex documents. Authored to preserve national narratives, the Íslendingasögur were also designed to meet the expectations of an audience contemporaneous with the authorship, and at times were written under the auspices of the vested interests of a patron or specific politic milieu. As such, the historicity of any transmitted narrative element with the Íslendingasögur requires detailed examination to unravel. This paper will look at the topos of Anglo-Saxon kingship that at times intrudes into these primarily Icelandic narratives, using the depiction of Æthelstan (r. 924 – 939) in Egils saga Skallagrímssonar as a vehicle to facilitate the examination. Though Æthelstan’s reign suffers from a paucity of contemporary documentation, it is nonetheless known that he was a king of trans-European repute. The marriage alliances Æthelstan sought with continental polities through his sisters, his hegemony over Anglo-Scandinavian England and Scotland, and his victory at the battle of Brunanburh, create the image of a king whose power was unrivalled to that point in Anglo-Saxon history. In his twelfth-century Gesta regum Anglorum, William of Malmesbury depicts Æthelstan as a paradigm of kingship. However, in the only other significant account that purports to evidence the personal character of the king, Egils saga Skallagrímssonar depicts a weak king, a mere foil for the heroism of the Icelandic protagonist. Thus this paper seeks to establish whether the characterisation of Anglo-Saxon kingship in the Íslendingasögur was a narrative device designed to augment Icelandic heroism, or whether there is some historicity behind the transmission of Anglo-Saxon kingship in Icelandic saga.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes
EventConference of the Australian Early Medieval Association - Australian National Univeristy, Canberra, Australia
Duration: 21 Apr 201722 Apr 2017
Conference number: 12th


ConferenceConference of the Australian Early Medieval Association


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