By Kevin Halloran
Published Online (2012)
Introduction: Although there were diplomatic and political contacts between the southern English and the kings of Alba and Strathclyde before the reign of Athelstan it seems fair to say that it was the West Saxon king’s annexation of Northumbria in 927 that brought a new level of intensity to Anglo-Scottish relations. Up until then the primary concern for the English had been to secure their recently recovered territories south of the Humber and Mersey from Viking attack and to forestall any encouragement to the Scandinavians of the southern Danelaw to attempt to liberate themselves from English rule. Following the battle of Corbridge in 918 Æthelflæd of Mercia concluded a treaty of mutual protection with the Scots and Strathclyde Britons against the Vikings; “so that whenever the same race should come to attack her, they would rise to help her. If it was against them that they came, she would take arms with them.”
In 920 there was a more general settlement between Edward the Elder and the northern rulers, including not only the kings of Alba and Strathclyde but also Ragnall, Viking ruler of Northumbria, and the sons of Eadwulf, the recently ousted ruler of Bernicia. The nature of this meeting and treaty has been much disputed but it seems likely that in practical terms Edward was chiefly concerned with the security of the Anglo-Danish areas of eastern England.
English concerns over the Viking threat did not diminish after 927 and remained important to diplomatic and political relations with the northern kings. They featured at the meeting at Eamont in that year and were central to the agreement between Edmund and Mael Coluim in 945 following the English king‟s Strathclyde campaign. But in the decade after Athelstan‟s annexation of Northumbria such concerns were overshadowed by a new antagonism that was rooted in both geography and ideology. The geographical dimension is self-evident. There is wide support for the proposition that throughout the tenth century the kings of Alba and Strathclyde had political and territorial ambitions towards northern Northumbria. There would now no longer be any buffer between them and Athelstan’s kingdom and conflict over disputed areas of interest in Lothian, Bernicia and the Cumbric west was all too likely. That this likelihood would become an inevitability was due in large part to ideology and, in particular, a developing idea of kingship and rulership over the whole island of Britain which emerged at Athelstan’s court in the years after 927. From the late 920s frequent references in royal charters to the English king’s rightful pre-eminence in Britain crystallized in the early 930s with the adoption of the royal style rex totius Brittaniae.