King Athelstan - 924 ~ 2024

Athelstan, Æthelstan or Aethelstan?

When King Athelstan has his name written in modern times, it normally appears as either Athelstan or Æthelstan, or very occasionally as Aethelstan. So which is correct?

In fact, any or all of these are acceptable as understandable transcriptions of his name into the modern alphabet. After some consideration, we have chosen to use Athelstan throughout our events programme in 2024, and here’s why.

In the 10th Century, his name would have been written in Old English in Wessex, Mercia and parts of Central Northumbria as:-


(or in upper case ÆÐELSTAN as it appears on his coins)

Silver Penny in the Collection of the Athelstan Museum, Malmesbury.

In East Anglia and Eastern England north of the Humber it would have been written in Old Norse as:- Aðalsteinn

So, how should we represent his name to an audience which uses the modern alphabet?

So, how should we represent his name to an audience which uses the modern alphabet? The letters e, l, s, t, a and n have come down to us unchanged, but we need to decide how to transcribe the Old English Æ (æ) and Ð (ð).

Æ (æ) is the Old English letter <æsc> (pronounced ‘ash’).

Ð (ð) is the Old English or Norse letter <eth>, derived from the even older Runic letter þ (thorn).  

As the Ð (ð) has been lost, has no modern single letter equivalent and is not recognisable to modern eyes as indicating the sound it represented, it is universally replaced with the modern <th> combination. 

From the medieval chroniclers to the 20th century typewriter, there has been a desire or necessity to replace the Æ (æ) with a single letter of the latin alphabet, either an A or an E. William of Malmesbury, writing in Latin, used E (as in Ethelstanus for Athelstan and Elfredus for Alfred) for all the Saxon names which began with Æ in the Old English. In the town of Malmesbury, where his name has been associated with many local institutions and businesses for centuries, it has nearly always been written as Athelstan with an ‘A’.

With the advent of widely accessible modern computing, the presence of an ASCII code for the character Æ makes its use possible again, (even though there is no single key for it on the computer keyboard), particularly as Æ does appear to represent a letter combination which can be pronounced. But we have chosen not to use this variant as using the Old English Æ (æ) but not the Ð (ð) seems somewhat inconsistent. 

Meanwhile, using ‘Ae’ as a capitalised ‘A’ and a separate lower case ‘e’ does not represent either Æ or æ, but a rather inelegant hybrid of the two, (although a fully capitalised AETHELSTAN can also work).

So for the Athelstan1100 events programme, we have chosen to use Athelstan throughout, reflecting the most common spelling of his name in Malmesbury in modern times.