Is Athelstan based on a historical character?
Athelstan, Ragnar Lothbrok’s loyal companion, is a key character in the Vikings series. A monk, then a slave, who is finally reborn as a Viking, this protagonist will have won the hearts of all fans.
In this regard, have you ever wondered if the character of Athelstan is real? Did he really exist?
Beware of spoilers, the answer to this question might surprise you! George Blagden, the actor who plays Athelstan in the series, revealed in an interview that he is indeed based on a real person.
Without further ado, we take a look at the historical side of the famous character from the Vikings series. As a bonus, find out what his relationship is with the great ruler of England, King Athelstan!
The story of Athelstan: a monk with a Viking heart
Among all the protagonists of the Vikings series, Athelstan is the only character to have conquered the hearts of all the fans of the series. Indeed, many consider him to be a pillar of Viking history.
Not surprisingly, he owes this very special place to his unique character. Both touching and very human, this Christian monk finds comfort in his new Viking identity.
Although he embodies the dream of many to become a Viking, this decision will cost him more than he can imagine. To this end, he will be tormented for many years between his Christian part and his new Nordic doctrine.
Although this choice is not of any respite, it is what allows him to become the faithful companion of Ragnar. At his side, he will discover his new identity as a Viking.
With this introduction to Athelstan out of the way, it’s time to get to the heart of the matter: the historical truth about this character.
The origins of Athelstan according to the Vikings series
Athelstan, whom you all know from the Vikings series, is played by the talented George Blagden. He is an English monk who was taken prisoner during one of the very first Viking raids.
This attack on the monastery of Lindisfarne in Northumbria in the year 793, marks the beginning of Ragnar Lothbrok’s adventures, and of an unsuspected friendship!
Once brought back to Scandinavia, he becomes the slave and servant of Ragnar and his family. However, he shows incredible courage and perseverance that will make him an indispensable member of the house of Lothbrok.
Indeed, Athelstan had two trump cards up his sleeve, both of which were surprising to say the least:
- Indeed, he had great knowledge about England and the strategic places in this country. This information will prove to be very valuable for Ragnar who already had plans for his conquest.
- However, Athelstan’s greatest asset was his perfect command of the Norse dialect. In fact, he had already done missions in the north as a missionary for the church. Remember this detail, it will prove to be very important later on.
It is mainly for this reason that he could so easily integrate the Viking civilization. Against all odds, he adopts the values, beliefs and way of life of the Scandinavian people as his own. He even participates in raids with his rescuer and faithful friend Ragnar.
Thus, Athelstan discovers the beauty of the Viking culture, but remains torn between his Christian faith and his desire to be fully part of his new people.
Is the character of Athelstan real?
We will disappoint many of you, but the short answer is: NO!
Unlike Ragnar Lothbrok or his legendary sons, Athelstan is not mentioned anywhere in the Norse sagas.
He is therefore a character who was entirely invented for the series. However, this does not mean that he is not based on real historical facts.
Moreover, it is useful to know that the Nordic sagas and books relate the exploits of great Vikings. Heroes who do not have a Scandinavian origin are very rarely mentioned.
However, the story of the one we know as Athelstan was mentioned in the pages of Viking history. Therefore, two true elements from the Norse stories inspired this character:
- In the first place, its name comes from a ruler who marked the whole Viking civilization. One could say that he is the real historical Athelstan. The two characters share many features and characteristics. Patience, we’ll tell you more, further down in the article.
- The second element is the mention of three monks captured during a Viking raid. According to these same historical sources, one of them had abandoned his Christian beliefs and became a true Northman!
Therefore, it is very logical to ask how much historical truth there is in Athelstan’s account.
Is there any historical evidence of its existence?
Well, we’ve already spoiled the answer for you. In fact, we owe this surprising revelation to the actor who plays Athelstan in the Vikings series at WonderCon 2013!
George Blagden claims that Athelstan’s historical identity is based largely on a little-known monk from Norse history. Indeed, according to Blagden: “legend has it that of the three monks abducted from Lindisfarne, only one of them will become part of Viking culture.”
It was the creator of the Vikings series, Michael Hirst, who discovered this story when he was looking through the historical archives. According to Blagden, “two of the monks died, but the one who survived was supposed to be Athelstan.
Unfortunately, George Blagden did not want to reveal more details about this intriguing legend at the time, so as not to spoil the story. Nevertheless, you know we can’t leave it at that!
A multi-faceted character
Earlier in the article, you were asked to remember Athelstan’s major asset. Indeed, in the Vikings series, Athelstan claims to have learned the Viking language as a missionary. Well, it’s quite possible!
Indeed, from the 8th century onwards, many missionaries were active throughout Scandinavia. Although there were very few conversions to Christianity, this does not prevent these men of religion from mixing with the Viking civilization.
Not surprisingly, two missionaries left their names in the Nordic civilization:
- The missionary Willibrord: what is known is that he was active mainly in Denmark, from the year 710 AD. Although he was a foreigner, he was treated with the greatest respect by the Vikings;
- The monk Ansgar: as for him, he was active a century later in 820 AD. Unlike his ancestor, he will concentrate his efforts on the Swedish communities. This was not in vain, since he founded the first Christian chapel in Scandinavia, in Hedeby, in the year 860.
Thus, Athelstan is based on a real missionary monk, saved by his mastery of the Viking language. It is not very difficult to understand why this historical character quickly made a place for himself in the Viking ranks!
The Vikings series, a delicate balance between entertainment and historical facts
Although after his revelations you might question the character of Athelstan, the truth is quite different. Indeed, this character is one of the closest to the historical reality of this era.
The goal of the Vikings series is above all to entertain the viewer, and not to be a “real documentary” on the Vikings. That’s why the characters in the series have to be captivating and appealing.
George Blagden, the actor who plays Athelstan, praises the skill of series creator Michael Hirst. He says, “He does a great job of balancing the historical part with the entertainment.”
For example, these kinds of scriptural liberties can be found in the stories of many other characters in the series. Examples include:
- The meeting and friendship of Floki with Ragnar. In reality, more than half a century separates these two characters. In fact, they did not live in the same era and never crossed paths.
- The rivalry between Ivar Ragnarsson on the one hand, and Lagertha and Björn I on the other, has no historical basis. On the other hand, Ragnar’s sons have always had a very good relationship.
So, although the Athelstan you knew in the Vikings series did not really exist, his character remains very realistic. His historical dimension rings true with the age of the Vikings.
A story very close to reality!
For the Vikings, churches and monasteries were always easy targets for attack. These places of worship often had a lot of “sacred” or “untouchable” wealth, but not for a Viking!
Thus, the Viking raid in 793 AD on the monastery of Lindisfarne, marks the beginning of the great Viking era. Although this was not the very first Viking raid on English soil, it was a true historical event.
However, Ragnar did not lead this raid, because at that time he was not yet born. Nevertheless, this does not change the fate of the men and women captured during these attacks: they are brought back to Viking territory to become slaves.
As with Athelstan, slavery was commonplace in Viking culture. It may come as a surprise to some, but the slave trade was vital to the Viking economy.
This did not mean that the Vikings were merciless towards them. Just as we see with Athelstan in the series, many slaves become very close to their new Viking family. Some Vikings may lose everything to protect their slaves.
This is for example the case of the great explorer Erik the Red who is banished from his village for the murder of another Viking. The motive of this crime would be none other than to avenge one of his slaves, who had become his faithful friend.
It was also very common for the Vikings to give slaves their freedom. Indeed, this is what Ragnar does for Athelstan in the series. In return, he demands her loyalty to him and his family.
Thus, Athelstan is more than just a fictional character, he embodies the fate of many people who lived in the Viking Age.
Why does Ragnar save Athelstan in the Vikings series?
You already know part of the answer. In addition to being a potential slave, he has mastered the Viking language. But beyond that, Athelstan is essential to Ragnar’s development.
Indeed, over time, Athelstan and Ragnar become friends and brother-like. Both characters learn a lot from each other.
Athelstan does not remain indifferent to Viking beliefs. He fully embraces this culture and begins to worship the Norse gods with Ragnar. Although this pushes him towards an inner conflict, he finds truth in both religions.
However, Athelstan instills the principles of Christianity in the people around him. Ragnar, who is very close to him, is particularly fascinated by this religion, which he ends up adopting. This Christian part of him that he has never been able to abandon will lead him to his ruin.
To tell the truth, Floki earns him an unparalleled hatred. Spoiler alert, he kills him coldly in season 3 because of his Christian influence on Ragnar.
The real Athelstan of Nordic history
The Athelstan we all know so well is actually named after an English ruler from Northumbria, King Athelstan. He was the first king to rule all of England from 927 to 939 AD.
Unlike the series, he is not Alfred’s father. Indeed, the real Athelstan is actually the son of King Edward the Elder and Queen Ecgwynn.
Although he was long out of the history books, historians consider him to be the first king to unify all of England. You’ll soon make the connection with Ecbert’s aspiration to become one in the Vikings series. Moreover, he is one of the few kings to have fought and successfully defeated the Vikings.
Named after a very great English king, Athelstan is the witness of a whole Viking era. His character and his story, which are not lacking in meaning, shed light on the lesser known side of the Viking civilization.
Athelstan is the character through which we discover the Viking culture. Both fascinating and brutal, we learn about the workings of this civilization through the eyes of the only character we can truly relate to.