Athelstan (Old English: Æðelstān, Old Norse: Aðalsteinn; meaning "noble stone") is a young Anglo-Saxon Christian monk taken as a slave by Ragnar Lothbrok from the Lindisfarne Monastery. He is torn between Viking and Christian beliefs, and becomes an adviser and friend to both Ragnar and King Ecbert.
Athelstan was born to Northumbrian parents who already had four sons and a daughter, and couldn't afford yet another child in their home. So, he was placed in the Lindisfarne Monastery. Eventually, Athelstan found happiness, great freedom, and joy in serving the head of the monastery, Father Cuthbert. He had learned to forget about himself and has devoted his life to Christianity. Living in the monastery also saved him from possibly dying of fever like the rest of his family. He grew up to become a scribe, and is fluent or has a working knowledge of several languages, including Old English, Latin, Greek, Old Norse, and probably High German because of his time in Charlemagne's court.
Athelstan is a monk at the Lindisfarne Monastery when Ragnar and his war band raid the monastery. While all the other monks are killed, Athelstan is spared because he begins pleading for his life in Old Norse, which surprised the Vikings.
When questioned by Ragnar on how he learned the Vikings' language, Athelstan tells him that at the monastery the monks are encouraged to travel to "spread the Word of God." Ragnar takes an interest in Athelstan and thinks he may be able give him information that could be valuable for his next raid. Later, Ragnar gets him drunk and tricks him into divulging the locations of other nearby towns and information about them. Athelstan is taken captive at sword-point and dragged back to Kattegat by Ragnar.
Upon arriving in Kattegat, Earl Haraldson is surprised by Ragnar's success, but tells Ragnar and his crew that they may only take one item per person and he will take the rest as punishment for defying him. Ragnar choose Athelstan and takes him as a slave to his family's home and farm.
That night Athelstan tries to sleep as Ragnar and his wife Lagertha have sex. They come to Athelstan and ask if he would like to join them, but Athelstan declines their offer and explains that he has taken an oath of celibacy and God would know of his sin. Ragnar and Lagertha seem unaffected by this and continue on without him. As a slave on Ragnar's farm, Athelstan tends to the family and helps with the children, Bjorn and Gyda.
A while later, Ragnar is preparing for his next raid, and this time Lagertha is accompanying him. Athelstan is placed in charge of their children. Bjorn objects to being put under the authority of a slave, but Gyda has grown attached to Athelstan and is pleased with the idea.
Upon Ragnar's once-again successful return, Earl Haraldson feels increasingly threatened and jealous of him. So, he leads his men on an attack on Ragnar's farm and him and his family. Lagertha leads Athelstan, Bjorn, and Gyda to the safety of a boat as Ragnar fends off the earl and his men. A badly injured Ragnar is chased to a cliff, with his family and Athelstan below in the boat. With no other option, Ragnar jumps off the cliff into the water. Athelstan dives off the boat and rescues Ragnar. They travel down the river to Floki's home and safety.
They arrive at Floki's home where Ragnar receives care for his wound. While there, Ragnar's other allies are contacted and arrive at the house. Floki asks Athelstan about the Christian faith and the Christian creation story and tells the monk the Norse creation story. Ragnar sends Floki to Earl Haraldson's home with a challenge to duel to the death. His challenge is accepted and days later Ragnar and the earl duel. Ragnar is wounded but is able to kill Haraldson, making Ragnar the new Earl of Kattegat. Athelstan watches as Haraldson's housecarls and son-in-law are killed, and as the crowd surrounds Ragnar celebrating his win. Athelstan attends Haraldson's funeral and accompanies the Lothbroks to their new home in Kattegat's Great Hall.
With Ragnar becoming the new Earl of Kattegat, Athelstan appears to have become the Stivardur, or steward, in Ragnar's household. Athelstan is learning about the Norse culture and Norse mythology, including the story of Ragnarok and several other legends. A few months later Ragnar goes to meet with a group of Norsemen, and Athelstan attends to a pregnant Lagertha. Athelstan observes Lagertha's work as queen and is fascinated when she declares an unknown adulterer to be the Norse god Heimdall. Athelstan cares for Lagertha when she has a miscarriage and loses her child and wonders what Ragnar will think when he returns, as he was prophesied to have many sons.
A year or so later, Athelstan has been assimilated into Viking society and lies about his Christian faith, telling the Vikings that he shares their beliefs. Athelstan is questioned by a mourning Ragnar, one of the only people who knows he is still Christian, what the Bible says about grief. Ragnar declares a pilgrimage to the Norse holy place of Uppsala and asks if Athelstan would like to join them. Athelstan says yes, but before departing he goes to Ragnar's old home to read his hidden Bible, which disintegrates in his hands from damage it sustained in Haraldson's attack. Athelstan goes to Uppsala with the Vikings where he is asked by many if he is still Christian, which he denies. Athelstan observes many of the pagan rituals and is given hallucinogenic mushrooms by Rollo. He then roams the campsites that night, watching the revelry of the celebration. He is approached and kissed by Haraldson's daughter, Thyri, who washes him. When asked why she does this she simply says, "Because I must." It is hinted that they possibly have sex. The next morning Athelstan is approached by the Seer and taken to the main temple. There he is asked if he is still Christian, and he denies so three times. It is revealed to him that Ragnar brought him to Uppsala as a sacrifice. Athelstan is shocked and clutches at his cross hidden in his sleeve. This is noticed by the priest who declares that Athelstan cannot be a sacrifice because he is still Christian and does not believe in the gods.
Athelstan and the Vikings return to Kattegat, while Ragnar goes to Götaland. A plague strikes Kattegat and Athelstan is one of the victims, but he eventually recovers. He is grief stricken when he discovers Gyda has been killed by the plague and watches with the other Norsemen as Lagertha performs the cremation and funeral for Gyda and the other victims.
Ragnar confesses to his family, which now includes Athelstan, that he had an affair with Princess Aslaug. The arrival of the heavily pregnant Aslaug fractures Ragnar's family, and Athelstan is saddened by the pain they all feel.
Four years later Athelstan has supposedly converted to Viking paganism and is part of society, although Floki doesn't think his conversion is true. Athelstan goes with Ragnar for his first raid, and Ragnar's first one in three years. While heading to England, a storm separates the Viking longships, but they are eventually able to reunite. Upon washing up on shore, the group is ambushed by unknown soldiers. Athelstan does not hesitate to kill these soldiers in self-defense and in defense of the Vikings. After the battle, Ragnar presents Athelstan with an arm-ring and declares him to be a free man. Athelstan questions the soldier they captured, who informs them that the Vikings are in Wessex, a country where the king is known for his wit and cruelty on the battlefield.
The Vikings continue their journey through Wessex, and Athelstan discovers an abbey with the bones of saints and treasures. The Vikings raid the abbey church with barely a fight and Athelstan stumbles upon a Bible. While admiring the Bible and remembering his days as a monk, a monk surprises him and who urges him not steal anything. A startled Athelstan kills the monk, but immediately regrets it. While standing over the body, Bishop Swithun, comes upon him. Recognizing Athelstan as a monk, he threatens him with crucifixion, despite Athelstan's attempt to get Bishop Swithun to safety. While Swithun is condemning Athelstan, Floki arrives and captures the bishop, tying him to a pillar. The Vikings begin shooting him with arrows. Unable to stand by and watch this torture anymore, Athelstan cuts the bishop's throat, ending his misery but increasing Floki's doubts about Athelstan's loyalty.
The Vikings then set up camp. When Ragnar learns that Kattegat has been taken over by Jarl Borg, Ragnar gathers his closest friends and best warriors to go and retake Kattegat, but Athelstan decides to stay in Wessex with King Horik and his men. While this creates tension between Ragnar and Athelstan, Ragnar does not stop him from staying. Athelstan becomes weary of all the pillaging, violence, and death. He takes a break from the Viking camp and takes out a Bible he had found and while reading it, has a vision of a crucifixion. Later, while hunting for food, Athelstan and the Vikings are attacked, and Athelstan is captured.
The Saxons who capture Athelstan sentence him to be crucified. Before he can die, the king of Wessex, King Ecbert, arrives and stops the crucifixion, thinking that Athelstan will be valuable. After he is taken off the cross, Athelstan is brought to King Ecbert's villa in Winchester under his protection. Upon arriving at King Ecbert's villa, Athelstan's wounds are treated and he is kept close by the king, who includes him much of his royal business. Athelstan begins to have more hallucination, seeing visions of the Virgin Mary and a horrifying devil-beast. Athelstan attends mass, but lies about taking the Eucharist, spitting it out, revealing his newfound paganism is still a strong factor in his life.
Athelstan continues to grow close to King Ecbert, and the king begins to trust Athelstan. Ecbert brings Athelstan to the ancient crypts built by the Romans who conquered England a long time ago. Ecbert puts his treasured Roman relics in Athelstan's care, because unlike his other subjects, Athelstan doesn't consider them unholy or taboo. Ecbert asks Athelstan to translate the Romans' writings from Latin to Old English, a job the always curious Athelstan eagerly accepts.
After the Battle of Wessex, Athelstan discovers a critically wounded Rollo, and rescues him. When Rollo regains consciousness and discovers Athelstan is the one who rescued him, he is disgusted by Athelstan's return to his Christian ways, and even threatens to kill him. Later, King Ecbert sends Athelstan to go and visit with Ragnar and the Vikings to negotiate peace. Upon Athelstan's arrival at the Viking camp, he reunites with Bjorn for the first time in years and informs him, along with all the other Vikings, that Rollo Is alive and recovering. After meeting with Ragnar, they have a small heartfelt conversation about each other's gods and whether or not Athelstan will go back with Ragnar. Hours later, Ragnar, Horik, and Lagertha meet with King Ecbert and arrange for their raiding to stop in exchange for a large amount of land. During this time, Athelstan and Judith fall in love and enjoy a brief affair, which results in Judith becoming pregnant. After the treaty is signed, Athelstan is faced with the choice between staying with King Ecbert or leaving with Ragnar. After much consideration, he chooses to return to Kattegat with Ragnar.
Upon returning to Kattegat, a celebration of their success in Wessex is held. During the feast, Floki mocks Athelstan and says he is the cause of Rollo's suffering. Later in the night, Floki angrily watches Athelstan play a game with Ragnar and Bjorn. Ragnar asks Athelstan to teach him the Lord's Prayer, which Athelstan readily accepts.
Floki's paranoia and distrust of Athelstan only grows. Floki fears that their alliance with Wessex in the Mercian Civil War has resulted in the gods becoming unhappy with the Vikings. Floki accuses Athelstan of conspiring with King Ecbert against them. Later, while building a new longship, Floki has a vision of blood coming out of the wood, and believes this to be a sign that he must spill blood to regain the gods' favor. Floki comes across Athelstan while he is praying. Seeing Floki, Athelstan realizes what is about to happen to him. He faces his death with dignity, calmly letting Floki drive an axe into his skull with a simple, "Lord receive my soul."
Athelstan is a good, trustworthy, authentic, and sincere person. He is open-minded enough to regard the Vikings not as inferior heathens, but as people with a different culture. Despite his deep knowledge of the world and logical mind, he is hopelessly innocent when dealing with other people, especially the ambitious. Despite his intelligence, or perhaps because of it, he finds himself torn between his old religious beliefs and cultural traditions and those to which he is exposed during his time with the Vikings.
Athelstan believes God is good and the Vikings are a punishment from God for his people's sins. He takes his vocation seriously. His "greatest treasure" is an unadorned Bible, and he refuses to join a threesome with Ragnar and Lagertha because of his vow of celibacy. Ragnar is so impressed with his character he puts him in charge of the family farm while he's gone. Though Athelstan leans into Viking culture to fit in, he never fully abandons Christianity. He is constantly torn between the life of a humble Christian scholar and the need to become Viking in order to survive in the new world he finds himself.
Athelstan is "not interested" in escaping, but he'd rather be a free man. Of course, he's also aware that he's incapable of fighting and far away from home in a strange land. Even if he were to escape, he realizes he doesn't really stand a chance at getting home.
By far, Athelstan is one of the characters most defined by his religion. During his time with the Vikings, he does feel some doubts about his Christianity, but ultimately returns to his beliefs. As a monk, Athelstan works as a scribe and is very well read, including having read most scientific knowledge that is available at the time, but he has experienced little until meeting Ragnar. He is one of the most educated characters. He can read and write in multiple languages, spent time in Charlemagne’s court, and has a great deal of knowledge on cultures and religions outside of his own, including Ancient Rome and its predecessors. He becomes the foremost expert on the Norsemen, and continues to exhibit a thirst for knowledge of all kinds. He appreciates books the most, and anything that involves writing and painting.
Athelstan very rarely encounters physical confrontations, and only attacks in defense of his friends or himself. Instead, he overcomes challenges using a combination of his natural intelligence, survival instincts, and cultural knowledge of Saxons and Vikings. He can be quite poetic and philosophical at times, especially with Ragnar and Ecbert.
The second Ragnar and Athelstan meet, they have a connection. Though Athelstan's ability to speak Old Norse helps him avoid being killed, there is something that draws the two together over and over again. When Ragnar meets Athelstan, he is immediately curious about him because of the knowledge Athelstan can provide him with. Their relationship is never romantic, but they still always choose each other over just about anyone else. Their friendship supersedes cultures, religions, and wars. In a way, they are soulmates. Unlike the majority of their peers, the two men are not blinded by intolerance, but see the human side of other people, regardless of where they are from.
While Athelstan starts out as Ragnar’s slave, he eventually is freed and becomes a member of the Lothbrok family. Through Athelstan, Ragnar learns a lot about Anglo-Saxon culture, including how to speak Old English, and learns to see the world in a different way. Ragnar knows that Athelstan never fully abandons his Christianity, but he lets Athelstan get away with his secrets. Ragnar even learns more about the Christian faith himself in an attempt to better understand his friend.
After Ragnar's return to Wessex, Athelstan goes with him back to Kattegat instead of staying in England. His bond with Ragnar is too strong to ignore. Their relationship is riddled with tough situations and dangerous confrontations, but together the pair weather them all. While standing side by side puts them in more danger, it is also the only way their survive. Being so different, the two constantly teach each other new things that make them stronger and smarter. For example, Ragnar teaches Athelstan to fight and about the Viking culture. In return, Athelstan teaches Ragnar about Christianity and diplomacy. Ragnar says that Athelstan is the only person he can truly trust, and when Athelstan dies, it permanently changes Ragnar. Athelstan acted as a conscience to Ragnar, and with his death almost all moral restraints placed on Ragnar disappears with him.
Although not as strong as Ragnar's, Lagertha is consistently shown to have a good friendship with Athelstan. She even invited him to have sex with her and Ragnar. Unlike the other Vikings, Lagertha never displays any disdain for him after Season 1. She comes to view her former slave a real friend. And Athelstan seems to return the sentiment. She clearly trusts him enough to leave him with her children while she is away raiding with Ragnar. When Athelstan's survival is revealed in The Choice, she doesn't hesitate to follow Ragnar in retrieving him. Lagertha's wisdom and kindness earn Athelstan's respect and friendship.
King Ecbert is pragmatic in his approach to Athelstan. However, the two develop a close personal friendship. Ecbert originally sees the potential of allying with the Vikings, and he cozies up to Athelstan because the monk understand Ecbert and his intentions better than Ragnar does. Athelstan doesn't benefit from any fighting between Ecbert and the Vikings, so Ecbert trusts him not to turn the Vikings against him. Ecbert also believes that Athelstan can persuade the Vikings to support Ecbert's demands. He is spared by King Ecbert who frees him from being crucified. The king then takes the former monk under his wing and protects him. Ecbert puts his Roman relics in Athelstan's care because unlike his other subjects, he wouldn't consider them unholy. Ecbert even encourages and maneuvers Judith and Athelstan together.
Athelstan shares some noticeable similarities to Uhtred of Bebbanburg from The Saxon Stories. Both are Northumbrians by birth who are abducted by Vikings, convert to paganism and embrace Norse culture, and find themselves torn between their Saxon and Norse identities.
Athelstan's life also shares many similarities with Alcuin of York. Also known as Ealhwine, he was born around 735 AD. He was a student of Archbishop Ecbert of York, and exchanged letters with the monks at Lindisfarne for years while at the court of Charlemagne. While in Francia, the Lindisfarne Monastery was raided by the Vikings in 793 AD. Alcuin of York became a famous scholar and teacher.
|“||For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under the sun. A time to be born, a time to die; a time to plant, and to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal…||”|
– Athelstan, Raid
|“||I came back because you and Ragnar, all of you are my family.||”|
|“||I’ve asked for a sign. You have given me a sign. You’ve answered my prayers. I was blind, but now I see. I was dead, but… I’m reborn.||”|
|“||Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh.||”|
– Athelstan, Season 4 Trailer
|“||Mercy. Mercy. Mercy.||”|
|“||You were a brave man Athelstan. I always respected you for that. You taught me so much. You saw yourself as weak and conflicted, but to me you were fearless because you dared to question||”|
–Ragnar to Athelstan after his death
- In Sacrifice, Athelstan denies being a Christan three times to the chief priest of the Uppsala Temple. This is the same amount of times Peter denied being a follower of Jesus in the New Testament.
- Athelstan had visions and hallucinations in which he saw Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, but never the Norse gods, symbolizing how Athelstan never abandoned his Christian faith.
- King Ecbert says that Athelstan being able to speak Latin was rare. This is not entirely true, as Latin was common amongst clergy and ecclesiastics of the era. Many monks were charged with translating Latin documents, giving services in Latin, or interpreting biblical works in Latin. There were few English language Bibles at the time, and Latin was required to fully comprehend the messages of the book. It is a possibility that Ecbert was lying to Athelstan.
- Whilst evidently fluent in Old English, his dialect of the language as a Northumbrian would have been different from that of Wessex. It may not have undermined communication at all, but when speaking with captured Wessex soldiers post-battle, or King Ecbert himself, he would have needed a little time to adjust to their different dialects.
|Season one appearances|
|Rites of Passage||Wrath of the Northmen||Dispossessed|
|Trial||Raid||Burial of the Dead|
|A King's Ransom||Sacrifice||All Change|
|Season two appearances|
|Brother's War||Invasion||Treachery||Eye For an Eye||Answers in Blood|
|Unforgiven||Blood Eagle||Boneless||The Choice||The Lord's Prayer|
|Season three appearances|
|Mercenary||The Wanderer||Warrior's Fate||Scarred||The Usurper|
|Born Again||Paris||To the Gates!||Breaking Point||The Dead|
|Season four appearances|
|A Good Treason||Kill the Queen||Mercy||Yol||Promised|
|What Might Have Been||The Profit and the Loss||Portage||Death All 'Round||The Last Ship|
|The Outsider||The Vision||Two Journeys||In the Uncertain Hour Before the Morning||All His Angels|
|Crossings||The Great Army||Revenge||On the Eve||The Reckoning|