Levi Roach ’s book is an attempt to redeem the reputation of Æthelred II, king of England, with one interruption, from 978 to 1016. This is a hard task, as the book’s title concedes: Æthelred has been known as ‘the Unready’ for around a thousand years. Ever since 1066 and All That (originally a parody of Oxford University exam papers) he has also been logged as ‘the first Weak King of England’. The charge sheet includes incompetence, indecision, cruelty, paranoia and even, very un-regally, being a ‘mother’s boy’. In the popular estimation he probably outranks Bad King John and Wicked King Richard III as the worst ever English king.
He has this terrible reputation largely because of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This composite work is thought to have been first compiled in the 890s under the auspices of King Alfred, then copied and continued in different places by many different hands until 1154, at least in the case of the Peterborough manuscript (though much of this was probably copied from a manuscript kept up at Canterbury, which was itself no doubt a copy from somewhere else: the history of the Chronicle is a notorious maze). It has always been valued highly by historians because much of it was written by contemporary observers of events. It was composed in the vernacular, so it’s free of the flowery rhetoric and insistent moralising that disfigure similar Continental works in Latin. Some of its chroniclers mix observation and commemoration with attractively dispassionate analysis. In his entry for 897, the Winchester chronicler concludes his account of the long struggle between Alfred and the Vikings by saying that it had not, after all, been totally overwhelming: the Vikings had been bad, disease and cattle plague were worse, but the worst thing was the high casualty rate among English leaders. Eight of them are named, from ealdormen and a bishop down to Ecgwulf, the king’s ‘horse-thane’ or marshal: these men had led from the front. There’s no hysteria, just a considered, well-informed, rather unexpected, and on reflection plausible evaluation. Just what you want from a civil servant.
Three of the Chronicle manuscripts agree that Æthelred’s reign went downhill following ealdorman Byrhtnoth’s famous defeat at the Battle of Maldon in 991. That was when ‘it was first decided that tribute should be paid to the Danes’: ‘first 10,000 pounds [of silver]’. Archbishop Sigeric, the chronicler tells us, ‘first decided this’. The trouble with ‘paying danegeld’ was that it only encouraged them to come back for more. The Vikings’ demands and the English payoffs went up and up: 16,000 pounds in 994, 24,000 in 1002, 36,000 in 1007, 48,000 in 1012, 21,000 in 1014, and a heroic 72,000, plus 10,500 more from London, in 1018. The total comes to 80 or 90 tons of silver, from a country that by that time, as far as we know, had no natural source of the metal. That total doesn’t include local payments, or the receipts of plunder before deals were struck (‘indescribable war-booty’ according to a Chronicle entry for 997), or of the people killed, starved, burned out or carried off to the slave markets of Scandinavia.
Even worse for Æthelred’s reputation are the signs of national demoralisation that appear with increasing frequency in the manuscripts. In the entry for 1006 the Peterborough chronicler says that the national levy imposed at harvest time did just as much damage as the Vikings, and that the local population therefore suffered at the hands of both innhere and uthere. Here was the usual term for the Vikings, but the chronicler applies it both to them (the ‘out-here’) and to the national army (the ‘in-here’): one was as bad as the other. Later in the same entry he notes an English boast that if the Vikings ever reached Cwichelm’s Barrow, now Cuckhamsley Barrow in Berkshire, they would never get home – the barrow being about as far from the sea as you can get in England. The Vikings accordingly made a point of going there and waiting to be challenged; when no challenge came they proceeded south, marching past the gates of Winchester ‘proud and unperturbed’. The national army was never in the right place. On one occasion a fleet was gathered at great expense to challenge the Vikings’ sea power, but its leaders soon fell out with one another and Wulfnoth (the grandfather of King Harold, who lost at Hastings) went raiding along the south coast on his own account. The eighty-ship pursuit force led by a man called Brihtric was wrecked by a storm.
Individual parts of the kingdom put up a fight against the Vikings, notably the citizens of London, who gave King Svein Forkbeard of Denmark a bloody nose in 1013, and ealdorman Ulfcytel of East Anglia, who gained the respect of his enemies in 1004 by giving them ‘harder hand-play’ in battle than they expected, before being killed in 1016. But these flashes of resistance were massively outweighed by defeats, usually the result of weak leadership. The main problem, according to the Peterborough Chronicle’s entry for 1011, was ‘lack of decision’: paying tribute was bad enough, but it was paid too late, after the damage had been done and the poor folk had been ‘raided and roped up and killed’. A nadir was reached in 1012 with the capture and murder of Archbishop Ælfheah, who was pelted with ox bones and finished off with the back of an axe because he refused to pay ransom. Æthelred was replaced as king of England by Svein the following year, but restored in 1014 after Svein died. In 1016 he was succeeded by his son Edmund ‘Ironside’, who fought Svein’s son Knut (King Canute) to a draw, but died young and unexpectedly, possibly of battle wounds, possibly by assassination. The contrast between father and son does further damage to Æthelred’s reputation.
Early modern historians claimed that Æthelred should never have acceded to the throne in the first place. He was the third son of his father, Edgar, who had followed the royal habit of serial monogamy, which was virtually guaranteed to create stepmother issues. Edgar should have been succeeded by Edward, the son of his first wife; next in line was Edmund, Æthelred’s elder brother by Edgar’s third wife, Ælfthryth. But Edmund died, and Edward was murdered at Corfe Castle in 978: ‘No worse deed for the English race was ever done than this,’ the Peterborough chronicler wrote. Æthelred, aged between ten and 12, was the surviving heir and his mother effectively took over as regent. There is no record from the time of anyone blaming Ælfthryth for Edward’s death, though the chronicler notes that the dead king’s family made no effort to avenge him, which is certainly suspicious.
William of Malmesbury reported, some 150 years later, that Æthelred was so affected by his half-brother’s death that he wept bitterly. For this his mother supposedly thrashed him with candles so severely that he developed a lifelong phobia of them. The story sounds unlikely – ceremonial candles are a strange choice of weapon – but if it were true it would clear Æthelred of the charge of connivance. Unfortunately, it adds the possibly more damaging one of weakness.
As if all that were not enough, there is the issue of the St Brice’s Day massacre. In 1002, the Chronicle reports, Æthelred ‘ordered all the Danish men who were among the English race to be killed on St Brice’s Day’ (13 November). It’s not obvious what the order meant: it can’t have applied to everyone of Danish descent, by that time a substantial section of the English population that included people like the brave ealdorman Ulfcytel (a Danish name). Was it intended to apply to Danish merchants? Recent settlers? The Danish mercenaries Æthelred had begun to employ?
The massacre has drawn attention recently thanks to two archaeological discoveries, one at the Ridgeway above Weymouth in Dorset, one in the grounds of St John’s College, Oxford. In 2009, workers building a relief road to Weymouth for the sailing events of the 2012 Olympics uncovered a burial pit with more than fifty headless skeletons in it, and a pile of skulls not far away. It’s not clear how many were buried in the pit, as the bodies were thrown in higgledy-piggledy, but there are definitely fewer skulls than skeletons. The Anglo-Saxons had a word, heafod-stocc (‘head-stake’), that may explain the discrepancy: it is likely that three heads were put up on stakes along the ridge-line. Study of isotopes in the teeth indicated that most of the dead were Scandinavians, and that they were all male and mostly young. They had the well-developed torsos of oarsmen, but few signs of the healed battle wounds one might expect to find in veterans. Oddly, though all of them had been beheaded, several had been beheaded from the front. Had they, like St Magnus of Orkney, whose exhumed body has confirmed the truth of the tale, insisted on facing the blade to show they would not flinch?
Radiocarbon dating has shown that the burial could plausibly have taken place in 1002, the year of the St Brice’s Day massacre. The St John’s skeletons, which are also reckoned to have belonged to young male Scandinavians, date from the same time. The fact that some of those skeletons are charred connects them to a record of St Brice’s Day that claims a group of Danes were burned outside St Frideswide’s church in Oxford. But whether the two sets of victims were raiders, traders, settlers or young mercenaries can’t be determined. If they were mercenaries it’s possible Æthelred was taking another easy way out, attacking people who were his employees and so easy to get hold of.
Levi Roach, then, has a very large rock to roll uphill. His first move is to downplay that embarrassing nickname, Unræd. He points out that it wasn’t recorded until Walter Map, the gossipy author of De Nugis Curialium (‘Courtiers’ Trifles’), used it in the 1180s. The word comes from Old English – æthel-ræd means ‘noble-counsel’, un-ræd either ‘foolish counsel’ or ‘no counsel’. One of Walter’s predecessors must have known enough of the language to invent the term, which Walter renders as nullum consilium. The adjective unrædig was never applied to Æthelred, and isn’t recorded anywhere in Old English, but if it existed it might have meant ‘someone without a ræd or plan’, so ‘someone unprepared’, which takes us to the modern meaning. Roach argues that the nickname is a later invention, not a contemporary reaction. He also downplays the significance of the Chronicle, rarely quoting from it at length and understating its cumulative effect. He points out, quite correctly, that several entries must have been written with hindsight, and that anyone can be wise after the event. He notes that it shows on occasion ‘more than a hint of chagrin’, even ‘exasperation’, and dismisses the well-known passages as ‘famous set-pieces’. There is, of course, a reason such pieces have become famous, and as for the tone of comments, they often contain much more than a ‘hint’ of what most people would call anger and bitter despair.
More productively, Roach examines other primary sources and draws on earlier scholarly writings, notably Simon Keynes’s The Diplomas of Ethelred the Unready (1980). His grip on modern scholarship is impressive: there are thirty close-printed pages of primary and secondary bibliography that include unpublished works, electronic resources, three recent popular novels, a musical composition and a poem by Christopher Logue. Among the primary sources are 84 authentic charters from Æthelred’s reign, seven or eight decrees issued at law-gatherings (meetings of the powerful where royal policy was announced) and a good deal of writing from the period, much of it from Ælfric the homilist and Archbishop Wulfstan of York – although Wulfstan’s famous Sermo Lupi, probably composed in 1009, only adds to the sense of national demoralisation, with its stories of able-bodied Anglo-Saxon slaves ungratefully running off to join the Vikings, and Anglo-Saxon Christians imitating their enemies by clubbing together to buy slave-girls, presumably also Christians, for collective rape.
What do the less familiar and more official documents add to the picture? Can they really ‘put flesh and bones on the scanty sources’ and make it possible to ‘reconstruct aspects of Æthelred’s personality’? The charters, with their extensive lists of the important people present to ratify grants of property, give a sense of the ‘tone-setting circle’ of Æthelred’s court – who was in favour and who was not. The king’s mother, Ælfthryth, vanishes from such lists between 984 and 993, possibly because she had been temporarily sidelined by the deaths of two of her supporters, ealdorman Ælfhere of Mercia and St Æthelwold. Her disappearance coincides with Æthelred’s coming of age (he would have been getting on for 18) and a change of policy away from promoting the enrichment of ‘reformed’ and strictly organised Benedictine monasteries in favour of more secular beneficiaries.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Maldon, however, this policy in turn seems to have been reversed. In a series of decrees issued between 993 and 999 Æthelred declared his penitence for former misdeeds and approved the restitution of lands and liberties to Æthelwold’s monastery of Abingdon, the Old Minster at Winchester, and the church at Rochester – all of which had presumably been confiscated in the previous decade. Roach opens his third chapter with a description of Æthelred dressed in sackcloth ‘before the doors of Rochester cathedral’. It is, Roach admits, ‘strictly speaking fictional’, but justified by the ‘personal tone’ of Æthelred’s diplomas at this time: ‘He could see that something was very rotten in the state of England and he had reason to believe that he was himself to blame’ – that is, for his impious and anti-clerical actions of the previous decade.
Roach insists that Æthelred was ‘anything but a “do-nothing” king’, and that he took ‘more proactive measures’ against the Vikings in addition to paying tribute. A mass contra paganos was to be sung every Wednesday at larger churches. The whole nation was ordered to fast before the feasts of St Mary and of the apostles. Later, there was a three-day bread-and-water fast before Michaelmas, along with barefoot processions, thirty masses from each and every priest and thirty recitations of the entire psalter from every monk. Military measures were also taken, including arrangements for building warships and manufacturing armour. These show, according to Roach, that Æthelred ‘remained firmly in control of the situation’ and that his reign ‘witnessed many important political and administrative developments’.
One can accept that Æthelred’s England had a surprisingly well-organised clerisy and bureaucracy (much the same thing at that time), and that it was very good at controlling its subjects, at least the lower ranks. But good logistics and excellent administration aren’t enough in a confrontation with well-armed and well-led enemies, and when it came to the crunch, Æthelred’s leadership seems to have been downright poor. Literary critics have followed Tolkien’s lead in seeing the famous Old English poem about the Battle of Maldon as a condemnation of Byrhtnoth’s ofermod – variously translated as ‘arrogance’ or even ‘overwhelming pride’ – in forcing battle. Roach agrees with them: if you’re sure to lose, appeasement really is the best ræd, or strategy. Another view is that Anglo-Saxon England could have done with more men like Byrhtnoth: after all, to quote General Slim in 1945, ‘nothing cheers up British troops like a dead [British] general.’
No doubt, at the time, ‘a comprehensive programme of repentance and reform’, of purgation and prayer, seemed a powerful strategy – and one that was easy to impose. Roach quotes Simon Keynes’s line that those seeking to understand its point ‘would do well, in their historical imagination, to join the procession’ ordered by the Bath decrees of VII Æthelred, ‘a truly extraordinary text drafted by Archbishop Wulfstan with the counsel of the kingdom’s great and good’. Quite what those not numbered among the ‘great and good’ thought of it might also be worth imagining, if historians were capable of it. The biggest problem with Æthelred’s ‘proactive measures’ and his counsellors’ ‘religious and ideological responses’ to the Viking attacks is that they suffered from what we might now call an operational disconnect. Those who issued decrees and drew up programmes were completely cut off from those who had to carry them out, especially those who had to square up to hundreds, if not thousands, of well-armed Vikings, who were experienced, confident and increasingly contemptuous of the opposition.
The loyalty of the Anglo-Saxon and even the Anglo-Danish people to the West Saxon kings, the house of Cerdic, was truly remarkable. They forgave Æthelred and brought him back in 1014; they rallied to his son Edmund in the war against Knut; they brought Æthelred’s son Edward the Confessor back from exile in Normandy in 1036, and his grandson Edward the Exile from as far away as Hungary twenty years later. Even William the Conqueror left Æthelred’s great-grandson Edgar the Atheling alone, presumably out of fear of popular rebellion.
But in the end patriotic loyalty runs out. By 1066 the long-suffering English population had had eighty years of self-interested squabbling among their ruling classes. It wasn’t just Æthelred’s mother who must have ‘look[ed] on with dismay’ at this. One might say of Hastings, as the chronicler said of Ulfcytel’s battle in 1004: ‘If [the home team] had been up to full strength, [the invaders] would never have got back to their ships.’ But in both cases the defenders were not at full strength, possibly because they were fed up of having their loyalty taken for granted and their lives and money squandered.
Roach makes a good point towards the end of the book, which is that it is a mistake to put all failings down to the faults of one man: ‘If Æthelred’s court became a place of conspiracy and intrigue, it was primarily as a result of this [penitential and purgative] mind-set, not the personal failings of the king.’ How does one change powerful and well-established group-think, among bankers or bishops or bureaucrats? It’s a question to which many people now wish we knew the answer. ‘King shall hold kingdom,’ says one Anglo-Saxon poem with characteristic gnomic flatness. Roach ends his book with the Chronicle’s even-handed and dispassionate summary of Æthelred’s career: ‘He held his kingdom with great toil and hardship for the length of his life.’ Not well, not even well enough, but no doubt he meant well.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.