There are certain rulers in English history who have a reputation that is known to readers even before they open the covers of a single book about them. Æthelred certainly ranks among their number, if for no other reason than the unique label of “Unready” attached to him. And while practically every historian immediately follows the mention of his name with the explanation that its true meaning has been misinterpreted, such explanations seem destined to trail Æthelred until the end of time. What interests me isn’t Æthelred’s nickname, but how such an “ill advised” king enjoyed so long of a reign. Fortunately there are a quartet of books available to answer my questions.
I’m gong to start my exploration of Æthelred’s life and times with Ann Williams’s Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counselled King for a couple of reasons. Foremost among them is that, unlike most of the other books I have read up to this point and many of the ones yet to come it wasn’t written as part of a series, and for all of their strengths in terms of consistency and editorial control I want to avoid becoming too dependent on them for the basis of my understanding of the monarchs about whom I’m reading.
That being said, I certainly have no attention of avoiding the biographies that are published as part of a series, which is why I plan on following Williams’s book with the Æthelred biography written by Richard Abels for the Penguin Monarchs series. Given that Abels previously wrote a well-received biography of Alfred the Great, I’m looking forward to this one with anticipation.
Once I finish Abels’s book I plan on reading Levi Roach’s contribution on Æthelred for the Yale Monarchs series. This is one where my expectations are based more on my experience with reading Foot’s volume in the series, which sets a high bar both for biographies of Anglo-Saxon kings and books on English monarchs.
Last up is Ryan Lavelle’s Aethelred II: King of the English. First published in 2002, it’s the oldest of the four Æthelred biographies out there, and in that respect likely helped blaze the trail for subsequent biographers. While I intend to judge it on its own merits it will be especially interesting to see how well it has aged in light of the books that have followed it.