Review of “Æthelred the Unready: The Failed King” by Richard Abels

While reading Richard Abels’s biography of Æthelred II, I discovered that I now had a new point of assessment for my project. Whereas until now I have been comparing biographies of a particular monarch with each other, as a volume in the Penguin Monarchs series Abels’s book also provokes comparison with the previous book I read in the series, which was Tom Holland’s biography of Æthelstan. While I knew that both were part of the same series when I first identified which books I would read, it wasn’t until I was well into Abels’s book that I found myself comparing it not just to Williams’s biography of Æthelred but to Holland’s study of his predecessor as well. This ended up shaping my assessment of the book in some important respects.

Foremost among them was that it helped me appreciate the advantages that Abels enjoyed in writing his book. The first is that there are far more sources available about Æthelred’s time on the throne than for nearly all of his predecessors. Not only did this provide Abels with more raw material for his analysis, but it also resulted in a greater amount of scholarship about the period for him to draw upon. Having already written a biography of Alfred the Great Abels could also bring to the task the experience he gained in using the limited amount of information available about the era to reconstruct the life of an Anglo-Saxon king. Finally, as Æthelred’s most recent biographer, Abels could build upon the biographies previously written about him by Ann Williams, Levi Roach, and Ryan Lavelle, all three of which he credits generously in his book.

All of this helps to explain why Abels’s book stands out among the biographies of Anglo-Saxon kings that I have read up to this point. Enjoying as he does a relative wealth of material, Abels uses it to construct a coherent narrative account of Æthelred’s life. The nature of the series probably helped here, as in writing what is meant to be an introduction to the monarch Abels was not expected to go into the sort of detail that simply doesn’t exists for us about the period. In this respect Abels’s book embodies an ideal combination of information and length for his subject.

In it Abels offers a sympathetic though not uncritical account of Æthelred’s reign that hews closely to the available sources. This balance is evident early in the book with his examination of Edward’s murder and the degree to which Æthelred was responsible for it. Here Abels makes some perceptive points (such as the lack of any punishment for Edward’s assassins) while leaving it to his readers to draw their own conclusions. As Abels notes, regardless of his responsibility for it, Edward’s murder and posthumous martyrdom cast a shadow of ill-omen over Æthelred’s reign, one that was enhanced by the resurgence of Viking raids a few years later. Abels’s description of Æthelred’s response to these attacks is similarly even-handed. As he points out, purchasing piece was in fact a common response to Viking incursions, yet he faults Æthelred for not using the lull such payments provided to better prepare for their inevitable recurrence. Abels also sees in Æthelred’s repeated delegation of military commands to his ealdormen a failure to assume a role that was widely expected of him, which likely didn’t help his standing among his men. Nevertheless, Abels credits Æthelred with ruling over a prosperous kingdom and with attempting to respond to the resurgent external threats England faced, even if that response proved far from successful.

By the end of Abels’s book I felt that I had something that I had not gained from any of the other biographies of Anglo-Saxon kings that I read up to this point, which was a coherent sense of his subject’s time on the throne. This shouldn’t be regarded as a criticism of those other works but as an appreciation of Abels’s achievement, as he sets a high bar in his presentation of Æthelred and his reign. While I’m looking forward to reading the remaining biographies of Æthelred on my list, they certainly have a difficult act to follow.

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