Hagiography is defined simply as the life of a saint. Though today more often used pejoratively to describe overly idealized accounts of people’s lives, it still serves as a label for the genre of books that arose during the early Christian era about pious men and women produced to provide moral and spiritual examples for their audience. Never having read hagiography before, Aelred of Rievaulx’s Life of Saint Edward was my introduction to the form, and I knew it would prove interesting reading for this reason if for no other. But it proved even more fascinating for the contrast it provided with other accounts of his life, both for what it featured and how it portrayed the major figures in his life.
Aelred’s account of
Edward’s life rests heavily on the Vita
Eadwardi regis, which Aelred rewrote so as to emphasize
the Christian elements of Edward’s life. Throughout the book he recounts
several visions and cures involving Edward (both during the king’s life and
after his death) and makes repeated assertions of Edward’s inherent goodness,
to the point where his subject comes across as something of a holy fool.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated then in the famous anecdote about Edward’s
reaction to the thief who was stealing his treasure, in which the king declared
“He has more need of it than we do.” Such a statement may underscore the
personality one might expect a saint to possess, but it certainly flies in the
face of the Edward that Barlow describes in his book.
Given Edward’s saintliness and his chaste marriage to a dignified woman, the problem arises for Aelred as to who to blame for the less than saintly aspects of his reign. Here the Godwins come to the rescue, serving as the villains of Aelred’s narrative. Earl Godwin is the most prominent of the foils, suffering what Aelred deems a “miserable” death for his sins. While Godwin’s son Harold fares a little better, Aelred follows the Norman portrayal of him as a usurper, with even the credit for his victory over Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge diminished by Edward’s promise of victory to an abbot in a vision prior to the battle. Even after his death, it seems, Edward proved himself to be a better king than his successor.
While it may be unfair to judge Aelred’s book by modern standards, in the end it shouldn’t serve as anyone’s basis for understanding Edward as a person or his policies as king. As Jerome Barton, the book’s translator, acknowledges, its main value today is primarily as a historical source about later medieval devotion. Nevertheless, for anyone interested in learning how people in the later Middle Ages saw Edward it’s an invaluable work, one that as a true hagiography is unique among biographies of British monarchs.
When Frank Barlow published his biography of Edward
the Confessor in 1970, it was not his first contribution to studies of the
king, Six years earlier, he published a translation of a much older Latin work,
Vita Eadwardi regis qui apud
Westmonasterium requiescut, or The
Life of King Edward, who rests at Westminster. Written in the early 12th
century, it is attributed to “an anonymous monk of Saint-Bertin” whose identity
is unknown to us today. Though the text was likely revised and portions of it
are missing, it offers nonetheless a rare near-contemporaneous account of Edward’s
life and reign.
Yet Barlow does more than simply provide a translation of the work. In a substantial introduction taking up nearly half of the book, he summarizes Edward’s life, recounts the history of the Vita Eadwardi, situates it within contemporary literary traditions, and considers the evidence for the two monks, Goscelin and Folcard, whom he regards as the most likely candidates as the anonymous author. It is scholarly work of the highest order, and it does an excellent job of giving the reader a context in which to understand the Vita Eadwardi and the circumstances in which it was written. He supplements this with four appendices which detail the textual relationship between the Vita Eadwardi and two other contemporary historical works, subsequent interpretations of Edward’s Prophecy of the Great Tree, a biography of Goscelin and list of his works, and a history of the cult of Edward that anticipates his later work on it for his biography of the king
Sandwiched between these two sections is the text of
the Vita Eadwardi itself, which
Barlow divides into two parts, designated as books i and ii. The first book is
the more straightforwardly historical account of the two of them, and presents
a number of different episodes from Edward’s life. The Godwins feature
prominently in them, which Barlow notes reflects the patronage of Queen Edith –
to whom the work is dedicated – and suggests some of the original intentions of
the book when it was first commissioned. The second book is an account of
Edward’s religious life, and includes accounts of the miraculous cures
attributed to Edward as king, as well as a pair of visions he had. The text
itself is in both Latin and in English, with the Latin on the left-hand page
and Barlow’s English translation on the right, which adds to the value of the
book and provides Latin-proficient readers with a handy means of checking
Barlow’s tradition with the original text.
All of this makes Barlow’s work an indispensable resource for anyone studying Edward’s life, especially for those seeking to understand how he was viewed by his contemporaries. The impressive part is that Barlow even makes the Vita Eadwardi work as a biography for a modern reader who picks it up without any real background knowledge about Edward or his times. It really is a remarkable effort, and while people today may prefer a more up-to-date work in terms of interpretation and accessibility, it can definitely be recommended for someone seeking something a little different from the norm for English royal biography.
Frank Barlow was one of the most distinguished
medievalists of his era. A prolific author, he wrote and translated over a
dozen other books, including biographies of William Rufus and Thomas Becket and
an anonymous account of Edward the Confessor’s life originally written in the early
12th century. Over the course of his career he was elected to both the
British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature, and he capped it all off
by being appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his work as
a historian. Reading his biography of Edward, it’s easy to see how he earned
his accolades. Not only is it among the best books that I have read so far for
this project, it’s one of the best historical biographies I have ever read,
After beginning his book by describing the world into
which Edward was born, Barlow takes his readers through Edward’s early years
abroad, through the circumstances that led to his ascension to the throne in
1042, to his twenty-four year reign as king. Throughout the book Barlow is
careful not to go beyond the evidence, and he is candid about the gaps in what
we know about Edward’s life. But he makes the best use of the available sources
(which are more extensive than they are for most of Edward’s predecessors) to explain
Edward’s achievements as king, particularly in his management of the Godwin
family and the challenges they posed during the first decade of his reign.
What makes Barlow’s book stand out from the others
that I’ve read, though, is his ability to use his materials to bring his
subject to life in his narrative. Barlow gives his reader a real sense of
Edward’s personality, one that penetrates through the hagiography and the
misconceptions it generated to show him for the ordinary person that he was.
While giving Edward due credit for his achievements as king, in the end he
concludes that he was a mediocrity lacking in distinction beyond surviving on
How this mediocrity became a saint is the subject of
the penultimate chapter of the book. In it Barlow identifies the intermittent
development of Edward’s saintly reputation in the decades after his death and
notes the agendas of the people who cultivated that image opportunistically
into a figure worthy of canonization. How they achieved it makes for an account
of religious politics that benefits enormously from Barlow’s matter-of-fact retelling
of how it happened.
The result is a sober, evenhanded account that brushes
past the image of the saintly king to show how Edward reclaimed the crown and
survived nearly a quarter-century on the throne. In some respects reading it
first may be unfair to the other Edward biographies awaiting me, as thanks to
its measured analysis and clear judgments this will be a very difficult book to
match in terms of quality, much less surpass.
Edward the Confessor had a circuitous path to the
English throne. The eldest son of Æthelred the Unready by his second wife
Emma, he was twice forced into exile as a boy by the Scandinavian conquest of
England. After a quarter of a century on the Continent, he was invited to
return by the childless Harthacnut, whom Edward succeeded on the throne upon
Harthacnut’s death in 1042. Though Edward spent over two decades on the throne,
his rule became notable only in retrospect, as he was the last king of the
House of Wessex and, nearly a century later, canonized by the Catholic Church
as a saint, the only English king ever to enjoy such treatment.
such a historic king, I expected there to be more biographies of him than is
the case. Yet the options are disappointingly few. I will start with Frank Barlow’s biography of Edward for the
English Monarchs series. Judging from other sources, it seems to be the
standard work on Edward’s life, though if that is because of its quality or
because the lack of new material on his life remains to be seen.
After that I’m going to try something different by
reading two near-contemporary biographies of Edward. The first of these is the
anonymous Vita Ædwardi Regis, or Life of King Edward.
Written around 1100, it is easily the oldest biography of a monarch that I am
evaluating for this site, and I’m especially interested to see how royal biographies
were written nearly a millennia ago. After that I will read Aelred of Rievaulx’s
The Life of Saint Edward, King and Confessor, which was written after
Edward’s canonization and is the only literal example of a hagiography that I
will read for this project. That fact alone has me looking forward to it with
last of the four biographies of Edward that I will read is Peter Rex’s 2008
book King & Saint: The Life of Edward the Confessor. I hoped that I would also have James’s
Campbell’s biography of Edward for the Penguin Monarchs series as an option,
but from what I can gather it seems that Campbell passed away before completing
the manuscript. Because of this Rex’s book represents the most modern take on
Edward’s life, and if it’s anything like Rex’s biography of Edward it should be
a highly accessible work.
When Michael Kenneth Lawson’s book originally was published in 1993 (as Cnut: The Danes in England in the Early Eleventh Century), it was the first new biography of Cnut since L. M. Larson’s Canute the Great came out in 1912. Because of this, Lawson was able to benefit from the considerable amount of scholarly work on Anglo-Saxon England in the intervening decades on the era, which not only allowed for a more informed interpretation of Cnut’s life but a more Anglo-centric account of his reign as well.
The focus is evident throughout Lawson’s short work. Beginning with Cnut’s re-conquest of England in 1016 he concentrates on describing how Cnut governed England during his nearly two decades as king. This he does in three chapters that explain, successively Cnut’s foreign policy, his relationship with the English church, and the practical operations of his government over the course of his reign. From them emerges a picture of a successful and pious ruler whose achievement was limited by his relatively early death and that of his sons as well.
Lawson makes his arguments convincingly through his mastery of the available sources, and works well within their limits. Yet his book disappoints in two respects. The first is that his account is a little too Anglo-centric. As the ruler of a large part of Scandinavia Cnut was more than just the king of England, and any account of his reign needs to reflect this. While Lawson’s focus may reflect the available evidence, by not addressing the Scandinavian aspects with anywhere near the same degree of thoroughness his examination of Cnut’s monarchy provides a somewhat distorted picture of his subject’s issues and priorities. The other problem is with Lawson’s approach to his material, which is more thematic than chronological. By focusing his chapters on specific aspects of Cnut’s rule, he ends up explaining his reign rather than describing it. While there are advantages to this approach, for my first book on Cnut I was hoping for something with more of a chronological structure that would give me a sense of Cnut’s life as he lived it.
As a result, Lawson’s book works better as a study of
Cnut’s governance of England than it does as a biography of him. In this respect
it fits the pattern that I’ve come to appreciate about biographies of
Anglo-Saxon monarchs, as the limitations of the sources really constrain what
authors can do with their subject. In Lawson’s case his choices led him to
produce a less well-rounded study of Cnut than he really needs, though his
final product helps his readers understand how a Scandinavian king successfully
ruled his English realm.
Æthelred is the first king of England about whom a reader faces a real choice in terms of a range of biographies. Unlike the either/or option anyone faces when learning about Æthelstan, there are four Æthelred biographies from which to choose. Each of them provides a different approach to their shared subject – but if you want to read only one, which one should you read?
For anyone new not just to the subject of Æthelred but to the late Anglo-Saxon era, both Ryan Lavelle’s and Ann Williams’s studies of Æthelred recommend themselves, as their books provide solid backgrounds of the period. The two compliment each other nicely in other respects, as Williams does a good job of describing Æthelred’s court – which was an important tool of government – while Lavelle’s book is particularly strong on the Scandinavian challenge that defined Æthelred’s later reign. But both are better studies of England during Æthelred’s reign than of Æthelred himself, so someone seeking a biography of the king is best served turning to one of the other choices.
This leaves the Æthelred biographies written by Levi Roach and Richard Abels. Both share in common their origins as books written for series devoted to the monarchs of England, and both are good studies of the king and his reign. Roach’s book is especially notable for its thoroughness and his forgiving assessment of his subject, and is certainly worthwhile reading for how well the negative press about Æthelred. Yet Roach’s revisionist approach is a little too imbalanced in the opposite direction, especially as it obscures why Æthelred enjoys the longstanding reputation he possesses in the first place. It’s definitely a book anyone interested in Æthelred should read, but not necessarily the first book they should pick up.
By contrast, while Abels provides a sympathetic description of Æthelred’s reign, it’s one that is balanced with analysis that makes it clear how Æthelred earned his longstanding reputation as a king. Moreover, he does this in a book that in terms of is length seems ideally sized for the amount of material available to him, as it allows Abels to supply the details about his subject without losing sight of the overall arc of Æthelred’s life and the events of his era. All of this makes Abels’s book the one to get if you have the opportunity to read only one biography about England’s famously ill-advised monarch.
Though Ryan Lavelle’s biography of Æthelred is the
last of the four that I read, it was the oldest of the bunch. Originally
published in 2002, it was the first to employ the recent scholarly work by
Simon Keynes, Patrick Wormald and others to construct a biography of the
long-disparaged Anglo-Saxon king. For this reason alone I approached Lavelle’s
book with respect.
As I read it, I came to appreciate its other virtues.
Like the other books I have read about the monarchs of the era, Lavelle uses
context to fill in the gaps of what we know about Æthelred’s reign. Lavelle is
unique among Æthelred’s other biographers, though, in how he goes about this. In
addition to covering Æthelred’s predecessors and the general background of 10th
century Anglo-Saxon England (which takes up the first quarter of his book),
Lavelle devotes considerable attention to Æthelred’s Scandinavian opponents –
more so than any of the other authors I have read up to this point. I found the
approach both refreshing and highly informative for the perspective it
This was not the only aspect that distinguished
Lavelle’s book from its counterparts. Another was Lavelle’s extensive use of
maps and illustrations. Many of these were incidental to his focus on Æthelred,
but I found them very helpful in constructing a visual and special sense of
Æthelred’s time. Taken together with Lavelle’s coverage of the Vikings, it
makes his book one that many readers especially might value even more as a
starting point for learning about Æthelred’s era than Abels’s shorter, more
The main downside to Lavelle’s approach is that he
often loses focus on Æthelred himself. This makes it more challenging to get a
sense of the author’s interpretation of his subject. For the most part his
judgment is in line with those of Æthelred’s other biographers, as Lavelle
pushed back against the “Unready” criticism by emphasizing Æthelred’s success
as a monarch prior to 1000 and the scope of the challenges he faced in the later
years of his reign. Lavelle’s concentration on the Scandinavians helps the
latter goal, as it highlights the scale of the challenge the Vikings posed to
Æthelred better than any of the other biographies about him. That this comes at
the cost of a loss of focus on Æthelred himself is unfortunate, though one that
I felt a little less keenly after having read the other three books about him.
Because of this, I
finished the book with mixed feelings about it. As an introduction to
Æthelred’s era the book it is by far the best of the bunch, as it gives its
readers a really accessible overview of both England and the Scandinavian world
that played such an important role in the events of the time. Anyone seeking a
more in-depth study of Æthelred, however, would be better off turning to one of
the authors who followed Lavelle in writing biographies of the king.
Levi Roach’s 2016 biography of Æthelred is the second biography in Yale University Press’s English Monarchs series that I have read for this project, and like Richard Abels’s study this provides me with an additional point from which to assess the book. Given the reputation the series has developed in the half-century since it its inaugural volume was published, it’s one that I approach with an expectation of a high level of scholarship and analysis.
In this respect Roach doesn’t disappoint. His book is an excellent contribution to the series, one every bit as good as Sarah Foot’s Æthelstan biography with all the added advantages that Æthelred’s biographies enjoy. After an introduction that helpfully explains the extant sources available to Æthelred biographers, Roach begins his book by providing a short overview of the previous century of English history and a brief survey of the reigns of Æthelred’s father Edgar and his brother Edward the Martyr. It provides the best background for describing Æthelred’s reign that I have yet read, and it prepares the reader nicely for Roach’s examination of Æthelred’s time as king.
This Roach does over five chapters that proceed chronologically through Æthelred’s tenure on the throne. Much of the text within the chapters is focused on Roach’s engagement with his sources, as he deconstructs what the surviving record states and explains why he interprets it the way that he does. As I read his book I really came to value this approach, as it provides an understanding as to how he interprets Æthelred’s reign. Roach analysis of the religious dimension of Æthelred’s reign is a particular strength of this book, as he emphasizes convincingly how many of Æthelred’s policies (such as his charters of restitution in the 990s) were an attempt to repent for the sins he believed that he and his advisors had committed. It’s not a new argument, but never have I seen it as well developed and presented as it is here. Roach is also particularly good at drawing in the context of the 10th and 11th century medieval world to provide comparisons for Æthelred’s activities, which further aids his efforts to make them comprehensible to the modern reader.
What emerges from all of this erudition is the most forgiving account of Æthelred that I have read so far. This is particularly evident in Roach’s effort to rebut the “do-nothing” reputation that has formed around Æthelred. Roach explains that such criticisms are born of too narrow a focus on particular aspects of what was a more comprehensive response to the challenge of the Viking attacks than is often appreciated. He makes a solid case for a more favorable interpretation of Æthelred’s rule, noting in particular the details that point to his firm control of his realm and the prosperity that his people enjoyed in it. Roach’s sympathetic approach stands out most when he addresses the rarity with which Æthelred took to the field personally during Viking attacks. Here he makes the sensible point that the size of Æthelred’s kingdom and the need for a rapid reaction to Viking incursions meant that the ealdormen naturally took the lead in responding to the raids, though in offering this defense Roach glosses over the era’s expectation of kings to lead from the front, which is something that Abels stresses in his own analysis of the king
A favorable account of Æthelred’s rule is no bad thing, as Roach made me reconsider many of the assumptions that have accrued over the years about the king and his era. And had I read this in isolation I would have found Roach’s mastery of his material and the clarity of his arguments to be particularly persuasive. When combined with Williams and (especially) Abels’ biographies, though, I find that enough issues remain to prevent me from fully accepting Roach’s defense of Æthelred’s monarchy. This does not detract from the value of his book as a corrective to decades of negative press, but it does prevent it from being as balanced an account of Æthelred’s reign as some readers may desire.
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.
In the preface to her biography of Æthelred, Ann Williams explains to her readers that the goal of her book “is simply to tell the story of Æthelred unræd, a king to whom posterity has not been kind.” It was a story that until that point had not really been told in many years, as there were no modern accounts of Æthelred’s life prior to the publication of Williams’s book in 2003 and Ryan Lavelle’s short biography the year before. Given that, there was an undoubted need for a new study of Æthelred that utilized the considerable amount of scholarship about the period that was now available to biographers.
What the reader gets in Williams’s book is somewhat
different, though. The story she tells in her book is not so much of Æthelred’s
life than it is of his reign. After a brief overview of his father Edgar and
brother Edward, Williams explains how the kingdom functioned at that time and
the challenges it faced during his nearly four decades on the throne. Her
stated sympathy for her subject leads her to focus on the unræd part of Æthelred’s title by detailing his advisers and the
operations of Æthelred’s court, highlighting their role in the decision-making
process. Drawing upon the diplomas and other sources from the period, she
assesses as far as is possible who Æthelred’s infamous councilors were, which
she supplements with reasoned speculation as to how they came to hold such
Williams’s focus on Æthelred’s advisers is a highlight
of the book, but it also is part of its greatest flaw. In the process of
reconstructing Æthelred’s court and recounting the Norse-inflicted travails it
faced, she loses track of her main subject – Æthelred himself. Often absent for
pages, in many chapters he is at best a supporting character to the men of his
court or the Viking invaders conquering his territory. When she does focus on
Æthelred, it is often just to recount his activities without offering any sense
of his personality or his motivations, leaving an Æthelred-shaped hole in a
book about him.
This is not a unique problem with biographies of Anglo-Saxon monarchs, of course, and that Williams refuses to stray too far from her sources is part of the book’s value. Yet this doesn’t change that the result is a book that is more of a study of Æthelred’s court than of the king himself. It has a lot to offer for anyone interested in Æthelred‘s reign and the late Anglo-Saxon era, but as a biography it provides at most only an outline of his life.