Just One Book On . . . Æthelred

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.

Review of “Æthelred II: King of the English, 978-1016” by Ryan Lavelle

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 provided.

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 Æthelred-centric book.

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.

Review of “Æthelred: The Unready” by Levi Roach

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.

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.

Review of “Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counselled King” by Ann Williams

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 authority.

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.

On to Æthelred!

Miniature of Æthelred from the “Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings” (13th c.)

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.

Review of “Edgar, King of the English, 959-75” by Peter Rex

For anyone interested in reading a biography of Edgar – Æthelstan’s grandnephew and king of England for over decade and a half – the pickings are slim, to put it mildly. There is exactly one modern biography of Edgar, which was written by Peter Rex, a former Head of History at Princethorpe College who in his retirement became a prolific author of books on the late Anglo-Saxon era. In one sense this is surprising: Edgar had a relatively long reign for an Anglo-Saxon king, and one that by modern standards was quite successful. In an era famous for Viking raids and extended conflicts with Scandinavian conquerors, Edgar became known as “the Peaceful” or “the Peaceable” for the lack of conflict during his time on the throne.

The irony, as Rex notes in his book, is that Edgar’s success is the very reason why there is a lack of information about him and his times. As he fought no wars “they cannot by described by the writers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, who turned instead to his religious activities,” yet even these passages requiring supplemental sources to fill in the details. For the scribes of the times to find your reign noteworthy, it seems, it helped to shed some blood.

That Edgar’s reign was so peaceful is all the more remarkable for how it started out. By contrast his older brother and predecessor Eadwig does not enjoy such a great reputation. Only fifteen when he assumed the throne in 955, within two years the notables in Mercia and Northumbria rejected Eadwig in favor of Edgar. On the surface this would be classified as a rebellion, yet the sources are unclear on this point and armed conflict was avoided in favor of a settlement that divided the kingdom in two roughly along the line of the Thames River. Because of this, Edgar reigned as king of Mercia and Northumbria for nearly three years before Eadwig’s death in 959 brought the rest of England under his control.

Rex’s account of Edgar’s reign is generally positive, reflecting as it does the sources available for it. And here Rex’s observation about the focus in those sources on the religious activities in his reign points to a bias that helps explain why his reign is viewed so positively. Edgar’s reign was notable for the reintroduction of Benedictine monasticism, which was spearheaded by three outstanding religious leaders: Dunstan, Æthelwold, and Oswald. With Edgar’s support, over three dozen new monasteries and nunneries were established, an expansion that continued for a half-century after Edgar’s death. Given the predominance of religious records (the biographies of the three churchmen are important sources for the period) and the backing Edgar provided, it’s little surprise that his rule would be presented in a highly favorable light.

While Rex devotes a good deal of space to describing the religious reforms that took place during Edgar’s reign, he doesn’t neglect the other aspects of Edgar’s rule. Military institutions receive particular attention, as do the other tools of Edgar’s power, such as ceremony and the ruling classes. Rex examines these in a general fashion by going beyond their operations during Edgar’s time on the throne to discuss their development and functioning in tenth century England more generally. This certainly adds to the value of Rex’s book for those interested in the overall era, yet it also underscores the thinness of the extant sources about Edgar and his reign. In this respect Rex solves the problem caused by the absence of detailed information in the best way possible, but ultimately there is only so far what exists can be stretched.

The result underscores the point Christopher Brooke makes in his study of the Saxon monarchy about the problems facing biographers of Anglo-Saxon monarchs. And in this respect Rex’s solution is hardly unique, just one that is more focused on a few decades than Brooke’s older work. It results in a book that provides all that we know about a frustratingly elusive king within a useful primer for how government worked in 10th century England. Barring the discovery of some new collection or cache of documents it is likely to endure as a biography of Edgar, as well as an example of the limitations of the genre for the people of that era.

Review of “Athelstan: The Making of England” by Tom Holland

Tom Holland’s name is one that typically I associate with histories of the ancient Greek and Roman world written for a popular audience. Because of this, I was a little surprised when I first saw that he was writing a volume on Æthelstan for the “Penguin Monarchs” series, as it seemed a little outside of his scholarly bailiwick. My curiosity about his contribution grew while reading my earlier selections on the Anglo-Saxon monarchy and Sarah Foot’s biography on the king. Given what they wrote about him, I wondered what insights a scholar of ancient history might offer into Æthelstan’s life and career.

As I was reading his short book, I began to appreciate why the series’ editors selected Holland to write it. His writing contains more than a degree of flair, as instead of simply describing events he uses his prose to bring the past to life. Yet while occasionally it can border on cliché, Holland never strays from his material into imaginative reconstruction. The result is enjoyable in a way that doesn’t strain a reader’s credulity.

Holland’s scholarly faithfulness, though, forces him to address the same problem facing the other authors, which was how to write about Æthelstan with the limited resources available. His solution is similar to Humble’s, as he fits Æthelstan’s life within the history of 9th and 10th century Wessex. While Æthelstan disappears from Holland’s early pages, this decision helps him to explain the world in which Æthelstan grew up, showing what he inherited and clarifying what he built. Though his narrative lacks many of the insights that Foot’s more analytical approach provides, it provides a coherently chronological account of Æthelstan’s life that is not just informative but engaging as well.

Nevertheless, there is only so much that even a historian of Holland’s skills can achieve with his limited sources. While his book helps to situate Æthelstan’s achievement within the context of the realm-building undertaken by the House of Wessex during these decades, Æthelstan remains stubbornly elusive as a person. Here again Holland stops short of overt speculation, but the absence is a little incongruous in such a fluid and evocative text. In this respect, Holland simply underscores the basic problem facing any author attempting to write about the first king of England. While he succeeds in writing about Anglo-Saxon England in a way that brings the era to life, to do so for the person at the center of his book may well be impossible with the materials available to us. What he does offer is a great short introduction to Æthelstan that explains how he came to dominate England, but one that can only offer so much about who the king was, showing how he is a person who can elude even the most creative of historians.

Review of “Æthelstan: The First King of England” by Sarah Foot

Given all of the books that have been published about English monarchs over the years, it might be a little surprising that Sarah Foot’s 2011 biography of Æthelstan is the first modern attempt to provide an account of the life of the king who could first assert sovereignty over all of England. Why it has taken this long becomes clear from her prologue, as Foot explains the challenges posed by the slender amount of information available, one that compares unfavorably even with those available for Æthelstan’s grandfather, Alfred. Because of this, reconstructing Æthelstan’s life and personality for modern readers is effectively impossible.

Faced with this problem, Foot’s solution is to focus instead on Æthelstan’s roles as a 10th century Anglo-Saxon monarch. In a series of thematic chapters, she describes Æthelstan’s family, his court, his faith and relationship to the Catholic Church, his governance of his realm, and his conduct as a military leader. It’s an inspired choice, one that plays to the strengths of the available sources to describe the aspects of Æthelstan’s reign that truly mattered to both his dynasty and to English history. In a way it functions a lot like those clear diagrams of the systems of the human body that can be found in anatomy textbooks: each one stands alone in describing an important aspect of Æthelstan’s life, yet, when layered together, they combine provide an overview of what Æthelstan was like as a king.

The Æthelstan that emerges from Foot’s approach is a monarch who was an effective ruler in the times in which he reigned. Foot is especially good at explaining his behavior and his decisions within the context of his age, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in her examination of Æthelstan’s decision not to marry and have children. His choice invariably leads many modern readers to certain conclusions about Æthelstan’s sexuality, yet while not dismissing the possibility Foot points to the anachronistic flaw of considering the issue in those terms. With the succession of Anglo-Saxon kings less strictly determined by primogeniture than it would be in later centuries, Æthelstan likely faced little pressure to marry and produce an heir, while his considerable devotion to his faith would have made any decision not to marry one understandable to his peers.

Another consequence of this decision was that Æthelstan’s life was one in which men and masculine activities predominated. While Foot is careful in her use of her sources, she draws upon them creatively to offer a sense of with whom he spent his days and what they did with their time. As a result, she provides her readers a useful reconstruction of his activities during his reign, one that gives us the best impression possible of who Æthelstan was, even if the outline remains frustratingly vague. For most other monarchs the incompleteness of Foot’s portrait would be a criticism, but for her to have teased out what she has about Æthelstan from the limited sources available to us is an impressive accomplishment. While readers seeking a dramatic narrative about a warrior king will likely be disappointed by her deconstructive approach to her subject’s life, her biography is a must-read for anyone interested in learning in detail about Æthelstan’s life or how the first monarch of England governed his realm.

Starting with Æthelstan

Æthelstan (l) presenting a book to Saint Cuthbert.

Now that I have finished reading the surveys of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy by Richard Humble and Christopher Brooke I can begin my focus on individual monarchs by starting with the available biographies of Æthelstan. He makes for a natural starting point in a number of respects: not only was he the first king of a united England, but he served as a model for English monarchs for centuries, thanks to his successes on the battlefield and his achievements both as a legal reformer and as a diplomat and statesman. His reputation is probably best reflected by the words of the 12th century writer William of Malmesbury, who declared that Æthelstan “cast all his predecessors into the shade by his piety, as well as the glory of all their triumphs, by the splendor of his own.”

For this reason, it is a little disappointing that there are only two modern Æthelstan biographies available to read. This made my choice of where to begin an easy one, though, as I decided to start with the older of the two books, Sarah Foot’s Aethelstan: The First King of England. As a volume of the Yale English Monarchs series – one that I expect I’ll become quite familiar with in the months to come – I have high expectations for the book in terms of its scholarship and level of analysis.

After that I will move on to Tom Holland’s Athelstan: The Making of England. Like Foot’s biography Holland’s book is part of a series on English monarchs – in his case, one of a collection of short studies recently issued by Penguin Books. As an author known primarily for his works about the classical world Holland seems a curious choice for an author of a biography of an Anglo-Saxon monarch, but given the reputation his books enjoy I expect that his contribution will be nothing less than readable.