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.