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.
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.
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
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.