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 “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 “The Saxon Kings” by Richard Humble

I decided to begin my journey through the lives of the monarchs of England with Richard Humble’s book. This was for a variety of reasons: from the description it looked to be a survey of the kings from an era with which I am not all that familiar with, one that would provide coverage of the pre-“English” kings which I have decided not to address, and it promised coverage of the kings for whom I have been unable to find stand-alone biographies and would thus fill in some of the gaps that would otherwise exist in my project

And Humble’s book delivered as a surprisingly enjoyable introduction to the subject. As part of Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s “Kings and Queens of England” series it was a work geared towards a general audience, and to that end provides a decent amount of helpful context in its presentation of the period. Yet the author himself deserves most of the credit for the accessibility of his material: Humble was a prolific author of several books on a variety of historical subjects, and in his text he asserts his judgments with confidence, making his interpretation of the era clear.

Though Humble begins his book with a chapter on the “seven kingdoms” of the early Anglo-Saxon era, with the exception of a few of the most significant figures he largely glosses over the various monarchs of the period. His coverage sharpens once he reaches the Wessex king Alfred the Great, and he spends the subsequent chapters covering the reigns of his descendants in detail. Only his son Edward “the Elder,” Æthelstan, and Edgar (the last surviving male heir) receive stand-alone chapters; with the rest divided into groups of two or three and their reigns summarized in turn. Humble finds most of these monarchs praiseworthy, with Æthelred, Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut coming in for the most criticism for the failings of their time as kings.

In this respect Humble provides a lively overview of the House of Wessex, though his book falls short in a few respects. Foremost among them is that it is less of a succession of biographies than it is a political history of the later Anglo-Saxon kings, with little effort made to describe the other aspects of their reign. Even their personal lives receive minimal coverage outside of the parts that are relevant to this focus. To some degree this is probably a consequence of the limitations of the sources available for the era, but Humble’s reliance upon them is surprisingly narrow. Many paragraphs seem to be little more summaries of, and commentary on, the relevant passages on his subjects in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Better sourcing might have clarified this impression, but the absence of any sort of endnotes makes such an effort impossible.

These limitations define the scope of what Humble provides. While a good overview of the political history of the reign of Alfred and his successors, as a collection of biographies it falls short. I’m glad to have read it first, though, as it gave me a necessary grounding in the period and certainly whetted my interest in reading more about some of the remarkable kings Humble describes in its pages.