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Lacking in counsel

25 November 2016

Nicholas Orme on the unfortunate Æthelred

Æthelred the Unready
Levi Roach
Yale £30
Church Times Bookshop £27



ÆTHELRED is the only English king with a mocking moniker. Much of the evidence for it, how­ever, dates from well after his time. Twelfth-century writers claimed that he soiled the font at his christ­ening, and had a morbid fear of candles. He was “unraed” (”uncoun­selled”), which came to be mistaken as “unready”.

In truth, there was more to Æthelred than that. His reign was the seventh longest in English his­tory, although, since he came to the throne as a boy, he was only in his forties when he died. He fathered 13 children by two wives. In his early adulthood, before he was engulfed by Viking invasions, he was active and even brutal in getting his way.

A better epithet might be “un­lucky”. He gained the throne through the assassination of his brother, Edward the Martyr, never fully explained then or since. Worse still, he coincided with the last great irruption of the Vikings in Europe. Not only did he have to contend with their privateers attacking his coasts, as Alfred had done, but with powerful Danish kings — Swein and Cnut — who could muster bigger forces than ever before.

The standard account of the Viking troubles occurs in versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. These were written after the event, when England had succumbed to Danish rule. They give an almost tabloid account of mismanagement, cow­ard­ice, and treachery. The author, Dr Roach, wisely treats them with caution, and carefully measures them against other sources, such as charters, coins, and archaeology.

He establishes the breadth of Æthelred’s activities, which encom­passed national and local politics, lawmaking, and church affairs. At first, the King was unsympathetic to monasteries — he plundered some of their lands — but later he did them favours, seeking their prayers as the Viking threat increased. He tried to defend his kingdom with new fortifications, and his famous policy of buying off his opponents with Danegeld was not wholly one of weakness. It sometimes worked, although sometimes it did not.

This biography gives us a judicious, reliable, and rounded account of the King and his reign, and places them in the context of their age.

Paradoxically, Æthelred’s problems demonstrate the strength of what was still a relatively new English kingdom. He was able to raise money, build ships, and engage his enemies on battlefields. His subjects mostly stood by him. Only in 1013 was he forced to flee the country, and, in the following year, they asked him back. He died still king in 1016, and was buried in St Paul’s, where his tomb survived until the Great Fire.

The kingdom then survived, still largely English under a foreign ruler, as it would do in 1066. But, in the end, one cannot help feeling that Æthelred might have done somewhat better. He seems to have lacked enough of the fire and judgement required at a time of great national peril.


Dr Nicholas Orme is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University.

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