Aethelred The Unready
Levi Roach
Yale University Press
369pp, 16 black-and-white plates, four maps
Hardback, £30

Aethelred the Unready has not had a good press. My generation can partly blame that on the 1930s' classic and forerunner of the Horrible Histories series, 1066 And All That, which memorably told us: 'Aethelred the Unready was the first weak King of England and was thus the cause of a fresh wave of Danes. He was called the "Unready" because he was never ready when the Danes were.' But Dr Levi Roach of Exeter University takes Aethelred rather more seriously. With his re-assessment he does not quite transform Aethelred into a wise, successful, let alone great monarch. However, this detailed, yet readable, history does allow us to re-evaluate a misunderstood figure whose long reign occupied a nightmare chapter of our island story.

The Anglo-Saxon term Unraed (in spite of the book's title) does not mean 'Unready' but rather 'ill-counseled' – the judgement of medieval chronicles. Aethelred came to the throne following the murder of his half-brother, Edward the Martyr, at Corfe in AD 978. A plethora of conspiracy theories have tarnished Aethelred's reputation, although he was only between 8 to 12 years old at the time (his birth date is uncertain). However, his mother Aelfthryth may have played a part in this bloody Game of Thrones.

In 984 Viking raids re-started in earnest, and although Aethelred is often compared unfavourably with King Alfred the Great, as Levi Roach makes clear, he faced more difficult and complex problems, ruling a kingdom four times the size of Alfred's Wessex and confronted by more formidable foes. In 991 a Scandinavian force of 93 ships descended on the coast, sacking Folkestone, Sandwich and Ipswich, before defeating the East Saxons at Maldon. Advised by his counsellors, Aethelred, reluctantly perhaps, agreed to buy off the invaders with 10,000 pounds. Levi Roach is admirably clear on the subtleties of the Danegeld. A year later the Scandinavians ravaged the country from Essex to Hampshire and Aethelred paid 16,000 pounds to rid himself of this 'storm of spears'.

Aethelred's reputation was not helped by his challenges to the Church. However, on Maundy Thursday 998 he stood before the doors of Rochester Cathedral wearing sackcloth and seeking forgiveness for his youthful indiscretions. At least that is the legend. The complex relationship of Crown and Church is one of the most interesting aspects of Roach's book when, in spite of the slew of problems, the intellectual life of the English Church flourished along with its building programme.

Aethelred worked hard to present himself as 'a good and God-fearing king', restoring Church lands, promoting the cult of the saints (including his rather un-saintly half brother), reforming the coinage, developing the legal basis of his kingdom and building the kingdom's defences. In 1002 Aethelred re-married, to Emma, the sister of Duke Richard of Normandy, the Scandinavian stronghold in France. This union eventually led to William the Conqueror's claim to the English throne.

In the shorter term the Norsemen in England were more ill-fated. The king ordered the Massacre of St Brice's Day in 1004 when 'all the Danishmen who were in England', who 'had sprouted like cockle amongst the wheat' were to be slain. These were probably not raiders but traders, merchants or mercenaries who had settled in England. English religious zeal demanded racial purity. (In Europe the first Jewish pogroms took place in France in 1009.) Recently archaeologists have revealed the crime scenes. Two mass graves, one at Ridgeway Hill in Dorset and the other in Oxford, contained the bodies of young Scandinavian men killed around this time.

According to the Eynsham Abbey foundation charter, the English were living in tempera periculosa (dangerous times). Aethelred's response was to strengthen England's defences, in its coastal and riverside towns and even the summit of the great prehistoric mound of Silbury Hill. In Roach's words, he showed 'stalwart determination' in the face of the 'unremitting crisis' of the years from 1009 to 1016 as, successively, Thorkill the Tall, Swein Forkbeard and Cnut launched forces of 5000 to 8000 men (comparable to William the Conqueror's army in size) against the English, attacking cities as far inland as Oxford and Northampton. Canterbury was sacked and Archbishop Aelfheah murdered in 1012, at Greenwich, by a gang of drunken Vikings who pelted him with bones. London, however, stood firm even against Swein Forkbeard's campaign of 1013, when important religious and political centres such as Winchester and Canterbury fell. Aethelred fled briefly to Normandy.

On his death on St George's Day 1016 (aged 46 or 50 years – a respectable age for an English king) Aethelred held little more than London. Within three or four years Cnut had control of the kingdom and the Anglo-Danish regime ruled for a quarter of a century, paving the way for the most successful Northman of them all, William the Bastard.

The Chronicler wrote that Aethelred 'held his kingdom with great toil and hardship' – a fair judgement. Levi Roach has written a well-considered, academically rigorous history yet one that provides a vivid account of a fascinating, brutal and often neglected period of English history.
David Miles

 

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