17.11.18, Roach, Aethelred: The Unready

Main Article Content

Katherine Weikert

The Medieval Review 17.11.18

Roach, Levi. Aethelred: The Unready. The English Monarchs Series. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. pp. 369. ISBN: 9780300196290 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Katherine Weikert
       University of Winchester

Ask anyone with a casual interest in English history about King Æthelred II, and the response you are likely to get will probably involve an "Unready" and perhaps something about vikings. The traditional story goes that Æthelred, one of England's worst monarchs, was unready for viking invasions and unsuccessfully attempted to pay them off to leave England alone. Historiographically, this has been the take on Æthelred since at least the days of Edward Freeman in the nineteenth century, and scholars up through World War II and the post-War era still proclaimed Æthelred at the very least a "weak king" with a "bad government" during a period of "unremitting disaster". [1] The Anglophone historiography in the mid-twentieth century is almost undoubtedly tied up in generations who were (with good reason) concerned about the strength and integrity of the United Kingdom's boundaries, and the implications of invasions and defeat. In the past few decades, though, attempts have been made to understand Æthelred within the context of his own world, leading to such revisionist works as those by Simon Keynes, Pauline Stafford, Ann Williams and, most recently, Ryan Lavelle. [2] None of these revisions result in wholly positive conclusions about Æthelred's reign, but rather view him as a part of a complex era, with issues of kinship and politics exacerbated by military woes and attempts of foreign forces to overthrow of the kingdom.

Levi Roach's Yale Monarchs biography of Æthelred fits squarely within this newer tradition, attempting to "understand Æthelred rather than to judge him...present a more nuanced and rounded picture of developments than can be found in traditional caricatures" (4). It is, and always will be, somewhat impossible to "put flesh and bones" (4) to the long-dead king, especially with the sources we have to hand for him. These, Roach outlines, are generally Æthelred's charters, decrees, coinage, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, with the former three potentially providing at least some means into Æthelred's mind, or at least the ideas of those closest to him. Roach argues that in the royal charters in particular "we can often catch echoes of the debates and discussions going on around the king" (15). It is certainly with the charters that one of Roach's strengths lies: seeing actions and agencies within the documents. Roach's approach to the charters demonstrate a deep understanding of governmental systems, but also a keen ability to extract the social and, to some degree, the personal from what, on face value, is a legal document. This too is part of a great deal of modern scholarship on charters, seeking social history from the realm of legal documents, and Æthelred is a fine example of what one can do when approaching charters not only with criticality but with creativity. For example, Roach's construction of Æthelred's penance at Eastertide 998--one that is "strictly speaking fictional" (135)--speaks of the author's ability to tease the people and the actions out of the documents, and infuse both with personality, colour and light.

Another of Roach's strengths lies with his own scholarship and familiarity with a wide range of sources from Continental contexts. This too is part of many recent studies on Æthelred and indeed later Anglo-Saxon England across the board: many now seek to see Anglo-Saxon England in a less insular, more continental light, particularly in its Carolingian precedents and conscious parallels. Here again is where Roach's abilities shine, and it is a talent that serves his subject well. This is especially borne out in areas that need more filling in and context than others, including crucial areas where family issues and dynamics are under question. For example, Æthelred's childhood rule and considerations of Ælfthryth's "regency" and role in his child kingship gains a much greater contextualisation when set against a European, rather than a solely English, backdrop.

The biography is set into a traditionally chronological narrative. Roach sections his subject's life into broader themes in order to make sense of larger swathes of Æthelred's life: birth and childhood, 966x975; succession and dispute, 975-984; the prodigal son, 984-993; repentance and reform, 993-1002; apocalypse and invasion, 1002-1009; and a kingdom lost and won, 1009-1016. Æthelred may not have viewed his own life in such a way, though the course and vagaries of lifecycle tend to provide some symbolic and even recognizable "stops" and "starts." For example, the importance of Æthelred's penance in 998, as discussed above, would provide a clear turning point if the king had consciously seen it as a crucial part of his path of kingship in this greater period of "repentance and reform" from 993-1002, as Roach structures it. Indeed, the many interactions with vikings in this crucial period post-Maldon but pre-St Brice's Day Massacre are almost but a backdrop in the telling this period as one of reform, an unusual approach but one that certain does separate the "traditional" Æthelred from the traditional narrative of viking raids. In many other areas, using lifecycle as a lens also provides interesting turns and balances to the narrative: the rise, disappearance, and return of Ælfthryth, for example, is dealt with in a suitably critical and reasonable way through her appearance in the charters, teasing out some of the finer points of Æthelred's childhood and adulthood through his familial relationships. The treatment of Æthelred's relationship with Edmund Ironside also benefits from considerations of lifecycle, and the difficulty of having adult sons and heirs to the throne; [3] this too, as above, is set in a European perspective with parallels from Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire, Otto II of East Frankia and Robert the Pius in France.

My one criticism, and is a very minor one at that, is, despite the best intentions, Æthelred remains somewhat without "flesh and bones" (4) in the biography. The king himself remains elusive, with only fragments of possible personality--or personhood itself--worked into the narrative. Roach certainly does a good job at teasing out intentionality from the admittedly few sources and larger contexts that are his tools as the biographer, but almost inevitably it is sometimes the more larger-than-life characters of Æthelred's life that have more depth and colour here. Archbishop Wulfstan stands out, for example, as traces of his personality are hard to miss in his extant writings; or Emma of Normandy, though here more of a shadowy figure in Æthelred's reign almost as a preparation for her forthcoming role in his successor Cnut's.

But this, as mentioned, is a very minor criticism and one that can almost be seen as endemic throughout early medieval biography. [4] Roach's writing wears its deep knowledge and understanding lightly, giving readers an accessible glimpse, grounded in firm scholarly foundations, of the ever-enigmatic king. By virtue of being a part of the vaunted Yale Monarch series, this book will remain a standard text for decades, and quite happily, it is a book that deserves to be thought of that way.

-------- Notes:

1. Respectively, F.M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 1st edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1943), 394; Dorothy Whitelock, English Historical Documents (London: Eyre Methuen, 1979), 47; Eric John, "The Return of the Vikings," in The Anglo-Saxons, ed. James Campbell (London: Penguin, 1982), 193.

2. Simon Keynes, The Diplomas of King Æthelred the Unready (978-1016) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980); Pauline Stafford, Queen Emma and Queen Edith (Oxford: Wiley, 2001); Ann Williams, Æthelred the Unready (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2001); Ryan Lavelle, Æthelred II: King of the English, 2nd ed (Stroud: The History Press, 2008).

3. William M. Aird, "Frustrated Masculinity: The Relationship between William the Conqueror and his Eldest Son," in Masculinity in Medieval Europe, ed. Dawn M. Hadley (Longman: Harlow, 1999), 39-55.

4. Janet Nelson, "Writing Early Medieval Biography," History Workshop Journal 50 (Autumn 2000): 129-136.

Article Details