King shall hold kingdom

Tom Shippey

  • Æthelred: The Unready by Levi Roach
    Yale, 369 pp, £30.00, September 2016, ISBN 978 0 300 19629 0

Levi Roach’s book is an attempt to redeem the reputation of Æthelred II, king of England, with one interruption, from 978 to 1016. This is a hard task, as the book’s title concedes: Æthelred has been known as ‘the Unready’ for around a thousand years. Ever since 1066 and All That (originally a parody of Oxford University exam papers) he has also been logged as ‘the first Weak King of England’. The charge sheet includes incompetence, indecision, cruelty, paranoia and even, very un-regally, being a ‘mother’s boy’. In the popular estimation he probably outranks Bad King John and Wicked King Richard III as the worst ever English king.

He has this terrible reputation largely because of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This composite work is thought to have been first compiled in the 890s under the auspices of King Alfred, then copied and continued in different places by many different hands until 1154, at least in the case of the Peterborough manuscript (though much of this was probably copied from a manuscript kept up at Canterbury, which was itself no doubt a copy from somewhere else: the history of the Chronicle is a notorious maze). It has always been valued highly by historians because much of it was written by contemporary observers of events. It was composed in the vernacular, so it’s free of the flowery rhetoric and insistent moralising that disfigure similar Continental works in Latin. Some of its chroniclers mix observation and commemoration with attractively dispassionate analysis. In his entry for 897, the Winchester chronicler concludes his account of the long struggle between Alfred and the Vikings by saying that it had not, after all, been totally overwhelming: the Vikings had been bad, disease and cattle plague were worse, but the worst thing was the high casualty rate among English leaders. Eight of them are named, from ealdormen and a bishop down to Ecgwulf, the king’s ‘horse-thane’ or marshal: these men had led from the front. There’s no hysteria, just a considered, well-informed, rather unexpected, and on reflection plausible evaluation. Just what you want from a civil servant.

Three of the Chronicle manuscripts agree that Æthelred’s reign went downhill following ealdorman Byrhtnoth’s famous defeat at the Battle of Maldon in 991. That was when ‘it was first decided that tribute should be paid to the Danes’: ‘first 10,000 pounds [of silver]’. Archbishop Sigeric, the chronicler tells us, ‘first decided this’. The trouble with ‘paying danegeld’ was that it only encouraged them to come back for more. The Vikings’ demands and the English payoffs went up and up: 16,000 pounds in 994, 24,000 in 1002, 36,000 in 1007, 48,000 in 1012, 21,000 in 1014, and a heroic 72,000, plus 10,500 more from London, in 1018. The total comes to 80 or 90 tons of silver, from a country that by that time, as far as we know, had no natural source of the metal. That total doesn’t include local payments, or the receipts of plunder before deals were struck (‘indescribable war-booty’ according to a Chronicle entry for 997), or of the people killed, starved, burned out or carried off to the slave markets of Scandinavia.

Even worse for Æthelred’s reputation are the signs of national demoralisation that appear with increasing frequency in the manuscripts. In the entry for 1006 the Peterborough chronicler says that the national levy imposed at harvest time did just as much damage as the Vikings, and that the local population therefore suffered at the hands of both innhere and uthere. Here was the usual term for the Vikings, but the chronicler applies it both to them (the ‘out-here’) and to the national army (the in-here’): one was as bad as the other. Later in the same entry he notes an English boast that if the Vikings ever reached Cwichelm’s Barrow, now Cuckhamsley Barrow in Berkshire, they would never get home – the barrow being about as far from the sea as you can get in England. The Vikings accordingly made a point of going there and waiting to be challenged; when no challenge came they proceeded south, marching past the gates of Winchester ‘proud and unperturbed’. The national army was never in the right place. On one occasion a fleet was gathered at great expense to challenge the Vikings’ sea power, but its leaders soon fell out with one another and Wulfnoth (the grandfather of King Harold, who lost at Hastings) went raiding along the south coast on his own account. The eighty-ship pursuit force led by a man called Brihtric was wrecked by a storm.

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