Magazine article The Spectator

'Aethelred the Unready', by Levi Roach - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Aethelred the Unready', by Levi Roach - Review

Article excerpt

Aethelred the Unready (c.968--1016) has not, as Levi Roach acknowledges, enjoyed a good press. In recent times there may have been some attempt in academic circles to take a more measured view of his calamitous reign, but the fact remains that if most us would have trouble saying quite what he did or did not do, or even what 'unraed' actually means, we all know how it ended. 'And that is called paying the Dane-geld;' wrote Kipling,

But we've proved it again and again,

That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld

You never get rid of the Dane.

On the face of it the revisionists have an uphill battle, too, because when Aethelred came to the throne as a child the kingdom was looking in pretty good shape. Less than a century before his birth his great-great-grandfather Alfred had defeated the Danes and unified the Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, and over the succeeding reigns, his son and grandson had extended their power across the east and north so that for the first time a Saxon king could legitimately style himself rex anglorum and we can reasonably begin to speak of a coherent 'English nation'.

It was this inheritance -- enriched and consolidated during the halcyon reign of his father Edgar the Peacemaker -- that Aethelred squandered, and Roach has set himself in this largely sympathetic biography to ask how and why. He is under no illusion that there is a strong case to answer, but underneath the superficial order of Edgar's reign were religious and factional tensions that no child king under the thumb of a powerful mother -- still less one who had come to the throne as a result of the murder of his older half-brother, Edward the Martyr -- could possibly have resolved.

It should be no more of a surprise, either, that Aethelred turned his back on his mother and her party as soon as he came of age, and it was again, perhaps, his misfortune rather than his fault that his own youthful excesses should coincide with a renewal of Viking raids. In cosier times he might easily have got away with seizing the odd bishop's lands, but in a society that saw a direct link between morality and earthly prosperity, the Viking scourge and the miseries that followed came to seem a divine judgment on a sinful king who had rejected his advisors and attacked the church.

The result in the short term was a penitent Aethelred, restitution of despoiled lands and a return of the old guard, but neither God nor the Vikings were to be so easily bought off. A brief period of reform in the 990s seems to suggest some kind of stability, but this was no more than a pause, and as the raiding parties grew in scale and ambition then the grim logic of his own penitential piety began to work itself out. …

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