The death of King Aethelred II – on this day in history 999 years ago

It’s been pointed out to me via another blog post that today is the 999th anniversary of King Aethelred II of England’s death, which means that really something big should be planned for next year when it’s a 1000 years, but poor old Aethelred II, like the much maligned Richard III, is very short of supporters. And here the similarities will, for the time being remain.

Richard III, like Aethelred II, was the last King in a royal line (let’s ignore for the moment the fact that Aethelred’s children did eventually succeed him after the death of Cnut and his own sons) and he was the victim of many scurrilous rumours and of course, the quill of Shakespeare didn’t help him out at all. Whilst I’m not a great fan of Richard III I want to at least do him the courtesy of considering what we KNOW about his and what we SUSPECT about him and make my own decision. The power of negative publicity is far greater than good publicity.

Yet, the same rules have never been applied to Aethelred II. He’s been derided by many, earned himself the epitaph of ‘The Unready’ and few seem to want to look behind the fiction to see the facts. It’s also worth remembering that not only did Aethelred II’s death allow (alright, maybe allow isn’t the right word there but I think you know what I mean) Cnut of Denmark to claim the throne, the later death of his son, Edward the Confessor, allowed William the Bastard to ‘steal’ the throne of England. Effectively the history of Aethelred II had been rewritten TWICE within the space of fifty years and that’s before anyone else turned their attention to him.

This is an important fact to remember. Almost all that is known about Aethelred II is retrospective, and sadly, historians and fiction writer alike, tend to forget this and rely on any snippet of information they can find out about him in order to build their story. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, the attitudes of people who lived close to the men and women in history I strive to research are an excellent source of information, but often it’s what they DON’T tell us that’s important, and often it’s what they DO tell us within the context of events affecting them that’s important. ‘Histories’ and Saints Lives that have survived nearly a millennia often reveal more about the society that created them than it does about the people they purport to be about.

So, what’s the main issue with Aethelred?
1) he murdered his brother to become King
(um – he was only ten or twelve at the time of his brother’s death and he was never implicated in his own life time, and nor, more interestingly, was his mother who also takes the blame for this. His brother, a youth of only 18 at the time of his death, was a political pawn in a game between the great ealdormen of England at the time. Who knows what really happened.)
2)He never went to war and he let the Vikings rape England and then paid them to leave and crippled his people with heavy taxation!
No, no and yes. He did go to war – in the year 1000 there was the Battle of Strathclyde and it was a victory (I think – the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (ASC) is very anti-Aethelred and can’t seem to record anything worthwhile about him without a big BUT at the end of it.)
As to the Vikings, yes, they attacked England A LOT during his reign, but even according to the ASC it wasn’t Aethelred’s decision to pay them off – no that was taken by his church men and his councillors. Let’s not forget – England was a rich society – it had a sophisticated system of recalling and recasting money – Aethelred did this about every six-eight years throughout his reign. There were moneyers all over the place and the design of the coins was changed each time the money was recast. It was, on occasion, a way to make money by changing the weight of the coins, but it was also a system that was unheard of amongst the Vikings. I believe that England could well afford the money she paid to try and tempt the Vikings away. It’s simply unfortunate that in doing so, she roused the greed of the Vikings and they just kept coming back. A final point – if England hadn’t been so well endowed, why would Cnut, once he was King, have paid his men so much money? He wouldn’t have wanted to impoverish his new kingdom. He’d fought for maybe as long as a decade to claim the throne of England, I imagine he probably wanted to enjoy it when he finally got it. He could have rewarded his men with land or riches back in Denmark, or like William the Bastard, have doled out England’s land to those who were his favoured followers. He didn’t do this. Some of his followers became Earls (the name now changing from Ealdormen) but he kept much of the governing structure and its people in place.
3)He ordered the massacre of the Danes on St Brice’s Day and earned himself Swein of Denmark as an enemy (Cnut’s father).
Certainly the ASC mentions this – “all the Danish men among the English race were to be killed on St Brice’s Day because it was made known to the King that they wanted to ensnare his life,” but little is known about how many were killed on the King’s orders, and who exactly was meant by ‘all the Danish men,’ and neither can it be said with any certainty that this involved the killing of Swein of Denmark’s sister who was then living in England. This entire scenario is difficult to understand or explain, or offer any explanation to, but it could simply be a turn of phrase used by the scribe of the ASC AFTER Aethelred’s death to describe something far less catastrophic than the hastily flung words imply, when it just so happened that England had a Danish King, a very strong Danish King who understood the importance of the written word, as can be evidenced by his letters back to the English when he was overseas during his reign. Once more, it’s vital to look BEHIND the supposed ‘fact’ that is known about Aethelred.

Aethelred II is very much maligned in almost every written source available to modern readers, but a very careful study of the independent sources, can present Aethelred in a wholly different light. For those who are really keen please try and track down a copy of Simon Keynes, ‘The Diplomas of King Aethelred II’, it is a hugely intelligent piece of work and whilst you might not want to pour through the charters, at least read the way that he believes Aethelred II governed throughout the changeable years of his reign. Don’t forget, whatever else can be said about Aethelred, England was whole when it was passed onto Cnut. During the first Viking Age, the kingdoms of England; Northumbria, Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia, all fractured and fell apart under the onslaught of the Vikings. Aethelred, whatever his faults, (and he had many) had loyal men labouring to keep England safe and united. It would be interesting to know if Cnut ever realized that.

As a writer, my concern was actually with Ealdorman Leofwine, one of Aethelred’s longest serving supporters. He, like Aethelred, falls foul of the scribes of the ASC because he’s not mentioned, not once, even though he held his position throughout the Viking raids (from 994 – 1023). The reasons he wasn’t included are intriguing (and not for today) but he serves as a wonderful example of the hit and miss nature of historical knowledge and that might just be because his sons and grandsons were the arch rivals of the House of Godwins. But again, that’s not for today, and is just another angle to be factored in when talking about Aethelred II and Leofwine of the Hwicce.

I almost pity them their anonymity and their notoriety.

History, is not, and contrary to what people believe, a study of facts. It’s a study of the tantalizing glimpses of information that have miraculously survived, and the greatest skill is in appreciating this and applying sound reasoning to what might have happened. It’s not, unfortunately, an excuse to decide who’s ‘good’ and who’s ‘bad’. History can teach many valuable lessons, but the first one, the most important one, is that no one writes down a piece of information without some bias. Find the bias – discover the ‘fact’.

Enjoy.

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