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.

Charters and Leofwine, Ealdorman of the Hwicce

I always think that the characters of Anglo-Saxon England are a little too ethereal for people to really connect with. As I’ve said before, I think it’s difficult to visualise life before the Norman Conquest, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

My current obsession, and victim of my historical fiction endeavours is Leofwine, Ealdorman of the Hwicce during the reign of Aethelred, who I refuse to call ‘Unready’ because I just don’t think he was. I think, as many might say about todays economic situation, that he was a victim of his times, treated harshly by historians. (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/344194)

My research is going deeper, examining the evidence of the charter attestations that Leofwine made (where he signs, and therefore, it must be assumes, agrees to whatever the charter is concerned with). Charters from before the Norman Conquest are rare, and have only survived in copies because they benefitted someone in some way, normally the monastery or Church that the copy of the original charter has survived in.

This effectively means that in determining the validity of the Charter, historians need to know about what was happening in the world at large, when the COPY of the charter was made. Effectively, to study Anglo-Saxon history, you have to also study early Anglo-Norman history to work out just what’s going on and why the Charter is so important.

In the records of Sherborne, Leofwine’s name can be found attesting two charters. No original copies of the charters survive, and the record as we have it, is in a twelfth century hand. So, should it be trusted? Should it be used as an historical source? Or as with so much history, can it really only be used as a historical record of the time period that produced it? After all, at least a hundred years and probably more like 150 years, separate the copy of the charter and the date of its drafting and attestation.

It’s an interesting dilemma and one I don’t plan on solving today. Would I use it? Yes, I would but I’d be standing on the shoulders of those giants of academic history who have studied far more charters than me and who have decided that the copies are ‘probably’ genuine as they stand. 

And how relevant are they to Leofwine? I think very, because they appear to show his standing at the Royal Court. In S933 (AD1015) he signs as the third ‘dux’ (ealdorman) and on S910 from AD1005 he also signs as the third ‘dux’. So what does it all mean? Well, as with everything the picture is wider than just Sherborne. In total Leofwine attests 41 charters whilst an Ealdorman. So although I think its important to examine the validity of the Cartularies that the charters survive in, it’s a bit of a painstaking and picky business. But one I’m enjoying. For anyone really keen to look at Leofwine’s charters in more detail, you can start by having a look at http://www.kemble.asnc.cam.ac.uk.

Enjoy.