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Aethelred II: King of the English 978-1016 (English Monarchs) Paperback – Illustrated, 1 Nov 2008
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In this book first published in 2002, Ryan Lavelle clearly has a revisionist agenda but a largely convincing case to make. While the end of Aethelred's long reign undoubtedly ended in failure, with his kingdom conquered and the king dead, Lavelle clearly shows that all of his reign was not disastrous, far from it. He also shows the limits of royal power in Anglo-Saxon England, with the aspiring king approved by the Witan, even when chosen by the reigning king, and the succession often pitting brothers and their respective factions against each other, or sons against their ageing father.
Another point which is well made is the richness of the Kingdom, exemplified by the huge and increasing taxes that were raised during the reign. The common term of "Danegeld" and the idea that the sums were entirely tribute "paid to get rid of the Danes" is both misleading and incorrect. Unfortunately, the author does not discuss the purpose of these huge levies, therefore adopting the usual assumption that they were essentially "protection money" whereas they may have been more generally sums levied to ensure the kingdom's defence. As shown in Ian Howard's more recent book (Swein Forkbeard's Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England), it is out of these sums that Aethelred financed the building of his fleet maintained a mercenary but permanent armed force by hiring some of the invading Scandinavians in several instances.
An additional and interesting point made by the author is that many of the sources for Aethelred's reign made him into some kind of a scapegoat. In some cases, this may have been deliberate and rather convenient, since he was dead. It also helped to obscure that many - if not most - of his earldormen had their own personal agendas, were sometimes often more interesting in fighting each other for power than leading armies on battlefields and largely ended up by betraying their king.
Further, the author also shows how, based on the sources, the traditional but somewhat misleading view is misleading. This view considers that most if not all of the King's decisions during his long reign and his long fight against the Danes were ill-conceived or back-fired. Ryan Nevelle demonstrates often convincingly that these views are largely unfair because largely based on hindsight or on events whose importance may have been distorted, exaggerated or used as an explanation (or an excuse) for some future action. One case in point was the so-called Massacre of Saint Brice in 1102 were large number of Scandinavians were put to death on the same day, allegedly across the Kingdom and at the King's command. In particular, the author shows that the King's involvement, the scope, the numbers of Scandinavians killed and their identity are somewhat questionable.
Despite - or perhaps because of - the author's efforts to rehabilitate Aethelred's, the book does however have a significant weakness. Assuming that he was not as bad as portrayed posthumously, the book fails to provide clear reasons explaining the fall of Anglo-Saxon England and its conquest by the Danish Kings, although there are a number of hints. One seems to be the unreliability of the earldormen and the lack of a talented and gifted warlord among them. Another could be the relative military weakness of the Anglo-Saxon military system and the lack of sufficiently large permanent mobile forces in particular. This would, however, need to be demonstrated since such a system had worked well under both King Alfred and his successors.
Because of these missing pieces, this interesting book is worth four stars. It can be usefully completed by Ian Howard's book referenced above, where what is largely the same story is told but with a focus on military events, campiagns and raids, and from the perspective of the Danes.
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