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Aethelred The Unready Essay

History Notes > Anglo-Saxon History (Britain c. AD400-1100) Notes

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Was internal dissent or external invasion more to blame for the troubles of Aethelred the Unready?
King Aethelred II continues to be known to schoolchildren as 'the Unready'; the most incompetent of England's early kings, who failed to defend his people against a foreign invasion and subsequently ended his reign in the midst of an unmitigated military catastrophe. This traditional view of Aethelred's reign has undergone significant revision, and much of his reputation has now been salvaged, but no historian would seek to ignore the account of military collapse and internal dissent presented by the AngloSaxon Chronicle when coming to an overall judgement. There is no denying that Aethelred presided over a calamitous fall from fortune of the West Saxon royal house, in which sustained Scandinavian aggression, internal dissent and disloyalty and poor decision-making were all factors. However, accepting at face value the picture presented by our sources is a dangerous proposition. A particular problem is evaluating the role played by dissent in the king's trouble, given the understandable preoccupation of contemporaries with this aspect of the reign. We must nevertheless make an attempt to determine the relative weight of this factor in the failure of the English defence: the conclusion will not only inform our perception of Aethelred as a leader and 'judge of character', but more importantly help answer the question of whether the nature of Anglo-Saxon government had changed in Aethelred's reign, and of how dependent that government was on the personal character of its leader; if the workings of government can be shown to have remained strong even during a time of division and dissent, this should suggest a degree of institutional stability. An examination of the nature of the Scandinavian invasion, on the other hand, may answer the equally important question of how Swein and Cnut succeeded in conquering England completely, when no predecessor had done so; of whether there was something new about the Vikings facing Aethelred. Our view of Aethelred's reign is undoubtedly skewed by the narrative sources. The fullest account, that of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is probably also the one most in need of re-examination. It is now generally agreed that the Chronicle account was written, by a single scribe, either at the end of Aethelred's reign or after his death. In either case, the context was that of English military humiliation at its height, and the resulting narrative is thus forgivably defeatist. The chronicler is generally uninterested in the achievements of the king, or in domestic affairs generally; the long progression of the Viking invasion and military failure provide an overarching narrative, which with hindsight seemed the most important aspect of the reign. While all this makes the Chronicle a valuable indication of contemporary sentiment in the wake of the conquest, it does render it a somewhat limited source for the purpose of explaining the invasion: the hostility of the chronicler towards 'treacherous' men like Eadric Streona is clearly informed by their actions across the whole length of the reign. That is to say that Eadric and his ilk may well have been seen as traitors by 1016, but the animosity of the chronicler towards him when he is first mentioned in 1006 may very well have not been shared by contemporaries at the time. Similarly, Wulfstan's sermon, delivered late in the reign 'ad Anglos', preoccupied as it is with the 'many who are traitors in various ways', may lead us to imagine an England that was more plagued with internal dissent over the course of Aethelred's reign than was actually the case. The Scandinavian invasion, on the other hand, is seen from the point of view of the vanquished, and again with the benefit of hindsight: the result of the focus of the chronicle on the process of
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