Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Dead King Watch: Ethelred the Unready

Ethlered or perhaps 'Aethelred', died on April 23 1016, which I reckon makes today the 990th anniversary of his death. While little is known about him - and I really should be talking about the current King in Nepal instead of some English King from almost a thousand years back with a ridiculous name - I decided the Unready one deserved a place on Dead King Watch.

Ethelred was born in Wessex in 968. Wikipedia notes that 'According to William of Malmesbury, Ethelred defecated in the baptismal font as a child, which led St. Dunstan to prophesy that the English monarchy would be overthrown during Ethelred's reign.' However Wikipedia then note that this story is 'almost certainly a fabrication' - but it is quite funny nonetheless. If I was a Saint around this time and witnessed the baby king shitting in a font I'd feel compelled to make some sort of prediction from it. And you could hardly come up with 'Well, this shows the English monarchy is going to shit on everyone for the next 1,000 years, doesn't it?' That sort of talk would not make you stay a 'saint' for very long I imagine, though it was sadly closer to the truth than the prediction he made.

Ethelred succeeded to the throne aged about 10 following the death of his father King Edgar and subsequent murder of his half-brother Edward the Martyr. Apparently, his nickname "The Unready" does not mean that he was ill-prepared, but derives from the Anglo-Saxon unræd meaning "without counsel" or "indecisive". This could also be interpreted as a pun on his name, Æðelred, which may be understood to mean "noble counsel". So his full name possibly meant 'Noble Council Without Council'. Don't mock this - this was possibly the first ever instance of satire in the English langauge - and it ain't that bad as a joke really. Actually it works quite well today - think of Ethelred the Unready and you smile and think - what a useless King he must have been - even though its original meaning has been lost somewhere along the way.

Actually, it seems a good job old Ethelred wasn't 'unready' as in 991 the 23 year old Ethelred was faced with a Viking fleet larger than any since Guthrum's "Summer Army" a century earlier. This fleet was led by Olaf Trygvasson, a Norwegian - who just sounds hard to be honest. After initial military setbacks including the defeat of his Ealdorman Byrhtnoth at the Battle of Maldon, Ethelred was able to come to terms with Olaf, who returned to Norway. While this arrangement won him some respite, England faced further depredations from Viking raids. Ethelred fought these off, but in many cases followed the practice of earlier kings including Alfred the Great in buying them off by payment of what was to become known as Danegeld.

Ethelred ordered the massacre of the Danes living in England on St Brice's Day (November 13) 1002 (as described in the chronicles of John of Wallingford), in response to which Sweyn Haraldsson started a series of determined campaigns to conquer England. In this Sweyn finally succeeded, but after his victory, he lived for only another five weeks. Which must have been quite gutting for him.

While Sweyn's Viking hordes overran England in 1013, Ethelred fled to Normandy, seeking protection by his brother-in-law, Robert of Normandy. He returned in February, 1014, following the death of Sweyn Haraldsson. Despite the steady stream of Viking attacks, Ethelred's reign was far from the disaster described by chroniclers writing well after the event. Ethelred introduced major reforms to the machinery of government in Anglo-Saxon England, in particular turning London into a major centre of Government, and is responsible for the introduction of Shire Reeves or Sheriffs. The quality of the coinage, always a good indicator of the prevailing economic conditions, remained very high during his reign.



At 9:10 pm, Blogger Comandante Gringo said...

Keep this stuff coming. It's an interesting aside to all the relentless, mirthless class analysis...
Since we get so much pro-monarchy crap from everywhere else -- including for this idiot Windsor/Hanover clan, not long to 'remain at station' in my estimation (may they soon follow the King of Nepal...) -- it's good to get the marxist angle on these shits and cads. And especially those of them who were at least competent at their jobs.

At 4:29 pm, Blogger Philip said...

I always understood that "without counsel" meant "ill-advised" rather than "indecisive" - don't blame the king, blame the Witan. It would be interesting to know who bestowed the nickname on him (monkish chroniclers, presumably?) and where their loyalties lay.


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