Thoughts on “Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions” and “Reign of Æthelred II” by Ian Howard

Two books by Ian Howard (Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England 991-1017 and The Reign of Æthelred II: King of the English, Emperor of All the Peoples of Britain) deal with similar topics, so I thought I would address them together, especially since they share an author. Both are academic works that engage with a tumultuous and confusing period of early English history, when England fell to a Danish king in 1013, was recovered by the English one in 1014, and was conquered by Danes again in 1016. Unfortunately, the Danish Conquest has been understudied to a degree that almost seems criminal, especially when considering that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of 1066 books and documentaries readily available. I can count the books focused on the Danish Conquest on one hand, so I’ll start with Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest, a book that was helpful when I was doing my own reading on Æthelred’s reign.

Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions

Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions came out in 2003 and puts forward a few arguments that were ahead of its time. It is one of the earlier books to recognize that the English military reaction to the Danish invasions was not nearly as inept as was once thought. While this had been mentioned by numerous authors before, this book (as the title suggests) focuses primarily on military history and is better suited to address it in detail. Howard also openly acknowledges that the English comeback in 1014 was, at least partially, a military one – a point still ignored by many historians today. I think this uncomfortable view, that Æthelred led a “re-conquest” in 1014 with Scandinavian help, will become more commonplace with time, but Howard managed to see it hiding in plain sight nearly 20 years ago. Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions is also happy to use later sagas as sources, a trend that is thankfully becoming more common; however, as I’ll get to in a moment, it can be a double-edged sword. These are some of the book’s most significant strengths, and it’s rewarding to see the Scandinavian accounts of Æthelred’s re-conquest taken seriously.

However, there are a few drawbacks that distracted me. For one, the book matter-of-factly states that Swein had served Æthelred as a mercenary, a claim I’m not sure I’ve seen anywhere else. The rationale for this isn’t very clear, so I’m still not sure why Howard thinks this. Something similar happens with Olaf Tryggvason. Howard says Olaf stayed in England after his agreement with Æthelred in 994, which is a step further than most others go. Usually I hear that while many of Olaf’s soldiers became English mercenaries, Olaf himself was not directly involved. There is also a heavy emphasis on identifying the number of soldiers involved in campaigns and invasions, which makes sense since this is military history, but I’ve never been a numbers and battlefield tactics guy myself. I’m probably shell-shocked because it so often descends into armchair general territory, which Howard does not do. While that’s more of a personal preference overall, I think it can be a dangerous game to play when dealing with this murky era. Howard does have good precedent for this, though, since even Simon Keynes did this to an extent.

Also, while it’s refreshing that Howard uses sagas as historical sources, sometimes they are given precedence over earlier English ones. I’m not sure why this is, given that the English sources he uses are hundreds of years earlier (at least in written form) and are geographically closer to many of the events they describe. The most skillful authors that I’ve seen treat the sagas as supplements or counterpoints to English sources, not as ways to overrule them. This only happens a few times, though, and I would say that Howard’s use of the sagas is more of a benefit to the book than a hindrance.

The Danish Conquest portion of the book is organized by military leader (one chapter for Swein and one for Thorkell), not strictly chronologically, which can make it difficult to understand on first read. Going from the Swein chapter to the Thorkell one can feel like deja vu when many of the same events are described again and it can be jarring to read of key players like Swein and Æthelred dying more than once. It also means that when I want to go back and find something, I have no idea which of the two chapters it came from, so I’m forced to hunt through both of them.

In all, I would say that Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions is valuable for the military historian, especially one interested in medieval Scandinavian accounts of the Danish Conquest, even if I am puzzled by some of the claims about mercenaries and found the organization of later chapters somewhat confusing. It’s an important step in the study of the Danish Conquest, which remains severely understudied compared to 1066.

The Reign of Æthelred II

Seeing as I enjoyed the book reviewed above, I was eager to pick up this biography of Æthelred. Despite the high price, I wanted to see what Howard, who often approached things from more of a military history perspective, would do with Æthelred. The subtitle of the book also promised a view of Æthelred as a ruler of peoples, a king with imperial ambitions. Based on the utilitarian cover and layout (two columns of text per page with substantial back matter), I was prepared for this to be a dense read. Having read the previous biographies of the king, though, I felt more than ready for it.

Well, it was a difficult read, but for more straightforward reasons. This book is absolutely bursting with typos. First, the more minor offenses: there are tons of semicolons used incorrectly, where a dash or even a comma would have done. For the millionth time, a semicolon is not a spicy comma. Please, writers, if you’re looking for a pause, try a long dash. I had this issue with Peter Rex’s Edward the Confessor, where it was so distracting that it nearly caused me to give up on it (It was like every semicolon; was used like this; poorly.). Capitalization is not consistent, either. Pagan, court, and royal, which are not proper nouns anyway, are sometimes capitalized for a few pages only to revert back to lowercase. It gets worse. Page 15 contains the line that Æthelred was “ten year’s old.” That random apostrophe wasn’t the only thing allowed to hitchhike its way into the finished product. There were several confused words that won’t necessarily show up underlined on a word processor. For example, emphasis was confused with emphasise (this could also be emphasize in US English). Look, every book has a few typos – my finished writing sometimes has typos – but this is different. In some sections, there are several on each page, sometimes in a single paragraph. The appendices and later chapters are noticeably cleaner (although they still contain some spicy commas), suggesting those sections of the book were proofread at a different time or by someone else.

Now on to more topical issues: there are some factual errors. For example, one part implies that Edward the Martyr was less legitimate since he had been born before Edgar’s imperial coronation (973), but Æthelred and Edmund Ætheling had also been born before it, so why does this matter? Edgar ascends in 958 rather than 959, although apparently this was on purpose. Howard’s reasoning for this date is covered in a section at the end, but why not address it right away in a footnote? I went the entire book thinking it had been an error, not something Howard had purposely re-dated. Speaking of footnotes, some of them are almost circular. A staggering number of them just refer back to the prior book, Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions, without any other supplemental sources or comments propping them up. There is nothing wrong with referring to one’s own research, but you also don’t want to re-write a prior book.

The book is poorly organized at times and not always internally consistent. The chapter “A Young King” begins with a 41-line (!) paragraph addressing the end of Edgar’s reign and most of Edward’s, with virtually no awareness that the last chapter already covered both reigns in detail. This doesn’t read like a transition between topics. Instead, it’s like these are two different essays pasted together to make two chapters, where chapter 2 is a totally independent of chapter 1.

Howard believes Æthelred was militarily active and effective, which is the same basic view that I have, although there are a couple oddities. He thinks that Æthelred led military campaigns in 984 and 988 based on his followers being referred to as miles in charters, and reasons that if there were campaigns, Æthelred must have led them. I’m open to the argument that the English conducted campaigns not mentioned in the ASC (Welsh annalists mention some), but why does it logically follow that Æthelred led them? This is more of a wording issue. Had it been presented as a possibility, rather than a near-certainty, I would not have found this too objectionable. Later, Howard says that Æthelred’s earliest military experience was in these two years, but fails to mention a 986 harrying campaign that is well-documented. Howard does address the 986 campaign in other parts of the book, but downplays its severity and significance. But still, why chase after two phantom campaigns in 984 and 988 but not refer back to the 986 one, which is one of the best-attested events in the reign? The ASC mentions it, as do numerous later sources, but the earliest account comes from Æthelred himself, who mentions it in one of his charters. That charter describes it with words like “despoliation” and “plunder,” which naturally leads me to wonder why it was downplayed by Howard as a military activity. If someone with a Scandinavian name had claimed to be responsible for “despoliation” and “plunder,” we would rightly refer to this as, at the very least, a raid.

There are many other places where the book connects dots that might not warrant being connected. Howard writes that Æthelred’s mercenaries from 994, the fleet that attacked the southern coasts in 997, and the forces that defected in 1001 were the same group, which I’m not convinced of. The book repeats the claim Swein Forkbeard once served as a mercenary leader for Æthelred. There is another leap in reasoning later on when Howard bluntly states that Æthelred must have been seriously ill in 1012, three years before he is recorded as being sick, because he did not appear to lead the witan. I’m not opposed to this idea – actually, Howard might be on to something – but a few more maybes are in order here. Is it possible that Æthelred, who came from a line of sickly and short-lived kings, missed this meeting due to illness? Of course. But it’s not presented as merely plausible or possible; it’s stated as near-fact and then repeated with a tone of certainty.

I also found that there was an overemphasis on reconciling chronology, especially when trying to align sagas with English sources. The attempts to make everything fit are admirable and extremely detailed, but sometimes there is no good way to make 15 years fit into 10. I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying to reconcile disparities in medieval sources. Rather, I think the problem is not knowing when to admit that the exact chronology is unknowable. Sometimes contradictions are just that – contradictions – and it’s better to acknowledge them and move on if there is no clear way to align them. Acknowledging a contradiction does not mean the source has to be thrown away.

Now I will zoom out and address what this book doesn’t say. There is an under-emphasis on Æthelred’s role as “Emperor of All the Peoples of Britain,” which is the subtitle of the book. Despite being mentioned in the introduction and getting a spot on the front cover, this topic is only touched on a couple times. I did not feel like it was one of the major themes of the book and was left confused about why it was part of the title at all.

A few bright spots: there is some good info on Æthelwold and Dunstan in the earlier chapters, messy as they might be. Howard does a good job of recognizing and emphasizing that they weren’t always on the same team, which is overlooked a lot. Also, the reference an Æthelredian charter claiming that Edward’s election was “unanimous” is smart and useful. And again, I think Howard could be on to something about Æthelred being ill in 1012. My issue is with the wording, not the idea itself. I also enjoyed the commentary and speculation about Æthelred’s personality and character. This is a topic most historians are too cautious to comment on, although Levi Roach has also done this at times. I appreciate the willingness to “take a shot” and go for it.

Overall, due to the poor organization of the book, the abundance of typos, surprising leaps in reasoning, and a relatively high price, I can’t say I recommend this title. Despite occasional sparks of ingenuity, this is one of the least consistent books I own. It reads more like a good first draft than a finished product. This was a book desperately in need of additional editing, proofreading, and fact-checking, and it’s a disservice to the author that it was released in this state. The prior book showed what Howard could do with a solid editing team, but it feels like he was hung out to dry in this book.

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