Æthelred the Unready: What Lies Beneath the Legends

The image that had emerged by the 12th century was of a ruler who was afraid of candles, had defecated at his baptism, was scolded at his own coronation, was haunted by the ghost of his murdered brother, and who preferred drinking and sleeping to fighting vikings.

This article is adapted from a conference presentation I delivered at The Mid-America Medieval Association in September 2019. To view this article with all footnotes and citations, click here.

Cover image: Æthelred’s coronation depicted in Gilbert Abbott À Beckett, John Leech, and William Randolph Hearst’s The Comic History of England (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1847): 33.

For nearly a thousand years, Æthelred the Unready has been an easy target for ridicule among writers and historians, who have often included their own interpretations of why Anglo-Saxon England collapsed during his rule (978-1016). The image that had emerged by the 12th century was of a ruler who was afraid of candles, had defecated at his baptism, was scolded at his own coronation, was haunted by the ghost of his murdered brother, and who preferred drinking and sleeping to fighting vikings. Colorful as these later legends may be, it is not hard to see why Æthelred was singled out for abuse among the many Anglo-Saxon kings of England. During his 38-year reign, viking hordes invaded England repeatedly, apparently with great success. We know from the near-contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) that Æthelred sometimes resorted to paying off viking raiders in exchange for peace, a strategy that in hindsight has garnered much criticism. As if nearly four decades of viking invasions were not bad enough for the king’s legacy, Cnut the Great of Denmark would conquer England just after Æthelred’s death in 1016. The Danish Conquest appears even more startling when compared to the reign of Æthelred’s father, which had been one of comparative peace and prosperity.

Post-Conquest writers and chroniclers tried to make sense of England’s fall from grace under Æthelred, and recording stories of his incompetence and phobias was one way to do that. The influence of these later legends on the king’s modern reputation, especially in popular circles, should not be understated; one of the aforementioned legends, about Æthelred’s baptism defecation, was mentioned in The New York Times as recently as 2011, showing that these legends continue to function as simplistic methods for understanding the long and complex reign of Æthelred the Unready. However, it should go without saying that there must have been other factors at play in the decline of an entire regime. In fact, sources from the 10th and 11th centuries rarely blame Æthelred at all, instead accusing the nobility of undermining him, while noting that Æthelred led armies, built navies, and defended his cities like previous Anglo-Saxon kings.

Legends About King Æthelred: 12th Century Origins

Before addressing these earlier Anglo-Saxon sources, though, an overview of some of the later legends will shed light on why Æthelred’s reputation is so poor today. Two post-Conquest writers, William of Malmesbury and John of Worcester, help illustrate how the king’s reputation was evolving in the 12th century. William’s account of Æthelred’s life is perhaps the most famous ever written, thanks at least in part to its memorable portrait of a lazy, drunken, and entirely inept ruler. William’s status as a beloved English historian also lends considerable influence to his writing: “His life is said to have been cruel in the beginning, wretched in the middle, and disgraceful in its ending,” William begins, adding that “he was cruel, base in his effeminacy and flight.” William also relays the aforementioned tale of Æthelred soiling the font at his baptism.

Æthelred came to the throne in 978, following his brother Edward’s assassination. William says that young Æthelred was so upset by his brother’s slaying that he would not stop crying until his mother beat him with candlesticks and that “on this account he dreaded candles.” William’s Æthelred fares no better as an adult. The king is “admirably calculated for sleeping…and would only yawn. If he ever recovered his senses enough to raise himself upon his elbow, he quickly relapsed into his original wretchedness.” William also says the king was haunted by the ghost of his dead brother and disgraced his queen by “his libidinous intercourse with harlots.” William presents Æthelred near the end of his reign as “a driveller…wholly given to wine and women…[whose] last thoughts are those of war…he was hateful to his own people.”

While William clearly has a low opinion of the king, he makes moral judgements of others, as well, both positively and negatively. The king’s advisor Eadric, for example, is “the refuse of mankind…an abandoned glutton, a cunning miscreant.” The viking Sweyn Forkbeard is “naturally cruel.” Richard I of Normandy, on the other hand, is presented as saintly in every way.

While William was no admirer of Æthelred, he also records some conflicting information that suggests his view of the king was not universal. He includes a counter-argument where he says that “it seems wonderful how a man who, as we have been taught to suppose, was neither very foolish nor excessively cowardly, should pass his life in the dismal endurance of so many calamities. Should any one ask me the reason of this, I could not easily answer, except by saying that the revolt of the generals proceeded from the haughtiness of the king.” The words “as we have been taught to suppose” suggest that William was aware of other traditions that portrayed the king more positively, perhaps as intelligent and brave, if we turn William’s negative phrasing (“neither very foolish nor excessively cowardly”) into positives. William also includes curious lines like, “Who can tell how often he collected his army? How often he ordered ships to be built? How frequently he called out commanders from all quarters?” Since the ASC’s primary focus during Æthelred’s reign is on military affairs (including campaigns led by Æthelred himself), there was no way for William to ignore the king’s energy entirely. Instead, he was forced to acknowledge these campaigns, but to supplement them with unflattering details about the king’s personality.

William of Malmesbury’s contemporary, John of Worcester, likewise mentions the king’s efforts against the vikings. In his chronicle, which draws heavily from the ASC, John takes the opposite approach of William: John preserves warlike references to Æthelred, even accentuating them in places. In an entry for 1006, John adds Æthelred’s motives to a passage that originally lacked them, saying the king wanted to “give [the vikings] battle with great vigor” – the original version of the ASC only says Æthelred raised an army. For 1009, where the ASC records Æthelred trapping the vikings with his army, John adds that the king had resolved to “conquer or die.” In other entries, John is sure to preserve existing warlike references to Æthelred. During the king’s re-conquest of 1014, John writes that Æthelred “put as many inhabitants to the sword as he could,” closely mirroring the ASC’s wording. For the same year, 1014, the ASC says the king’s noblemen forced him to rule “more justly,” but John’s later version adds that the king had to rule “more justly and with greater gentleness.” However, despite John’s portrayal of an active monarch, William of Malmesbury’s account would win out in the centuries to come. His story of Æthelred and the candles was still circulating in the 1500s and, as mentioned earlier, was reprinted in The New York Times as recently as the 2010s.

Interpretations of King Æthelred: Victorian Era to Present

Æthelred as “Old Slowcoach” in The Comic History of England, 41.

Victorian historians, who were no strangers to moral judgements, likewise eagerly built on William of Malmesbury’s writing. For example, in 1842, Thomas Fuller said that the vikings were “advantaged by the unactiveness of King Ethelred, surnamed ‘the Unready’…when the unready king meets with the Danes, his over-ready enemies, no wonder, if lamentable, is the event thereof.” Æthelred also appears as a bumbling and lazy monarch in The Comic History of England, written in 1847, where he is given the unflattering nickname of “Old Slowcoach.” The nickname, according to the author, is “used to denote a person of sluggish disposition and not very brilliant mental faculties.” E.A. Freeman calls Æthelred “a bad man and a bad king,” only to begrudgingly concede that “he had a certain amount of energy.” In the early 20th century, Rudyard Kipling famously wrote a poem lampooning Æthelred’s tendency to pay tribute to the vikings in order to secure peace:

It is always the temptation of a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say:
‘Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away’.
And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.

Moving closer to the present, Æthelred is the main character in a Broadway play and film called The Ceremony of Innocence, written in the late 1960s, where the king complains of the pointlessness and futility of war. He would rather take refuge in a monastery than lead an army, even though his people are willing to fight. In 1992, Æthelred was even featured in his own comedic opera, where, now existing somewhere in the afterlife, the king petitions “the muse of history” to re-write his legacy. Æthelred and his wife Emma allege that William of Malmesbury was too harsh, but nonetheless Æthelred mopes and yawns throughout the performance.

Not all writers and historians have accepted wholly negative views of Æthelred’s reign, though. Since the 1980s, assessments of the reign have become far more measured, even if not glowing; in the last twenty years alone, several academic books have been written about Æthelred, all of which aim to re-evaluate the king on some level, frequently making note of his successes and strengths. Because of this recent scholarship, there is now a considerable gap – or perhaps a widening gulf – between how popular culture portrays Æthelred and how Anglo-Saxon experts perceive him.

Beneath the Legends: Æthelred in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Only when critically examining the earliest sources of the reign – mainly the ASC – does Æthelred’s decidedly mixed modern reputation begin to make sense. The ASC is by no means a perfect source; as Keynes points out, the ASC offers few details about the reign outside of military affairs. That said, the ASC still affords us the broadest look at Æthelred’s nearly 40-year reign. The versions dealing with Æthelred were composed just after his death, most likely during Cnut’s reign (1016-1035), making them far earlier than any of the other sources mentioned so far. The ASC records the events of Anglo-Saxon England year by year, focusing primarily on the royal family and national politics. The ASC records King Edward’s murder in 978 and his younger brother Æthelred’s consecration the next year: “Æthelred was consecrated king…this same year a cloud red as blood was seen, frequently with the appearance of fire and…it took the form of rays of light, and at the first streak of dawn it vanished.” It would seem that the ASC already contains portents and warnings at the young king’s accession, perhaps interpreting these lights as a sign that the new king was cursed. However, another version of the ASC for the same year merely says, “Æthelred came to the throne, and very quickly after this amid great rejoicing was consecrated king.” Also note that in neither passage does Archbishop Dunstan scold the king, like in William’s later legend, even though Dunstan had just been mentioned in an entry for 978. Rather, the king’s accession is a joyous event in one version, not one of portents and omens.

For the rest of the reign, the ASC mentions Æthelred most frequently in connection to military events. In 986, probably aged about 20, he launches a raid on the Diocese of Rochester. In 992, Æthelred constructs a national fleet of ships to protect the nation and calls out national armies against vikings in 999. He leads a land invasion of Strathclyde, a center of significant Norse activity, in 1000, “laying waste to very nearly the whole of it.” His fleet ravages the Isle of Man, another area sympathetic to the vikings, the same year. Æthelred would again call out national armies to fight the vikings in 1006 and 1009; he also constructs a new fleet in 1009, greater “than there had ever been before in the days of any king.” He personally defends London from the vikings twice in 1013 before finally going into exile after the Danish king, Sweyn, had conquered the rest of England. Following Sweyn’s death in 1014, Æthelred returns and leads a successful military campaign against the vikings and their allies, effectively re-conquering his kingdom. Finally, in 1016 he leads his army one last time despite deteriorating health. His death is recorded just after this, “after a life of much hardship and many difficulties.” He was about 50, making him one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon kings of England. Clearly Æthelred, despite his later reputation as a cowardly and lazy ruler, was not afraid of directly involving himself in the viking struggle according to the earlier ASC. In fact, of all the military events the king personally leads in the ASC, he is only defeated once, in 1013, when London falls after two consecutive attacks.

In the ASC, Æthelred often convinces the vikings to leave by other, less glorious means, though: he pays invading armies to leave the country numerous times between 991 and his death in 1016. However, a closer reading reveals that all of these payments followed local or regional military defeats, sometimes several in a row, that Æthelred had not been present for. Due to the size of the kingdom, it was not practical or possible for him to lead every initial defense against the vikings. The immediate assembly of armies fell to local leaders – reeves and ealdorman – who were expected to quickly raise levies and react to invasions in the king’s stead. Abbot Ælfric the Homilist, writing in the middle of the reign, notably defends the king’s policy of delegating generalship. When these generals were defeated, the king used tribute not as a solution in its own right, but for two other main reasons. First, it was used to stop immediate damage after a military defeat. Second, it was used to buy time to organize a more coherent national response, usually involving the king himself, such as when Æthelred constructs navies after paying tributes in 991 and 1007. The behavior of paying off vikings was not unique at the time, either: tribute had been frequently paid by Frankish kings, and successful English rulers like Alfred the Great had paid tribute long before Æthelred did. It was an entirely normal way of addressing viking invasions during the early and high middle ages.

So, whereas Æthelred’s military actions are usually presented as successful or neutral in the ASC, the chronicler is quick to name and blame generals who caused defeats: an ealdorman named Ælfric is blamed for military disasters in 991 and 1002, three generals in 993, a reeve named Hugh in 1002, Ealdorman Ælfhelm in 1006, and Ealdorman Eadric in 1009, 1015, and 1016. Only once, in 1010, is King Æthelred’s military policy directly criticized, and part of the blame is deflected onto his advisors in this passage, as well.

Treachery is a major theme in the ASC, and it records the king mutilating or assassinating several treacherous leaders, suggesting the king was well-aware of the need for change within his own circle. When viewed through the lens of the ASC, Æthelred appears as an energetic and active ruler, unafraid of confronting the vikings – he defends his cities, leads his men into battle, invades neighboring countries, and punishes traitors. So, unlike in Kipling’s poem, it seems that Æthelred did have time to meet the vikings. In short, in the ASC he behaves as a typical Anglo-Saxon king, albeit one plagued by fickle nobles and subjects.

However, the ASC does treat Æthelred differently than other kings in some respects. For example, while previous kings are frequently addressed by name and seem to act unilaterally, Æthelred is rarely called by name (usually only appearing as “the king”) and almost never acts without the advice of his council. While some have interpreted this as proof of an anti-Æthelred bias in the ASC, others have argued that this portrayal is in fact sympathetic to the king, noting again that ASC typically blames advisers for failures and gives the king sole credit for successes. When armies are led by his advisors and regional leaders, disaster follows, with only a few exceptions. When the king is mentioned alone, without any connection to his advisors, his campaigns are successful. This suggests the writer of the ASC wanted to isolate the king’s advisors from these successes and name Æthelred alone as responsible. In this way, the chronicler avoids directly criticizing the king. In Æthelred’s own time, removed from centuries of later legend and myth, the ASC tries to present the king as a competent and sometimes successful ruler, whose downfall was not his “unreadiness” but the failure of the political structure surrounding him.

The only prominent exception to this view comes in 1014, when Æthelred returns from his exile to reclaim his kingdom. According to the ASC, the English nobles force Æthelred to agree to be a “more just” ruler before accepting him back. According to this entry, Æthelred is not a poor ruler because he is lazy, inattentive, or cowardly, but because he is personally unjust. A text written during Æthelred’s exile, the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, likewise notes that the reign had been plagued not by unreadiness or passivity, but by other problems: high taxes and a government that is perceived as arbitrary and unfair. If anything, Sermo and the ASC present the king not as unready, but perhaps active to the point of being self-destructive. He kills nobles without trial, relies heavily on corrupt favorites, and even orders widespread massacres.

A rare gold Æthelred coin from the early 1000s, depicting the king in military gear (The British Museum).

Clearly the king was capable of forceful action, but what of Æthelred’s personality, which has been so harshly condemned by later legends and writers? Was he afraid of candles, or was he a drunkard? There is little the historian can say for certain about the man himself. Simon Keynes, for example, says that after many years of study he “experienced only a deepening frustration that one has hardly the faintest idea of what [Æthelred] was really like,” going on to call the king an “unknown quantity.” Another expert, Ann Williams, comes to a similar conclusion: “We do not and cannot know what kind of a man Æthelred was.” There is, however, one contemporary source describing the king personally, and it does not fit the later narrative of a lazy, effeminate, self-indulgent ruler. The account comes from Byrhtferth of Ramsey, writing near the middle of Æthelred’s reign. He recalls that many had supported young Æthelred during the 970s because he appeared mellower than his violent brother, King Edward.

Perhaps Byrhtferth’s account influenced John of Worcester’s later summary of Æthelred as an “illustrious ethling [or prince], a youth of graceful manners, handsome countenance, and fine person.” In all, it may be safer to doubt Æthelred’s alleged personality flaws than to uphold them, especially considering that the only early description of his personality is a positive one, while John of Worcester’s aforementioned description is also flattering even though John wrote around the same time William of Malmesbury did.

Æthelred’s Mixed Legacy

As for what lies beneath all the later legends, it seems William of Malmesbury answered his own question when he wondered how England could have fallen with Æthelred at the helm: William said that he could not think of a response unless it had something to do with the king’s leading men. Indeed, the earliest sources suggest the vikings were successful not because of Æthelred, but rather in spite of him. The ASC and Sermo paint a similar picture – the collapse of loyalty to the king and the treachery of advisors. The king is not portrayed as lazy, unready, or incompetent, but as ruthless, even toward his own citizens. He had placed unreliable men in power and they in turn failed to support him. The original meaning of Æthelred’s nickname (Unraed) thus holds some weight even if it was recorded much later. Unraed meant “No Counsel,” and in a sense, those words sum up the earliest views of the reign: Æthelred himself may have been a typical, forceful Anglo-Saxon king, but without the support of the political structure surrounding him, not even his best efforts could save England.

Bibliography

À Beckett, Gilbert Abbott, John Leech, and William Randolph Hearst. The Comic History of England. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1847.

Abels, Richard. Æthelred the Unready: The Failed King. London: Penguin, 2018.

Abels, Richard. “Paying the Danegeld: Anglo-Saxon peacemaking with vikings.” War and Peace in Ancient and Medieval History. Cambridge University Press, 2008.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Translated by G.N. Garmonsway. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1954. Reprint: 1990.

“The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (C).” English and Norse Documents Relating to the Reign of Ethelred the Unready. Translated by Margaret Ashdown. Cambridge University Press, 1930. Reprint: 2014.

Bender, Brandon M. “The Anglo-Saxon Magna Carta: Æthelred the Unready’s Agreement of 1014.” Presented at The Kansas Association of Historians, 2019.

Bender, Brandon M. England’s Unlikely Commander: The Military Career of Æthelred the Unready. Rounded Globe, 2019.

Braekman, W. “Wyrdwriteras: an Unpublished Ælfrician Text in Manuscript Hatton 115.” Revue belge de Philologie et d’Histoire 44, no. 3 (1966): 959-970.

Byrhtferth of Ramsey. The Lives of St. Oswald and St. Ecgwine. Edited by Michael Lapidge. Oxford University Press, USA, 2009.

Dien, Stephanie. “Sermo Lupi ad Anglos: The Order and Date of the Three Versions.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 76, no. 4 (1975): 561-70.

Edmonds, Fiona. “The emergence and transformation of medieval Cumbria.” Scottish Historical Review 93, no. 2 (October 2014): 195-216. https://doi.org/10.3366/shr.2014.0216.

Edmonds, Fiona. “The expansion of the kingdom of Strathclyde.” Early Medieval Europe 23, no. 1 (2015): 43-66. https://doi.org/10.1111/emed.12087.

Foxe, John. Fox’s Book of Martyrs: The Acts and Monuments of the Church. Edited by John Cumming. London: George Virtue, 1851.

Freeman, E.A. The History of the Norman Conquest of England: The Preliminary History to the Election of Eadward the Confessor. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1867.

Fuller, Thomas. The Church History of England: Third Edition. London: Thomas Tegg, 1842.

Howard, Ian. The Reign of Aethelred II King of the English Emperor of all the Peoples of Britain 978-1016. British Archaeological Reports, 2010.

Howard, Ian. Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991-1017. Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2003.

John of Worcester. Florence of Worcester’s Chronicle. Translated by Thomas Forester. London: Bohn’s Antiquarian Library, 1854.

Keynes, Simon. The Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready.’ Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Kipling, Rudyard. “Dane-geld.” A School History of England. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1911.

Konshuh, Courtnay. “Anraed in their Unraed.” English Studies 97, no. 2 (2016).

Kozinn, Allan. “A Long-Dead King Sets Out to Upgrade His Brand’s Image.” The New York Times, 2011.

Lavelle, Ryan. Aethelred II: King of the English 978-1016. Stroud: Tempus, 2002.

Ribman, Ronald. The Ceremony of Innocence. Broadway Theatre Archive, 1970.

Roach, Levi. Æthelred The Unready. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

Weiler, Björn. “William of Malmesbury on Kingship.” History 90, no. 1 (2005).

William of Malmesbury. “The History of the Kings of England.” The Church Historians of England Vol III Part I. Translated by Joseph Stevenson. London: Seeley’s, 1854

Williams, Ann. Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counseled King. Bloomsbury Academic, 2003.

Wilson, Richard. Æthelred the Unready: An Opera in Seven Scenes, 1992.

The Anglo-Saxon Magna Carta: Æthelred the Unready’s Agreement of 1014

Using the restoration agreement of 1014 as a starting point, it is possible to make sense of one of the most dramatic eras in English history, when King Æthelred not only had to fend off massive Viking invasions, but also had to navigate through dangerous factions, disloyal subjects, and an open rebellion by his own son.

This article was originally presented at The Kansas Association of Historians in April 2019. Its original printed version, with all accompanying footnotes and sources, can be accessed here. Above image: an Anglo-Saxon king with his councilors from The Old English Hexateuch, dated to Æthelred’s reign.

Magna Carta is seen as a turning point in English history and is commonly regarded as the first formal agreement between an English king and his nobles. It holds significant status both constitutionally and culturally, and rightly so. However, it is not the earliest written agreement between an English monarch and his subjects – far from it. Almost exactly two centuries earlier, an exiled Anglo-Saxon king negotiated his way back into power thanks to an agreement that has been almost completely forgotten. This event has been so neglected that it does not even have an established name to go by. David Starkey once called it “The Anglo-Saxon Magna Carta,”[1] a name that I have borrowed here for my title, but the restoration agreement of 1014 is worthy of attention in its own right. The restoration agreement is just one part in a larger puzzle of complex politics surrounding the Danish Conquest of England (1013-1016).[2] Using the agreement as a starting point, it is possible to make sense of the events of one of the most dramatic eras in English history, when King Æthelred not only had to fend off massive Viking invasions, but also had to navigate through dangerous factions, disloyal subjects, and an open rebellion by his own son.

The context surrounding the agreement of 1014 is distinct from the one surrounding Magna Carta. Æthelred’s England was a very different world than King John’s, and it was an era that still embodied the ideals of Beowulf. Eleventh century England was dominated by Viking incursions, where regular Anglo-Saxons lined up in shieldwall formations to defend their land from professional Norse soldiers. Æthelred II was the Anglo-Saxon king tasked with fending off the Vikings. Æthelred, known to history as “the Unready,” became king of the English in 978, when he was no more than 12 years old (“Unready” is a mistranslation of the Old English word unraed, which actually meant “ill-advised”). For the next several decades, his kingdom would be pillaged and raided by Viking fleets with increasing intensity. Æthelred and his councilors answered the Viking onslaught with virtually every resource available to them, from diplomacy and tribute, to war, to outright massacres of Danish citizens. By 1013, Æthelred had held the crown for 35 years and had been involved in numerous military campaigns.[3]

It would not be enough. Near the end of 1013, the Danish king Sweyn had conquered nearly all of country, and when London finally submitted before Christmas, Æthelred fled into exile.[4] It is in this context that the restoration agreement takes place – an England that had been lost to a foreign, occupying army and whose native king had taken refuge in Normandy.

In February 1014, though, King Sweyn died. Sweyn’s son Cnut was already present in England, so Sweyn’s men proclaimed him as king.[5] The country’s leading men had sworn allegiance to Sweyn, so Cnut surely perceived himself as the most legitimate option. However, things were not that simple. In Wessex, the English magnates sent word to Æthelred that Sweyn had died and asked him to come back and negotiate his restoration to the throne. The agreement between Æthelred and the English nobles is summarized in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

Then all the councillors, both spiritual and temporal, advised that king Æthelred should be sent for, declaring that no lord was dearer to them than their rightful lord, if only he would govern his kingdom more justly than he had done in the past. Then the king sent his son Edward hither with his messengers, and bade greet all his people, and said that he would be a gracious lord to them, and would remedy each of the things which they all abhorred, and everything should be forgiven, that had been said or done against him, on condition that they all unanimously and without treachery returned to their allegiance. Then a complete and friendly agreement was reached and ratified with word and pledge on either side, and they declared every Danish king outlawed from England for ever. Then during Lent of that year king Æthelred came home to his own people, and was received with joy by them all.

After the swift collapse of his support just a few months prior, Æthelred’s cautious approach seems understandable. He notably only returned to England after the general terms of the agreement were in place. In all likelihood, once he was back on English soil, the agreement was solidified (note the Chronicle’s use of the word “ratified”) in a royal charter, which the Chronicle’s account is probably based on.

However, it would be hasty to assume that matters were as straightforward as the Chronicle implies. We have been given the end result of the talks – that the English wanted Æthelred and that he would forgive all that had been done against him – but the decision to recall Æthelred in the first place was anything but obvious. The English magnates could have easily acknowledged Cnut as king and washed their hands of the succession problem altogether.

That said, while they clearly still wished to be ruled by an Englishman, Æthelred was not the only mature member of the English royal family. In later centuries, this might be have been a moot point: older members of the royal family would take precedence over younger or illegitimate claimants. The Anglo-Saxons did not have strict and formal rules of succession like later dynasties, though. Instead, claimants were “elected” by a loose group of nobles and clergymen called the witan. Sometimes successions were seamless, with one obvious candidate whose recognition by the witan was little more than a formality. However, the issue of kingship was not always that simple, and throughout the long history of the House of Wessex, sons had leapfrogged their fathers, brothers were chosen over sons, and the kingdom had even been formally divided between two legitimate kings as recently as the 950s.[6] This is important to consider because Æthelred had many children.  His two eldest sons, Æthelstan and Edmund, were both adults and would have been eager to assume power. As if the existence of Æthelstan and Edmund did not complicate matters enough for the witan, the two princes had the advantage of convenience on their side, too. They had not followed their father into exile (the Chronicle does not mention them fleeing with Æthelred, Queen Emma, and his two younger sons). They seem to have stayed in England, perhaps rallying support from the fringes of the kingdom.

So why would the witan choose a failed, aging ex-ruler over his two grown sons? One possibility is that Æthelstan and Edmund both voiced their loyalty to Æthelred, but this possibility raises more questions than it answers. For one, the royal family suffered from a rift during these years because Æthelred’s children came from two different marriages. Æthelstan and Edmund were produced by the first marriage, and they seem to have barely acknowledged the “other” side of the royal family – the side King Æthelred had been associated with in recent years. Æthelstan’s will still exists, and it makes no mention of his half-brothers or Queen Emma.[7] Secondly, Edmund would go on to rebel against Æthelred just a year later, proving that his loyalty to the old king was not absolute.

Another possibility is that the witan declined to elect the princes because it could provoke the exiled Æthelred, fragmenting the nation even further. Choosing any member of the English royal family guaranteed a fight with Cnut, but picking Æthelstan or Edmund might have opened them up to an undesirable war on two fronts – the new king would have to contend with Cnut in the north and a bypassed Æthelred returning to the south.

However, the most likely reason Æthelred was restored may instead be more straightforward, and it defies his later reputation as a “bad king.” The witan probably chose Æthelred because he was the best option. Although Æthelred’s status as a prestigious, anointed king had been tainted by his exile, he had decades of administrative and military experience. For 35 years he had managed to preserve England from destruction through diplomacy and delegation, while also frequently leading military campaigns in his own right (Æthelred had led armies in 986, 1000, 1009, built fleets in 992 and 1008, and had defended London twice in 1013). In other words, he was an old hand who had seen some success against a militarily superior foe.

While Æthelred had some redeeming qualities, the restoration agreement makes it clear that the nobles had grievances to address first. A 1014[8] sermon from Archbishop Wulfstan complains that under Æthelred, the English had been weighed down by high taxes, oath-breakers, and a government that is portrayed as arbitrary and corrupt.[9] The Chronicle’s agreement of 1014 likewise implies that Æthelred is personally unjust, perhaps due to the same issues mentioned by Wulfstan. It is also notable that the nobles sought protection against their old king; they were fully aware of the destruction a vindictive Æthelred could unleash on them. The Anglo-Saxon magnates had abandoned him just a few months earlier for a Danish usurper, after all, so they knew the king would perceive them as traitors. Even if Æthelred expressed forgiveness on the surface, securing a formal, written pardon would better guarantee their safety, especially since Æthelred could be a ruthless and erratic leader at times. Aside from overseeing political assassinations, the king also orchestrated the St. Brice’s Day Massacre in 1002, where he ordered all Danes in England killed.[10] He had even opened his majority rule by raiding church lands in 986 after a political squabble with the Bishop of Rochester.[11] Although historians like Levi Roach note that Æthelred was not unusually reckless compared to other eleventh century rulers,[12] the nobles were still wise to secure their protection against him and his enforcer, Eadric Streona (“the Grasper”).

With his legitimacy fully restored, Æthelred returned home and forgave his people, and they in turn forgave him. The king instead took out his righteous anger on those who still supported the Danish prince, Cnut. The Saga of Olaf Haraldson[13] recalls that Æthelred retook London by force in early 1014 by pulling down London Bridge – an account that is probably genuine despite its later composition.[14] There Cnut’s men submitted to him. The Chronicle then records another attack shortly after this, where Æthelred (with his army at “full strength”) quickly marched north to Lindsey (Lincolnshire), which was held by Cnut. In Lindsey, Æthelred “made raids and burned and slew every human being” he could find.[15] After this lopsided affair, Cnut retreated by sea and fled back to Denmark.

Following the restoration agreement of 1014, England had been fully reconquered by Æthelred the Unready, but the peace would not last long. Prince Æthelstan died that summer, perhaps wounded in his father’s battles, upsetting the balance of power. The very next year, Æthelred had two northern nobles – Sigeferth and Morcar – murdered, confiscating their lands in the process.[16] It is unclear whether these two nobles had originally submitted to Æthelred during the restoration agreement or if they had only rejoined the king after Cnut’s defeat. Either way, though, Æthelred was breaking the general terms of his agreement by returning to his old ways. Instead of putting old grudges aside like he had promised, the king had almost immediately resumed his practice of assassinating rivals. The Anglo-Saxons had other ways to deal with suspected criminals and traitors: trials and ordeals would have been appropriate, but not outright assassinations. However, now that Æthelred was back in control, he seems to have felt he could circumvent the very laws he was supposed to uphold, disposing of rivals as he pleased.

He was wrong. Prince Edmund quickly seized on the outrage his father had caused and married the widow of one of the killed nobles.[17] This was an undeniable power grab by Edmund; he gained his new bride’s lands, which were supposed to revert to the king, and also won the allegiance of those disgusted by Æthelred’s actions. Edmund spent most of 1015 in rebellion, which made rallying the English difficult when Cnut returned later that year. The 49 year-old Æthelred – who was already old by Saxon standards – fell seriously ill shortly after this, making matters even messier.[18] Edmund struggled to oppose Cnut without his father’s help; many times, Edmund called out the troops only to find that they longed for the king’s presence instead.[19]

Only after Æthelred’s death in 1016 did Edmund find success against Cnut. King Edmund led a valiant campaign against the Vikings, but his own death later in 1016 allowed Cnut to take the rest of the country without opposition.[20] Cnut’s Viking dynasty would rule England for a generation.[21]

Although Æthelred reconquered the rest of his kingdom by force, the forgotten agreement of 1014 provided his initial foothold. Similarly, after Æthelred’s re-conquest, the agreement’s terms help explain his downfall. Even if the Chronicle does not say word for word that the king had agreed to stop assassinating his own noblemen, it does say that he was required to extend forgiveness to those who had turned against him and approach issues in a “more just” manner. Prince Edmund may have been looking for an opportunity to seize power anyway, but the king’s violation of a formal agreement gave Edmund a valid excuse to rebel. Fragmented and disorganized, the English were unable to mount a successful defense against the Vikings while Æthelred lived. In this sense, the agreement had been a blessing and a curse for Æthelred, and for England as a whole. It had helped the English briefly re-establish their own dynasty, but in breaking the agreement, Æthelred had been hoisted by his own petard.


Notes

[1] David Starkey, “Ængla-Land,” Monarchy with David Starkey (Channel 4, 2004).

[2] For an overview of the Danish Conquest, see Eleanor Parker, A Short History of the Danish Conquest (Rounded Globe, 2016), https://roundedglobe.com/books/f067b2a6-0eb3-4479-8307-2b242adcc3aa/A%20Short%20History%20of%20the%20Danish%20Conquest/. For a more in-depth treatment, see Ian Howard, Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991-1017, (Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2003).

[3] Brandon M. Bender, England Unlikely Commander: The Military Career of Æthelred the Unready (Rounded Globe, 2019).

[4] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. G.N. Garmonsway (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1954. Reprint: 1990), hereafter abbreviated in the footnotes as ASC.

[5] ASC.

[6] ASC. Æthelbald had overseen the kingdom when his father, Æthelwulf, had gone on pilgrimage, and he displaced Æthelwulf entirely by 856. In 955, the councilors formally divided the kingdom between Eadwig and Edgar. Cnut and Edmund Ironside would formally divide the kingdom again briefly in 1016.

[7]  “Will of the Ætheling Æthelstan S 1503,” trans. Dorothy Whitelock in English Historical Documents Vol.1 c. 500-1042, 2nd edition, (Routledge, 1979). A full online version of Whitelock’s translation can be found at The Online Sawyer, http://www.esawyer.org.uk/charter/1503.html

[8] Stephanie Dien, “Sermo Lupi ad Anglos: The Order and Date of the Three Versions,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 76.4 (1975): 561-70. Although scholars have debated which version of Sermo Lupi ad Anglos is the earliest, the consensus is that this sermon was first composed in 1014 because it specifically mentions Æthelred’s exile.

[9] Dien, 568.

[10] ASC.

[11] “Æthelred II restores to the see of Rochester six sulungs at Bromley and the use of forest in the Weald. A.D. 998” in the Textus Roffensis, trans. Christopher Monk, Rochester Cathedral Research Guild, 2017. Æthelred recalls his role in the Rochester raids in this charter. The attack is also mentioned in the ASC for 986.

[12] Levi Roach, Æthelred: The Unready (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

[13] Snorri Sturluson, The Saga of Olafr Haraldsson (The Saint), trans. Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes (London: Viking Society for Northern Studies, University College London, 2014).

[14] Jan Ragnar Hagland and Bruce Watson, “Fact or Folklore? The Viking attack on London Bridge,” London Archaeology 10, no. 12 (Spring 2005), http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-457-1/dissemination/pdf/vol10/vol10_12/10_12_328_333.pdf. For further analysis of the Saga’s authenticity, see Bender, 55-58.

[15] ASC.

[16] ASC.

[17] ASC.

[18] ASC. Æthelred’s illness is noteworthy because the ASC is almost always silent about illnesses, merely noting that kings died. For the king’s illness to be recorded, it was probably well-known and incapacitating.

[19] ASC: “nothing would please them more but that the king should join them.”

[20] ASC. Edmund won a series of skirmishes and battles against Cnut after Æthelred’s death, forcing Cnut to the sea. They fought a final battle at Ashingdon, where Cnut destroyed the English army. The Chronicle blames Eadric Streona, Æthelred’s old enforcer, for the defeat, claiming that he was the first to flee from battle.

[21] Cnut would reign from 1016-35, followed by his sons Harold I (1035-40) and Harthacnut (1040-42). Cnut’s line died out at this point, restoring Æthelred’s bloodline to power from 1042-66 under Edward the Confessor.

Bibliography

Abels, Richard. Æthelred the Unready: The Failed King. Penguin, 2018.

“Æthelred II restores to the see of Rochester six sulungs at Bromley and the use of forest in the Weald. A.D. 998” in the Textus Roffensis. Translated by Christopher Monk. Rochester Cathedral Research Guild, 2017.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Translated by George Norman Garmonsway. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1954. Reprint, 1990.

Bender, Brandon M. England’s Unlikely Commander: The Military Career of Æthelred the Unready. Rounded Globe, 2019.

Dien, Stephanie. “Sermo Lupi ad Anglos: The Order and Date of the Three Versions.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 76, no. 4 (1975): 561-70.

Hagland, Jan Ragnar and Bruce Watson. “Fact or Folklore? The Viking attack on London Bridge.” London Archaeology 10, no. 12 (Spring 2005). http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-457-1/dissemination/pdf/vol10/vol10_12/10_12_328_333.pdf.

Howard, Ian. Sweyn Forkbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991-1017. Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2003.

Lavelle, Ryan. Aethelred II: King of the English 978-1016. Stroud: Tempus, 2002.

Parker, Eleanor. A Short History of the Danish Conquest. Rounded Globe, 2016. https://roundedglobe.com/books/f067b2a6-0eb3-4479-8307-2b242adcc3aa/A%20Short%20History%20of%20the%20Danish%20Conquest/.

Roach, Levi. Æthelred: The Unready. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

Starkey, David. “Ængla-Land.” Monarchy with David Starkey. Channel 4, 2004.

“Will of the Ætheling Æthelstan S 1503.” Translated by Dorothy Whitelock in English Historical Documents Vol.1 c. 500-1042, 2nd edition. Routledge, 1979. A full online version of Whitelock’s translation can be found at The Online Sawyer, http://www.esawyer.org.uk/charter/1503.html.

Williams, Ann. Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counseled King. Bloomsbury Academic, 2003.

Lecompton: The Pro-Slavery Capital of Bleeding Kansas

No territorial governor or distant president could bring order to Kansas: “You might as well attempt to govern the devil in hell.”

Some say the American Civil War started not at Fort Sumter, but years earlier in the sparsely populated territory of Kansas. In the years leading up to the war itself, Kansas became a land marred by massacres, sacking, looting, and murder. The cause? The same issue that dominated the rest of the nation in the 1850s and 1860s: slavery. The capital of the Kansas Territory during these wild years was a now-obscure town called Lecompton, where the pro-slavery government set up its base, backed by pro-slavery presidents, despite the abolitionist sentiments of the state itself. The result? Four constitutions, rampant voter fraud, and a territory that descended into complete anarchy.

It probably shouldn’t have been this way, though. Before 1854, while the contentious issue of slavery had not been settled, it had at least been held in check by a skillful and careful blend of compromises. The northern parts of the country wanted nothing to do with slavery — some were abolitionists, favoring the complete destruction of the institution for its immorality. Most northerners, however, were content to let slavery exist where it had been for generations, but its expansion into the western frontier was unacceptable. The south, on the other hand, advocated for slavery’s spread. The resulting compromises kept armed conflict at bay for a time. There was the Missouri Compromise from 1820, which admitted Missouri into the Union as a slave state but prohibited future slaveholding states north of the 36°30′ line. Then there was the Compromise of 1850, which was actually a series of several bills intended to maintain equilibrium between the increasingly hostile pro- and anti-slavery camps. Finally, in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act re-opened the whole question and directly led to the tumultuous era known as Bleeding Kansas.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act said that territories coming into the Union could decide for themselves whether they wanted to be free or slave states, effectively negating the earlier compromises. The idea of territories voting on slavery was called popular sovereignty and had already been implemented in Utah and New Mexico (the former was north of the 36°30′ line) as part of the Compromise of 1850. Kansas was different, though. Utah and New Mexico were arid and ill-suited to plantation work, meaning slaveholders were not especially interested in them. Kansas was fertile and right next to Missouri, which had relied on slaves for decades. The result was disastrous.

Over the next decade, the state was embroiled in all kinds of violence and controversy. Bands of armed, pro-slavery men from Missouri poured over the Kansas border, voting fraudulently in elections and terrorizing their opponents, hoping to make Kansas a slave state under the new popular sovereignty policy. The town of Lawrence, known as a fiery abolitionist stronghold, was famously sacked in 1856 and was the site of the Lawrence Massacre in 1863. Nearby Olathe was sacked in 1862. Osawatomie was the site of a battle in 1856, as was Baldwin City. The free-staters had their moments, too. They led a raid into Missouri and plundered Osceola. Abolitionist John Brown initiated the Pottawatomie Massacre, hacking several pro-slavery men to death with swords.

For much of this time, the officially recognized capital of the territory was Lecompton, best known as the place where the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution was drafted. President Franklin Pierce and his successor, James Buchanan, appointed a series of pro-southern governors, but none of them lasted long. Kansas burned through at least six of them in six years — it depends who you ask. One source actually claims there were nine and another says ten, perhaps allowing for interim or acting governors, as some of the “official” ones quickly fled the territory. One governor, Wilson Shannon, later reflected on his time overseeing the territory: “You might as well attempt to govern the devil in hell.” Pierce and Buchanan (neither of whom have gone down in history as especially active presidents) did little to put an end to the chaos. Pierce once even remarked that the corrupt and fraudulent government in Kansas Territory was “beyond the sphere of action of the Executive.” In other words, it wasn’t in his job description. No territorial governor or distant president could bring order to Bleeding Kansas.

Soon enough the Civil War broke out. The Lecompton Constitution was eventually rejected and Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1861. The new free-state government chose Topeka as the capital, the border ruffians went home to Missouri, and Lecompton faded from history. But what remains of the town today, the site of an uneasy pro-slavery government in an anti-slavery land?

I decided to visit on my way back from Manhattan, Kansas. I had always seen the signs along I-70 for Lecompton’s historic sites, but I did not know exactly what I would find there, if anything. After all, Lecompton is relatively obscure today, especially compared to some of its Bleeding Kansas counterparts. Its rival, Lawrence, grew into a thriving city — about 95,000 strong — and is home to The University of Kansas. Lawrence retains its strongly liberal reputation 150 years after the end of Bleeding Kansas. Topeka, with a population of over 120,000, is still the state capital. Olathe, which had been sacked by pro-slavery raiders in 1862, is now a prosperous Kansas City suburb with almost 140,000 residents. What of Lecompton?

It turns out that Lecompton does still exist as a town in its own right — something I am ashamed to admit I did not know despite living just an hour away. It has about 600 residents and is home to a handful of well-preserved historic sites. Surprisingly, the town now bills itself as the place “Where Slavery Began to Die” and features Abraham Lincoln on some of its signs. That’s a bit of a stretch, especially considering this place served as an ardent pro-slavery base during the bloodiest years in Kansas history — a sentiment others have echoed.

The Territorial Capital Museum in April 2019

That said, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found in Lecompton. It’s a charming town, well-marked with signs and arrows to direct visitors to its museums and sites. The Territorial Capital Museum was the highlight of my visit (I didn’t have time to see Constitution Hall). The museum is a strange mix of historical site and antique store. You can find everything from furniture used by the original legislators to dollhouses, period-era clothing, and what must be the most varied collection of barbed wire in the world.

A desk used by territorial legislators
Who knew there were so many kinds of barbed wire?

The interior is also adorned with numerous portraits of James Buchanan, who is generally ranked as the worst-ever US president. It may seem like an amusing choice, but it makes plenty of sense when you consider the era when Lecompton was most prominent. President Pierce’s acceptance of the Kansas-Nebraska Act may have sparked Bleeding Kansas, but under Buchanan it spiraled further out of control. A man like Buchanan may have been a relatively harmless president during the 1880s or 1890s, but during the years leading up to the Civil War, he was the wrong man for the job. Plagued by a narrow and restrictive view of presidential power, Buchanan turned to the Supreme Court to decide the slavery issue, pressuring justices in the Dred Scott case to put an end to the debate. Instead, Chief Justice Taney’s ruling enraged the nation. Buchanan likewise took a passive role when southern states began to secede, complaining that there was nothing he could do. Like Pierce had claimed, it wasn’t in his job description. Buchanan is immortalized in the Territorial Capital Museum — he was a man whose actions (or lack of them) made the full effects of Bleeding Kansas possible.

The first President Buchanan portrait I spotted
Another one

The Territorial Capital Museum has one last surprise up its sleeve, though: it has a direct connection with the Eisenhowers. President Eisenhower grew up in Abilene, Kansas and his parents had married in chapel of the Territorial Capital Museum building. At the time of the wedding in 1885, the building was home to Lane University, a small Christian college. Eisenhower’s parents had both met there as students. Fittingly, the museum has a huge collection of Eisenhower paraphernalia today.

The chapel where President Eisenhower’s parents were married in 1885. This room is on the upper floor of the building and is surprisingly large. Today it is decorated in territorial government regalia, but at one point it was actually used as a basketball court.
President Eisenhower collectibles

Other curiosities include a Chester Arthur campaign button (which is even stranger considering that Arthur barely made an effort to get re-elected in 1884 since he was dying), a pen signed by President Nixon, and some pioneer-era washbins and scrubbing boards.

A campaign button for President Buchanan (top) and one for President Arthur (bottom)
President Nixon pen from 1972

Outside of the museum and the signs, there is little to give away Lecompton’s secrets. As Beth Reiber at Unmistakably Lawrence writes, Lecompton “doesn’t look like the kind of place that might have played a hugely significant role in our nation’s history,” but the town “played a pivotal role in steps leading up to the Civil War.” That was my impression, too. It’s hard to imagine that this sleepy town, with its dirt roads and American flags, was once at the epicenter of national politics. Only a lone Confederate flag (a rarity on the Kansas side of the border) hints at a more complicated past. The south had tried to extend the reach of slavery beyond its traditional borders, and it didn’t go over well. Rather than the place where slavery began to die, Lecompton may instead have been closer to a desperate last stand on the wild frontier, a disastrous experiment in popular sovereignty.

A reminder that Lecompton was once at the center of national politics

Æthelred the Unready: New Book Re-examines Infamous Anglo-Saxon King’s Military Practices

After a year and a half of writing, editing, and revising (and many more years of research), it’s finally out: my new book, England’s Unlikely Commander: The Military Career of Æthelred the Unready, is available from Rounded Globe.

England’s Unlikely Commander takes a look at the military practices of late Anglo-Saxon England, using sources like The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Gesta Normannorum Ducum, and royal charters. Late Anglo-Saxon England, particularly during the reign of Æthelred the Unready, was plagued by recurring Viking invasions. Viking armies under Danish rulers even conquered England twice during this era — temporarily in 1013 and again in 1016.

Accordingly, the English king Æthelred has gone down in history as an inept and passive ruler who did far too little to stem the tide against the Vikings. However, when looking at the sources more closely, I found more reasons to doubt Æthelred’s “unreadiness” than to uphold it. In fact, in England’s Unlikely Commander I make the case that Æthelred was a very typical (and highly engaged) English king who enjoyed plenty of military triumphs.

This book is not the first to re-assess King Æthelred’s reign — far from it. It is deeply indebted to the work of phenomenal scholars like Simon Keynes, Ryan Lavelle, Ian Howard, Ann Williams, Levi Roach, Richard Abels, and many others. Many of these scholars also make note of Æthelred’s military career, although it is rarely the sole focus of such research. So, while many of these scholars have touched on Æthelred as a military leader (Abels and Howard in particular), I still felt that a book focused squarely on the king’s military engagements would nicely complement this existing scholarship. After all, the main sources for the reign (especially the many versions of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) focus on military affairs above all else. That is not to say, however, that Æthelred’s military career can be divorced from the wider reign; it cannot and should not be.

However, there is far more to the Danish Conquest than Æthelred’s failure. In this new book, I argue that England fell to the Vikings in spite of Æthelred, not because of him. The king presented in England’s Unlikely Commander is not passive and weak, but resilient, persistent, and resourceful: even when faced with setbacks and failures (and an exceptionally difficult enemy!), Æthelred always had an idea up his sleeve. Over a 38-year reign (the longest in Anglo-Saxon England), the king led armies into battle, constructed fleets to protect his shores, defended his cities, refortified his strongholds, and even managed to re-conquer his own kingdom after being overthrown just months earlier.

It is my hope that readers will find this short book an enlightening and easy-to-read guide to Æthelred’s military career. The Danish Conquest is one of the most exciting periods in early English history, and there is far more to it than the ferocity of the Vikings and the supposed cowardice of the English leaders; it was a far closer contest than most realize, thanks at least in part to the many efforts of Æthelred the Unready.

Where to find England’s Unlikely Commander:

View it online, completely free, on Rounded Globe’s website or on Academia.edu.

A paperback version is also available.

Official Synopsis:

In the realm of popular history, it’s common to hear the claim that Æthelred the Unready, King of the English, was a military failure in an age where kings had to be warriors. Due to the unflattering nickname (unraed actually means “poorly-advised”) and the Danish Conquest of England, it might seem that these critics have won the argument before it’s even started.

That isn’t the case, though, as Bender’s research has found. This book seeks to redress King Æthelred’s military reputation, arguing that he was militarily prepared and often successful against his many enemies, including the Vikings. Tracking the king’s movement and activity over his 38-year reign, this book argues that Æthelred the Unready was anything but a battle-avoider.

Early Praise for England’s Unlikely Commander:

In this exciting new book, Brandon Bender sheds considerable new light on the life and military career of one of England’s most notorious kings. Both scholarly and accessibly written, it deserves a wide audience both within and beyond the halls of modern academe.

-Dr Levi Roach, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History, University of Exeter. Author of Æthelred the Unready (Yale University Press, 2016)

This readable and engaging study of Æthelred the Unready’s military career is a welcome contribution to the current scholarly movement reconsidering the reputation of this much-maligned king. Building his argument on careful analysis of the sources, Brandon Bender offers a concise but thorough re-evaluation of Æthelred’s military policies, exploring the different political and personal factors which might have motivated the king’s decisions. Anyone interested in the military and political history of Anglo-Saxon England will find that Bender’s book provides much food for thought.

– Dr Eleanor Parker, Lecturer in Medieval English Literature, Brasenose College, Oxford. Author of Dragon Lords: The History and Legends of Viking England and A Short History of The Danish Conquest

Other Information:

Publisher: Rounded Globe

Pages (print version): 101

Cover art and design: Dasha Lebesheva

Publication dates: 16 April 2019 (online); 22 September 2019 (print)

The Unappreciated Career of Ron Parker

Parker spent six seasons with the Chiefs, never missing a single game until his benching: that’s 94 straight appearances, including 76 consecutive starts from 2014-2018.

Above: a 2018 Facebook post from the Kansas City Chiefs thanks Parker for his tenure with the team.

The Kansas City Chiefs saw a lot of momentous change between 2013 and 2019, especially on defense. The unit was one of the best in the league and one of the worst. Its star players were young, and they grew old. Marcus Peters came and went. Justin Houston recorded 22 sacks in 2014 and was released in 2019. Eric Berry was healthy, then he had lymphoma, then conquered it, then he was injured for two seasons, and finally he was released. Dee Ford went from promising rookie to alleged-bust to breakout star to playoff villain — and then he was traded. One mainstay during those years was a rather overlooked member of the defense: Ron Parker, fittingly nicknamed “Ghost” since his early days.

Parker is one of my favorite NFL players, which might seem odd given that my hometown team has more obvious choices like Patrick Mahomes II and Travis Kelce. I love them, too. But once you realize that I like an underdog, it all makes sense. There is hardly a bigger underdog story in the NFL than Ron Parker. Sure, Kurt Warner bagged groceries and Matt Cassel never started a game in college, but Parker isn’t a quarterback, so his journey has been far less covered (although ESPN gave him some much-needed attention recently).  

When you look at the stats from his Chiefs career, it would be easy to assume that Parker’s origin was typical — maybe he was a mid- to high-round draft choice who was developed and became a full-time player. That was not the case, though. Parker played his first two years of college football at a community college in Kansas, followed by two seasons at Newberry, a Division II school in South Carolina. Despite his immense physical talent, he was not selected in the 2011 NFL draft (he ran a 4.35 40-yard dash, very impressive for a safety). Part of this may have been the relative obscurity of Newberry, as well as his age. At 24, Parker was on the old side for a rookie player in a league where careers are often short and brutal.

Early NFL Career

That physical ability, mainly his stunning quickness, put Parker on the radar, though. He made it into the NFL, but spent the next few seasons bouncing around the league in practice squads and battling for roster spots in preseason. He was released at least eight times (five by the Seattle Seahawks alone). Much of that time was spent playing out of position, with coaches putting Parker at corner due to his speed rather than keeping him at safety, which he was more accustomed to.

In 2013, Parker joined the Chiefs, who had sunk about as low as an NFL team could go. They had gone 2-14 in 2012, with one of their defense’s starters making international headlines in a murder-suicide. The organization cleaned house, swapping Scott Pioli’s Patriots-based regime for one led by Andy Reid and John Dorsey. Matt Cassel was out and Alex Smith was in. Bob Sutton became the defensive coordinator.

The Chiefs turned around in 2013, going 11-5 for one of the biggest comeback seasons in league history. Parker appeared in every game, but in a backup role. More importantly for him, though, he had hung on to a roster spot all year. Now he just needed a big break.

Chiefs Mainstay

That break came in 2014 when Andy Reid named Parker as one of the team’s starting corners. When starting safety Eric Berry was hurt for five weeks, however, Parker moved back to his more natural position, safety, to fill in. When Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma later that year, Parker was again his replacement. After seeing significant playing time for the first time in his career, Parker set career-highs in all categories. He made 15 starts, racking up 94 combined tackles, while his 84 solo tackles led the team. He also intercepted a pass (he’d picked off two others in 2013 as a backup), but more importantly, he had stabilized a position that was in flux without its leader. The secondary could depend on Parker.

The Chiefs rewarded Parker for his efforts, inking him to a long-term deal potentially worth over $30 million. It seemed odd that an undrafted, 27-year-old defensive back (DB) who had been cut eight times could reach such heights, but he had. The typical NFL player (undrafted or not) is already out of the league by 27, especially if they are a DB who relies on speed and quickness. Those are often the first traits to deteriorate. Parker was just getting started, though.

In 2015, Parker was cemented at safety as the starter alongside Berry, who had recovered. They combined to form one of the most effective safety duos in the league, with Parker responsible for 76 combined tackles; he also made three interceptions, good for second-most on the team. He was utilized as a pass rusher, too, recording 5 sacks, which remains the Chiefs’ single-season record for a DB.

2016 brought more of the same, with Parker remaining a stable, if often unrecognized, force in the secondary. The common statistics showed a slight downturn (64 tackles, 1 INT), but analytics sites like Pro Football Focus (PFF) actually graded 2016 as one of Parker’s best seasons. While the NFL’s advanced stats have a long way to go before they hold the same kind of weight as MLB’s, Parker excelled in 2016 by the eye-test, too. Sometimes being a deterrent is just as good as making plays.

Pro Football Focus recognized Parker as one of the NFL’s best safeties in 2016.

By 2017, at age 30, it appeared that Parker was beginning to slow down. PFF graded him as one of the league’s least effective safeties, but he managed to record a pair of interceptions and was still regarded as an unquestioned starter, especially with Berry injured for nearly the entire season. Curiously, though, Parker’s 2017 may not have been as disastrous as some would like us to believe. One article called Parker “extremely disappointing” in 2017 only to point out that passers managed a rating of just 71.9 when targeting him. Other safeties on the roster like Eric Murray were far less successful against the pass, surrendering a passer rating of over 100. Daniel Sorensen was lit up for a rating of 111.2, while also missing an astounding 17 tackles. At least in coverage, the stats make Parker look almost godlike compared to his 2017 alternatives, declining or not. However, Parker was released after the season in a cost-saving move, with Reid preferring to move forward with Berry and Sorensen as his starters.

Departure and Triumphant Return

Parker signed on with the Atlanta Falcons in the 2017-18 offseason. Despite four straight seasons of consistent starting duty, Parker was signed to be a reserve for the Falcons. Meanwhile, trouble was brewing in Kansas City. The Chiefs had parted ways with star corner Marcus Peters. Eric Berry was hurt. Sorensen suffered a severe injury. The Chiefs defense would have to enter the season with unknowns and reserves in the secondary. With no obvious successors to Peters, Sorensen, or Berry, they could really use a guy like…Ron Parker.

Luckily for the Chiefs, the Falcons had been less-than-impressed with Parker during preseason and cut him — the 10th time in his career that Parker had been released by an NFL team. In typical humble Ron Parker fashion, he announced his own termination and thanked the Falcons for the chance. The Chiefs moved in swiftly and reclaimed Parker, immediately reinstating him as their number one safety.

Perhaps reinvigorated by his triumphant return, Parker dominated in the 2018 season opener against the Chargers. He piled up eight tackles and intercepted Philip Rivers. He darted across the field after the interception — a sign that there was still some agility and quickness left in those legs. The return would eventually be called back (the interception counted, though), but the point had been made: Ron Parker had returned.

Another highlight came during a rout of the Cincinnati Bengals, where Parker returned an interception for a touchdown. It was the first touchdown of Parker’s career.

An Inglorious End

That said, the 2018 season also saw plenty of lows for the aging Parker. The entire Chiefs secondary was historically bad in 2018, with Murray and corner Orlando Scandrick attracting most of the fans’ ire. Berry also began to test the patience of a vocal segment of fans, who were upset over his nearly two-season-long absence. Parker largely escaped criticism for the first half of the season, as though there was an unspoken understanding that Parker was at least acceptable — even if all else failed, fans seemed to spend little time fretting about Parker in particular.

That began to change as the season wore on and the Chiefs defense failed to adapt to a league that ran and passed all over them. By October and November, Parker too became a lightning rod for angry fans, who often complained of his deteriorating speed and missed tackles. Then there was this infamous moment against the Patriots, which is still being played in offseason highlight reels as I write. The Chiefs seemed unwilling to take Parker out of the lineup, however, or even to let him come off the field. A common theme in the 2018 snap counts was Parker’s ubiquity: “Ron Parker Plays Every Defensive Snap Once Again” says a headline from October. The same article actually notes that Parker had not missed a snap all year up to that point. Whether fans liked it or not, it seemed that no one could unseat Parker.

Until it happened. It was sudden and swift, but on December 23rd Parker was inactive for the game against the Seahawks, just after ESPN ran their aforementioned story. There had been no lead-up, no gradual decline in playing time. Then Parker was not just benched, but completely ineligible to play. Was Parker chosen, along with Scandrick, to be a scapegoat for a defense that had been atrocious all-around? Was he caught in a power struggle between Sutton’s old guard and Reid’s younger acquisitions? In any case, Parker would not regain his starting job this time. He appeared in the next game against the Raiders as a backup, but was listed at the tail end of the depth chart. He had fallen from the top to the very bottom of the hierarchy in one fell swoop.

Finally, after a playoff victory against the Colts in early 2019, the Chiefs released Parker, just days before they would face the Patriots for a chance to advance to the Super Bowl. After the Chiefs lost to the Patriots, Parker mysteriously tweeted out “God don’t like ugly,” with no other context. It’s impossible to say what prompted this comment, but it seemed out of character for a man whose daily tweets usually just consist of “thank you God.” It’s hard not to speculate. After all, this was an inglorious and insulting end to the tenure of a player who had been a Chiefs mainstay for years.

Parker’s Chiefs Legacy

It’s hard to say where Parker goes from here. He’ll be 32 at the start of the 2019-20 season, at which point most corners and safeties are not merely over the hill, but are careening down the other side. Fifteen-year careers like Champ Bailey’s are the exception, not the rule. Offseason speculation has not been kind to Parker, with one resource listing him as the 10th-best free agent safety. It could be the end of the line, but I would also be far from shocked to see him pop up somewhere in 2019. Parker has overcome greater odds, after all.

That said, for all of us Chiefs fans, 2018 is not how Parker should be remembered, as the guy who was cut before a playoff game, or the guy who was slammed to the ground on national TV. He should be remembered as one of the most stable Chiefs players of the decade, a “Ghost” who often materialized out of thin air to snag an errant pass — sometimes one-handed. He should be remembered as Eric Berry’s trusty sidekick who ensured that teams could not beat the Chiefs secondary merely by avoiding Berry, or as the guy who could be utilized all over the defense, whether he was at free or strong safety, outside corner, covering the slot receiver or tight end, or as a lightning-quick pass rusher.

In all, Parker spent six seasons with the Chiefs, never missing a single game until his benching: that’s 94 straight appearances, including 76 consecutive starts from 2014-2018. He was never suspended. He was never too beaten up to play. He was never fined for an illegal hit (at least not that I could find reference to online). He never taunted or brawled.

He recorded 11 interceptions with the team, along with nearly 400 tackles (395 total and 345 solo). He holds a franchise record for most career sacks by a DB (8.0) and another for most sacks by a DB in a single season (5). Pro Football Reference lists his career Approximate Value at 28, which ranks just behind Dante Hall and Marcus Peters, and just above Dee Ford (AV is a counting stat, which means that it favors every-down players like Parker and Peters more than specialists like Hall).

That’s a pretty good place to be in Chiefs history, especially for a guy who had never started an NFL game before age 26, didn’t enter the league until 24, and started his college career at Independence (Kansas) Community College. On top of that, Parker represented Chiefs Kingdom well, proving himself to be a dependable and hard-working man of character who just so happened to make it big.

Well done, Ron Parker, and best of luck to you from Kansas City.

New Book: England’s Unlikely Commander

My first book is getting published! It’s called “England’s Unlikely Commander: The Military Career of Æthelred the Unready.”

My first book is getting published! It’s called England’s Unlikely Commander: The Military Career of Æthelred the Unready. While I have been fortunate enough to publish articles, stories, and poems, this is my first book. It’s not a very long book, but it’s taking on a subject of English history that has yet to be fully explored.

About England’s Unlikely Commander:

This book is about a king of England named Æthelred the Unready whose reputation is exceptionally poor. In a list of “worst kings ever,” his name is sure to come up. There have been numerous books and biographies on Æthelred: Ryan Lavelle wrote one in 2002, Ann Williams in 2003, Levi Roach in 2016, and Richard Abels just a few months ago. Those books cover the 38-year reign in its entirety, and I’m deeply indebted to the research contained in them. Each one has its own bent – its own set of themes. Lavelle’s focuses on the king’s surprisingly strong use of his authority, while Roach’s deals heavily with religion in Anglo-Saxon England.

My book also has its own focus, and I am less concerned with covering the reign as a whole – that has already been done extremely well in each of the existing books. Mine is different, however, in that it focuses on perhaps the most-criticized aspect of the reign: the military strategies of King Æthelred. During his long reign, Æthelred’s England was relentlessly harassed and invaded by Vikings, culminating in two Danish conquests: one in 1013 and another in just after his death in 1016. In popular history books, podcasts, and articles, it’s common to hear the claim that Æthelred was a military failure in an age where kings had to be warriors. The more careless writers and presenters sometimes go so far as to claim that the king never marched into battle at all! Due due to the unflattering nickname (which actually means “poorly-advised” – unraed) and the conquests, it might seem that these critics have won the argument before it’s even started.

That isn’t the case, though, as my recent research has found. My book seeks to redress this aspect of Æthelred’s reputation and argues that he was militarily prepared and often successful against his many enemies, including the Vikings. And yes, he did march into battle and often left a trail of destruction in his wake. He even became one of the few English kings to reconquer his own country after being deposed, something most other exiled monarchs never accomplish.

About the Publisher:

Rounded Globe is home to some of the best scholarly e-books available, including two others on Anglo-Saxon England by Eleanor Parker and Christopher Monk. Rounded Globe’s goal is to be both accessible to the public and academically thorough. In other words, their readers don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for access to a thick tome full of academic jargon. In addition to being readable, all of Rounded Globe’s books are free to read online and free to download.

That does not mean the authors make no money from their books, however. Rounded Globe also affords plenty of freedom to its authors, who often sell their books on Kindle and Amazon. This leads to the final advantage of this publisher: the reader can decide for themselves what they want to do. If they merely wish to skim the article on the site, they can. If they want to download it, they can. If they wish to buy a print copy, they can. If they want to purchase the Kindle version, they can.

This was also appealing to me because in my own research, I frequently was blocked by a paywall. Unless you’re a member of academia, it’s hard to gain access to a lot of scholarly research.

Finally, I wrote this book for one main reason: so people would read it! This publisher will allow me the platform to share my research with the world. A print and Kindle version will be following soon. Stay tuned.

About the cover:

The cover art and design are by Dasha Lebesheva. The cover art is a re-imagined version of the most famous image of King Æthelred, which comes from a copy of the Abingdon Chronicle (13th Century).

The image that my book’s cover is based off of. Although this is the most famous image of Æthelred the Unready, it is probably not an actual representation of what he looked like. This image comes from the 1200s, whereas Æthelred himself died in 1016.

Tucumcari, New Mexico: The Heart of Route 66 History

Tucumcari is something of a time capsule; the fading memory of Route 66 survives here.

Time seems to stand still in Tucumcari, New Mexico, and in more ways than one. On a mundane level, this is the same kind of sleepiness found in small towns across America: people drive and walk slowly, meandering through town with no apparent deadline or urgency. On another level, though, Tucumcari (pronounced TOO-come-carry) is something of a time capsule. The fading memory of Route 66 survives here. In many ways, the town thrives on it. Route 66 murals, signs, and artifacts dot the landscape.

This mural is one of many that celebrate Tucumcari’s Route 66 heritage.

In the days before the interstate highway system, Route 66 was the main road across the west, starting in Chicago, Illinois and running through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and finally terminating in California. Although the official start of Route 66 came in 1926, parts of the road date back to the dawn of automotive travel. 

The heyday of the road came between the 1920s and 1960s, when towns like Tucumcari catered to cross-country travelers with motels, hotels, cafes, diners, roadside attractions, and tourist traps. Bright neon lights fought for customers’ business, boasting of clean rooms, warm meals, and “100% Refrigerated Air.” While in many respects Tucumcari was not exceptional compared to other Route 66 stops, in other ways, it was one of the Mother Road’s crowning jewels; it was the largest settlement between Amarillo, Texas and Albuquerque, New Mexico (in fact, it still is). Tucumcari reeled thousands of travelers in with its aggressive “Tucumcari Tonite!” billboard campaigns and abundance of motels. Drive through town, especially at night, and it must have looked like a miniature Las Vegas.

The Blue Swallow Motel still boasts “100% Refrigerated Air.”

When President Eisenhower championed the new Interstate Highway System in the 1950s, however, Route 66’s days were numbered. The mainly two-lane Route 66, which ran straight through the main streets of small towns across the nation, would soon be replaced by four-plus-lane freeways that didn’t connect directly to any city, but instead utilized formal entry- and exit-ramps for access. Over the coming decades, Route 66 would be replaced by interstates, bypassed by them, or be recommissioned into business loops. By the 1980s, Route 66 (at least in the sense that it had existed in the 1920s-60s) was no more.

Many Route 66 towns died out when the interstates bypassed them, but Tucumcari was not one of them. It managed to get I-40 to pass through the fringes of its city limits, with original stretches of Route 66 (now rebranded as “Historic Route 66”) remaining fully drivable.

Today, many of Tucumcari’s businesses are clustered around the freeway exits. There are the usual hotel chains and fast food restaurants, which are largely neon-free, except for maybe an OPEN sign. You have to drive for a bit to know that Tucumcari is something special. A cruise down authentic Route 66 is a one-of-a-kind experience.

Some of the older parts of Tucumcari are almost unchanged from their Route 66 days.

This Route 66 mainstay has survived where others have long since vanished, but the town is not hanging on by much. Several of the famous motels and establishments have since been abandoned. Many buildings have collapsed or have been vandalized. Sometimes it was hard to tell (especially during the day) which motels were abandoned shells and which ones were still operating. Many of the residences (or ex-residences) are the same way, because the population here has fallen dramatically since the heyday of Route 66. According to the Census Bureau, Tucumcari reached a peak of 8,400 residents in the 1950s.

This business is abandoned, but the sign has survived.

The city has experienced population decline in each decade since, with the exception of the 1990 census, which reported a 1% increase (the population in 1990 was about 6,800). Today, Tucumcari is home to fewer than 5,000 residents thanks to an especially sharp slide in the 2000s and 2010s.

One of Tucumcari’s many abandoned structures.

Tucumcari is a real-life version of Radiator Springs from Cars. It’s not a ghost town, but it’s clearly seen better days. Cars even took countless ques from Tucumcari. From the “R” butte overlooking the town (Tucumcari Mountain has a large “T”) to the Cozy Cone Motel’s “100% Refrigerated Air” slogan, there are countless tributes to this place.

Sunrise in Tucumcari — Tucumcari Mountain is visible in the background.

It’s no wonder Cars based so much of its fictional Route 66 town on Tucumcari: this half-abandoned city in the New Mexican high plains is a last refuge of Route 66 history. Remnants and artifacts from the Mother Road can be found all over the southwest, but for some of the best-preserved, most famous, and most easily-accessible ones, there is no contest: Tucumcari, like in the 1950s, is the place to be.