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 Many Deaths of Swein Forkbeard

Swein Forkbeard, one of the most notable figures of Scandinavian history, had a long and storied career. He overthrew his father, Harald Bluetooth, to become king of Denmark in the mid-980s, raided throughout the British Isles in the 990s and 1000s, and focused his attention on England in particular in the 1010s. After a whirlwind campaign in 1013, Swein was recognized as “full king” of the English, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, supplanting the ancient West Saxon dynasty and its incumbent king, Æthelred II.

But Swein’s reign was to last mere weeks. Swein died on February 3rd, 1014. His death is more than just a date, though: in a literary sense, Swein died many deaths, recounted by varying sources in vastly different ways. Accounts of his demise range from an old man dying in his bed to supernatural intervention by a vengeful saint.

An early and straightforward account comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is the ASC that tells us Swein died on February 3rd, 1014. Other than adding that this was a “happy event,” no other details are provided. This terseness can be interpreted in different ways. On one hand, it is probably important that such an early source says nothing of divine intervention or assassination. On the other hand, the ASC is known for its short, blunt annals, and it can be dangerous to argue from its silence.

Another account also portrays Swein’s death as unremarkable. According to the Heimskringla, a later medieval Scandinavian source, Swein died at night in his bed. Although late, perhaps the Heimskringla is accurate in its depiction of the fifty-something year old conqueror dying in his sleep without warning.

A more specific account comes from the Encomium Emmae Reginae. Although it is a relatively early source, from the 1040s, it is a minefield due to its political agenda. The Encomium portrays Swein’s demise as less sudden, presenting him as aware of his impending death and managing to lecture his son and eventual successor, Cnut, on the importance of Christian rulership before passing away – an ideal, even sanitized, death. The Encomium’s overtly religious and sterile account can be explained by the document’s purpose. It was written in honor of Queen Emma of Normandy, Cnut’s second wife. Unsurprisingly, its author went to great lengths to ensure that Cnut, Emma, and their royal family were portrayed in the best light possible – as pious, righteous rulers who succeeded to England not only because of their military might, but also because they were favored by God. Although some medieval writers like Adam of Bremen and Thietmar of Merseburg preferred to depict Swein as a mindless pagan barbarian, there is little doubt that Swein, as the son of a triumphant Christianizing king, was also Christian. In that sense, although it is propaganda, the Encomium may not be as far off base as it seems.

Regarding Swein’s death in particular, Thietmar writes that Swein was an old man: “death came to him very late…he was buried in the place where he died, as his companions fled.” Thietmar records that after Swein’s death and burial, an unnamed Englishwoman had Swein disinterred and returned to Denmark so that the old king Æthelred, triumphantly returning from exile, would not be able to desecrate the corpse. The Encomium includes a similar tale. The identity of this woman is a mystery, although it is possible that she is Ælfgifu of Northampton, Cnut’s first wife, who would have been one of the few individuals with the connections to relocate Swein’s body to Denmark while still meeting Thietmar’s criteria of being English. Disinterment stories aside, Thietmar’s acknowledgment of Swein’s advanced age for the era could lend some credence to the Heimskringla’s assertion that he died in his bed, and to the ASC’s straightforward and drama-free account. Another factor in Thietmar’s favor is that he was writing very early, just a few years after the events he describes. But far more fanciful stories were circulating by the end of the eleventh century, often involving divine intervention.

In the 1080s, Osbern of Canterbury wrote that Swein was killed by God in a “terrible” but unspecified way. Herman the Archdeacon, writing around the 1090s, claims that Swein was killed by the spirit of St. Edmund, a ninth century king of East Anglia who had been martyred by vikings. According to this legend, St. Edmund appeared to Swein and pierced him with a lance. This was divine punishment for Swein’s heavy taxation of the English, although Eleanor Parker has pointed out that the story also works as an allegory for oppressive taxation in Herman’s time. In the 1100s, John of Worcester recorded a variation of the St. Edmund tale that involved Swein falling from his horse:

He was surrounded by Danish troops crowded together, he alone saw St Edmund, armed, coming towards him. When he had seen him, he was terrified and began to shout very noisily, saying “Help, fellow-warriors, help! St Edmund is coming to kill me!” And while he was saying this he was run through fiercely by the saint with a spear, and fell from the stallion on which he sat, and, tormented with great pain until twilight, he ended his life with a wretched death on 3 February.

Modern interpretations of Swein’s death have been almost as imaginative. A 2013 BBC article includes an interview with a local historian of Gainsborough who speculates that Swein may have been assassinated by someone close to him. “Sweyn was ruthless and a lot of questions remain about who he may have upset at the time – was there someone within his court ready to stick the knife in?” It’s a headline-grabbing theory, but one not mentioned by medieval sources.

Whichever view one subscribes to, the aftermath of Swein’s death is well established. His son Cnut was unable to claim his father’s throne immediately, even though the viking fleet in Lindsey declared for him and was preparing to support him in further campaigns. Æthelred had returned from exile and was invited to resume his rule, as long as he behaved less harshly this time. Æthelred agreed and led an army at full force to Lindsey, where he expelled Cnut. Cnut returned in 1015, but it took another year of bloody fighting and the deaths of Æthelred and his heir, Edmund Ironside, to secure the Danish conquest of England. Cnut and his sons would go on to rule England from 1016-1042.

Cover image from The Life of St. Edward the Confessor.

A Son of King Harold I? The Case of “Alboynus Son of King Heroldus”

The House of Denmark ended prematurely in England following the short reigns of Cnut’s sons, Harold I Harefoot and Harthacnut. Both died in their early 20s. Neither one married, nor did they have any children, which allowed the kingship to revert to the previous dynasty. At least, that’s how the history of the House of Denmark is usually summarized.

However, a largely overlooked 1913 article by W. H. Stevenson in English Historical Review 28 adds an interesting wrinkle to the end of the Danish dynasty in England. Stevenson noted the existence of an “Alboynus” who was the “son of Heroldus, king of England” under the years 1060 and 1062 in the medieval cartulary of an abbey in Conques, France. Alboynus, Stevenson writes, corresponds to the English name Ælfwine, and the source adds that his mother’s name was Alveva – a form of Ælfgifu, another English name. Just as striking, Alboynus/Ælfwine is said to have been born in London. Why is an obscure Englishman in southern France being described as the son of an English king?

The document is written in “a very early twelfth century hand,” according to Stevenson’s article, meaning it is only a couple generations away from Ælfwine’s supposed appearances in 1060 and 1062. To my knowledge, no one has argued that the cartulary itself is suspicious, but there have been plenty of candidates for the “King Heroldus” mentioned in the text. Stevenson argues that Harold Harefoot (reigned 1035-1040) is the best candidate for the English king Heroldus who is said to be Ælfwine’s father. But can we really be so sure?

Harold Harefoot: Scarce Source Material

No other source mentions children of Harold Harefoot, nor do they mention a wife named Ælfgifu, although Harold Harefoot’s reign is poorly documented in general. Aside from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entries from 1035-40 and the near-contemporary Encomium Emmae Reginae (c. early 1040s), there is not much to work with. Normally the witness lists of charters and diplomas can provide insight about a king’s family life, such as by identifying any royal wives and children, but nothing with this information has survived from Harold’s reign.

However, a bishop’s will from the era does provide a hint about the family of Harold Harefoot. The will bequeaths money to a “royal lord” and “my lady.” The “royal lord” is generally assumed to be Harold Harefoot, but “my lady” remains a mystery. Was this an otherwise unknown royal wife who was prominent enough to be known solely as “my lady” during Harold Harefoot’s brief reign?

I think it’s possible. The will is dated to 1038 at the latest, potentially three years into Harold’s rule. This could have been long enough to make a royal wife well known to those in the king’s circle (such as powerful landowners or ecclesiastics). That said, Harold’s influential mother, Ælfgifu of Northampton, is more commonly put forward as a candidate for being “my lady.” Ælfgifu of Northampton was instrumental in securing Harold’s spot on the throne, although Frank Stenton’s famous assertion that she was the “power behind the throne” is far too strong. No unambiguous record of her exists after Harold formally becomes king in 1037. So, while she may be the “my lady” associated with Harold, it’s also possible that Harold was married and that the bishop’s will is the only record we have left of this wife nearly a thousand years later.

Well…almost the only record. If the cartulary from Conques, France is correct, and Harold Harefoot is the “Heroldus” in question, then we can assign this royal wife a name: Ælfgifu. The cartulary may be conflating Ælfwine’s mother Ælfgifu with his more famous grandmother, the aforementioned Ælfgifu of Northampton, although I don’t think this is a given. Royal wives consistently had the name Ælfgifu in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, so much so that historians have sometimes considered it almost a title. For example, Æthelred II (reigned 978-1016) had two wives with that name and so did Cnut (reigned 1016-1035). In at least one case, it was not the wife’s given name; Emma of Normandy, the second wife of both Æthelred and Cnut, adopted it or possibly was assigned it. In this context, would it be too surprising for a spouse of Harold Harefoot to take on the name, perhaps in honor of Ælfgifu of Northampton? I don’t think it’s too far-fetched.

Harold Harefoot vs. Harold Godwinson

So Ælfgifu is the name of Ælfwine’s mother according to the cartulary, but what about his father? How is Stevenson sure that Harold Harefoot is the most likely candidate for being Ælfwine’s father? He notes that some scholars at the time considered Harold II (better known as Harold Godwinson) to be the Harold in question, while others even considered Harald the brother of Cnut to be a possibility.

Stevenson dismissed Harold Godwinson’s candidacy for being “King Heroldus” in two brief sentences: “all that can be said in favour of this is that it is chronologically possible. In 1060 or 1062 Harold, king of England, could only mean Harold Harefoot.” I wish Stevenson had expanded on this. For some reason he treated Harald of Denmark, Cnut’s brother, as a candidate who needed a more thorough debunking. No scribe could reasonably list Harald of Denmark as an English king – but, with hindsight, they certainly could describe Harold Godwinson that way.

Stevenson’s assumption seems to be that the scribe was copying down information preserved intact from 1060 or 1062. Speaking literally, yes, in 1060 or 1062, there had only been one king of England named Harold: Harold Harefoot. But I’m not so sure that the information could have passed from 1060-62 to the scribe’s day completely unblemished by hindsight. If the scribe were writing in the early 1100s, for example, it would be surprising not to refer to Harold Godwinson as a king.

Are there any good reasons to favor one Harold over another at this point? Actually, I think so. There are two factors that make me think Harold Harefoot is the better candidate.

The first is that we know the names of at least two partners and six children of Harold Godwinson, yet there are no matches for Ælfgifu or Ælfwine. This does not mean that Harold Godwinson could not have had a son with someone by a different name, but it would be an outlier. Godwinson did have a sister named Ælfgifu, about whom virtually nothing is known, but she can be ruled out as the Ælfgifu in question. If she is the mother of Ælfwine, describing Godwinson as the man’s father (rather than his uncle) would be nearly as confused as calling Harald of Denmark an English king. In comparison, Harold Harefoot’s reign is poorly recorded in general, but at least we don’t have anything that would be an obvious outlier or error.

My second point is more important: it would not make as much sense for a son of Harold Godwinson to be so far from England in 1060 or 1062. The Godwin family was briefly exiled by Edward the Confessor in 1051, but they quickly returned to the scene and were influential in England through 1066. If Ælfwine were the son of Godwinson, it would be tough to explain why he chose to settle in southern France a full decade after his family returned to England. Were his prospects in England really that poor if he were the son of its most powerful earl?

However, it makes plenty of sense for a son of Harold Harefoot to be away from England in 1060. Harefoot had died in 1040 and was succeeded by Harthacnut (reigned 1040-42), who was so hostile to his predecessor that he had Harefoot’s body exhumed, thrown into a swamp, and tossed into the Thames. Any son of Harefoot had good reason to flee in 1040-42 given Harthacnut’s extreme hostility, and Ælfwine would have been very young at this point. It would make sense for his mother or grandmother to see that he was safely escorted away from England. Entering the church, as we know Ælfwine did, would have been another way to ensure his safety; that way, Ælfwine would have posed no serious threat to Harthacnut, Edward the Confessor, or any subsequent monarchs regarding succession, even though he did have royal blood.

As an added bonus, the detail that Ælfwine was born in London may also be relevant. Godwinson’s base of power was Wessex (although to be fair, it would hardly be surprising for the powerful earl to be in London from time to time). However, Harold Harefoot’s association with the city was strong enough that it was preserved in writing on several occasions, which is significant given the overall dearth of information about his reign. Harefoot gains some of his first support in 1035 from London’s shipmen, he is depicted as ruling from London when Alfred Ætheling is brought before him, and John of Worcester records London as Harefoot’s place of death (the earlier Anglo-Saxon Chronicle disagrees, saying Harefoot died in Oxford). Harefoot was also buried in London – twice. The London connection, while circumstantial, fits snugly if Harold Harefoot is Ælfwine’s father.

Implications for the End of Danish England

As for Ælfwine himself, what is known of him? Unfortunately, not much: Ælfwine, son of King Harold and Ælfgifu, was born in London, became prior of a monastery in Conques in 1060 or 1062, and died sometime after this. That’s almost all we can say about him. Like Edgar the Ætheling, the last member of the House of Wessex’s male line, no one bothered to commit his passing to writing – at least not anything that has survived.

However, Harold Harefoot does appear to be the most likely candidate for being Ælfwine’s father. If this is correct, it means that Cnut the Great’s direct line did not die out in 1042, as is commonly assumed, but sometime after 1062 – a very different interpretation, and one that has some significant implications for anyone studying Harold Harefoot’s reign, the Danish Conquest of England, or the Norman Conquest.

The end of Danish England may not have been as simple as Harthacnut willingly passing the throne back to a rival dynasty before dying. Harthacnut may have handed the throne to Edward the Confessor partly to ensure that the bloodline of his hated rival, Harold Harefoot, did not return to power in England.

Emma of Normandy: A Resilient Queen

There are lots of fascinating figures being profiled at TeamQueens.org, a site run by some of the most accomplished historians in queenship studies. Team Queens puts the spotlight on queens from all kinds of eras and locations, but I was surprised that no one had yet written an article about Emma of Normandy. I inquired about contributing a piece on Emma and am thrilled to see it published on Team Queens. My article is a general overview of Emma’s life and political career that aims to highlight her remarkable ability to survive even the most hopeless situations. The deaths of both husbands, multiple exiles, multiple conquests, hostile children and step-children – you name it, Emma survived it, sometimes coming back stronger than before. 

She was one of the most important figures of early English history, living through the reigns of seven kings, and was closely involved in royal politics for nearly half a century. Emma became an anointed queen in 1002 when she married King Æthelred II of England. After Æthelred’s death in 1016 and the subsequent downfall of the English dynasty, Emma married England’s conqueror, Cnut of Denmark. A long period of influence, stability, and prosperity followed for Emma, who ranked highly in Cnut’s reign (1016-1035). In the political upheaval following Cnut’s death, Emma found herself at the center of rumors, exiles, murders, and more. Some of her hardships were due to misfortune, while others may have been her own doing, but Emma always managed to persevere.  

Love her or loathe her, there is no denying her importance and resourcefulness. I consider her the single most fascinating queen of pre-Norman England. Read all about it by checking out the article.

On a side note: I am currently taking a break from social media (Facebook and Twitter), but to those of you who continue to share my work on those platforms, I’d like to say a big thank you! Just because I’m taking a social media detox doesn’t mean I don’t want my work shared there – on the contrary, I’m thrilled whenever social media enables something I’ve written to reach a wider audience. 

I may reappear on Facebook sporadically, but for now, the best place to get in touch with me is here on this blog or on academia.edu, but please do share anything to social media if you think others will enjoy it. My site analytics allow me to see what is shared where, and I really do appreciate it.

King Cnut’s Awkward Family Gathering? A Look at the Thorney Abbey Liber Vitae

Cover image: Royal 14 B VI, Membrane 4. An illustration of the rival branches of Cnut’s family, with Harold Harefoot’s line on the left and Harthacnut’s in the middle.

One of the most interesting, if lesser-known, facts about Cnut the Great is that he seems to have had two wives simultaneously. After conquering England, King Cnut (ruled England 1016-35 and Denmark 1018-35) famously married the previous English queen, Emma of Normandy; however, Cnut had a prior union with an English noblewoman named Ælfgifu of Northampton that most likely dated to about 1013. Ælfgifu and Cnut already had at least two children, Swein and Harold Harefoot, by the time Cnut married Emma in 1017. Emma and Cnut went on to have a son named Harthacnut.

Emma’s opinion of her husband’s other wife is, unsurprisingly, not a flattering one. In the Encomium Emmae Reginae, a work Emma commissioned, Ælfgifu is accused of being a “concubine.”1 Modern historians, though, have not taken the Encomium’s bait about Ælfgifu being a concubine. Scholarly consensus is that Ælfgifu and Cnut had a legitimate union. Many academics go even further by pointing out that Ælfgifu does not even appear to have been repudiated or set aside when Emma entered the picture. Emma was anointed queen, whereas Ælfgifu was not, but Ælfgifu was trusted with more authority. When Cnut acquired Norway in 1030, Ælfgifu was appointed to govern it alongside their eldest son, Swein.

After Cnut and Swein’s deaths in 1035, Ælfgifu vigorously promoted the claim of her surviving son, Harold. Harold bested Emma’s son Harthacnut, after a protracted succession crisis, to become England’s next monarch. Harthacnut had to wait until Harold’s death in 1040 to take the English throne. Harthacnut, who must rank among the sorest losers of all time, celebrated his delayed accession by disinterring Harold, posthumously executing him, and throwing his corpse into the Thames.

What a happy, totally-not-dysfunctional family we have here.

It is generally assumed that Cnut kept his two wives apart. For example, between 1030-35, we can be certain that the two wives were safely separated by the North Sea.

However, a medieval document from Thorney Abbey, in the fens of England, has raised questions about whether this was always the case.

The Thorney Abbey Liber Vitae (“Book of Life”) records the names of the institution’s visitors. These names were to be included in the community’s prayers, and such books were common throughout pre-Norman England. Thorney Abbey’s Liber Vitae would not be particularly noteworthy were it not for a list of names that includes Cnut, Emma, Ælfgifu, Harold, and Harthacnut – all recorded together, as though they had visited in one party, alongside other important figures like Archbishop Æthelnoth of Canterbury and numerous earls. The visit is thought to have occurred in the 1020s.2 However, the names themselves were not copied down until about 1100.3 This late recording, as we will see, does give us some reasons to be cautious.

The Thorney Abbey Liber Vitae (folio 10r). Image from Timothy Bolton’s Cnut the Great (plate 8). The royal family’s names can be seen at the top of the left column.

These entries fly in the face of the conventional thought that Cnut must have kept his wives, and possibly the entire factions of his family, apart from one another. If they do indeed represent one large gathering, it would destroy the already dying view that Ælfgifu had been put aside.

But could it truly represent one gathering? Did Cnut wrangle the unhappy sides of his family together and pack them inside the abbey, like a modern father stuffing his children and step-children into the back of the minivan, ready for the worst road trip of his life? Did Ælfgifu and Emma cast icy glances at each other, each viewing her rival as the “other” woman? It’s all too easy to imagine Cnut encouraging everyone to set aside their differences for a few hours, knowing deep down that chaos could break loose at any moment.

To be more serious again, such a unified gathering could affect our understanding of the succession dispute between Harold and Harthacnut that erupted after Cnut’s death. If Thorney Abbey’s Liber Vitae indeed records one visit with nearly4 the entire royal family present, that means Ælfgifu and Harold were in England at least part of the time during Cnut’s reign, which would not have hurt Harold’s succession chances. More importantly, the fact that Emma and Ælfgifu are listed side by side both confirms and challenges traditional views. It confirms that Emma was the more prestigious of the two, carrying the title of queen, but it also means that Ælfgifu was prominent enough to be mentioned immediately next to her.

However, the late date of the manuscript (c.1100, recording people who visited perhaps 80 years prior) means that caution is in order, and the Liber Vitae has prompted questions from academics, a few of which I’ve paraphrased (and admittedly simplified) below:

  • How do we know this represented one visit by the royal family rather than multiple smaller visits?
  • Since Emma of Normandy also went by the English name Ælfgifu, how can we be sure that the Ælfgifu in the book is Ælfgifu of Northampton? What if it’s supposed to mean something like “Emma/Ælfgifu,” referring to one person who went by two different names?
  • Why are Harold and Harthcnut given the title “rex” (king) when they hadn’t yet assumed the throne in the 1020s?

Historians vary significantly in their interpretations of the Thorney Abbey Liber Vitae names and in their attempts to answer these questions. I will cover some of them here:

Elisabeth van Houts briefly mentions the Thorney names in her article “Cnut and William: A Comparison” and seems to take them at face value, representing one massive visit of prominent figures, similar to the one at Assandun in 1020 mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.5

M. K. Lawson, one of Cnut’s modern biographers, thinks that Emma and Ælfgifu are two separate names here. He suggests that Ælfgifu of Northampton is indeed the person being referred to as “Ælfgifu.”6

Another of Cnut’s recent biographers, Timothy Bolton, originally thought that the list described one large visit in 1020 or 1021. He has since conceded that the situation is more ambiguous: “…on reflection we might just as well conclude that multiple visits augmented the main Thorney visit.”7 Bolton is the one who questions why Harold Harefoot is given the title “rex” in 1020 or 1021.8

Pauline Stafford, a leading expert on Emma, is cautious but seems open to the possibility that Ælfgifu of Northampton is being referred to, although she questions whether “Rex Harold” is Harold Harefoot or Cnut’s brother. If it is Harold Harefoot, she wonders if he and Ælfgifu visited after 1037, when Harold was sole king.9

Ryan Lavelle writes that the list “suggests she [Ælfgifu of Northampton] had once visited there with a family group” but is highly skeptical that it means she and Emma were there at once: “it certainly should not be used as evidence that Cnut was present at Thorney with both wives at the same time.”10

Dorothy Whitelock, writing nearly 90 years ago, originated the idea that Emma and Ælfgifu could be referring to the same person here. Her line of thinking has been repeated by Bolton, who writes that it is possible that alterations or additions to the original text could mean that the surviving manuscript is corrupted or that it conflates multiple visits.11

So what is one to make of all these different views?

As for me, I have little trouble accepting that Ælfgifu of Northampton is the one being referred to here. I’m not sure she is obscure enough, or far enough out of place, to assume that the scribe must be recording a garbled reference to Emma. Ælfgifu was trusted by Cnut and is in exactly the right company with Cnut and Harold Harefoot.

Speaking of Harold Harefoot, I also think we can safely say he is the “Rex Harold” in the list. Cnut’s brother Harold, the only proposed alternative, was dead by the earliest date suggested for the royal Thorney names that I’m aware of, and he played a minimal to nonexistent role in English politics.

I’m not surprised that Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut are called “rex,” either, even if their visit(s) took place before their accessions. If the list was copied down around 1100, I would be surprised if a copyist didn’t refer to them in hindsight as kings. Thorney Abbey surely would have been eager to emphasize its connections to as many kings (or those who became kings) as it could claim.

As for whether both wives were there at once, as much as I would like to imagine the awkward scene I described earlier, Lavelle’s point is important: the list should not be used to argue conclusively that they were in the same room together. However, I also see no reason to duplicate visits more than necessary. What are the chances that Thorney Abbey would have been independently visited by three consecutive monarchs (Cnut, Harold, and Harthacnut), for example, especially considering that the latter two only reigned for a few years? I would err on the side of simplicity here. One massive visit in the 1020s or two visits would be sufficient.

Perhaps Cnut, Emma, and Harthacnut visited together in the 1020s and Harold Harefoot and Ælfgifu of Northampton visited together c.1035-40. However, there is still a chance that all these people visited Thorney together, ranked (with the benefit of hindsight) in the Liber Vitae in order of seniority: the kings Cnut, Harold Harefoot, and Harthacnut, the anointed queen Emma, and the royal wife Ælfgifu. We can’t know for sure. But maybe – just maybe – it was the medieval world’s most awkward family gathering.


1 Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. Alistair Campbell and Simon Keynes (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 41.

2 Timothy Bolton “Ælfgifu of Northampton: Cnut the Great’s Other Woman,” (Nottingham Medieval Studies LI, 2007): 247-68; 262. Pauline Stafford, Queen Emma & Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in the Eleventh Century (Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 233.

3 Bolton “Ælfgifu,” 262. Ryan Lavelle, Cnut: The North Sea King (Allen Lane, 2017), 52. M.K. Lawson, Cnut: England’s Viking King 1016-35 (The History Press, 2011), 123. Dorothy Whitelock “Scandinavian Personal Names in the Liber Vitae of Thorney Abbey,” in Saga Book 12 (Viking Society for Northern Research, 1937-45): 127-53; 129.

4 One notable omission from the royal family is Swein, the eldest son. The ASC records that one of Cnut’s sons by Ælfgifu was sent to Denmark as a hostage in 1023, but doesn’t specify which. Lavelle (p. 50-51) leans toward Swein, as Harold could have been too young, and Swein’s absence from the Liber Vitae roster may be another clue that supports this idea. This idea runs into some chronological difficulties if we accept 1020 or 1021 as the date for the Thorney visit, however. In any case, Swein is notably absent.

5 Elisabeth van Houts, “Cnut and William: A Comparison” in Conquests in Eleventh-Century England: 1016, 1066 (The Boydell Press, 2020): 65-84; 67-68.

6 Lawson, 123-24.

7 Bolton, Cnut the Great (Yale University Press, 2019), 136 note 26.

8 Bolton, Cnut, 136.

9 Stafford, Queen Emma, 233. Note 105 for “Rex Harold.”

10 Lavelle, Cnut, 52. Brackets mine.

11 Bolton, Cnut, 136. Whitelock, 131.

The Death and Exhumation of Harold Harefoot

Cover image: Harold Harefoot depicted in a genealogical roll of English monarchs with (what else?) a hare. From BL Royal 14 B VI.

Perhaps no royal body suffered a fate worse than that of Harold I, otherwise known as Harold Harefoot. Harold died on this day (March 17th) in 1040. His body was exhumed several months after his death and, depending on which source you consult, was thrown into a fen, thrown into the Thames, publicly beheaded, or some combination of these. This was the act of Harthacnut, Harold’s successor and half-brother, who obviously had little love for his predecessor. After this, Harold (or at least part of him) was fished out and honorably re-buried by those willing to defy Harthacnut. In any case, the sources more broadly agree that Harold’s corpse was exhumed and dishonorably disposed of – a shocking way to treat a royal body.

A little background on Harold: he was the third ruler from the Danish dynasty of English kings, sometimes called the house of Knýtlinga (meaning the house of Cnut’s descendants). This dynasty ruled England from 1013-14 and from 1016-42. After a protracted succession dispute between Harold and his half-brother Harthacnut, Harold emerged victorious. He ruled over England for five years, from 1035-40, and I have discussed his interesting accession and reign in more detail for The Historian Circle (view the original here, or view and download it from academia.edu).

The Death and Burial of Harold I

Harold was not a well man, though. Despite coming to power at a young age – possibly as early as his late teens – he would not enjoy a long life. His debilitating illness was written into a diploma from his reign, which records that Harold was “so very sick that he lay in despair of his life,” in Oxford while somehow still managing to conduct official business.i He died on March 17, 1040 in Oxford. He was probably in his mid-20s at the oldest.

Oxford was the site of his death, but his body was to be interred in London. His corpse was carried for sixty miles and laid to rest in Westminster Monastery, a predecessor of Westminster Abbey. The decision to inter Harold in London is an interesting one, considering that many previous English monarchs (including his father) were buried in Winchester, while others were interred in Glastonbury Abbey (Edmund I, Edgar, and Edmund II). London makes more sense when considering the events of Harold’s life, though. After his father died, Harold faced stiff opposition in Wessex and the south, which was more favorable to Harthacnut. It is possible that Harold never enjoyed overwhelming support there, even after he became king.

Where a monarch was buried said a lot about how they wished to be remembered. Cnut, for example, had needed to work hard to show himself as a legitimate “English” monarch after his conquest in 1016. Accordingly, Winchester was his burial site – a traditional location for a West Saxon king. On the other hand, Harold’s grandfather, Swein Forkbeard, supposedly wished to be buried in Denmark rather than England because he knew he was hated by the English. Perhaps Harold similarly wished to be buried someplace where he could be remembered fondly, rather than hatefully, and that London was the most prestigious site that fit the bill. It had, after all, given him much support in 1035 when its fleets declared their allegiance to him, and it is one of the few places specifically mentioned as a location for his court.

Aside from his possible lack of supporters in Wessex, Harold may have eschewed a Winchester burial for other reasons. Unlike his father, Harold had no need to show himself as an overtly English king. He was the third monarch from his line to rule England, and it is telling that in 1035, the succession dispute was between Harold and Harthacnut, not between them and any claimants from the old West Saxon dynasty. A West Saxon burial was not needed to memorialize Harold’s status as a “real English king” – that was already inherent. In other words, after two decades of Danish rule, it was obvious that a son of Cnut would rule the English.ii The only question had been which one.

Harold was not the first monarch to be interred in London, though. A seventh-century king named Sebba was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral, for example. More recently, Æthelred II had been interred there in 1016, perhaps more out of practicality than anything – the city was under siege at the time – but it had also been fiercely loyal to him in his most desperate moments. Æthelred’s body was laid to rest in St. Paul’s Cathedral, but Harold’s was taken to Westminster.iii It is possible that St. Paul’s was an ill-fitting place for Harold given that Æthelred and his family had been nothing but hostile toward him and his kin: Æthelred had killed or mutilated many of Harold’s relatives in 1006, while Æthelred’s son Alfred died during an ill-advised incursion against Harold in 1036. Burying Harold alongside Æthelred was probably not a wise choice for those who wished to honor Harold’s memory, so perhaps that is one reason Westminster was chosen rather than St. Paul’s.

Occasionally royal bodies were translated to new sites or lost to time; overall, though, nothing particularly noteworthy should have happened to Harold’s body after this. But this is just where things start to get interesting.

With Harold dead, Harthacnut would get another shot at the throne that he thought was rightfully his. In the minds of Harthacnut and his mother, Queen Emma, Harold was an unjust usurper. Emma commissioned a work called the Encomium Emmae Reginae at about this time, which portrays Harold as a wicked, tyrannical apostate – accusations that don’t line up well with other early evidence, which suggests Harold was actually a conventionally pious and largely hands-off ruler.iv But the point here is not about Harold’s alleged personality flaws, but that Emma and Harthacnut loathed Harold. Emma had also been exiled by Harold in 1037, giving her one more reason to oppose him. She is the only member of the English political establishment that Harold is known to have punished.

Harthacnut arrived in England several weeks after Harold’s death, near midsummer, armed with over 60 ships. His mighty fleet sent an intimidating message to his new subjects, but it also hints at the new king’s insecurity. How welcome would he be in a kingdom that had recently driven his mother into exile and chosen Harold Harefoot over him?

The Grisly Exhumation of Harold Harefoot

Harthacnut soon made it clear to everyone that he had no respect for Harold. He ordered that his half-brother’s body be exhumed from Westminster. John of Worcester, writing in the twelfth century, even claims that Harthacnut had some of Harold’s chief supporters take part in the exhumation: Harold’s main supporter, Earl Leofric, and Harold’s steward, Styr, are named among those tasked with digging up Harold’s corpse. The most significant among them was Earl Godwin, who had originally supported Harthacnut but then switched to Harold and allegedly even killed Alfred Ætheling (the rival claimant from the old West Saxon dynasty) for Harold’s benefit. It’s unclear how seriously we should take John of Worcester’s late and surprisingly specific roster of gravediggers, but it is true that Harold’s supporters now found themselves in a tight spot. One story even has Godwin presenting Harthacnut with a spectacular ship to smooth things over.

Once Harold’s body was out of its tomb in Westminster, it was intended for a watery grave. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that Harthacnut had the body thrown into a fen, while John of Worcester says it was thrown into a fen and then the Thames, and William of Malmesbury says that only Harold’s head was tossed in the Thames (according to William, Harold’s corpse had been executed just prior to this). Whatever the exact chronology, this was a disturbing event for those who had to witness it. It’s true that medieval people were more intimately involved in burial rituals than we are today. That said, it’s clear that Harold’s exhumation was viewed as disgusting and inappropriate. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example, names it as the final entry in a list of Harthacnut’s bad decisions. The Encomium, which often attempts to spin more negative events, makes no attempt with Harold’s exhumation and disposal – it is simply omitted. Apparently it was too distasteful for even the encomiast to salvage. Modern historian Nicole Marafioti even points out in The King’s Body that at this point, with Harold dead for months and being exhumed in the summer, the body may have been in an advanced state of decomposition that only sped up when exposed to the humid summer air.

Why would Harthacnut do such a thing? The Encomium says that Harthacnut was deeply moved by Alfred’s death during his incursion of 1036, when Alfred had been captured and blinded by forces loyal to Harold, so was Harold’s exhumation a way to avenge Alfred Ætheling? While the Encomium is hoping to build a picture of unity – Emma’s son by Æthelred aligning with her son by Cnut – it’s unlikely that Harthacnut and Alfred had ever met. It’s also hard to imagine that Harthacnut had overwhelming sympathy for an older half-brother whose claims could be used against his own – he already had one of those in Harold!

While we cannot rule out some level of sympathy for Alfred, the exhumation was primarily a political move designed to frame Harold as a false king and de-legitimize his lawful accession to the throne. Painting Harold as a false king had the additional benefit of neutralizing the claim of his son Ælfwine, who went into exile at some point and became an abbot on the Continent.v Removing Harold from consecrated ground also had implications for Harold’s soul, since a consecrated resting place was seen as “a step toward salvation.”vi This is an even more extreme action than Harold (or Godwin, acting for his benefit) had taken against Alfred. Alfred was blinded and later died of his wounds, and this punishment allowed for the possibility of repentance before death. Only the Encomium claims that Alfred’s death was immediate, perhaps to make Harold seem more ruthless than he really was.vii Alfred was laid to rest at Ely Monastery.

On the other hand, Harold’s posthumous removal from an honorable site associated him with the most deviant members of society, such as criminals and pagans. Harthacnut and his mother obviously shared the view that Harold was an outlaw of a king whose reign had been illegitimate. Harthacnut would have seen similar exhumations and spectacles in Denmark, but this was not something an English monarch was supposed to do or be subjected to.viii

St. Clement Danes and the Fate of Harold’s Body

Amazingly, there is one final twist to this story. Harold’s body, according to John of Worcester, was rescued from its fate and reburied with honor in another London church. John says that the corpse was retrieved from the Thames by the “the Danes” and buried in their cemetery in London. William of Malmesbury reports a similar story, saying that a fisherman caught Harold’s head in his net and that it was buried in London’s Danish cemetery. Whether the entire body or just the head was retrieved, the more significant point is that some Londoners viewed the disposal of Harold’s body as so disgraceful that they took immediate action and defied their new king. By placing Harold in a cemetery (John specifically says this was done “honorably”), these Londoners had restored some dignity to their former king and possibly even helped his cause in the afterlife.

Another twelfth-century chronicler, Ralph de Diceto, clarifies that Harold’s London reburial was in “St. Clement’s,” today known as St. Clement Danes. Ralph would have been particularly well-informed on this matter given that he was a canon at St. Paul’s, which is just a short walk from St. Clement Danes. The name of the church also provides an obvious link to John and William’s accounts, which specifically state that Harold was laid to rest in a “Danish” church or cemetery. While the modern church of St. Clement Danes does mention Harold Harefoot on their website, there is unfortunately no modern memorial or plaque in his honor.

So, with St. Clement Danes solidified as Harold’s final resting place, is there any chance that Harold’s remains are still there? Could Harold Harefoot, like Richard III, be discovered under a car park? It is unlikely. Harold would most likely have been buried in the church’s crypt or somewhere else inside the church, perhaps near its altar. St. Clement Danes does have a crypt, but the church has been significantly refurbished at least twice since Harold’s internment. It was first rebuilt in the reign of William I. This version of the church survived the Great Fire of London in 1666, but was in such a state of disrepair that it was rebuilt by Christopher Wren anyway.

More recently, the church was bombed in the blitz and was refurbished in the 1950s, giving us the modern version of St. Clement Danes. The modern church also stands on a traffic island, with nearly all of the surrounding area (which could have included parts of the early medieval cemetery) built over. This is less of an issue for Harold, who probably would be interred much closer to (or within) the church, but with so many rebuilds (and a bombing!), there is a lower chance that any recognizable remains from the eleventh century have survived. To make matters more complicated, the modern crypt was cleared out in the 1800s and its grisly soup of human remains was allegedly so foul that it would extinguish the candles of anyone who tried to enter. Today, the crypt is cleaned out and is used as a chapel.

In summary, anything left of Harold’s body (which may have already been in a state of advanced decay in the summer of 1040) was probably disturbed or cleared out at some point. Even if the intact skeleton of an eleventh-century, 20-something year-old Anglo-Scandinavian male were located in or around the church, this would be interesting, but not conclusive. It would only prove that the church called “Danes” did indeed have Danes in it. It would take a genetic link to definitively prove it was Harold.

So, unfortunately, it does seem unlikely that anything recognizable remains of the third Danish king of England. However, perhaps a small modern marker or plaque would be a fitting way to honor the memory of the only king interred in St. Clement Danes. I do hope that the church adds one in the coming years.


i This diploma is known as S 1467 and can be accessed here.

ii This point was recently made by Levi Roach on the Talking History Podcast, “The Life and Times of Cnut the Great,” and I think it’s highly relevant here (at 40:40).

iii Nicole Marafioti, The King’s Body: Burial and Succession in Late Anglo-Saxon England (University of Toronto Press, 2014), 107.

iv Brandon M. Bender, “Harold I ‘Harefoot’: A Reassessment,” The Historian Circle (2022).

v W. H. Stevenson, “An Alleged Son of Harold Harefoot,” English Historical Review 28 (1913): 112-17.

vi Marafioti, 148.

vii Marafioti, 131.

viii Marafioti, 144-60.

Edgar the Ætheling: A Case Study in Medieval Exile

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of contributing to Epoch Magazine’s sixth issue, which is themed around medieval travel and food. Epoch is affiliated with Lancaster University and has a wide range of articles that strike a good balance between readability and scholarship.

My article is about Edgar the Ætheling (“throne-worthy”), a figure best known for his minor role in the events of 1066, but who went on to live a long and eventful life full of adventures. Edgar had the best claim to the throne in 1066, but was bypassed by Harold Godwinson and then overpowered by William the Conqueror. After 1066, though, he was an exile, a diplomat, a solider, a kingmaker, a pilgrim, a prisoner, and more. Click here to read my article about the life of this fascinating medieval traveler.

New Publication! Æthelred the Unready and William of Malmesbury

Above: Richard Kiley portrays King Æthelred in The Ceremony of Innocence, one of the many depictions examined in the article.  

I’m very pleased to announce the publication of my first peer-reviewed journal article. The article, titled “Æthelred the Unready and William of Malmesbury: The Death of a Reputation,” appears in volume 34 of The Year’s Work in Medievalism, released August 5th, 2021.

The article surveys portrayals of Æthelred II in popular culture, the majority of which depict him negatively — he is variously a coward, drunkard, weakling, or all of the above. Most of this material can be traced back to the medieval chronicler William of Malmesbury, who was writing well after Æthelred had died. Why did William’s account become so common? How does it compare to earlier or alternate medieval views of the king? And finally, is there any hope for Æthelred in mass media, or is he doomed to play the fool forever? I explore all of these questions in the article.

The paper is open access, meaning anyone can read it in its entirety for free or download it:

Access on The Year’s Work in Medievalism

Access on Academia.edu

My First Citation

A couple milestones: my book has been cited in an academic journal for the first time; this is also the first time I’ve been mentioned in another author’s acknowledgments. Considering that 80% of academic writing in the humanities is never cited, not even once, I’m very fortunate. It’s mentioned in an article in The Archaeological Journal about English defenses against the vikings.

The paper is called “The late tenth-century defences of Oxford and the towers of St George and St Michael” and is written by archaeologist Jeremy Haslam.

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.

Alex Smith’s OTHER Miracle Season: 2017

Cover image: Pro Football Focus highlights Smith’s status as one of the league’s best deep passers of 2017.

The fact that Alex Smith made it onto the football field in 2020, let alone started, is nothing short of a modern miracle. Following a career- and life-threatening injury in 2018, many doubted Smith would ever play pro football again. His comeback was one of the most covered stories of an otherwise depressing 2020, so I won’t go over it again here. Instead, I want to discuss Alex Smith’s other miracle season: the time he led the league in passer rating, was the NFL’s best downfield passer, and topped 4,000 passing yards. These things sound like they shouldn’t go together. Alex Smith, an elite deep passer? 4,000 yards? Even though Smith is famous for his exceptionally clean (if unexciting) brand of football, hearing that he led the league in passer rating might seem surprising.

One of these stat lines is Patrick Mahomes during his Super Bowl-winning season. The other is Alex Smith in 2017:

14 starts, 4,031 yards, 26 TD, 5 INT, 65.9% complete, 105.3 rating, 176 rushing yards.

15 starts, 4,042 yards, 26 TD, 5 INT, 67.5% complete, 104.7 rating, 355 rushing yards.

Unless you have a photographic memory for statistics, you basically have to guess which is which. This illustrates just how good Smith was in 2017 – and how shocking it is that so many fans have forgotten this season. How did a season like this happen with Smith? And why have we largely forgotten it?

(Answer: the top line is Mahomes in 2019. The bottom line is Smith in 2017.)

Smith had been the number one overall pick way back in 2005, struggling in his first several seasons as the quarterback for an unstable and dysfunctional 49ers franchise. He finally found success in the early 2010s by adopting his current mistake-free method of passing under coach Jim Harbaugh. This rejuvenated Alex Smith didn’t try to be the savior of the world, who had been hailed as a second Joe Montana or Steve Young – he just tried to be efficient and precise and not worry about what everyone else thought. Everyone thought he was a bust anyway. Harbaugh and Smith guided the 49ers to 13-3 record in 2011. 2012 saw Smith put up some of the best numbers in the league through the season’s first half, boasting a 104.1 rating and completing 70% of his passes. However, an injury derailed his season when the younger, faster, and harder-throwing Colin Kaepernick proved to be electrifying in his own right. Smith recovered his health, but not his job. After suffering through a carousel of mediocre QBs in the post-Young era, the 49ers were suddenly a team with two starters. Just like with the Montana-Young rivalry, the Niners had a choice to make. Smith was traded to the Chiefs in the offseason, two decades after Montana had been traded there after also being supplanted by a younger, faster up-and-comer. The Chiefs had gone 2-14 in 2012, so they cleaned house and brought in Andy Reid to rebuild the franchise. Smith was the quarterback Reid chose.

Stability as a Chief: 2013-16

Thus began the most stable period of Smith’s long career. Under Reid and Smith, the Chiefs jumped from 2-14 to 11-5. From 2013-16, the Chiefs had a winning record every year and posted double-digit wins in three of those four seasons, along with three playoff appearances. Smith was steady as could be. In each of those years, he threw for between 3,200 and 3,500 yards, with a QB rating that generally stayed in the low 90s. He also began using his mobility more often, peaking at 498 rushing yards in 2015. That’s getting into legitimate dual-threat territory, although as usual, few recognized this unless they were playing against or watching the Chiefs and saw it firsthand. This stability (and mobility) did earn Smith his first Pro Bowl nod in 2013, at age 29, as well as another in 2016. In the 2016-17 postseason, he also led the Chiefs to their first playoff win since the 1993-94 postseason, a 30-0 shutout of the Houston Texans. The last QB to lead the Chiefs to a playoff win had been Montana.

This solid play also reinforced some of the more negative stereotypes about Smith, though. In his late 49ers career, Smith’s cautious but efficient play gained him a reputation as a game manager: an organized but bland player whose team wins with him, but not because of him. A game manager doesn’t put the team on his back and carry them; he efficiently distributes the ball to others who put the team on their backs.

This is important because Smith’s existing reputation helps explain why few of us remember his 2017 in the first place. Most people already had a fully-formed idea of Smith: he wins a lot of games, can run a little, and does not throw deep. He’s the sort of player the casual fan rolls his eyes at. He’s certainly not elite, so any success he has is chalked up to other players on the roster or written off entirely, as though it’s just a fluke.

2017: Alex Smith’s Career Season

Enter 2017. The Chiefs had just drafted a talented but raw quarterback, Patrick Mahomes II. Although Mahomes had more pure talent than almost anyone, the Chiefs had no reason to press him into duty immediately. They were consistently one of the NFL’s better teams and a few months earlier, they had won their first playoff game in decades. They had young and talented pass catchers like Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Things were looking up. But it’s also true that the Chiefs, for all their regular season success, just couldn’t seem to get over the hump with Smith at quarterback. It seemed that he was good enough to guide the Chiefs to the playoffs every year, beating up less-talented quarterbacks and teams during the regular season, but once he was faced with the Bradys and Roethlisbergers of the league, there was just no way he could keep up. 2017 began with Smith firmly entrenched as the starter, but the writing was on the wall: Mahomes was the future. Smith, a veteran who had been through nearly everything an NFL quarterback could go through, seemed like the perfect mentor for Mahomes. He was everything Mahomes was not: careful, guarded, and able to get the ball out before anyone knew what had happened.

The 2017 season began with a bang. The Chiefs had to start their year in Foxborough against the Patriots, who some pundits had already decided would go undefeated. Smith and Co. lit up the field with deep bombs, coming from behind to stun New England 42-27. Smith’s success continued the following week, defeating the eventual Super Bowl champion Eagles. And the next week over the Chargers. And again over Washington. In Week 5, Kansas City went up against Houston, the same team they defeated 30-0 in the 2016-17 playoffs. The Chiefs won again. But somehow, this 5-0 start was different than all the other strong starts in the Smith and Reid era. They were not just winning with Smith – they were winning because of him. In the Patriots game, Smith threw for some very Mahomes-like totals: 28/35 for 368 yards and 4 touchdowns with no interceptions, good for a 148.6 rating. It was a similar story against Houston: 29/37 for 324 yards and 3 touchdowns, with no interceptions and a 130.2 rating.

For a brief moment, the national media began paying attention to Smith. During the early and middle part of the 2017 season, he was viewed as a contender for league MVP. Through his first eight games, he had thrown for 2,181 yards, 16 touchdowns, and no interceptions. If Smith maintained his pace, he would end the year with 4,362 yards, 32 touchdowns and zero (!) interceptions. Smith gradually fell out of the MVP discussion, though, partly because the Chiefs took a nosedive during the middle of the season, losing six of seven games between Week 6 and Week 12. Smith continued to play at a high level during that span, but the damage was done. The conversation shifted from “Is Alex Smith the MVP?” to “Will the Chiefs even make the playoffs?”

Perhaps Smith’s most heroic effort of the 2017 season came during one of those losses, a 38-31 game against the Jets. He showed the full extent of his abilities in this game: the 33 year-old made good decisions, displayed his ability to repeatedly throw deep, and showed off his mobility in the most dramatic way possible. Smith threw for 366 yards and 4 touchdowns, with no interceptions; he also broke off a 70-yard run that saw him outrun much of the Jets defense and break several tackles. Smith had done exactly what everyone said he didn’t do: just like in the New England game in Week 1, Smith had carried the team on his back.

The Chiefs rebounded and won their next three games from Week 13 to Week 16, putting the Smith-led Chiefs at 9-6 and securing their spot in the playoffs. Even though Smith played at an elite level for the first 15 games of the season, he and many of the other Chiefs starters did not play in Week 17 because the Chiefs were already assured of their playoff spot, so they could not afford to let Smith get injured in a meaningless game. In Week 17, with Smith tucked away safely on the sidelines, Chiefs fans got their first glimpse of Mahomes in NFL action.

The next week, Kansas City’s well-rested starters were back on the field for their playoff game against Tennessee. Smith played well as usual, throwing for 264 yards with 2 touchdowns and – as you’re probably used to seeing with Smith – no interceptions. He completed 72% of his passes and put up a 116.2 rating, but the Chiefs lost a 22-21 nail-biter, partly because Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota threw a pass to himself for a touchdown. Just like during the mid-season slump, the Chiefs lost and it really wasn’t Alex’s fault.

However, it had happened again. The Smith-led Chiefs just could not advance deep into the playoffs. They were now 1-4 in the postseason during the Reid-Smith era. Most fans in Kansas City seemed to understand that after the Titans loss, Smith had played his final game as a Chief. He’d gone out with a bang in a 2017 season that saw him throw for 4,042 yards, 26 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, and a league-best 104.7 rating. He also added 355 yards on the ground. It was the first time a Chiefs quarterback had eclipsed the 4,000-yard mark since Trent Green in 2005. It was the first time a Chief had ever led the NFL in passer rating (Note: Hall of Famer Len Dawson had led the AFL in passer rating numerous times with the Chiefs in the 1960s). It was the best-ever passer rating by a Chief.

Smith was traded to Washington after the 2017 season, having thrown for 17,608 yards, 102 touchdowns, 33 interceptions, and a 94.8 rating in his Chiefs tenure. At the time of his departure, he had the best career passer rating, completion percentage (65.1), and interception percentage (1.4) in Chiefs history. All three records have since been broken by Mahomes, but Smith, whose mobility has been constantly underrated, still holds records for the most rushing yards and touchdowns by a Chiefs quarterback (1,672 and 10, respectively). These are two records that Mahomes isn’t likely to pass any time soon.

The Causes of Smith’s 2017 Season

But how did this season happen in the first place? Even though Smith had been a good quarterback for years at that point, there is no denying that 2017 is a clear outlier among his career numbers. There are several factors that contributed:

One is that Smith had an incredible cast to work with in 2017. He had Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce as his main targets, both of whom were (and still are) legitimate superstars. Smith was willing to throw intermediate passes to Kelce, who is a big target and can catch just about anything. He was willing to throw deep because Hill could simply outrun the whole defense. Smith had thrown deep here and there in the past, but I do think this shows how passing is a two-way street. It takes a quarterback and a receiver, not just one or the other, and Smith had a lot more to work with by 2017 than he did in 2013. In 2013, there was no Kelce (he was injured for his rookie year) to throw to at tight end, only anonymous castoffs from other teams, and no legitimate deep threats at wide receiver. His main target in 2013, just for comparison, was the aging Dwayne Bowe, who had been drafted two general managers and three head coaches ago.

Stability is another contributor that I think gets overlooked a lot. From 2013-17, Smith got to work in Andy Reid’s offense for five seasons. Compare this to Smith’s early career in San Francisco, when he had to work under five offensive coordinators in five seasons.

A simpler reason that Smith heaved the ball all over the field in 2017 is that he had to. The Chiefs defense had been one of the league’s best units from 2013-15, with some decline showing in 2016. By 2017, the Chiefs’ former strength, defense, had become a weakness. Smith, for the first time in his Chiefs career, had to throw the ball a lot just to keep Kansas City in the game. A good example of that would be the Week 1 Patriots game, where the Chiefs fell behind against an elite quarterback in Tom Brady. There weren’t many options: throw deep or lose.

Finally, Smith’s overall career arc should be taken into consideration. NFL starting quarterbacks tend to last longer than players at other positions. Smith was 33 in 2017, undoubtedly on the older side, but still not among the league’s oldest starting quarterbacks. He had the benefit of years of experience while also still retaining the physical skills to be successful, including enough mobility to make things happen with his legs.

Why We Forget About Smith’s 2017 Season

As noteworthy as Smith’s 2017 campaign was in Chiefs history, it pales in comparison to what happened next. Mahomes came out of nowhere to throw for 5,097 yards, 50 touchdowns, and a rating of 113.8 the very next year. Smith had been considered as league MVP in 2017, but Mahomes actually won it in 2018. The Chiefs’ 2018 season was like an exaggerated, fun-house mirror version 2017: the superstars like Hill and Kelce were still there, but now Sammy Watkins was added to the mix. The defense that had played poorly in 2017 suffered a complete implosion in 2018, meaning that if 2017 Smith had to throw a lot to keep the Chiefs in the game, 2018 Mahomes had to throw even more. And if there was ever a quarterback well-suited to that type of team, it was Mahomes. In short, Mahomes had the benefit of an even more talented receiving corps, had to cover for an even worse defense, and had the arm talent to out-throw nearly every QB in the league. All of this meant that Smith’s 2017, which was one of the best seasons in Chiefs history, was blown out of the water just one year later.

Winning the big one also has a funny effect on people’s memories. All the things they used to cling to during less-successful eras become unimportant. When the Royals won the World Series in 2015, Kansas Citians no longer had to reminisce about that one fluke season in 2003 or how good Zack Greinke was in 2009. Likewise, Chiefs fans simply have little reason to reflect on Alex Smith’s 2017 season because the Chiefs won it all with Mahomes, not Smith. Ironically enough, Mahomes’ Super Bowl-winning season is the one I used as my example up top for comparison with Smith’s 2017.

The final reason I will offer is the most unfair, and it’s one I had alluded to earlier: People had already made up their minds about Smith anyway. Since Smith, unlike Mahomes, had been in the league for a long time when he put up his elite season, fans already knew what to expect from him: 3,500 yards, maybe 15-20 touchdowns, a 90-ish QB rating, and a single-digit turnover season – effective enough, but not all that attractive. Because this reputation had already been established well before 2017, his final season with the Chiefs is overlooked as a fluke, if it’s recognized at all.

However, Smith deserves far more credit for what he did in 2017. Whether it conforms to your pre-existing ideas about Alex or not, it did happen. It’s not just a thought exercise. For one season, in 2017, Alex Smith was the league’s highest-rated quarterback, who threw for more yards than any Chief had in over a decade.

This is why when 2020 Alex Smith threw for 390 yards on his cyborg leg, I wasn’t too shocked. He’d put up impressive numbers before. Likewise, the next time you hear someone say that the Chiefs’ reign as the league’s most terrifying offense began under Mahomes in 2018, know that they’re wrong. It began one year earlier, in 2017, under Alex Smith.