Æthelred (2016)

ISBN data: Hardback - 9780300196290 | Paperback - 9780300229721

Link to the book's page at Yale

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An early attempt was made to write a biography of this king for the English Monarchs series. A book on Æthelred II by Professor Simon Keynes (1952-  ) of the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, University of Cambridge was foretold in 1989 in the “In Preparation” list on the rear cover of Edward the Confessor, but it never appeared. No doubt his book on Æthelred was unready.

Nearly thirty years later, in 2016, ‘Æthelred the Unready’ by Dr. Levi Roach was published by Yale. However there is a problem in considering this new book as part of the English Monarchs series. The Yale websites (US and UK) do not list this as part of the series. An early addition of this book the list of series titles on the UK Yale University Press website was soon removed, so even somone at the publisher's office thought it was part of the series. A series attribution is not given anywhere in the book.

This leads us to the inevitable conclusion that, barring mistakes, Yale did not publish this book with the intention of it being in the series, which is very odd. The 2011 Æthelstan title was mentioned in the series list near the title page and also on the rear cover. Likewise the 2017 Cnut book is proudly sitting in the list on the Yale English Monarchs websites - yet not this Æthelred title. These books do not differ in approach, scholarship or the academic qualifications of the authors yet Æthelstan and Cnut are listed in the series and Æthelred is not.

Curiously, apart from the listing on the Yale website, the only mention in the 2016 releases ‘Henry IV’ and ‘William the Conqueror’ regarding the series is a statement on the rear of the dust jacket. Devoid of this dressing, these books have no mention of the series. Some earlier titles have a handy list of English Monarchs titles (ie. in print) but even this is absent from these titles. Given this, might it be possible that a future printing that this Æthelred book will be acknowledged as part of the series?

We have one further piece of evidence - all the English Monarchs titles from George IV onwards (2006) have given thanks and credit to the editor Dr. Robert Baldock. This credit is not given for ‘Æthelred the Unready’ or ‘Henry: the Young King’. This may be strong evidence that these books were not commissioned by the series editor and therefore fall outside the series. Therefore it must reluctantly be acknowledged that this book falls into the category of a companion title rather than in the series itself. Given the lineage of this book and the connection to the original title promised in 1989 this release must be considered a worthy entry and it is unimaginable that readers of the series would not buy this book and add it to their collection, placing it comfortably between Sarah Foot’s ‘Æthelstan’ and Timothy Bolton’s ‘Cnut the Great’.

Even more confusingly, Internet book vendors must have been told that this was an English Monarchs title and are still listing it as one of the series, so this book will in any case be regarded by customers purchasing this book as one of the series. The niceties of labels on the item itself (or the publisher’s catalogue) won’t trouble most people, only those pedants compiling websites as a homage to the series will be disturbed.

If it were not for the many and wonderful releases in the series since 2011 this book might lead readers into thinking that Yale are becoming somewhat casual with the English Monarchs series, now that nearly all monarchs and eras have an entry. It also begs the question: if this book is not part of the English Monarchs series, does Yale have in mind any alternative title to fill the role? I should think not as this book by Dr. Roach is splendid, indeed a joy for readers of this early period. The first chapter of sixty pages examines in some detail the reigns between Æthelstan and Æthelred, especially the nearly twenty year reign of Edgar. This is a very satisfactory bridge between the chronologically previous book in the series, Æthelstan by Sarah Foot, and this work.


See the Anglo-Saxon Kings      Go forward to Cnut

Go the the next Companion Book published by Yale

Æthelred the Unready

By Dr. Levi Roach (1985-  )

University of Exeter

Book Editor: Heather McCallum

2016 Hardback

Companion Book Number: 5


2017 Paperback

2016 Kindle (UK)

The influence of the originally allocated Æthelred biographer, Professor Keynes, is felt in this new book as Dr. Roach thanks Keynes for his inspirational teaching in the acknowledgements page and dedicates the book to his former teacher.

In reviewing this book, Andrew Wareham (University of Roehampton, London) wrote in History: the journal of the Historical Association April 2018, Vol.103 (355) commenting especially on the use of primary documents. "At the core of Levi Roach’s approach is an excellent study of Anglo-Saxon charters, which guides the reader through numerous diplomas from different archives, and notably uses witness lists to chart the rising and waning fortunes of royal servants and followers at the royal court.”

Katherine Weikert (University of Winchester) reviewed the book for The Medieval Review (an Internet review page) at Indiana University (17/11/2018) writes positively: "Roach's writing wears its deep knowledge and understanding lightly, giving readers an accessible glimpse, grounded in firm scholarly foundations, of the ever-enigmatic king." She adds a note about the series itself: "By virtue of being a part of the vaunted Yale Monarch series [sic.], this book will remain a standard text for decades, and quite happily, it is a book that deserves to be thought of that way."

This biography of Æthelred was one of five English Monarchs or “Companion” books released by Yale in 2016. Biographies of Henry IV; Louis the Lion and Henry the Young King were released earlier in the year (in that order). William the Conqueror followed in October, a month after Æthelred. These five were followed early in 2017 by Cnut the Great. With the publication of Cnut in 2017 we can for the first time realise the aim of the founders of the English Monarchs series and read an uninterrupted account of each era from Æthelstan to John. Then, with the release in a few years of Henry III, this continuity will continue until James VI and I.

Given that it is unlikely that Yale would consider publishing a biography on Æthelred’s son Edmund Ironside owing to the brevity of his seven month reign, the final chapter of this book which, while not a thorough examination, is at least a satisfying read on the legacy of of Æthelred and the reign of Edmund. A similar summary of Edmund can be found in the chronologically next book Cnut. Both summaries link the Æthelred and Cnut histories into a continuous narrative.

The image of Æthelred on the cover is taken from the Abingdon Chronicle, though why the designer insisted on the unnecessary gilt border is unknown. Note how it differs with every iteration of the book.

Lastly, this book was declared the winner of the 2017 Longman-History Today Book Prize, an award given  for "an author’s first or second book, written in English, on any aspect of History”, This annual award is given jointly by the publisher Longman and History Today magazine for books published in the year following 1 October.

Cover: The image of Æthelred sitting on a throne comes from the Abingdon Chronicle (13th Century), Abington Abbey, Oxfordshire.