When I read Chernow’s Hamilton biography, I remarked that “when I’ve read biographies of historical figures in the past, for college classes, they were always medieval or early modern figures, people whose lives have a lot of blank spots and whose personalities require a lot of guesswork based on relatively little evidence.” Which is a pretty spot-on description of Levi Roach’s Æthelred: The Unready.

Because here we are with a biography of a long-reigning king, and all we have is the thinnest of public records to hang it on. Like, we know he married twice, for instance, but we don’t even know what happened to his first wife—did she die? was she cast out in disfavor? when?—never mind anything personal at all. Even on matters of major policy, there’s not a whole lot there. Major court realignments are adduced from the order of signatures on monastic charters; significant policy shifts are visible in which monasteries get more land in those charters; guesses at the mindset of a kingdom under invasion are based on changes in coinage. A single extant poem detailing a particular battle becomes this enormously significant piece of evidence all out of proportion to what we really can know based on it (as Roach notes), just because we have so little.

But Roach takes this scanty data and manages to turn it into a compelling analysis of an important moment in English history, detailing the primary periods of Æthelred’s kingship—his regency as a child king; his reaction against his regents as he came into maturity; his repentance for that youthful reaction and re-embrace of those old influences; increasing crisis and a shift in advisors; and finally, the rising tide of Danish invasion and the conquest of England.

For the most part, this is a sober, analytical history rather than a narrative one (though at one point Roach does allow himself a bit of (well-sourced) dramatic license to imagine how a scene of the king’s repentance might have played out), so it’s not the kind of page-turner that, e.g. that Hamilton bio is; probably it’s not going to inspire any hit musicals. But it is clear, concise, and informative; recommended if this is the sort of thing you’re looking for.


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