There is a long tradition of cheering on the major monarchs of England, generally warriors such as Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror and Richard the Lionheart. But there is an argument that the more interesting monarchs are the ones who through their own fault or through having to live through terrible times, show the limits of human action and the degree to which political life can go completely wrong.
In his fascinating new book in the Penguin Monarchs series, Richard Abels examines the long and troubled reign of Aethelred II the 'Unraed', the 'Ill-Advised'. It is characteristic of Aethelred's reign that its greatest surviving work of literature, the poem The Battle of Maldon, should be a record of heroic defeat. Perhaps no ruler could have stemmed the encroachment of wave upon wave of Viking raiders, but Aethelred will always be associated with that failure.
Richard Abels recently retired as Professor of History at the United States Naval Academy. He is the author of Alfred the Great- War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England and Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
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