The British History Podcast
Summary: iTunes is restricting our list to 300 episodes for some reason. To access all episodes, click subscribe. The BHP is a chronological retelling of the history of Britain with a particular focus upon the lives of the people. You won't find a dry recounting of dates and battles here, but instead you'll learn about who these people were and how their desires, fears, and flaws shaped the histories of England, Scotland, and Wales. Support the Show
992 was a bad year. There was treason, Vikings, the King’s closest advisor absconded with half the navy, and tipped off an enemy invasion with just enough time to let them escape.
The Battle of Maldon was a catastrophe. The brave last stand of Ealdorman Byrhtnoth was never going to change that fact. He was the leading man of Essex and the second most powerful Ealdorman in England and now he was dead. And his Fyrd was defeated. To top it off, there are indications that, facing the strength of the Viking fleet (and likely in response to the failures of English leadership) some were looking to switch sides. We know of at least one Noble who attempted to defect… AEthelric of Bocking… but we can’t be certain that he was alone. There may have been many nobles like AEthelric, who just went unrecorded. Things in England were bad.
Battles don’t appear out of thin air, not even in honor cultures. There’s a reason, a context, that develops long before soldiers or warriors enter a field prepared to do violence. And the Battle of Maldon comes with a lot of context. We left off in 988… and on that year, Archbishop Dunstan, who had been on the forefront of some pretty momentous changes in both ecclesiastical and secular English life, had died.
By 984 the Regency council had been broken and a new inner circle of nobles had been elevated. And this development was accompanied by a rapid series of changes at the highest levels of the kingdom. The political rivals of this new council were rapidly losing power, with titles (and even lands) of wealthy dynasties being systematically funnelled to the King. During this surge of political consolidation, no one was safe. Even the powerful Ealdorman of Mercia was exiled on charges of treason.
At 16 years old, King AEthelred was considered fully grown by Anglo Saxon standards. And as a bonus graduation present, the powerful Bishop AEthelwold of Winchester… who appears to have been the defacto head of state while AEthelred was a child… had died. With his passing, the power of the old guard had been broken and AEthelred was free to rule as a King. The regency period of his reign was officially over.
Before we get back to our story, I’ve been seeing your conversations online and it made me realize I need to clarify something. Some of you took the discussion of AEthelred’s unflattering nickname, and how he caught hell for some things that were out of his control or part of the common culture, and took that to mean that the BHP argues that AEthelred was a good king. He wasn’t. He was an awful king in many respects. What I’m trying to convey, and what I’m hoping you’ll get out of this series, is that the story of AEthelred (and how bad his reign was) was a great deal more complicated and nuanced than the stories regarding his reign imply.
“Under AEthelred nothing was done; or, more truly, throughout his whole reign he left undone those things which he ought to have done, and he did those things he ought not to have done.” That is the damning conclusion of Edward Augustus Freeman, a Victorian historian, and epic beard grower.
King Edward, like those before him, had died under mysterious and apparently violent circumstances. And the next in line for this increasingly bloody throne of England was his 12 year old little half-brother. Æthelred.
“No man can make himself king, but the people have the choice to choose as king whom they please; but after he is consecrated as king, he then has dominion over the people, and they cannot shake his yoke from their necks.” So reads the homily written by the famed writer, AElfric. He was writing his patrons, Ealdorman AEthelweard the Chronicler and his son, AEthelmaer, a decade or so after King Edward was killed.
King Edgar is Dead… and in his place reigned his son, King Edward of England. And you’d think that we’d be referring to him as King Edward the First. Or, if you wanted to fudge it a bit and give Edward the Elder some credit for forming the Kingdom of the Anglo Saxons… maybe King Edward II. Support the Show
King Edgar the Peaceable was buried at Glastonbury in 975. But weirdly that isn’t the end of his story. William of Malmesbury tells us that nearly a century later, in 1053, the Abbot Ailward re-opened the King’s tomb. Malmsbury doesn’t tell us WHY the monk opened the grave, so I suppose we can just assume Ailward was going through a goth phase. What we are told is that when the Abbot opened the tomb he found Edgar laying in it perfectly preserved as if he was merely sleeping. Faced with an apparent miracle, or what we would today recognize as an obvious vampire, Ailward decided to press his luck even farther… and he cut into the flesh of the long dead King. Support the Show
Human beings can’t really be summed up in a nickname. Usually we are more complicated than a word or two. And sometimes, the nickname just doesn’t reflect reality. If you take Edward the Elder, for example, the name probably conjures up an image of Gandalf. But Edward was only in his early 50’s when he died. Support the Show
You would think that someone named Edgar the Peaceable enjoyed a good reputation. But the closer you look, the more things start to look…off. And if you look closer than that, you start to get the sense that maybe things WERE off. Support the Show
Across the North Sea, in Scandinavia, a man named Harald Greycloak was struggling for dominance in the region. He wasn’t just any man, he was a son of Erik Bloodaxe and Gunnhilde. And his fight brought him into direct conflict with King Haakon.
The King is dead. Long live the King. Eadwig, the 18 year old King known for his beauty, had died. Somehow.