The British History Podcast
Summary: 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. iTunes is restricting our list to 300 episodes for some reason. To access all episodes, click subscribe. Support the Show
Now that we’ve checked in with the rest of the world, let’s get back to our story…which lately hasn’t been going so well. In the space of 70 years the Kingdom went from a preeminent power in the West to little more than a viking hunting preserve.
It’s so easy to lose the forest for the trees. This show is a show about one small island which, even at this part of the story, is still at the edge of civilization. It is very easy to forget that there is a whole other world out there…
When we left off, England was reforming its legal structure. Now, law isn’t known for being a sexy subject…neither are lawyers for that matter. But law shapes our societies in ways that are so fundamental that they are often invisible to us. And these reforms are no exception. These codes go on to transform English life. Support the Show
With the Scandinavian raiders gone, and with AElfric of Hampshire defanged, England was free to get back to work. And, as we saw last episode, this meant that the King was once again redistributing wealth from the have-a-lots to the have-even-mores. Which meant that the dynasty of Wulfrun, the upteen cousin AEthelbrads, and Mom, were doing pretty damn well. Support the Show
And we are back! Thank you all for being patient while the BHP went on a brief parental leave. And speaking of things that are back… The Dowager Queen AElfthryth has returned to the King’s inner council following what looks like a political coup against AElfic of Hampshire and his faction. And just because it was political doesn’t mean it was bloodless. All of AElfric’s allies were dead. Only AElfric himself, who appears to have been too big to fail, remained as the sole surviving member of the faction. Support the Show
Ealdorman AElfirc of Hampshire was out… and Ealdorman AEthelweard the Chronicler was in. He would now be the King’s chief councillor… and he would be supported by his son, AEthelmaer… the King’s uncle, High Reeve Ordwulf of Devon, and the King’s mother, AEthelthryth. And as for the King’s old council. Well, with the exception of AElfric (who appears to have been too big to fail), they were all dead. It was the most hostile of hostile takeovers.
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.