Régime failure and the mutation documentaire under Æthelred the Unready

To stay with charters for a moment, which I’m sure surprises you hardly at all, at Oxford the biggest survey courses are arranged so that British stuff is done in the winter term (‘Michaelmas’) and European in the spring (‘Hilary’). My post here is mainly concerned with the British, though I teach more widely, obviously, and this has meant a pleasant chance to reimmerse myself in the Anglo-Saxon scholarship that was, seriously, my first academic love.1 And last term this took the shape of me finally working all the way through Dorothy Whitelock’s incomparable source reader, English Historical Documents Vol. I.2 There is loads one could say about this volume, how careful its choices are, how everything chosen has something to tell you, how many things in it have been forgotten, and how little I could persuade the students to use it, but I wanted especially to focus on the charters of King Æthelred II, the Unready, who ruled England (and, if you believe some of his charters, the neighbouring kingdoms) from 978 till 1013, and then again 1014-1016. (I’m going to presume you know roughly how his reign went but if you don’t here’s a handy summary.)

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993; click through to Simon Keynes's site for more images and his notes about why this one is odd

It’s actually quite hard to find many charters in translation. This is a problem I’ve met when being asked questions at interview such as the common one, “How do you incorporate your research into your teaching?” or, worse, “How would you construct a course based on your research?” because the honest answer to the latter is, “unless your students can all be made to study medieval Latin intensively beforehand, I’m afraid I can’t”. I do have some other answers, of course, and they’re not even untrue, but the fact that my primary materials are off-limits to most students is a real problem.3 Now, thanks to Whitelock and also to one Agnes Jane Robertson, England is actually unusually well-served with translated charters, but the problem is that while I learn most from a charter sample that is dense and focussed on a single area, the English corpus is usually anything but. One of the few periods where that’s close to not being true is the reign of Æthelred, which has given rise to a lot of interesting work on his reign using the charters.4 There’s a fair few of them, 117 in fact, and of these Whitelock gave eight, as well as four more that feature the king. This is obviously extremely selective, and the question of this post is how much of a mess does that make of the way one sees the king and his times?

Thirteenth-century portrait of Æthelred the Unready from the Abingdon Chronicle

Abingdon remembered their patron kindly enough to paint this picture of him c. 1220 in the Abingdon Chronicle, here scrounged from Wikimedia Commons

Let me be clear: there is no denying that Æthelred’s times were pretty bad. A king who is thrown out of his kingdom and then returns, allegedly on a promise to ‘rule better than he had done before’,5 has not had a trouble-free time, but the question has ever been: was he to blame, or is being put on the throne as a teenager in questionable circumstances and then beset by vast Viking armies and irremovable but treacherous magnates something that no ruler could have triumphed through? Perhaps, as 1066 and All That had it of King John’s similar successes, “even his useless character cannot alone explain”. Well, reading the charters that Whitelock chose and her eruditely condemnatory commentary leaves one in little doubt of where she stood. We have, respectively:

  1. Sawyer 882, in which Æthelred allows land to be given to Bishop Æscwig of Dorchester in order to compensate him for having ransomed Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury from the Vikings; a sign of the times, or of a lack of royal response?
  2. Sawyer 883, in which Æthelred intervenes to confirm some property to a sheriff who had accepted it from the family of a convicted felon so that that felon could be buried in consecrated ground, the king allowing this property to go to the sheriff and not the victims “because of the great love he has for him”.
  3. Sawyer 886, in which Æthelred, basileus grants land that had been forfeited to him after the exile of its owner for theft.
  4. Sawyer 877, in which Æthelred, ‘King of the English and Governor of the Orbit of Britain’, grants land in Kent to his mother that had eventually been forfeited after having been wrongfully seized by a man who was persistently summoned to court and wouldn’t go; after he died, but not before, enforcers were sent, and his widow and son, who had managed to add to the estate, killed 16 of them, effective action presumably being taken only after that.
  5. Sawyer 939, in which Æthelred confirms that he will allow the will of one Æthelric Bocking to stand, on the plea of and payment by his widow, despite the fact that he was accused, if not convicted, of complicity in a plot to welcome the King of Denmark into England, for which his lands were declared forfeit at his death.
  6. Sawyer 937, in which Æthelred grants various lands, including some forfeited from one of his ealdormen who’d stolen it from a widow, to the monastery of Abingdon, to make up for lands that had been granted to them by King Edgar but which Æthelred and his brother, King Edward the Martyr, had taken back as their own portion of the royal lands.
  7. Sawyer 905, a grant of land in Canterbury by Æthelred to a follower of his of the same name which Whitelock included because of it mentioning things about the town street layout.
  8. Sawyer 1536, the will of Ealdorman Wulfric Spott.
  9. Sawyer 1488, the will of Archbishop Ælfric of Canterbury (not the guy who was ransomed).
  10. Sawyer 909, best of the lot, in which Æthelred grants a substantial whack of lands, some of which I regularly cycle through as is made clear from the bounds, to St Frideswide’s Oxford, which needed them because when Æthelred previously ordered all the Danes in England “killed by a most just examination” [sic in the Latin; Whitelock assumed error and translated 'execution'], those living in Oxford had taken refuge in the church, whereupon the loyal townsfolk had loyally burnt it with Danes inside (though it would seem from more recent archaeology that at least some of them got out, a little way).6

At the end of all this it’s very hard not to see Æthelred’s reign as corrupt, ineffective, favouritist and violent, and also weirdly ready to confess blame, on the last of which quite a lot has recently been done.7 But is this fair? It’s just 8 out of 117 charters, and is therefore obvious cherry-picking. One might say, well, all very well, but you can’t just explain away treasonous pacts with foreign kings and men condemned for them without a hearing, functionaries forgiven for taking bribes because of ‘great love’, villainous land-thieves who die with justice unexercised or expropriations of churches, even if all but the last of those should more properly be listed in the singular. If this were a working régime, which of course Whitelock was sure it was not, these things wouldn’t have happened, right?

Obverse of silver penny of Æthelred the Unready from the London mint, 997x1003, by the moneyer Eadpole

A slightly more contemporary, if perhaps somewhat idealised, portrait of Æthelred, struck in London between 997 and 1003 by the moneyer Eadpole

Well, the thing is it’s hard to tell because of a phenomenon that Dominique Barthélemy called the ‘mutation documentaire’.8 This is the idea that we see change when new things turn up in our documents, but what’s really happened is just that the documents are newly recording stuff their writers ignored before. This is a classic possible case, because if you look back at that, how much of our information by which we condemn Æthelred is coming from his scribes’ careful explanation of where the land came from? Really quite a lot, and the rest is coming from the explanations of why the grants were made. Now, if you look back in Whitelock at least, that kind of detail is extremely hard to find in charters from before Æthelred’s reign, there’s a new verbosity to these documents that means suddenly we have this information where we hardly ever do from before. (I will freely confess that I don’t know the early charter corpus at all well, but the new ‘verbose style’ is something one can easily find referenced.9) So, for example, in 804 when Kings Cœnwulf of Mercia and Cuthred of Kent together granted land to the Abbess of Lyminge ‘to serve as a refuge’, we would probably quite like to know what for as evidence for Viking attacks this early anywhere other than Northern coastal monasteries is a bit circumstantial, as of course we know.10 Were their enemies maybe more local? Is some less perilous sense of refuge meant, even? Æthelred’s scribes would probably have told us; Cœnwulf was less concerned about open government. And that’s a case where we even know what question we’d like to ask: motivations and histories of simple donations are just not available a lot of the time prior to the tenth century. You know? Maybe most Anglo-Saxon kings had favourites, couldn’t chase down violent local landowners, took bribes, dispossessed churches, slaughtered people to make a point and so on, and we just don’t see them doing it. Put in those terms, it seems less unlikely, doesn’t it?

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.22, a charter of Æthelred the Unready for one Clofig, 1001

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.22, a. k. a. Sawyer 898, a charter of Æthelred the Unready for one Clofig, 1001

Now, I can’t myself get over the feeling that Æthelred’s charters exhibit a weird kind of desperation and paranoia, maybe even in this very wish to make it all clear, that bespeak something very wrong with the court,11 not least because I’ve heard people such as our esteemed occasional commentator Levi Roach telling me they do.12 Also, I do notice something in this corpus that seems genuinely comparable with the earlier material, which is the peculiarly static nature of Æthelred’s court, almost the same guys almost every time with minimum variation over time except that presumably caused by death and succession. This is a time of crisis, and you’d expect the king’s most trusted men to be out all over the place doing his bidding, but as it only Ealdorman Byrhtnoth seems to be intermittent and we know what happens to him. The rest of the in-crowd stay right next to the king. That doesn’t seem too political healthy to me, and it’s not easy to see much like it in, for example, the charters of King Offa of Mercia included by Whitelock, where a steady group nonetheless comes and goes.13 Now again, that’s cherry-picking by using only the EHD texts, but this wasn’t what Whitelock picked them for. All the same: it may not be accurate. Can we ever be? Who knows, but cases like this make it worth considering.


1. The first thing I studied as an undergraduate was Anglo-Saxon England, and the last piece of undergraduate work I did was a dissertation entitled, “Whose Was Authority in Anglo-Saxon London?” And now I teach it. Funny old world really!

2. D. Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents Vol. I: c. 500-1042 (London 1955; 2nd edn. 1979, repr. 1996). All my references here are to the second edition.

3. There are two groups of translated charter material actually published that I know of, apart from the English ones in Whitelock and in A. J. Robertson (transl.), Anglo-Saxon Charters (Cambridge 1939, 2nd edn. 1956): I have been told but have not checked that there are a good number of papyri translated in Allan Chester Johnson & Louis C. West, Byzantine Egypt: economic studies (Princeton 1949), though this handy list doesn’t give that but does give A. C. Johnson, Roman Egypt, An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome 2 (Baltimore 1936), which may be correct. In the West, as far as I know, there is only Theodore Evergates (transl.), Feudal Society in Medieval France: documents from the county of Champagne, Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia 1993); please tell me I’m wrong about that…

4. Almost all of this starts from Simon Keynes, The diplomas of King Æthelred “The Unready” (978-1016): a study in their use as historical evidence (Cambridge 1980), which is still the lodestone.

5. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle put it in the annal for 1014 in the ‘A’ manuscript, but it’s important to be aware that the section of the ‘A’ manuscript covering Æthelred’s reign was apparently only written up at the end, so that the author was already clear that it had gone wrong as he wrote the early portions; see Cecily Clark, “The narrative mode of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle before the Conquest” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England Before the Conquest: studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1970), pp. 215-235.

6. The mysterious ‘Sawyer’ here, by the way, for those not used to this bit of the field, is a memorable list generated in the 1960s and now kept updated online, Peter Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters: an annotated list and bibliography (London 1968), 2nd edn. by Susan Kelly and Rebecca Rushforth and digitised by Sean Miller, all among others, online as The Electronic Sawyer here. The convention with Anglo-Saxon charters is thus to refer to them by Sawyer number even once edited elsewhere, or just as S887, etc.

7. Levi Roach, “Public Rites and Public Wrongs: Ritual Aspects of Diplomas in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England” in Early Medieval Europe 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 182–203; Charles Insley, “Rhetoric and Ritual in Late Anglo-Saxon Charters” in Paul Barnwell and Marco Mostert (edd.), Medieval Legal Process: Physical, Spoken and Written Performance in the Middle Ages, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 22 (Brepols 2011), pages not available at time of writing (is it actually out at last?); Catherine Cubitt, “The politics of remorse: penance and royal piety in the reign of Æthelred the Unready” in Historical Research Vol. 61 (London forthcoming), 14 pp., DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2281.2011.00571.x; Levi Roach, “Penitential Discourse in the Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History (Cambridge forthcoming). I saw versions of all these papers at conferences some years ago which is how I know to mention them; I’m trusting that the contents of the ones I can’t check haven’t changed too much.

8. Originally in his La société dans le comté de Vendôme de l’an mil au XVIe siècle (Paris 1993), I believe, but the argument is now more accessible for the Anglolexic via his The Serf, the Knight and the Historian, transl. Graham Robert Edwards (Cornell 2009).

9. Keynes, Diplomas, pp. 115-120; Insley, “Rhetoric”.

10. Sawyer 160.

11. What was wrong with the tenor and discourse of Æthelred’s court of course might be answered by the cynics with one word: “Wulfstan”, the Bishop of Worcester and then Archbishop of York in Æthelred’s later years. The fact that one man, with a very rhetorical fire-and-brimstone view of English society, wrote or controlled the writing of a huge swathe of the material we have from the court is obviously a problem: see, not least, Dorothy Whitelock, “Wulfstan’s authorship of Cnut’s laws” in English Historical Review Vol. 70 (London 1955), pp. 72–78, but also Patrick Wormald, “Archbishop Wulfstan: eleventh-century state-builder” in Matthew Townend (ed.), Wulfstan, Archbishop of York: the Proceedings of the Second Alcuin Conference (Turnhout 2004), pp. 9-27.

12. Roach, “Public Rites” and “Penitential Discourse”.

16 responses to “Régime failure and the mutation documentaire under Æthelred the Unready

  1. Nice chewy post to which I will return for tidbits in a few weeks when term begins! Cheers.

    In the mean while, Medieval Legal Process: Physical, Spoken and Written Performance in the Middle Ages has indeed appeared (2011), and the relevant pp. are 109-122. You can even get it in ebook if you so desire!

  2. Translated charters in the West are indeed very hard to come by. I always thought the Visigothic Pizarras, the Albertini tablets and the Ravenna Papyri would make three fantastic (and best-selling) Liverpool TTH volumes.

    Translated documentary papyri from the East are much easier to come by – for instance the three volumes of Non-literary papyri published by LOEB, or the editions and translations in the Oxyrynchus Papyri series.

    Mark H.

    • The slates, at least, have been translated, although not yet published, in Graham Barrett’s M. Phil. thesis, which I understand he will try and publish just as soon as he’s finished his doctorate… The Ravenna stuff, though, is another obvious candidate and one I’d never thought of!

  3. This seems as good a place as any to ask you to point me to somewhere that I could find reliable information about the moneyers active in the reign of Henry III (of England) and what their coins looked like… I’m trying to track down the mint that produced a nice ha’penny I managed to pick up at a local coin shop so I can dazzle my undergrads with my amazing material culture show and tell. [The webosphere seems to be failing for once, so I feel I am not using well-informed-enough search terms.]

    • Henry III is tricky; the electronic resources I know of stop in 1180 (as no doubt you’ve discovered). The book to look for, though, other than my erstwhile colleague Martin Allen’s brand spanking new Mints and Money in Medieval England, is Jeffrey North’s English Hammered Coinage Vol. I, which has sketch illustrations of almost all the usual types and should be fairly easy to place a decent specimen against. Otherwise you’re really looking at doing comparisons against auction sites etc. and that won’t really tell you what you’re looking for. If that’s not available, I can try and come up with other suggestions. (One would be C. R. Wren, The Short-Cross Coinage, 1180-1247, but whatever you check Martin may well have revised the chronology. The mint attributions are probably close enough though.)

      • As ever you are a font of knowledge. I will follow it up and let you know of my success. Cheers!

        • OK, so many thanks once again. What I have is a short cross penny of King John, class 5, (c. 1204-9) from the moneyer Abel (or Abraham) of London. I’m excited, so hopefully the students will be too! :-)

          • Coool. Not a ha’penny after all then? Does this mean there’s a copy of North somewhere near you?

            • Oh yeah – forgot to mention it had been halved. This was part of the problem: I only had half of the inscription to work with! Obverse reads “hEN[RICUS R]EX”; reverse: “+AB[EL ON LUN]DE”.

              North was an interlibrary loan, but happily it arrived quickly!

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