Æthelred The Unready - Legacy

Legacy

Later perspectives of Æthelred have been less than flattering. Numerous legends and anecdotes have sprung up to explain his shortcomings, often elaborating abusively on his character and failures. One such anecdote is given by William of Malmesbury (lived c. 1080–c. 1143), who reports that Æthelred had defecated in the baptismal font as a child, which led St. Dunstan to prophesy that the English monarchy would be overthrown during his reign. This story is, however, a fabrication, and a similar story is told of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Copronymus, another mediaeval monarch who was unpopular among certain of his subjects.

Efforts to rehabilitate Æthelred's reputation have gained momentum since about 1980. Chief among the rehabilitators has been Simon Keynes, who has often argued that our poor impression of Æthelred is almost entirely based upon after-the-fact accounts of, and later accretions to, the narrative of events during Æthelred's long and complex reign. Chief among the culprits is in fact one of the most important sources for the history of the period, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which, as it reports events with a retrospect of 15 years, cannot help but interpret events with the eventual English defeat a foregone conclusion. Yet, as virtually no strictly contemporary narrative account of the events of Æthelred's reign exists, historians are forced to rely on what evidence there is. Keynes and others thus draw attention to some of the inevitable snares of investigating the history of a man whom later popular opinion has utterly damned. Recent cautious assessments of Æthelred's reign have more often uncovered reasons to doubt, rather than uphold, Æthelred's later infamy. Though the failures of his government will always put Æthelred's reign in the shadow of the reigns of kings Edgar, Aethelstan, and Alfred, historians' current impression of Æthelred's personal character is certainly not as unflattering as it once was: "Æthelred's misfortune as a ruler was owed not so much to any supposed defects of his imagined character, as to a combination of circumstances which anyone would have found difficult to control."

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