Aethelred the UnReading – It Happened Today, January 4, 2017

Yes, it’s Aethelred time again. But I’m not going to heap scorn on him this time, just anxiety. Because I have a different Aethelred in mind than my usual target, the weakly villainous Aethelred II "the Unready" who ruled England unsteadily and even intermittently for the disastrously long period from 978-1013 and again from 1014-16.

Today it’s Aethelred I "of Wessex" who ruled frantically from 865 to 871 and is chiefly remembered today for… nothing, because he isn’t remembered at all. But if he were, it would be for being the brother of Alfred the Great. This Aethelred was the fourth son of king Aethelwulf of Wessex and the third son of Aethelwulf to rule Wessex (following Aethelbald and Aethelbert and yes, these are pretty cool names once you get past the strangeness and the opening diphthong) in this desperate period during which the Danes seemed to be overwhelming English civilization.

Indeed, a great Viking army had hit England the same year Aethelred took the throne and it had destroyed the major kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia before turning their sights and swords on Mercia and then in 870 Wessex. And Aethelred himself was badly beaten by the Danes in the Battle of Reading on January 4, 871, regrouped to win at Ashdown but got walloped again at Basing and Meretun in the spring before dying shortly after Easter.

The logical sequel would be Alfred’s own defeat and the perishing of the Anglo-Saxon-Jute order in England, barbaric in its origins but thoroughly Christian and surprisingly civilized by the 9th century. It would be like the gradual disintegration of Arnor and the crumbling of the successor fragments of Rhudaur, Cardolan and Arthedain in the backstory to The Lord of the Rings (and for better or worse, I didn’t have to Google them before writing that sentence; I even spelled them correctly from memory) as the virtue and power of the Numenorians waned in Middle Earth. And not surprisingly, given Tolkien’s scholarly background in Anglo-Saxon history.

Instead a miracle happened hardly less improbable than the victory of the good guys in Tolkien’s epic. Which again is not surprising given Tolkien’s metaphysics. But as we celebrate the great heroes like Alfred and the great villains like the other Aethelred boo hiss, we should also remember those valiant figures like the first Aethelred or, fictionally, Theodred, who fight a valiant losing battle that helps, in however small a way, to buy time and space for the unlikely great victories to follow.

They are no less noble for having been less fortunate, and nobody can know when they dare draw sword against a mighty foe whether they will be Alfred the Great or Aethelred the Forgotten. Nor should they weigh the matter long when duty calls.