It happened today - April 18, 2016

On April 18 of 796 King Aethelred I of Northumbria was murdered. What did he expect?

I’ve mentioned before the curious way in which ambitious people will persistently seek high offices even when they reliably prove fatal to their occupants. And certainly the throne of Northumbria in the 8th century might as well have been an electric chair. Indeed, Aethelred’s father Aethelwald had taken the throne thanks to the murder of his predecessor King Oswulf which he almost certainly arranged.

Aethelwald was himself deposed just three years later and forcibly tonsured which under the circumstances you’d be well advised to take. His successor, Oswulf’s brother-in-law, was chased away after a decade and Aethelred became king in 774, but after ordering a series of assassinations he was deposed five years later.

He lurked about for the next 11 years before King Osred II was deposed, “forcibly tonsured” and exiled according to Wikipedia. (Yes, amazingly, even someone as obscure as Osred II of Northumbria has a Wikipedia entry. I don’t, though.) Aethelred then got back in, got married, suffered the first major Viking attack on his kingdom in 793, and was murdered. So you wonder why he wanted the throne.

The thing is, I’ve realized in researching these often grim vignettes, that the throne wasn’t the only dangerous seat in the place. Indeed, Aethelred was responsible for the murder of all kinds of people who weren’t king, and some of whom weren’t even trying to become king, to say nothing of the people killed by the Vikings, sword in hand or just minding their own business, including monks. According to Symeon of Durham’s account of the infamous sack of Lindisfarne and related events, in 793: “the pagans from the Northern region came with a naval armament to Britain, like stinging hornets, and overran the country in all directions, like fierce wolves…” and at “the church of Lindisfarne… laid all waste with dreadful havoc… and carried off all the treasures of the holy church. Some of the brethren they killed; some they carried off in chains; many they cast out, naked and loaded with insults; some they drowned in the sea.”

Also, though the Monty Python caricature of life in the Dark and Middle Ages should be taken with a heaping helping of salt, it’s true that famine and disease also stalked the land. People were conking out from plagues we still can’t identify, and mundane diseases, and kicks from a horse, and lack of food. In those days, as indeed in our own, nobody got out of life alive. And to some extent we know the almost comically bloody history of the kings not because it was bloodier but because they were sufficiently big shots to have the Dark Ages equivalent of a Wikipedia entry when those were harder to come by.

So when you’re calculating the odds if you make the big play for, say, Roman Emperor, king of Northumbria, or whatever post you figure you can hack and slay your way into and probably depart in similar fashion, you have to take into account that you’re not a lot safer, possibly not at all safer, if you’re just hanging around the court, ploughing your fields, or hiding under your bed.

Still, I have to say that if you’re going to perish dismally you might at least make some effort not to deserve it. Aethelred did no such thing and died as he had lived by sordidly ambitious assassination. Not what you want on your tombstone even if it ensures that you actually get one.