Athelstan: The Making of England by Tom Holland; Æthelred the Unready by Levi Roach - review by Philip Parker

Philip Parker

Uneasy Lies the Head…

Athelstan: The Making of England


Allen Lane 116pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Æthelred the Unready


Yale University Press 369pp £30 order from our bookshop

Anglo-Saxon kings suffer from an image problem, or to be more precise they suffer from the problem that the information relating to their lives is so tenuous, the sources so intractable, that for many of them all that is left in the popular historical imagination is a single image: Alfred burned the cakes; Harold died from an arrow shot to his eye; Athelstan was the first to be ‘king of all Britain’; and Æthelred was ‘Unready’, a pitiable failure of a king (never mind that his posthumously acquired nickname means ‘ill-counselled’ rather than unprepared). It is heartening, therefore, that two Anglo-Saxon royal biographies have come along at the same time, each trying, in rather different ways, to shed light on two men behind the bare-bones accounts of chronicles and charters.

Both Tom Holland’s Athelstan and Levi Roach’s Æthelred the Unready are dominated by their respective subject’s struggles with the Vikings, the Scandinavian warriors who subjected England’s coastline to over two centuries of raids. They are framed by two defining battles: the first at Brunanburh in 937, when Athelstan smashed a

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