04 January 2008

Aethelred and other Unreadies

Today the rain is back, and with a vengeance. Augmented by regional snowfalls (especially in the North) and gale-force winds in all coastal waters around the island, rain and sleet is gashing down as if someone above the clouds was dashing it out with large buckets. An extremely unpleasant day, and one of those when one will avoid leaving the house if it is at all possible.
The cat, wise creature that she is, had one brief look out the window in the morning, then turned around and went back before the fireplace, which has been blazing red-hot all day, in order to keep the little old house we inhabit warm and comfortable.
I had to go out eventually, to the bank and for some shopping, but I left it until after lunch. By that time conditions in our area had somewhat improved, the wind had calmed a bit and the rain actually stopped for about half an hour. I managed to get out and back before the rain started falling again, so on a personal note the day was not too bad after all for me.

Others were not so lucky. Over large areas of Ireland, especially in the West and North, the weather was so atrocious that the local authorities decided to close schools and a number of roads on grounds of safety.
Some roads, including a stretch of the main national road to Cork, were covered with ice and a number of accidents occurred before the Garda Siochana (Ireland's Police) issued closing orders in the West.
In the North, which is still occupied and ruled by the British, many schools were closed after a sudden and unexpected snowfall had made many roads impassable. Thousands of motorists got stranded, with large amounts of man-hours being lost to the economy, Belfast's airport closed as well and life in general was seriously disrupted.

This sort of thing happens almost every Winter here, and in some years more than once. And each time the authorities in charge of maintaining (and clearing) the roads are found wanting and unprepared! I wonder why it is that they are never able to cope with the relatively mild and uncomplicated winter conditions here, while at the same time the authorities in other European countries, where the Winters are much longer and harder than here, have no such problems. In Northern, Eastern and Central Europe, where snow and ice is present for months each Winter, all major (and even many minor) roads are cleared every day, and if necessary several times a day, railways function and school closures are unheard of.

As a historian this reminds me of a famous - or rather infamous - medieval King of England, who ruled our neighbour island from the late 10th to the early 11th century. His name was Aethelred and the ineptness of his government earned him the by-name "the Unready".
I know that some of those names attached to ancient rulers can be a bit crude, but in this case it is well deserved and speaks for itself. To be fair to Aethelred (whose portrait you see here), he had not an easy start, succeeding to the throne at the tender age of 10, at a time when England was regularly attacked by Danish Viking armies. So some of the unreadiness associated with him must have been a result of incompetent advisers and court officials. (Not much has changed in Britain since, and many dithering boards and committees there are still responsible for a whole range of mishaps, procrastination, failures and scandalous disasters...)
For all of his adult years Aethelred was faced with the ever more hostile Danes, who had since the 9th century ruled a significant part of North and North-East England (known as Danelaw or Danelagh), but lost control of it shortly before Aethelred became King. Understandably, the Danes wanted their lands back, and having a large supply of well-trained and heavily armed Viking warriors at their disposal, they kept trying to achieve their goal almost every year.
Having not enough soldiers and pretty poor commanders, Aethelred realised that he could not match the Danish armies in battle. So he decided to introduce the force of monetary power into English politics and paid the Danes large sums of money for not attacking and ravaging his frail kingdom. The clever Danes took the money and withdrew, but only to come back the next year, demanding more. This went on for almost a quarter of a century, and the amount of money paid to the Viking raiders grew larger each time.
Neither Aethelred nor his kinsmen, advisers and military commanders seem to have considered to prepare for another Danish attack, build defences and raise an army strong enough to meet and beat the Vikings next time they appeared on England's shores. So even the Danes came back as regular as the seasons, every time the English were unprepared for it, not ready to fight and could only hope another and even larger payment would save them again.
Eventually the Vikings grew tired of the game, and in 1013 (one year before Ireland's High King Brian Boru defeated the Vikings of Dublin in the Battle of Clontarf) King Sveyn I "Forkbeard" of Denmark chose blood over silver, invaded England in force and drove Aethelred and his court into exile. Sveyn had not much joy with his victory, because he died only five weeks later. His successor, King Canute the Great (best remembered for ordering the tide to turn back into the sea), was officially proclaimed King of England in 1014. A year later Canute moved South and broke the last English resistance Aethelred and his kinsmen could muster against him. Having lost his kingdom and everything, Aethelred died as a sick and broken man in London in 1016, aged 48, entering history books as the most inept Anglo-Saxon ruler of England, forever marked as "the Unready".

Even though he achieved little and eventually lost everything, he left some legacy that continues to have influence on England and Britain even today. He was the first English ruler to use large sums of money as means of major policy, he began the long-standing (and often tragic) English tradition of dithering and ignoring foreign threats, and - probably most significant - he was the indirect cause for the Norman invasion of 1066, as his second marriage to Emma of Normandy established a claim to the English throne, used 50 years after Aethelred's death by his wife's grand-nephew, Duke William of Normandy (later King William I "the Conqueror" of England), as the excuse to invade England.

Another century later the Normans moved on to invade and conquer Ireland, and their legacy is still present and has influence on both parts of Ireland today. And so has - sadly - Aethelred's practice of dithering, ignorance, incompetence and procrastination. On a day like today many of Ireland's people feel and encounter the results of that, even though most of them might never have heard of Aethelred the Unready. History has a long arm, and it strikes all of us, the ready and the unready, the educated as well as the ignorant.

From a safe chair in front of a nicely burning fire I wish you all a pleasant weekend, hoping you are ready and prepared for more bad weather, as it is fore-casted for tonight.

The Emerald Islander


Alexander "Sunny" Bergen said...

Very interesting, informative and erudite. One can see the historian writing, but in an accessible form. I remember the name of Aethelred the Unready from history lessons in school, but I never got the whole story and background. Thanks for this enlightening and very well written entry. It has been a joy to read it.


Many thanks for your kind words. Glad to hear that you like my entry. And I think there are not too many people around who remember the whole story of old Aethelred. I just happen to be one of the odd chaps who have an elephant-like memory and a penchant for strange characters in history.

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