Tales from an author

Archive for the month “April, 2016”

Ethelred the Unready: A Thousand Years

Amidst much national reflection today of the four hundredth anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, and celebration of Saint George’s Day, some people are also recalling Ethelred the Unready, a much-maligned monarch of England, who died a thousand years ago today.

Here is a piece I wrote about Ethelred, included in the book Legends of British History.

A thousand years ago England was ruled by King Ethelred II, a man widely recalled due to his nickname, Ethelred “the Unready”. This suggests that Ethelred was simply not prepared for the responsibilities required of a king, but the meaning is more subtle. The familiarity of the name Ethelred “the Unready” contrasts with the confusion into which the fascinating events of his life have fallen.

Ethelred was probably born in 968, being the son of King Edgar, who had ruled England since 959. Edgar died in 975, and was succeeded by his elder son, Edward, who was still a child. The government of England effectively fell into the hands of the nobility, who were divided into factions. One group, refusing to accept the rule of Edward and his supporters, advanced the cause of Ethelred. In 978 Edward was murdered by members of Ethelred’s household as he arrived at Corfe, in Dorset, to visit his brother. Ethelred, aged about 9, was proclaimed king by his supporters who, along with his mother, Elfrida of Devon, governed the country in his name for several years. Ethelred was innocent of involvement in the murder, but the manner in which he became king was to undermine the new monarch’s rule. Within a few years of his death Edward gained a reputation as the performer of miracles. Ethelred was to recognise his brother as a saint in 1001, in an attempt at posthumous reconciliation, but treacherous nobles used the mythology surrounding the murdered king as partial justification for disloyalty to his successor.

During the middle of the 980s Ethelred assumed responsibility for the governance of England, and married Elgiva, the daughter of an English nobleman. Ethelred and Elgiva were destined to become the parents of six sons and five daughters. The sons were named Athelstan, Edmund, Edgar, Edred, Edwy, and Egbert. Three of the daughters were Edith, Elgiva, and Wulfhilda, but the names of the other daughters are no longer known. Ethelred and his family lived for most of the time in Hampshire, the traditional heartland of Wessex, with residences at both Winchester and Andover.

Ethelred understandably distrusted the nobility, and was unwilling to take advice from them. This was the source of the name Ethelred “the Unready”, which is a later mistranslation of “Ethelred Unraed”, the phrase coined during his reign. The name Ethelred meant “noble counsel”, while Unraed meant “no counsel”. The nickname referred to the way in which Ethelred frequently took important decisions without consulting the Witan, the body of nobles which acted as a council for the Anglo-Saxon kings, while also reflecting the fact that these nobles often failed to provide him with either advice or support. Ethelred’s rule was also undermined by indecision, as policy swung between appeasement of enemies and savage repression, without apparent consistency.

Amidst an atmosphere of mistrust and uncertainty, Ethelred battled to defend England from Danish invasions, which followed on from Viking raids referred to in the chapters on Egbert and Swithin. Large parts of the midlands and east were already under the control of noblemen from Denmark, who had established autonomy in an area known as the Danelaw over several generations. The weakness of England in the early years of Ethelred’s reign prompted forces from Denmark to launch new attacks. The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” provides a thorough account of the Danish raids. The entry for 980 records “Southampton was sacked by a naval force, and most of the citizens killed or taken captive”. Sporadic Danish attacks during the 980s were followed by regular invasions in the next decade. Ethelred stopped attacks in both 991 and 994 by paying the Danish army a large amount of money, known as Danegeld, to leave England. In 1000, during a respite from the Danish invasions, Ethelred led English attacks on Strathclyde and the Isle of Man. The Danes returned in 1001, and left again in the early part of the following year, as Ethelred made a third payment of Danegeld.

Elgiva, Ethelred’s wife, died at Winchester in February 1002. Ethelred immediately arranged to marry Emma, the sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy. The marriage sealed an alliance with Normandy, by which Ethelred sought to bolster his position in the struggle against the Danes. It also marked the beginning of Norman influence in England, which was to pave the way for the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066. Ethelred and Emma married at Winchester Cathedral on April 5 1002, and subsequently had two sons, Edward – who became King Edward “the Confessor” – and Alfred, as well as a daughter, named Goda. In the course of his two marriages, Ethelred fathered fourteen children, with all eight of his sons being named after men among his predecessors as kings of Wessex and England.

In November 1002 Ethelred organised the massacre of many of the Danes living in England, in a failed attempt to end the influence of their fellow settlers. Gunhilda, a sister of Swein, King of Denmark, was among those murdered, and the event provoked a further Danish invasion, which took place the following year. The next Danish incursion was launched in 1006, and halted in 1007 by a payment of Danegeld. Each time they received payment the Danes promised a lasting peace, only to carry out another attack within at most a few years, as they sought further plunder.

Ethelred achieved occasional success, despite the troubles that dominated his reign. He oversaw a strengthening of government administration, which enabled the Danegeld to be repeatedly raised, and paid over to the Danish invaders. These payments appeared to represent weakness on Ethelred’s part, but offered hope of preventing the complete conquest of England by the Danes. During the majority of Ethelred’s reign, England was a prosperous country compared to its neighbours in northern Europe, a point made by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger in “The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium – An Englishman’s World” (published in 1999). This book, with an impressive multi-layered title, provides an excellent survey of life in Engla-lond, the name by which the country was known in the latter part of the Anglo-Saxon period. Ethelred took a notable interest in law-making, and produced enlightened legislation, although his actions did not always match the theory. In 997 Ethelred issued the Wantage code, which consolidated the legal practices of the Danelaw, and accorded full recognition to local customs.

Another of Ethelred’s projects was a major expansion of the English navy, which took place during 1008 and 1009. Unfortunately most of the new ships were destroyed by the Danes when they launched an invasion during the latter year. The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” entry for 1009 writes that the Danes “ravaged and burnt, as is their custom, everywhere in Sussex and Hampshire, and also in Berkshire”. This was the start of a sustained onslaught, with the Danish army remaining in England until 1012, showing a military superiority that undermined English morale, before leaving in return for a huge payment of Danegeld. In 1013 Swein carried out a new invasion, by which he aimed to conquer England. An efficient campaign by the Danes secured control of the Danelaw, followed by the surrender of Winchester and London. At the end of the year the nobility accepted Swein as king of England, while Ethelred fled from London to the Isle of Wight, where he spent Christmas, before taking refuge in Normandy. The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” lamented “At this time nothing went right for this nation, neither in the south nor in the north”. Ethelred had become the first king of England to lose his throne to a foreign invader, having ultimately failed to emulate earlier monarchs, most notably Alfred – his great great grandfather – in thwarting the Danes.

Swein only ruled England for a few weeks, as he died in February 1014. Ethelred soon returned to England and regained his crown, having promised the nobility that his rule would be more just, but continued to be surrounded by problems. In 1015 Canute, a son of Swein, conquered Wessex, while Ethelred’s son Edmund established himself as ruler of part of the Danelaw, following a rift with the king. At the start of 1016 Canute invaded the Danelaw, and Ethelred was reconciled with Edmund, as the father and son planned to defend London together. The strain of events, combined with an illness, overwhelmed Ethelred, and he died in London on April 23, aged approximately 47. The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” reflected that “He ended his days on St George’s Day, and he had held the kingdom with great toil and difficulties as long as his life lasted”.

Ethelred was buried at the Church of St Paul the Apostle (the original of St Paul’s Cathedral), but his tomb was to be destroyed in 1666 by the Great Fire of London. The surviving site most closely linked with Ethelred is Corfe Castle. This ruined castle, which was virtually destroyed in 1646, following its capture by Parliamentary forces in the Civil War, dates from the Norman period. Remains of an earlier Anglo-Saxon building have been found within the grounds of the castle, and it is believed this was the home of Elfrida and Ethelred during the latter’s childhood. In August 2000 I visited Corfe Castle, which is managed by the National Trust, and was struck by the atmospheric setting of the ruins, set at the top of a hill, towering above the adjoining village. A few months earlier, the start of a new millennium had prompted me to look back to the England of a thousand years earlier, and write the original version of this biographical sketch of Ethelred. My essay on Ethelred was featured in “History For All” magazine a few weeks after I visited the castle. Part of my material on Ethelred was to be re-published in 2002 in an educational text book, being bracketed with a poem by Rudyard Kipling entitled “Dane-Geld”. The piece was also used in the advance publicity for the text book on the publishers’ website during 2001, thereby becoming my first piece of writing to appear on the Internet.

The remarkable story of Ethelred’s life provides a tantalising glimpse of English history before the Norman Conquest. Much of the history of that period is beyond our grasp, but we can treasure the knowledge we possess, and reflect upon the continuity of the national heritage. The names of many residential areas, including Ethelred Gardens at Totton, in Hampshire, are derived from the Anglo-Saxon kings. Ethelred was king of England for thirty eight years, apart from an interval of a few weeks, making his reign the longest of any Anglo-Saxon monarch, and he remains one of the few English sovereigns to have both lost and regained the throne. Nevertheless Ethelred “the Unready” is mostly recalled because of a nickname for which the real meaning has been lost in translation. I wonder how King Ethelred II will be viewed a thousand years from now.


Asperger’s Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

I have Asperger’s Syndrome combined with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. These conditions have been formally diagnosed by mental health professionals in the last few years, but I had known for many years that I probably have Asperger’s and OCD. I have long intended to write a piece about my condition, but have found the prospect daunting. I find it difficult to talk, and write, about these things.

A lot of people who know me well do not seem to realise that I have Asperger’s and OCD. I do not know to what extent this is due to a lack of common knowledge about the conditions, and the clues as to who has them. It may be a result of my having the conditions at a relatively low level. Alternatively it could be due to my not openly speaking about them. Actually I am able to write about the conditions in the sense that they are central to my book Fifteen Minutes of Fame, the satirical autobiography of an obscure writer. I have had several books published, with limited success. Perhaps the obsessions that spur me to write also undermine my ability to actually promote books when they are published.

My Twitter profile announces that I have Asperger’s and OCD, and I have about 900 followers, some of whom share my interest in mental health issues. On the other hand, how many people regularly check the profile detail of people they follow and re-tweet? Actually I do such a thing – it is part of the obsession. Also I will often become obsessed about a particular news story, read and post loads of tweets about it for a day or two, before moving on to the next obsession.

As I write this, various ideas are popping into my head. I am sometimes asked what my conditions feel like. The OCD involves a lot of regular routines, which leave me feeling uneasy if they are not followed. There is also a lot of worrying, intrusive thoughts, and a strange belief in doing deals with fate to make things better. The main point about Asperger’s is a difficulty with social interaction. I often avoid doing things so as to reduce worry about being in a difficult social situation, and then regret that I missed out on something enjoyable. I have spells of depression, which can last for days or weeks, which reinforce the avoidance. Apparently worry about Asperger’s and OCD leads to depression.

There are lots of overlaps between Asperger’s and OCD. I had a quick look around the Internet recently to see if there is a term for people having both conditions, but I did not find anything that straightforward. Perhaps I should just call it “my condition” in so far as it relates to me. Everybody experiences things differently.

There are some positives in having Asperger’s. Such people usually have the ability to master a particular subject that interests them. The woman who assessed me for Asperger’s said that the most interesting part of the process is when people tell her about their “special interests”. I outlined some of my special interests, including football statistics. I also said “I like to write lists about things that interest me. One day I plan to write a list of my favourite lists”. The assessor lady burst into (supportive) laughter, saying this was the funniest response she had heard yet.

I often deal with a worry or obsession by finding another obsession to replace it. Having planned in the last few days to focus on this piece, I have found myself spending too much time on Twitter. There has been lots to debate, and share, on Twitter, including the calls for David Cameron to resign as Prime Minister, but the mental energy I devote to this is excessive. My tweeting about the links between the Panama Papers and tax avoidance by Tories, among other things, has led to a rapid growth in the number of followers I have on Twitter. I have reached a (relatively modest) personal record with one message, asking David Cameron if he is guilty of tax avoidance, getting 11 retweets, and 26 likes. I feel positive when people interact with me on Twitter. The responses are often fast, and give a short feeling of positivity. They are certainly faster than writing a book, and the process of publishing it, only for a small sprinkling of people (more like hundreds than thousands) to read it.

It was not until a few years ago that I realised that people with Asperger’s Syndrome have difficulty reading people, and body language. This has long been a problem for me. Until recently, unless somebody verbally told me there were not interested in what I was saying to them, I would assume what I had to say was of interest. I have got better at reading body language, but it is still an issue. When I am feeling confident, I have a lot to say for myself. When I am feeling stressed, I often try to counter this, using humour, and end up having too much to say for myself. This can cause confusion, and misunderstanding in the workplace – I have worked in offices for a series of private and public sector organisations. At work I am good at the technical elements of a job, but struggle in my interaction with colleagues.

Ever since I was a teenager, many years ago, I have been fascinated by politics. I have been a member of the Labour Party for 32 years. Sometimes I have been very active, other times I have withdrawn. I have stood for local council elections several times, but not been elected. Once I thought I had a decent chance of victory, but things ended badly, with political passions, clashes of ego, and party managers who did not seem to know how to manage me. The outcome was demoralisation and withdrawal. Going out door-knocking, and talking to the general public, used to feel very daunting, but I managed a few years ago to start doing this regularly – even frequently. I generally got a good response from the public.

I am a bit of a perfectionist. If I get something 95 per cent right, the wrong 5 per cent often feels more important. Sending the simplest of emails can be a struggle, as I search for exactly the right wording. I like to think I am good at grammar, spelling, and punctuation. I can also be a bit pedantic about such things as the incorrect use of apostrophes.

I take comfort, and even find inspiration, from the achievements of people with similar conditions to my own. Bruce Springsteen and David Beckham have both spoken about their having OCD. Back in the past, Samuel Pepys and Jean-Jacques Rousseau displayed symptoms of what we now know to be OCD. People believed to have Asperger’s Syndrome include George Orwell, in the past, and Bob Dylan in the never ending present. In the course of writing this piece, Internet research has informed me that Lionel Messi was diagnosed with Asperger’s as a child – a piece of knowledge that somehow eluded me when I wrote a profile of Messi four years ago.

I wish I could speak confidently to more people about my condition. I often find the condition tough, but there are advantages. I like to be different, although I generally tell people this is due to my being eccentric. In a way we are all different, and all struggle with some things, but some people are more different than others. There is also the theory that people who are not on the Autistic / Asperger’s spectrum suffer from something called Neurotypical Syndrome. People from the Autistic spectrum have displayed brilliant humour in their satirical definitions of Neurotypical Syndrome – including a suggestion that it features “preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity” while “there is no known cure”. Think I will leave this Blog post now, before it becomes something I work upon for far too long. Also I wonder how many people will read this. I may return to the subject.


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