History of Athelward the Historian

(AKA Fabius Aethelweard, Ethelward)

Athelward became ealdorman of Wessex, or the “western provinces,” sometime between 973 and 975 A.D. He came from a strong royal lineage, as his great-great grandfather was the brother of Alfred the Great, Ethelred of Wessex. Considering the fact that Athelward focused a great deal of his written chronicle to tracing his own family tree, his ancestry was no doubt of great personal importance to him. He also devoted his chronicle to his cousin Matilda, abbess of the Essen monastery, and wanted her to send him information on her local relatives in return. But most importantly, Athelward’s efforts made him the first layman since King Alfred himself to write a book in England.

Most people of Anglo-Saxon England still could not read Old English, much less Latin—not even all the monks. So it is even more remarkable that Athelward presumed to write a Latin chronicle. A strong influence on Aethelward was his friend Abbot Aelfric of Eynsham (not to be confused with Ealdorman Alfric of Mercia). Abbot Aelfric came from the Benedictine school of thought, and his own abbeys reflected this. He is said to have taken part in the teachings at his abbey, and to have done a few tasks at Lord Athelward’s request, such as translating parts of the Old Testament and giving him a manuscript of the Catholic Homilies.

Despite Athelward’s unusual wealth of knowledge and ambition, many historians look back at his chronicle with obvious disdain.

There, are, indeed, some notices of antiquity, written in the vernacular tongue after the manner of a chronicle, and arranged according to the years of our Lord. By means of these alone, the times succeeding [Bede] have been rescued from oblivion: for of [Athelward], a noble and illustrious man, who attempted to arrange these chronicles in Latin, and whose intention I could applaud if his language did not disgust me, it is better to be silent.

–William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the Kings of England, Preface

One reason for this attitude probably sprouts from the fact that Latin was seen as unnecessarily bombastic and complex. King Alfred the Great had caused a movement of writing and reading in English so that it could would be more accessible and practical, a principle Aethelward seems to have abandoned. But if simply being in Latin was not bad enough, James Campbell describes a style of Latin writing that seems to have been in “vogue” at the time, and made it even more difficult to understand.

It is the Latin of men with little grasp of, and no feeling for, the Latin language. Its style was achieved by never using one word where two could be made to do, preferably of obscure origin and infrequent usage. But Aethelweard can make himself understood. The influence on him of Aelfric, and behind him Abbo, is quite clear.

–Campbell, James, The Anglo-Saxons, pg. 207

Along with being an eccentric writer of his time, Athelward was also one of the avid supporters of the Danegald. Together with Alfric (of Mercia, this time) and Archbishop Siric, Athelward shows up in most instances of late tenth-century Danegald payments (991 and 994) as a negotiator for peace.

A combination of all these facts, and my own creative interpretation of them, led me to the unconventional choice of making Athelward young Eadric’s tutor. As I’ve mentioned before, history sources provide three possibilities for Eadric’s father: Wulfric Spot, Alfric of Mercia/Hampshire, and Athelward of Wessex. To me, Athelward made the least sense, considering the established fact that Eadric was of “low birth.” In Eadric the Grasper, I make King Ethelred proclaim Athelward as Eadric’s father so that he does not appear to be so low-born as he truly was, for it was scandalous for a man without birthright to rise to the position of Ealdorman.

But I also wanted to give Eadric a strong influence and mentor as a child, and Athelward was the perfect candidate. Because Athelward and Alfric negotiated Danegald payments together, they were at least strong acquaintances if not friends, and Athelward might have known Eadric’s mother. But more importantly, Athelward was a man who thought outside the box and appreciated unconventional ambitions of the mind. Who better to have tutored Eadric Streona, a man whose “tongue procured him both riches and high station,” who was “of a ready wit” and “persuasive eloquence” (The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, Entry for Year 1007 A.D)?

WORKS CITED/CONSULTED

Campbell, James et al. The Anglo-Saxons. Phaidon Press Limited, 1982.

Florence of Worcester, The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester

Gransden, Antonia. Historical Writing in England c. 550 to c. 1307, Volume 1. London: Routledge. 1974.

William of Malmesbury, Chronicles of the Kings of England

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Published in: on July 6, 2010 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks, I feel like I’m going to be a scholar when I finish reading your stuff.

    • Many thanks in return! I’m glad I’m sparking some interest into this dark time period.


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