The politics of remorse: penance and royal piety in the reign of Æthelred the Unready

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Abstract

In 993 King Æthelred the Unready made a public declaration of remorse for sins commited in his youth. This article examines the royal privilege to the abbey of Abingdon (S 876) which records this council, and the penitential style of kingship adopted by Æthelred from 993 evidenced in a remarkable series of restitutions of ecclesiastical property and grants to churches. It argues that his penitential policy should be viewed in a continental context of the political deployment of penance, and that it was initially adopted to enhance Æthelred's kingship. It demonstrates how reflexes of the king's repentance can be seen in the homilies of Ælfric and suggests that the great penitential decree of 1009, drafted by Archbishop Wulfstan of York, both continued this penitential policy and moved beyond it to extend royal remorse for wrongdoing to national penitence.

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