Ethelred the Unready

Figure 1By See description – Scanned from the book The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson, ISBN 1855142287., Public Domain,




‘…devastation and famine, burning and bloodshed in every district again and again…’



By the tenth century, it had been several hundred years since the warrior-king Alfred had united most of southern England under his rule, and earned the name “Alfred the Great”.1 (14) In 954, the Anglo-Saxons drove out Eric Bloodaxe, the last Viking king of Jorvik. (3) Eric Bloodaxe was Jorvik’s last king. (3) He ruled the Viking Kingdom of Northumbria. (3) When Eric was killed in battle, the Vikings agreed to be ruled by England’s king. (3) In Viking times, a king had to be strong to fight and keep his land. (3) The most powerful Anglo-Saxon king was Edgar. (3) Welsh and Scottish rulers obeyed him as well as the English, and his court at Winchester was one of the most splendid in Europe. (3) Anglo-Saxon England reached its peak during Edgar’s reign, (3) but by the fourth quarter of the 10th Century, Alfred’s kingdom was unravelling. (14)


In the early 11th (3) [OR] late 10th century, (1,2) (c. 968) (1) [OR] 968 (4) England had a weak king. (3) His name was Ethelred (1,2) (or Æthelred) (2,4) II (1,4) was also known as Ethelred the Unready (1,2) [OR] Old English ‘unreed’ (8) un-raed, (2,7) or ‘redeless’. (2) Born into the royal house of Wessex, which was at that time the effective ruler of all the Anglo-Saxons, Ethelred was a direct descendant of Alfred the Great. (10) He was the younger (2) son of Edgar (1,2) the Peaceable (12) [OR] the Peacemaker (15) who had ruled a united and peaceful England for 16 years (7,10) 959–975 (7) and his wife (1,6) by his second marriage (12,15) Aelfthryth (1,6) [OR] Aelfthrith. (15) [OR] Elfrida. (12) whom Edgar had married in 964. (17) Edgar made extensive grants of land to monasteries which pursued the new monastic ideals of ecclesiastical reform, but these disrupted aristocratic families’ traditional patronage. (17) According to William of Malmesbury, he defecated in the baptismal font as a child, which led St. Dunstan to prophesy2 that the English monarchy would be overthrown during his reign. (4) This story is, however, a fabrication, and a similar story is told of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Copronymus, another mediaeval monarch who was unpopular among certain of his subjects. (17)


His nickname “The Unready” (1,4) “Unrad”, a pun on the literal translation of Ethelred’s name, and un-ræd, as meaning (13) “no counsel” (2,4) [ [OR] “badly advised” (1,6) [OR]repeatedly failing to follow wise counsel’ (12) was first seen sometime after his reign (11,15) in the 1180s (17) [OR] in the 13th (11) [OR] 12th (13) century, although it was probably used earlier. (11) Book 14 suggests that it arose as a result of his paying Danegeld: “He received the whispered nickname unraed, (a pun on his name that means “badly-advised” but is today mis-translated as “The Unready”). (14) [OR] it is doubtful that it carries any implications as to the reputation of the king in the eyes of his contemporaries or near contemporaries. (17) It means ‘no counsel’ (2,4) or that he was unwise (2,11) It doesn’t mean that he was ill-prepared. (4,7) It’s also a pun on his name, the Anglo-Saxon form of his name, Ethelred, which means “Well advised” (4,7) [OR] “noble counsel”. (13)

Accession and Reign of Edward II

King Edgar (1,2) had two sons, and his elder one, (7,9) Edward II (2,4) succeeded him in 975 AD. (9,10) Edward, was only a child, (10) [OR] a youth on the verge of manhood’. (17) He was probably illegitimate and ‘given to frequent violent outbursts.’ (17) He had ‘offended by his intolerable violence of speech and behaviour’ (17) and so was not a popular choice (9,15) withmany important persons’. (17) The nobles of the kingdom formed rival parties around Edward and Ethelred. (10,17) Some urged the claim of Ethelred, who was only about nine (15) [OR] ten (14) [OR] no more than 10 (17) years old. (15) Ethelred was, after all, the son of Edgar’s last, living wife, and no rumour of illegitimacy is known to have plagued Ethelred’s birth, as it might have his elder brother’s. (17) The pro Ethelred group centred round an anti-monastic (15) Mercian faction led by the Queen Mother, Aelfthrith and her friend, Saint Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, (15,17) and including Ælfhere, Ealdorman of Mercia. (17) Contrary to the unattractive Edward, the Chronicle of Florence of Worcester describes Ethelred as “ of graceful manners, handsome countenance, and fine person …”. The Gunnlaugr Saga added that he was “tall, handsome, elegant in manners, beautiful in countenance, and interesting3 in his deportment.” (12) Edward’s claim was supported by Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Oswald, the Archbishop of York among other noblemen, notably Æthelwine, Ealdorman of East Anglia, and Byrhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex. (17) In the end, Edward’s supporters proved the more powerful and persuasive, and he was crowned king at Kingston upon Thames before the year was out. (17) Though little is known about Edward’s short reign, it is known that it was marked by political turmoil. (17) The end of Edgar’s firm rule saw a reversal of the policy of endowing the church, with aristocrats recovering their lost properties or seizing new ones. (17)

Murder of Edward

Edward reigned for only three years before, (17) perhaps at the instigation of Ethelred’s mother, (12,15) [OR] nothing to support the allegation, which first appears in writing more than a century later, that Queen Ælfthryth was involved (17) he (9,10) was treacherously (9,12) stabbed to death (15,17) at Corfe (2,9) Castle, (2,17) in Dorset (2,9) on 18th (10) March (7,10) 978 (2,7) [OR] 979 (14) His death took place in the course of a faction fight by a group of court nobles (14) [OR] was carried out by members of his brother’s household [OR] whilst Aelfthrith served him refreshments at Corfe Castle in Dorset. (15) The motive for the murder was to enable his half-brother (7,8) Ethelred (2,6) to inherit the throne. (12) Edward’s body was buried at the convent of Shaftesbury, and miracles were witnessed at the tomb. (9)

Ethelred guilty of his Brother’s Murder?

Ethelred (12,15) was indeed present at this palace throughout these events (15) and widespread suspicion that he may have had a part in the murder of Edward created distrust and disloyalty that undermined his authority. (7,11) He was too young to have any personal involvement. (6) and is said to have known nothing of his mother’s plot and (15) was in fact quite distraught upon hearing of his brother’s murder.(12,15) and grew to manhood with an uneasy and guilty feeling that he should not have been King4. (12) Because of the manner of his death (14) and because the job of recording the event, as well as reactions to it, fell to monastic writers, (17) Edward is known to History as (14) Edward (2,4) the Martyr. (7,8) He was honoured as a saint, (2,10) and became a posthumous rallying point for political unrest. (2) The hostile Church used (2) devotion to him as an excuse to withhold allegiance from his successor. (2,10)


His death did not immediately resolve the power struggle. (15) [OR] Ethelred became king (2,9) at the age of 7 [OR] 9 (15) [OR] 10 (1,4) [OR] 12 (6,7) [OR] around 12 (16) [OR] not older than 13. (17) He was King of England (1,4) twice. (1) The first time was from 978 to 1013, and the second time was 1014 (1) to 1016. (1,2) He was crowned with due ceremony on 14th April, (12) 978 (1,2) just 27 days (12) [OR] 3 years (15) [OR] a year (also 15!) after his brother’s murder. (12,15) In 985 he married Aelfgitha (15) [OR] Elfleda. (8) [OR] Ælfgifu (13) the daughter of Ealdorman Thored of Northumbria (15) with whom he had a very large family. (7,15) He had six sons (Aethelstan (15) [OR] Æthelstan, Ecgberht, [OR] Egbert (15) King Edmund (7, Ironside, Eadred, [OR] Edred Eadwig, [OR] Edwig Edward (who died young) Edgar), and perhaps five daughters, (13,15) including Edith, Aelfgitha and Wulfhilda. (15)

Domestic Policy I: 978-84

The internal politics of Ethelred’s reign can be divided into four periods. (13) The first period dates from Ethelred’s accession in 978 to 984. (13) At first, the outlook of the new king’s officers and counsellors seems in no way to have been bleak. (17) According to one chronicler, the coronation of Ethelred took place with much rejoicing by the councillors of the English people. (17) Simon Keynes notes that “Byrhtferth of Ramsey states similarly that when Ethelred was consecrated king, by Archbishop Dunstan and Archbishop Oswald, ‘there was great joy at his consecration’, and describes the king in this connection as ‘a young man in respect of years, elegant in his manners, with an attractive face and handsome appearance’. (17) [OR] From the start his reign was tragically marred by the treason and revolt of his leading thegns (noblemen). (10) These were Ethelred’s teenage years, and he was (13,15) probably carefully (13) guided by (13,15) a regency known as the Witan (“Wise Men”), of nobles who became the real power in the kingdom (14) [OR] by Bishop (15,17) Æthelwold, (13,15) of Winchester, (15,17) Ealdorman Aelfhere of Mercia (15) and Ælfthryth the Queen Mother. (13,15) Having become king as a result of a coup, which destabilised the country, (14) he could gain the trust of neither the nobles nor the people. (2,11)

Domestic Policy 2: 984-93

In the second period, 984 to 993, (13) the country suffered once more from Viking attacks. (15) Ælfthryth ceased witnessing her son’s charters, (13) an indication that she had withdrawn from public life. (13,15) Bishop (15,17) Æthelwold (13,15) died, on 1st August (17) 984 (13,15) and Aelfhere also died. (13,15) By 990 CE, Ethelred, having reached adulthood, now ruled on his own. (14) He was an articulate speaker who was known for his impeccable politeness and grace, but he was no war-leader in the mould of Alfred the Great, (14) and the ensuing disorder was nourished by Ethelred’s own indecisive character. (10) New influences came into play: (15) he was led astray by greedy counsellors. (13,15) He seized lands (13,15) from the newly reformed (15) church and redistributed them to his nobles, (13,15) as he repentantly explained in a charter of 993. (13) In 993 he admitted that advisors were able to take advantage of his ignorance. (13)

Domestic Policy 3: 993-1006

The third period, from 993 to 1006, was marked by the return of Ælfthryth. (13,15) Within two years, of his confiscations of church property Ethelred had repented his anti-ecclesiastical actions and turned his back on his former associates. (15) His mother returned and local government was reorganized, with the suppression of the hereditary earldordoms in favour of more dependent sheriffs and high-reeves. (15) A much more stable period for English internal affairs followed, though Viking attacks continued. (13) Such a stable period helps to explain the flowering of literature (works by Ælfric, Byrhtferth, Wulfstan of Winchester), manuscripts, and other artwork datable to the turn of the century. (13) During these early years, Ethelred was developing a close relationship to Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, one who had supported his unsuccessful claim to the throne. (17) Ethelred’s government produced extensive legislation, which he “ruthlessly enforced.” (17) Records of at least six legal codes survive from his reign, covering a range of topics. (17) Notably, one of the members of his council (known as the Witan) was Wulfstan II, Archbishop of York, a well-known homilist. (17) The three latest codes from Ethelred’s reign seemed to have been drafted by Wulfstan. (17) These codes are extensively concerned with ecclesiastical affairs. (17) Because the members of these bodies were under solemn oath to act in accordance with the law and their own good consciences, they have been seen by some legal historians as the prototype for the English Grand Jury. (17) There was a corresponding resurgence of church reformation the Royal burghs were refurbished and the next decade became a much more stable period for England. (15) in 1012 (8) [OR] 1002 (13,15) he married a second wife, Emma (8,13) sister of Richard II, duke of (13,15) Normandy. (8,13) the marriage took place because Ethelred wanted to draw her brother the Duke away from his Viking allies, who were using Normandy as a base from which to attack England. (15) With Emma he had another three children, King Edward the Confessor, Alfred the Ætheling, and Godgifu. (13)

St Brice’s Day

In earlier times, the aim of the Vikings had been to seize land in England and establish settlements. (14) Eventually they controlled a large chunk of the island, known as the Danelaw. (14) Over time, however, these Viking settlements came to view themselves as native Englanders, and when Ethelred took the throne, there were still large numbers of their descendants living there. (14) In a desperate attempt to take some sort of action (14) to eliminate potential treachery (2,11) (he had been advised that they “meant to beguile him out of his life”. (11) [OR] “wished to deprive him of his life by treachery”) (15) Ethelred (14,15) emboldened by his alliance with Normandy, felt secure enough (15) on November (7,12) 13th, (7) [OR] 18th (12) 1002 (2,3) to order that “all the Danish people who were in England” (14,15) [OR] all Danes in England (2) [OR] many Viking families in the Danelaw, (3,5) [OR] No order of this kind could be carried out in the Danelaw, where the Danes were too strong. (17) [OR] Viking merchants and recent settlers rather than the many Anglo-Danish families of the Danelaw, (15) were to be rounded up and (14) slain (3,5) in a single day. (12) Most local officials (14) [OR] his soldiers (5,6) sensibly refused to carry out these orders (14) [OR] the massacre was enacted (15) and many were killed (5,6) shedding ‘rivers of blood’ including Gunhilda (12) [OR] Gunhilde, (17) Swein (2,3) [OR] Swein’s (8,9) (2,9) sister. (11,14) This became known as the Saint Brice’s Day massacre. (6,11) From the 6th century onwards, England had converted to Christianity while the Danes continued to worship Norse deities. (16) Ethelred believed that this placed God on his side – but prayer proved useless. (16) So did these reprisals on Danish settlers. (7,16) It was a colossal blunder. (12,14) It made the King unpopular amongst his northern subjects (15) and, contrary to the King’s expectations, brought on massive reprisals. (2,11) Danish poetry recorded that Swein swore on the bragging cup to be avenged on the cowardly Ethelred. (12)

Domestic Policy 4: 1006-16

The fourth period, from 1006 to 1016, was marked by an upheaval of the king’s council in 1006: (13) There was another great reshuffle within the King’s Council and his chief counsellor, (15) Edric (12,13) OR Eagdric (13!) Streona, (12,13) began his rise to infamy. (15) Ethelred relied too much on the advice of those who were (11,13) incompetent, self-serving, or (11) downright treacherous, (11,13) such as the notorious turncoat Edric, showing that he was a poor judge of character. (13)


His reign coincided with a resurgence in Viking (Danish) attacks on the country. (11) After several decades (6) [OR] a pause of 25 years (10) of relative peace, the chief problem of Ethelred’s reign was conflict with the Danes, (6) seeking to destroy the sovereignty of the Anglo-Saxons and to plunder their land. (10) For most of his reign (1) he had to fight off Viking invaders. (1,2) This increased English disunity and military ineffectiveness. (10) Swein (2,3) I, (8) Forkbeard (8,9) rebelled against (8) his father Harold (8,9) [OR] Harald (11) Blue-tooth (8,9) and deposed him. (8)

Phase 1: 980-991

Ethelred had become king as a result of a coup, which destabilised the country. (14) Ambitious nobles took advantage, and another group of people also took notice of the resulting political chaos in England. (14) For centuries, raiders from Scandinavia–known then as Danes, but today called “Vikings”–had been pillaging the island’s coast, looting monasteries and burning coastal villages. (14) The Viking attacks during Ethelred’s reign can be divided into four phases. (13) The first phase, 980 to 991 (13) taking place when Ethelred could not have been more than 14, saw (17) the resumption of Viking activity in England (13,17) after a twenty-five year absence, though with mainly local effects. (13) Danish raids on English territory began again in earnest in (2,6) in 979 (14) 980 (7,11) [OR] 985. (8) Small companies of Danish adventurers carried out a series of coastline raids against England (17) with attacks on Chester and Southampton. (8) Kent, (14) Hampshire, Cheshire (8,17) and Thanet were attacked in 980, Devon and Cornwall in 981, and Dorset in 982. (17) The raids continued through the 980s. (14) [OR] a period of six years then passed before, in 988, another coastal attack is recorded as having taken place to the south-west, though here a famous battle was fought between the invaders and the thegns of Devon. (17) Stenton notes that, though this series of isolated raids had no lasting effect on England itself, “their chief historical importance is that they brought England for the first time into diplomatic contact with Normandy.” (17) During this period, the Normans, who remembered their origins as a Scandinavian people, were well-disposed to their Danish cousins who, occasionally returning from a raid on England, sought port in Normandy. (17) This led to grave tension between the English and Norman courts, and word of their enmity eventually reached Pope John XV. (17) The pope was disposed to dissolve their hostility towards each other, and took steps to engineer (17) a peace between England and (2,17) the duke of (2) Normandy, which was ratified (2,17) in Rouen (17) in 991. (2,17)

Phase 2: 991-995

In 991, Ethelred was around 24 years old. (17) He made a diplomatic alliance with Normandy. (2) A second phase of Viking attacks took place in the period 991 to 995, involved much heavier attacks. (13,14) This new wave of Viking raiders had entirely different motives: they were not interested in farming or settling–they were simply after plunder. (14) England was at the time one of the richest countries in Europe, and also one of the most vulnerable. (14) It is of course the duty of a King to protect his people, but the Witan who ruled in the name of the boy-king were completely unable to form any effective response. (14) The English kingdom lacked a navy that was strong enough to take on the Viking longships, and the hit-and-run raids made it impossible for local military forces to gather for a timely defence. (14) Further Danegeld payments of £16,000 & £24,000 were made (15) Finally Swein led a large-scale invasion and received the submission of the men of the Danelaw (an area in the east of England where Vikings and English had equality under the law) and then of the south. (9) Swein’s Danes and Norwegians under Olaf Trygvesson sailed up the river Thames and besieged London. (8) When London submitted to Swein, Ethelred fled to (9) Richard I Duke (8) of Normandy (4,8) in 994, (8) leaving the whole country under Danish control. (7,9) A single large Viking army remained on English territory from its arrival with 93 ships in 991 until 1005 (13) It was this army that fought Byrhtnoth at the Battle of Maldon. (13)

Battle of Maldon 991

Many of the Saxons struggled valorously and unaided by their King (12) for 20 years, (9) while Swein raided England. (2,9) In August (14) 991 (8,9) However, in August of 991, a sizeable Danish fleet began a sustained campaign in the south-east of England. It arrived off Folkestone, in Kent, and made its way around the south-east coast and up the River Blackwater, coming eventually to its estuary and occupying Northey Island. (17) Ethelred’s local militia force did manage to confront a group of Danish raiders at Maldon, and tried to fight back. (14) The men of Essex, (12) led by their Ealdorman (12) [OR] chief magistrate (9) Brithnoth,(12) [OR] Byrhtnoth5 (8,9) made a valiant stand (9,12) against the invaders. (8,9) at the Battle of Maldon (6,8) beside the River Blackwater in Essex. (12) They were all slain in the battle. (9,12) One manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle said (12) a Norwegian, Olaf Tryggvason, led the Viking forces. (12,15) Byrhtnoth’s heroic attempt to Olaf’s forces access to the Essex mainland at Maldon (9) was celebrated by a famous Old English poem (9,12) ‘The Battle of Maldon’ (9) in which the courage and loyalty of Brithnoth and his men were immortalized in Anglo-Saxon verse, in a lost manuscript in the East Saxon dialect which now survives as a fragment in the West Saxon form. (12) The poem describes how he died, and how his followers gave their lives to avenge him. (9) The death of Byrhtnoth was recorded in four versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. (12) Its Cotton Tiberius manuscript states for the year 991:- ‘Her wæs Gypeswic gehergod, æfter þæm swyðe raþe wæs Byrihtnoð ealdorman ofslagan æt Meldune’. which translates as:- Here Ipswich was raided. (12) Very soon after that, ealdorman Byrhtnoth was killed at Maldon. (12) See Appendix I


After the defeat at Maldon, (14,15) in 991 (11,14) [OR] 981 (12) the terror stricken (12) Ethelred apparently decided that he simply did not have the means to effectively oppose the Vikings. (14,15) So, in what probably was intended as a temporary expedient, (14) the English King decided to take a different approach: (14,15) following the precedent adopted in France over 40 years previously, (11) he bought off renewed attacks by the Danes (2,3) by lavish payments of (10,14) land and (3,5) money, (2) (£10,000) (15) [OR] 5 tons of (14) silver (10,11) coin (14) [OR] gold (3,5) as a tribute [OR] bribe, (14) raised by taxation (2) to make the raiders go away. (14,15) This was to become known as (2,4) Danegeld. (2,3) This changed the entire character of the raids. (14) Now, the Vikings no longer needed to plunder or sack. (14) Instead, it all turned into a sort of giant protection racket, with a fleet of longships showing up and anchoring off the coast, making a few threats, and the frantic officials scraping together another bribe to pay them off. (14) Over the next 20 years, the size of the Danegeld grew bigger and bigger. (14) As one chronicle noted, “Everyone was incapable of forming a plan to get them out of the country or to hold the country against them.” (14) In 991, (12,13) says the Anglo Saxon chronicle, ‘it was decided to pay tax to Danes for the great terror which they made by the sea coast; (12) that first payment was £10,000. (12,13) Archbishop Sigeric decided first on the matter6. (12) Nearly all of the country was ravaged, and Ethelred’s efforts to buy peace only made the invaders more rapacious. (7) A second payment was made in 994 (£16,000), and a third in 1002 (£24,000). (7) The total paid is estimated at £250,000 – a huge sum at the time. (16) In 997 Vikings harried Cornwall, Devon, western Somerset and south Wales. In 998 they attacked Dorset, Hampshire and Sussex. (17) In 999, their army raided Kent, and in 1000 it left England for Normandy. (17) The fleet’s departure allowed Ethelred to carry out a devastation of Strathclyde, the motive for which is part of the lost history of the north. (17) In 1001, a Danish fleet – perhaps the same fleet from 1000 – returned and ravaged west Sussex. (17) During its movements, the fleet regularly returned to its base in the Isle of Wight. (17) There was later an attempted attack in the south of Devon, though the English mounted a successful defence at Exeter. (17) Nevertheless, Ethelred must have felt at a loss, and, in the Spring of 1002, the English bought a truce for £24,000. (17) By 1004 Swein was in East Anglia, where he sacked Norwich. (17) In this year, a nobleman of East Anglia, Ulfcytel Snillingr met Swein in force, and made an impression on the until-then rampant Danish expedition. (17) Though Ulfcytel was eventually defeated, outside Thetford, he caused the Danes heavy losses and was nearly able to destroy their ships. (17) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1006 was dismissive: ‘in spite of it all, the Danish army went about as it pleased’: (2)

Phase 3: 1006-12

In 1005 famine (13,17) [OR] perhaps the losses they sustained in East Anglia (17) caused the Viking army to return to Denmark (13,17) after fourteen years in England. (13) The next phase began in 1006 and lasted until 1012. (13) This period saw two major invasions. (13) The first, in 1006, was only stopped by a massive payment of tribute of £36,000 (13,15) [OR] 18 tons of silver (14) in 1007. (13,15)

Ethelred’s fleet

Then, somewhat surprisingly, Ethelred suddenly grew a spine. (14) He decided to try to beat back his enemies before they even reached English shores. (15) In 1008 (13) he ordered the construction of a fleet. (13,14) He commanded that “ships should be built unremittingly over all England, namely, a warship from every three hundred hides and a helmet and a corselet from every ten”. (15) 300 warships were built, strong enough to meet the Viking fleets at sea and beat them. (14) The ships assembled at Sandwich. (14) Unfortunately, however, feuds involving Streona’s family (13,15) restricted their usefulness. (15) In yet another faction fight, one of the nobles took his 20 ships and left, and another noble took 80 ships to pursue him. (14) They were caught in a storm that wrecked them. (14) Faced with the loss of one-third of his navy, Ethelred, (14) [OR] the king and his council decided not to risk it in a general action (17) and abandoned the entire effort. (14,17) The remaining ships returned home, (14) and so could not prevent the arrival in 1009 of another immense Viking army led by Thorkell the Tall (13,15) which ravaged most of Southern England for the next three years. (15) There most notable clash being against the great Ulfkell Snilling at the Battle of Ringmere in 1010. (15) By 1010, (14) Danish armies, virtually unopposed, occupied (14,15) and ravaged (13) most of southeast (14,15) or southern (13) England. (14,15) Swein plundered with impunity. (14) He raided Kent (8,15) took Canterbury (15) burned the cathedral, kidnapped, (8) and then murdered, the Archbishop, Saint Alphege. (8,15) Ethelred once more yielded to extortion and paid a Danegeld of (13,14), burning Canterbury Cathedral and murdering Archbishop Alphege. (8) At this point, the Vikings decided to swap sides and offered their mercenary services to King Ethelred, which he eagerly accepted in return for an annual payment of ‘heregeld’. (15)) £48,000 in 1012. (13) But then, things once again fell apart. (14) Swein, seeing how weak the island was, now had his eye on the English throne itself. (14) True to form, Ethelred the Unready never met him in battle. (14) In 1013, the Danes approached London, (14,15) where they besieged Ethelred & Thorkell. (15) They managed to hold out while Swein turned his attention to Mercia; but, by Christmas, (15) Ethelred was forced to flee to Normandy (14,15) and “the whole nation accepted [Swein] as full king”. (15)

Phase 4: 1013-1016

The fourth phase, from 1013 to 1016, again saw two major invasions, both of which culminated in the conquest of England, by Swein in 1013 and Cnut in 1016. (13) King Swein (2,3) Forkbeard (6,8) [OR] Svein Haraldsson (4) of Denmark was angry. (2,3) In 1009 (10) [OR] 1013 (12) he sent an enormous army which (10) landed at the mouth of the Humber in August 1013. (15) Its aim was to depose Ethelred. (10) The Danelaw immediately submitted to his rule, so Swein’s vast army passed without incident through the North. (15) Beyond Watling Street, they began to ravage the countryside to such an extent that East Anglia and Wessex soon followed the Northern example. (15)There was no unified defence, (7) and although the English bought the invaders off in 1012, (10) (48,000 pounds of silver (2) [OR] 22,000 pounds of gold (9) was being paid in Danegeld to Danes camped in London, (2)) in 1013 Swein led another invasion. (10,11) During the next few years much of southern England was laid waste. (11) He ravaged East Anglia and the Humber region, (11) He then moved inland and south as far as Oxford and Winchester and across to Bath. (11) Swein over-ran England (4,11) and became effectively its king (11) [OR] was proclaimed king. (6,8) Much of the demoralized English nation submitted to his rule. (10)

Flight of Ethelred

Ethelred resisted from London for some months, then finally, (10) by the end of (17) 1013 (9,17) had to flee to (2,3) Normandy in (2,4) France. (2,3) He sought protection from (4,12) Duke Robert. (4) By this time Elfleda had died, and in 1012 (8) Ethelred married the duke’s daughter (2,4) [OR] sister, (4,12) Emma. (2,4) [OR] Ethelred fled to Normandy with his wife, (12) By Emma, there were three children, Edward, Alfred and Godgitha. (15) The marriage to Emma of Normandy was disastrous in the long term for the House of Wessex. (12) Emma arrived in England with an attendant train of Normans. (12) Disliked by the English as foreigners, they succeeded in adding to the King’s already waning popularity. (12) Behaving with his customary arrogance, Ethelred succeeded in alienating his new brother-in-law and made an unsuccessful attempt to invade Normandy. (12) Emma’s great-nephew, William I of England, would later use this relationship as the basis of his claim on the throne. (4)

Ethelred’s return

Swein was offered a tribute of 24 tons of silver; he demanded the crown. (14) But he was not to get the chance to enjoy it. (14) The new regime lasted but a month. (15) Swein died February and the English nobles rejected his son, Canute. (15) Swein died (6,9) unexpectedly (12,15) and suddenly of an apoplexy (12) on 2nd (15) [OR] 3rd (17) February (10,14) 1014 (2,4) in his camp (14) at Gainsborough (8) on the Trent River, (14) [OR] while he was threatening an attack on Bury Saint Edmunds. (12) As a result the story took yet another odd turn. (14) By right of succession, the English throne should have passed to Swein’s oldest son Cnut. (14) The crews of the Danish ships in the Trent that had supported Swein immediately swore their allegiance to Swein’s son Cnut the Great, (17) but rather than accept this, the (14) the Witan (7,12) contacted Ethelred, in exile in France: (14,17) to negotiate his restoration to the throne. (17) They sent word to Ethelred, declaring that “no lord was dearer to them than their rightful lord, if only he would govern his kingdom more justly than he had done in the past”. (15) One of Ethelred’s youngest sons, Edward, brought his reply: that he “would remedy each one of the things that they all abhorred,” and the King made a triumphant return. (15) Hastily, but erroneously (12) they invited him to return to the throne (7,8) on condition that he agree to satisfy their grievances (7,14) and do a better job as King than he had before. (14) Ethelred returned to England (2,4) in February (4,7) 1014, (2,4) He was reinstated as king although challenged by his own son Edmund Iron-sides. (10) He was “received with joy” (12) and promised a fair and just reign. (11) This was the first recorded pact between a King and his subjects and the conditions are widely regarded as showing that many English noblemen had submitted to Swein simply because of their distrust of Ethelred. (17) Canute, Swein’s (8,10) younger (10) son, (8,10) who was ravaging England, (7) had to flee, (12,15) and Ethelred reigned for two more years. (6) This was only a temporary upset to Canute’s ambitions in England. (9) A further year of Ethelred’s disastrous rule taught his long suffering subjects and the Witan to repent their hasty gesture and (12) by 1015 Canute (8,11) now King Canute II of Denmark & Norway (8) [OR] Cnut was not King of Denmark until 1018 (9) invaded England again. (8,11) Ethelred and Edmund joined forces against the invader early in 1016 at London, (10) and war with Canute occupied the rest of Ethelred’s reign. (8) [OR] Throughout 1015, Cnut and Ethelred’s armies chased each other across England without fighting a major battle. (14) Dissension amongst the Royal family appears to have led to Ethelred’s final downfall. (15) His eldest surviving son, Edmund, seems to have been alarmed by the favour shown to his half-brother in the negotiations of 1014. (15) When, the following year, Ethelred ordered the murder of the leading Northern magnates, Sigeferth and Morcar, Edmund made his own play for power in the Danelaw by marrying Sigeferth’s widow. (15) The region submitted to the prince’s authority and Ethelred was enraged. (15) Later the same year, Canute invaded England once more, but the English troops were divided: the South rallied to the King’s right-hand-man, Edric Streona, but the North looked to Edmund’s leadership. (15) Only Ethelred could unite his armies, but in the battles of 1015 &16, he was already an ill man. (15) Unfortunately, a reconciliation between father and son came too late to salvage the situation. (15)


Canute was still ravaging the land (11,12) and literally hammering at its gates, (12) when Ethelred himself died (2,3) on April 23rd (1,4) 1016 (1,2) in London, (4,12) a place that had recently been established as political and commercial centre of England. (16) It was 50 years before the Norman Conquest. (16) Ethelred was the first monarch to be (16) buried (4,12) at the old Cathedral of Saint Paul’s, which (12,15) in the final bit of bad luck for the most incompetent King in English history (14) was destroyed during the Great Fire of London. (12,16) Ethelred’s 37-year reign was the longest of any Anglo-Saxon king of England, and was only surpassed in the 13th century, by Henry III. (6)


Swein’s son, Cnut (3,6) became King of England (14) [OR] Ethelred was briefly succeeded by his son, Edmund (4,6) II (4,7) Ironside. (6,7) Edmund struggled on for a few months, (10) but the war ended in a decisive victory for Cnut at the Battle of Ashingdon on 18th October 1016. (17) Edmund’s reputation as a warrior was such that Cnut (17) made a truce with Edmund in which they agreed to divide the kingdom between them, (9,17) Edmund taking Wessex and Cnut the whole of the country beyond the Thames, (17) but after a few months Edmund died, (3,6) on 30th November (17) 1016 (9,17) and Cnut became king of England, (13,14) demonstrating that Ethelred had not been equal to the task of keeping the Vikings out of England. (13)

Cnut the Great

England thus became, for some 50 years, part of an empire of the North Sea. (16) Cnut (also known as Canute) was a Christian and a strong ruler. (3) For the next few years England was part of his Viking empire, along with Denmark and Norway. (3) He ruled well, but left much of the government in England to noblemen, now called earls (from the Danish word “jarl”). (3) ​​​​​​​King Cnut reigned for nineteen years until his death, and was the only other English King apart from Alfred to earn the title “The Great”. (5) Sellar and Yeatman’s 1930s classic ‘1066 and All That’ echoes this sentiment: the “Wave of Danes” who overran the country were “undoubtedly a Good Thing”. (16) He subdued the Viking raids and England prospered under his rule, but on his death his two sons by different mothers turned to fighting and the empire fell apart. (5) On the deaths of Cnut’s sons, Harald Harefoot and Harthacanute, the House of Wessex was briefly restored to the throne, with (5) the return of Edward the Confessor (5,7) one of Ethelred’s other sons (7) from his exile in Normandy. (5) Ethelred’s widow Emma of Normandy had married his Danish rival, Canute, (5,12) Edward the Confessor had been sent there for safety at that point. (5) The deal was that if his half-brother (Cnut’s son by Emma) Harthacnut died without children, then Edward could have his throne back. (5) Ethelred’s agreement with the people7 for good government would have far reaching effects. (11) When under the reign of Henry I, the people began to become distrustful of the crown, leading to the creation of the 1100 Charter of Liberties. (11) Emma eventually died on 6th March, 1052, during the reign of their son, Edward the Confessor. (12)



He was ineffectual, (7) with little natural aptitude as a military leader (2,11) or enthusiasm for war. (11) When he was only ten (1) [OR] In the later years as the kingdom came under increasing pressure, (11) he relied too much on the advice of those who were incompetent, self-serving, or downright treacherous, (11) such as Edric (12,13) [OR] Eagdric (13!) Streona, (12,13) The payment of Danegeld was foolish (12) and a psychologically demoralizing decision that mocked the heroic traditions of the Anglo-Saxons. (10) It didn’t work: (2,3) the Vikings took (2,3) the enormous sums (11) but this simply whetted their appetite for English riches. (16) They took the money and attacked anyway. (2,3) The Massacre of St Brice’s Day was counterproductive: contrary to the King’s expectations, it brought on massive reprisals. (2,11) His attempt to resist with a navy failed: after losing one-third of his navy, he abandoned the entire effort. (14) Fruitless attempts to bribe or defeat the Vikings sealed Ethelred’s reputation as a disastrous king who deserved to fail. (16) “Throughout history, Ethelred’s payment of Dane-geld has been used as a short hand for drastic mismanagement and poor decision making,” says Keynes. (16)

Defence of Ethelred

Despite the overall failures of the reign, evidence from his charters and coinage suggest that Ethelred’s government was more effective than was once believed. (7,16) At least in the early years of his reign he was an able financial administrator and law maker in a time that produced fine literature and ecclesiastical reform. (11) Ethelred ruled for thirty-eight years and had to deal with the Viking threat for over three decades. (13) His failures may have more to do with the strength of the Vikings than with Ethelred’s alleged incompetence. (11,13) He was unlucky to face the newly overhauled Viking state. (11) Harald Bluetooth, an autocratic and efficient king, had recently united Denmark and Norway and provided the united kingdom with good organisation and equipment. (11) As a result the forces arrayed against Ethelred were greater than those bested by Alfred the Great a century or so earlier. (11) It is clear from the continuation of Edgar’s reform of the coinage and the institution of heregeld in 1012 that the machinery of government worked well throughout Ethelred’s reign. (13) The best-known narrative sources were written towards the end of the reign when things looked very grim, and Ethelred’s reputation has suffered in consequence. (13) Perhaps it is no wonder that there were major problems in the last decade of his reign. (13) Given the inadequacy of English defences, (4,10) and the fact that he was unable to place any trust in his generals, (4) the payment of Danegeld was strategically sound: (4,10) such payments had been practice for at least a century, and had been adopted by Alfred the Great, Charles the Bald and many others. (17) Indeed, in some cases it may have seemed the best available way of protecting the people against loss of life, shelter, livestock and crops. (17) Though undeniably burdensome, it constituted a measure for which the king could rely on widespread support. (17) The enormous sums collected are evidence of an efficient taxation system! (11)

Bias in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle

Much of what we know about Ethelred’s reign comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – an account by an anonymous chronicler of each year’s notable events. (16) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the whole reign was written after Ethelred’s death, and perhaps designed to explain the eventual conquest. (13) It is far from impartial: its verses were composed by court poets, or skalds, who celebrated the deeds of the leaders of the Viking armies. (16) “The story told in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and retold many times thereafter, is very superficial.” (16) The one contemporary annal that does survive (for 1001) is certainly less doom-laden than the later chronicle. (13)

Charters and Coins

But there is plenty of other evidence for the period, and the deeper one looks, the more complex and interesting it all becomes,” says Professor Simon Keynes. (16) He points out that no single body of evidence is richer than the 130 charters that survive Ethelred’s reign. (16) More properly called ‘royal diplomas’, these charters are documents that record agreements made at assemblies held four or five times a year. (16) Such meetings, which took place at major festivals, such as Easter and Pentecost, were an opportunity for both ceremony and business. (16) The charters, written in Latin, were witnessed by prominent members of the church and key land-owners. (16) “In comparison to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, which is a wonderfully vivid narrative in the vernacular, the diplomas are dry and seemingly impenetrable documents – and it’s true that individually they appear to yield little. (16) But considered collectively, they offer an opportunity to reach below the surface of recorded events,” says Keynes. (16) The majority of the charters issued during Ethelred’s reign represent grants of land. (16) Others give detailed details of the forfeiture of land into the king’s hands or confirm the entitlement of a religious house to lands and privileges which have been lost. (16) “Royal diplomas were highly valuable documents in their own right. (16) It was the possession of the charter itself which gave an individual the right to the land described even if the individual in question was not named. (16) Not surprisingly copies and forgeries were made – which, for the historian, makes puzzling them out even harder,” says Keynes. (16) “The diplomas also have long lists of witnesses which, when tabulated and analysed, enable one to detect interesting changes in the composition of the king’s councillors over the course of Ethelred’s long reign – suggesting perhaps who was gaining in power and who was declining. (16)” Exeter Cathedral holds one of the most beautiful surviving charters, written in ink on parchment. (16) Ethelred’s diploma for Bishop Ealdred of Cornwall (994) confirms Ealdred’s status as bishop of Cornwall, at St Germans, and states that he is to have the same rights as the other bishops have in their own dioceses. (16) “This charter was probably the outcome of a determination on the part of Archbishop Sigeric to set things in order,” says Keynes. (16) “The English were under severe Viking attack, and this was one way of making arrangements more pleasing in the sight of God. (16) The diploma was issued at a royal assembly, and was witnessed by a number of bishops, ealdormen, abbots, and thegns – in other words by the great and good of the land. (16)” Coinage offers another window into Ethelred’s reign and management of money is likely to have been on the agenda at royal assemblies. (16) In a collaboration with the late Mark Blackburn, Keeper of Coins and Medals at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Keynes took a keen interest in the coinage of Ethelred’s reign. (16) “Coinage was struck at as many as 80 minting places across England. (16) It was produced in huge quantities for export as part of the tribute money paid to Viking armies and the army tax paid to a standing mercenary force,” he says. (16) “Variations in coin designs over time suggest that Ethelred and those working with him developed and maintained a system of staggering complexity. (16) To control the economy, the authorities recalled coins of one type from circulation and exchanged them for coins of a new type. (16) The designs tell their own stories. (16) The earliest types feature the hand of God issuing from a cloud, perhaps to signify divine approval. (16) Later the emphasis shifted to the king’s portrait and he is shown initially bare-headed and later wearing a helmet. (16)” The rarest of the coins struck in Ethelred’s time is a short-lived Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) type. (16) Worldwide, just 24 survive, one of which is in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum and displayed in the Rothschild Gallery. (16) What makes this coin so remarkable is the absence of king’s portrait: the obverse features the Lamb of God and the reverse a dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit. (16) “The design represents a desperate appeal for peace, in perilous times,” says Keynes. (16)

Sermo Lupi ad Anglos

In portraying Ethelred’s reign as a time of turmoil, historians have drawn on a sermon given by one of the king’s most powerful advisors. (16) Archbishop Wulfstan’s message to the English people is full of gloom: “For it is clear and manifest in us all that we have previously transgressed more than we have amended, and therefore much is assailing this people. (16) Things have not gone well now for a long time at home or abroad, but there have been devastation and famine, burning and bloodshed in every district again and again. (16)” The forces ranged against Ethelred were impressive and implacable. (16) In 994 a Viking fleet of more than 90 ships came up the Thames to London. (16) In 1009 the Vikings came again. (16) However, this great catalogue of things rotten in England, is a reflection of the state of things in 1014, not the whole reign. (13)

Appendix I: The Battle of Maldon

About 2 kilometres (1 mile) west of Northey lies the coastal town of Maldon, where Byrhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex, was stationed with a company of thegns. The battle that followed between English and Danes is immortalised by the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, which describes the doomed but heroic attempt of Byrhtnoth to defend the coast of Essex against overwhelming odds. Stenton summarises the events of the poem: “For access to the mainland they (the Danes) depended on a causeway, flooded at high tide, which led from Northey to the flats along the southern margin of the estuary. Before they (the Danes) had left their camp on the island Byrhtnoth, with his retainers and a force of local militia, had taken possession of the landward end of the causeway. Refusing a demand for tribute, shouted across the water while the tide was high, Byrhtnoth drew up his men along the bank, and waited for the ebb. As the water fell the raiders began to stream out along the causeway. But three of Byrthnoth’s retainers held it against them. The Vikings found themselves separated from the militia by a causeway that had flooded with the tide. “There’s no need for blood”, the Viking leader called to the English. “You have much silver, you can afford to pay us and we’ll leave”. “We will pay you with spear and sword”, the English defiantly replied. The Vikings asked to be allowed to cross unhindered and fight on equal terms on the mainland. “But at least make it a fair fight–let us cross over the causeway and assemble there.” Incredibly, the English agreed to this. With what even those who admired him most called ‘over-courage’, Byrhtnoth agreed to this; the pirates rushed through the falling tide, and battle was joined. Its issue was decided by Byrhtnoth’s fall. Many even of his own men immediately took to flight and the English ranks were broken. What gives enduring interest to the battle is the superb courage with which a group of Byrhtnoth’s thegns, knowing that the fight was lost, deliberately “gave themselves to death in order that they might avenge their lord.”. They were slaughtered. This was the first of a series of crushing defeats felt by the English: beaten first by Danish raiders, and later by organised Danish armies. (17)


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1 The tenth century began one year after Alfred’s death!


3 ???

4 Over twenty years later Ethelred was to pay tribute to his murdered half brother, in the grant of a charter to Bradford-on-Avon, which states that the gift is made to ” Christ and his saint, that is my half-brother Edward, who though he weltered in his own blood, yet the Lord himself has shown by the multiple signs of his virtues that he is worthy to work miracles in our times.” (12)

5 Byrhtnoth had been a member of the anti-Ethelred at the time of his accession. (17)

6 on þam geare man gerædde þæt man geald ærest gafol Deniscum mannum for þam myclan brogan þe hi worhton be þam særiman, þæt wæs ærest þusend punda. (12) Þæne ræd gerædde ærest Syric arcebisceop. (12)

7 i.e. the powerful nobles


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