Æthelred II, also known as Ethelred II, or Æthelred ‘the Unready’, is a teenager when he succeeds his brother as King of England in 978. He marries twice, and among his many children there are two who will succeed him as King of England.1

Life & Viking Times

960s-978: The King is Dead, Long Live The King

Æthelred is born in the 960s to formidable parents. His father is Edgar ‘the Peaceable’, King of England. His mother is Ælfthryth, Edgar’s second wife and daughter of the ealdorman of Devon. Of his siblings, by 975 only one half-brother lives, Edward, the aetheling.2 

His father’s reign is peaceful, though marked by drastic administrative and Church reforms. Edgar is not shy to use forceful measures to remove the secular clergy in favour of the monks who are part of a new monastic trend. He manages all this without civil war erupting, but at the same time he creates discontent among his ealdormen who see their land confiscated and given to the Church.3

His wife Ælfthryth is the first anointed queen of England, and certainly no push-over, either. The medieval documents show she is actively involved in state affairs. When Edgar dies young, his boys are still teenagers, and the succession does not play out smoothly. Especially in this time, Ælfthryth takes a firm political stance for her son Æthelred.4

The Succession

Twenty years after the succession, Byrhtferth of Ramsey writes in his Vita Oswaldi that two factions fight over the throne. The reformers, led by Archbishop Dunstan, view Edward ‘the aetheling’ as Edgar’s natural heir. The anti-monastic movements, led by Ælfthryth, wish Æthelred to be the next king. Yet, the scholar Keynes shows how complex the motives of the people involved are. As the bottom line, he sees this as a fight of wills between Dunstan and Ælfthryth.5 

Saint Dunstan (Source: Wikipedia).

In 975, Dunstan crowns Edward and the lack of changes in the king’s counsel make sure the work of the reformers started under Edgar are continued. King Edward is a still a teenager and has a reputation for being temperamental (read: aggressive). These habits are forgotten when he is murdered in 978 during a visit to his stepmother and half-brother. These are suspicious circumstances, indeed. Ælfthryth and Æthelred’s supporters receive the blame, even if the suspicion is also on the mother and son. Eventually, Æthelred is crowned king.6

978 – 984: The Young King

This leaves Æthelred with the worst start of any king in English history. At the same time, he is a teenager and counsellors rule in his name. They are his mother Ælfthryth, bishop Æthelwold and ealdorman Ælfhere of Mercia.7 Æthelwold and Ælfthryth concern themselves with religious issues and Ælfhere with secular business.

The latter pursues his own agenda of anti-monastic reforms and meanwhile tries to clear the young king of the stigma of his brother’s murder. He digs up Edward’s body to find it ‘uncorrupted’. Several miracles occur near the new tomb afterwards and Æthelred officially declares his brother a saint, Edward ‘the Martyr’.8 

This protective circle around Æthelred falls apart in 983–984. Both Æthelwold and Ælfhere die, Ælfthryth retreats from political life.9 Æthelred marries Ælfgifu of York and starts a family. She bears him many children, but will not be anointed as Ælfthryth, nor is her signature seen in any documents. And whilst it is normal for the eldest children of noble families to be raised in foster homes, Æthelstan, is actually fostered by his grandmother. This all makes Ælfgifu’s place at court is thus abundantly clear.10 

Æthelred now rules on his own. And the kingdom he has inherited is wealthy, with improved law systems, church reforms and a healthy international trade.11 During his reign, manuscript production flourishes with many works by monastic reformers, such as Ælfric of Eynsham and Wulfstan of Worcester. Also, the Old-English poem Beowulf was likely written down during this time.12

984–991: Hitting the Ground Running

With his main advisors gone, Æthelred must form a new counsel and has to deal with ealdormen who want him to give them back the land that his father gave to the Church.13 At first, Æthelred hears their pleas and reverses these decisions, but in the course of the 980s he changes his position gives the land back to the Church again, along with a public show of repentance.14 

Meanwhile, the Viking attacks occur more often and change from sporadic to consistent and forceful. The Anglo-Saxons can see where the Vikings are coming from: Normandy. So, Æthelred starts diplomatic negotiations with the Duke of Normandy. Richard I ‘the Fearless’, a man in his fifties who has seen much in his lifetime. He regains a duchy from his French rivals and creates Scandinavian alliances in the process. By the early 990s, he is interested in controlling his duchy and staying close to the French royal family, at the same time he lets his Scandinavian allies set up camps on his land, from where they raid the English coastline.15 So, Æthelred’s hunch is correct and his diplomatic efforts result in a treaty between the king and the duke in 991.16

991–1002: The First Struggles and Solutions

The First Danegeld

Silver penny, Aethelred II. (Source: Wikipedia / York Museums Trust Staff).

Six months after the treaty, though, the Vikings start raiding England again. They begin in Folkestone, and make their way via Sandwich and Ipswich to Maldon. The Battle of Maldon in late summer of 991 seems insignificant enough. But its outcome clearly tells Æthelred who his foes are. The two unlikely allies called Olaf Tryggvason and Sweyn Haraldsson. Both are Scandinavian princes seeking the crown of their respective countries, Norway and Denmark. After Maldon, they leave with a good amount of danegeld17 and a message to keep away for good. But they stay to haunt southern England.18 The danegeld is raised mainly by tributes,19 and Æthelred uses all he has to buy himself time to build an army that can defeat Olaf and Sweyn.

The First of Many Betrayals

Remarkably, Æthelred never asserts himself as a military leader. Most of the time, he leaves the command to Ælfric of Hampshire and other noblemen. 20 Yet, he builds a large fleet and infantry by 992. He is determined trap Olaf and Sweyn in London and defeat them. Unfortunately, Ælfric is disloyal and flees the city. In the process, he leaves the door open for the Vikings to escape.21 

The raids continue. The Vikings know they have high-born allies to help them to get easy money. Consequently, the attacks increase in force and ferocity. So much, that even Anglo-Saxon commanders flee the battleground in Northumbria in 993, leaving Æthelred weakened once more.22

Divide and Conquer

Two years later in 994, the citizens of London must defend their city again. This time, though, Æthelred has not had the time to raise another army. The city successfully defends itself, but Olaf and Sweyn take their anger to the countryside and devastate it until Æthelred offers them a winter camp at Southampton to make them stop.23 

Æthelred then makes a calculated move and offers the Vikings a treaty known as II Aethelred. Sweyn’s signature is not on this treaty, but Olaf’s is.24 The treaty is the start of a strong alliance between Æthelred and Olaf. Æthelred supports Olaf with money and means to return to Norway and claim the throne. After 995, Olaf and Sweyn both disappear from England, both heading home to claim their thrones. They will not bother Æthelred as they fight each other for land and crown, that culminates in the Battle of the Svold in 1000 where Olaf dies.25

Assertive

Despite Olaf and Sweyn leaving England, the raids continue. Again, Æthelred raises an army. He has relied on the tributes, but it is easy to see how England’s wealth might have been depleted with years of relentless attacks and devastation of towns, the raising of multiple armies and defences.26 He is clearly less inclined to sit back and wait. Instead, he lays waste on areas in England where Vikings are and then moves to invade Normandy.27 

Normandy coast, France (Source: Pixabay / Effekt99).

Richard II, the new duke and son of Richard I, stops the invasion by defeating the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Val-de-Saire. He and Æthelred sign a new treaty. To secure a stronger and more lasting peace, Æthelred marries Richard’s sister, Emma of Normandy, in 1002 after the death of his first wife.28 This marriage will be William the Conqueror’s claim to the English throne in 1066.

Æthelred continues this assertive kingship upon his return. He orders the death of Scandinavian criminals and outlaws in England.29What should have been a small, clean killing spree, turns into a death pool. On St Brice’s Day the English kill any Scandinavian they come across. And the one significant person said to have died on this day, is Sweyn Forkbeard’s sister.30

1003–1016: The Black Point of No Return

Whether or not enraged by his sister’s death, Sweyn organises the invasion of England. The culprit who lets him in, is Ælfric of Hampshire, who pretends to be sick. Sweyn easily makes his way through the country until famine strikes and his army is hit hard, too. He turns back to Denmark.31
More raids follow in 1007 and 1009, but it is not clear if Sweyn is behind them all. It might be, as it is an excellent strategy of demoralising the political establishment further and bringing further chaos and fear to the people. Meanwhile, most of the the wealth has diminished, or has gone into Danish hands.32 

In 1012, a new Danish invasion lands on the English shore. Thorkell the Tall, Sweyn’s commander, conquers most of southern England and receives a big ransom. Then, Æthelred makes the same move as he did with Olaf. He successfully convinces Thorkell to join his side and leave Sweyn.33 It takes Sweyn another two years to raise a new invasion army, but then he finally conquers England and sends Æthelred into exile in Normandy. In all irony, Sweyn dies only several days after made King of England.34 

The witan invites Æthelred back to England and retake the crown. Æthelred does so, but is continuously betrayed by Ælfric of Hampshire and another ealdorman and son-in-law, Eadric of Streona. Æthelred dies in 1016.35

Æthelred and Alfred

Æthelred is often compared to his great-great-grandfather Alfred the Great, because both are King of England in times of intense Viking attacks. And they both pay danegeld in an effort to keep them at bay. That is also where most similarities end.

In Alfred’s time, the ninth century, new kingdoms and trade towns emerge in Scandinavia. Local men are able to seek fame and fortune beyond their region because their innovative, fast ships allow them to.36 As they raid England, Alfred is pushed back so that he has to hide in the marshes. When he returns, though, he has a strategy and a course of action. Still, it takes a number of defeats and payments before he can finally confront Guthrum, the leader of the Great Heathen Army. His success with the Vikings, his efforts to include every party in the defence of the country and his further efforts for education and chronicles, law and administrative reforms earns him the accolade ‘The Great’.37 

When the second wave of Vikings begins in the 980s, there is a stark difference. On the throne is a teenager, not a seasoned warrior and politician. Moreover, Æthelred has to deal with a larger and politically more complex witan who are keen to work against him. Put into this mix two motivated Scandinavian princes looking for lots of money and a lot of betrayal, both at home and in Normandy, and it’s easy to see that Æthelred got quite a bad bargain to rule as king.38 Æthelred is maligned by the medieval sources, and already in 1150 he receives the nickname ‘Unraed’, suggesting he is an incompetent or badly counselled ruler.39 Yet, what emerges from this article is a picture of a man trying and learning very hard in a complex time.

Further Reading and Listening

If you are interested in reading more about Æthelred, I highly recommend to start with the book by Levi Roach and the works of Simon Keynes. They are invaluable.

References


  1. The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Ethelred the Unready’. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Last Accessed 01 June 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ethelred–the–Unready ↩
  2. Charles Cawley, ‘Æthelred.’ Foundation of Medieval Genealogy. Last Accessed 01 June 2019.  ↩
  3. On drastic measures, see: Michael Lapidge, Byrhtferth of Ramsey: The Lives of St Oswald and St Ecgwine. OUP Oxford, 2008, pp. xx, lxx.
    Levi Roach, Æthelred: The Unready. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016), pp. 25–31.  ↩
  4. Roach (2016), pp. 45–49, 52.
    Kirsten A. Fenton, ‘Chapter 4. The Tale of Queen Ælfthryth in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum.’ In: Gender and Historiography: Studies in the earlier Middle Ages in honour of Pauline Stafford. Edited by Janet L. Nelson, Susan Reynolds and Susan M. Johns. (London: University of London, 2012), pp. 53 [pp. 49–60].  ↩
  5. Simon Keynes, ‘Edgar, rex admirabilis.’ In: Edgar, King of the English, 959–975: New Interpretations. Edited by D. Scragg. (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2008), pp 53.  ↩
  6. This point is made on the informative website Anglo–Saxons.net. It refers correctly to sources, such as in this case for Edward the Martyr. See: Sean Miller, ‘Edward the Martyr.’ Anglo–Saxon Net. Last Accessed 24 January 2018. http://www.anglo–saxons.net/hwaet/?do=get&type=person&id=EdwardtheMartyr.
    Leonard Neidorf, ‘Archbishop Wulfstan’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ In: English Studies, Volume 97, Issue 2 (2016), pp. 212–213 [pp. 207–225].  ↩
  7. Barbara Yorke ’Aethelwold and the Politics of the Tenth Century.’ In: Bishop Aethelwold: His Career and Influence. Edited by Barbara Yorke (Woodbrudge: Boydell & Brewer., 1997) pp. 84–85 [pp. 65–88].  ↩
  8. Simon Keynes, ‘Chapter 9, The cult of King Edward the Martyr during the reign of King Æhelred the Unready.’ In: Gender and Historiography: Studies in the earlier Middle Ages in honour of Pauline Stafford. Edited by Janet L. Nelson, Susan Reynolds and Susan M. Johns. (London: University of London, 2012), pp. 116,118 [pp. 115–126].  ↩
  9. Ann Williams, ‘England in the Eleventh Century.’ In: A Companion to the Anglo–Norman World. Edited by Christopher Harper–Bill and Elisabeth van Houts (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2003), pp. 6 [pp. 1–18].  ↩
  10. Charles Cawley, ‘Aelfgifu,’ Foundation of Medieval Genealogy. Last Accessed 17 February 2018.  ↩
  11. On prosperous trade: Frank Barlow, The Feudal Kingdom of England: 1042–1216. (London and New York: Routledge, 1999 (5th ed.)), Chapter 1, ‘Trade and Towns’. Richard Abels, ‘Alfred the Great and Æthelred II ‘the Unready”: the Viking Wars in England, c. 850–1016.’ Teaching Document. Last Accessed 4 February 2018.  ↩
  12. Alison Hudson,’1000th Anniversary of the Death of Æthelred the Unready.’ British Library | Medieval manuscripts blog.  ↩
  13. Roach (2016), pp. 323.
    Pauline Stafford, ‘Political Ideas in the Late Tenth–Century: Charters as Evidence.’ In: Law, Laity and Solidarities edited by Pauline Stafford, Janet L. Nelson and Jane Martindale (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001) pp. 68 [pp. 68–82].  ↩
  14. Charles Insley, ‘Chapter 6. Charters, ritual and late tenth–century English kingship.’ In: Gender and Historiography: Studies in the earlier Middle Ages in honour of Pauline Stafford. Edited by Janet L. Nelson, Susan Reynolds and Susan M. Johns. (London: University of London, 2012), pp. 76, 80 [pp. 75–90].  ↩
  15. Fraser McNair, ‘The politics of being Norman in the reign of Richard the Fearless, Duke of Normandy (r. 942–996) In: Early Medieval Europe. Volume 23.3 (2015), pp. 315, [pp. 308–328].  ↩
  16. Mark Hagger, Norman Rule in Normandy 911–1144. (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2017) pp. 229.  ↩
  17. For an overview of the Danegeld paid during Æthelred’s reign, see: Theodore Andersson, ‘The Viking Policy of Ethelred the Unready’. In: Scandinavian Studies Volume 59 (1987), pp. 291 [pp. 284–95].  ↩
  18. Courtnay Konshuh, ‘Anraed in their Unraed: The Æthelredian Annals (983–1016)and their Presentation of King and Advisors.’ In: English Studies, Volume 97, Issue 2 (2016), pp. 146 [pp. 140–162].  ↩
  19. Alfred on keeping his subjects happy: Andrew Wareham, ‘Fiscal Policies and the Institution of a Tax State in Anglo–Saxon England within a Comparative Context.’ In: The Economic History Review, Volume 65.3 (2012), pp. 917 [pp. 910–931].  ↩
  20. Courtnay Konshuh, (2016), pp. 146.
    Anonymous, “The Anglo–Saxon Chronicle | 992–993.” The Avalon Project | Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Last Accessed 17 February 2018.  ↩
  21. Simon Keynes, ‘A Tale of Two Kings: Alfred the Great and Æthelred the Unready.’ In: Transactions of the Royal Historical Society Volumes 36 (1986), pp. 211 [pp. 195–217].  ↩
  22. Anonymous, “The Anglo–Saxon Chronicle | 992–993.” The Avalon Project | Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Last Accessed 17 February 2018.  ↩
  23. Anonymous, “The Anglo–Saxon Chronicle | 994.” The Avalon Project | Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Last Accessed 01 June 2018.  ↩
  24. Ian Howard, Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991–1017. (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2003), pp. 46–47.  ↩
  25. See ‘Battle of the Svold.’ The Viking Archive ↩
  26. Andrew Wareham, ‘Fiscal Policies and the Institution of a Tax State in Anglo–Saxon England within a Comparative Context.’ In: The Economic History Review, Volume 65.3 (2012), pp. 915 [pp. 910–931].
    Emma Mason, ‘Administration and Government.’ In: A Companion to the Anglo–Norman World. Edited by Christopher Harper–Bill and Elisabeth van Houts (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2003) pp. 141 [pp. 135–164].  ↩
  27. Roach (2016), pp. 187.  ↩
  28. Dorothy Whitelock, English Historical Documents, 500–1042. Psychology Press, 1996, pp. 239–240.  ↩
  29. Roach (2016), pp. 188.  ↩
  30. Ian Howard, (2003), pp. 62.  ↩
  31. Ian Howard, (2003), pp. 68–72.  ↩
  32. Ian Howard, (2003), pp. 77–82.  ↩
  33. Ian Howard, (2003), pp. 83–84.  ↩
  34. Ian Howard, (2003), pp. 126–127.  ↩
  35. For Aethelred’s advisor commenting on the betrayals: Leonard Neidorf, ‘Archbishop Wulfstan’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ In: English Studies, Volume 97, Issue 2 (2016), pp. 212–213 [pp. 207–225].
    Charles Cawley, ‘Aelfric,’ Foundation of Medieval Genealogy. Last Accessed 11 February 2018. On Eadric’s and his betrayals:
    Dorothy Whitelock, (1996), pp. 249.
    Simon Keynes, (1986), pp. 213.
    The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Eadric Streona,’ Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Last Accessed 14 February 2018.  ↩
  36. Stefan Brink, ‘Who were the Vikings,’ in: The Viking World edited by Stefan Brink in collaboration with Neil Price (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), pp. 4–5 [pp. 4–7].  ↩
  37. Dorothy Whitelock, ‘Alfred | King of Wessex.’ Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. Last Accessed 25 May 2019.
    Simon Keynes, (1986), pp. 195–217.
    Alfred on keeping his subjects happy: Andrew Wareham, (2012), pp. 915.  ↩
  38. Richard Abels, ‘Alfred the Great and Æthelred II ‘the Unready”: the Viking Wars in England, c. 850–1016.’ Teaching Document. Last Accessed 4 February 2018.
    Simon Keynes, (1986), pp. 205–207.  ↩
  39. Kristen Carella and László Sándor Chardonnens, ‘Ræd Revisited.’ In: English Studies Volume 97.2 (17 February 2016): pp. 107 [pp. 105–8]. CUP Blog, ‘Aethelred the Unready, King of the English: 1,000 years of Bad Press.’ Published 21 April 2016. Last Accessed 22 January 2018. William of Malmesbury, ‘Kings of England. From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen.’ Transl. J. A. Giles (London: Henry G. Bohn 1847), pp.165.  ↩

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