Immortalized forever as an incompetent, ill-advised monarch by his epitaph, King Aethelred II has been viewed unfavorably by history. Over the last decade, historians have made moves to reinterpret this perception of the young king. But what led to the negative perception of the reign of Aethelred the Unready? Why was he immortalized, for so long, as ‘unready’ or ill-advised? What happened during his time as king of Anglo-Saxon England to warrant these labels?
Aethelred II: His Ascension to the Throne Spelled Trouble!
Aethelred’s accession to the throne was in no way peaceful and perhaps was even a warning for the rest of his reign. Sir Frank Stenton, an English historian of Anglo-Saxon Britain , has argued that it may well be the nature of Aethelred’s accession which has fed the idea that his rule was characterized by incompetence.
Aethelred II came to the throne of England in 978 AD as the second in line. His father was King Edgar the Peaceful, and his mother was Queen Aelfthryth. Together they had two sons, the elder was Edward (Edward the Martyr) and the younger was Aethelred (Aethelred the Unready). The former, as the first-born son of the current king, was the natural heir to the throne.
However, there were rumors that Edward was illegitimate, and his violent personality was not deemed suitable by the influential ealdormen (chief officer in a district such as a shire in Anglo-Saxon England) who had the real power in choosing the next king. Aethelred II, on the other hand, was deemed more suitable. Less violent and assuredly the son of the current king and queen, he appeared the natural choice.
Because of this contention, each son solidified themselves and their claim to the throne with the support of powerful ealdormen. Aethelred had the support of his mother, as well as Aelfhere, Ealdorman of Mercia and the Bishop Erthelwold of Winchester. Edward was supported by Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Oswald, the Archbishop of York.
Upon King Edgar’s death in 975, originally, Edward and his supporters won. He was crowned king at Kingston-Upon-Thames before the end of the year. Unfortunately for him, however, Edward’s reign did not last long. Three years later, he was murdered by members of his brother’s household. Little is known about Edward’s short reign, but historians agree that it was marked by political turmoil.
A gold mancus of young Anglo-Saxon King Aethelred II wearing armor from 1003–1006 AD. (PHGCOM / Public domain )
The Early Kingship of Young Aethelred II
Chroniclers documented the coronation of Aethelred II as a joyful one and they wrote that the councilors rejoiced at the ceremony. At this point, Aethelred was between just nine and 12 years old. Because of this, the affairs of the country were handled by leading councilors.
These influential men included Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, Aethelred’s own mother, and Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury. Unfortunately, Aethelred abandoned this support system in 984 when Aethelwold passed away.
Suddenly the young Aethelred began acting on his own and launched his own policies which involved encroachment on church powers.
Another issue reared its head for Aethelred in the form of the Danes. During the mid-10th century, whilst his father was on the throne, there had been a period of relative peace between the Saxons and Danes. However, this came to a swift end with the coronation of Aethelred.
In 980, when Aethelred was only 14 or so, small groups of Danes began to attack the English coastline . In 980 there were attacks in Hampshire, Thanet and Cheshire, in 981 attacks in Devon and Cornwall, and in 982 on Dorset. The attacks steadily increased in seriousness, until they became devastating in 1006-7 and 1009-12.
Stenton argues that whilst the early attacks left no mark on England and were isolated incidents, “their chief historical importance is that they brought England for the first time into diplomatic contact with Normandy.” This was because the Normans offered shelter to the Danes who were returning from attacks in England. Understandably this led to tension between the English and Norman courts.
A statue of Byrhtnoth, Earl of Essex, hero and loser of the Battle of Maldon in 991. Byrhtnoth was important because, although he lost the battle, he inspired the Saxons to resist the marauding Danes. The statue is cast in bronze and was created by world famous local artist John Doubleday. (Oxyman / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Battle of Maldon and Aethelred’s Fate
In August 991, a significant battle between the Saxons and Danes took place known as The Battle of Maldon. It began when a large Danish fleet conducted a sustained attack on the southeast of England. They began in Folkstone, Kent and made their way around the coast and up to Essex.
The Essex ealdormen were called up to protect their country and thegns (thegns were men who held land which was granted to them by the king or military noblemen) were stationed at key defensive points.
The battle which then occurred has been immortalized in an Old English poem called The Battle of Maldon. This poem describes the events of the battle and paints the Essex ealdorman Byrthnoth as the doomed but heroic defender of the English coastline, faced with extremely unlikely odds.
The Battle of Maldon was the first of many devastating defeats at the hands of the Danes for the English ealdorman. In order to gain some immediate stability after the Battle of Maldon, it was decided that the English would pay tribute to the Danes, in order to keep the peace. The price was set at £10,000. Despite this, the very fleet that had attacked Byrthnoth continued to raid the English coastline from 991 to 993.
The Danish fleet only grew in size until 994 when they began their journey up the Thames and into London. In this year a battle took place, however, the result was inconclusive. At this point, Aethelred met with the leaders of this Danish fleet. Together they arranged a flimsy accord. This treaty was signed and provided what seemed to be fair arrangements between the two parties such as regulation of disputes and trade. The treaty also stated that the raiding and slaughtering of the previous years would be forgotten. It ended by stating that £22,000 of gold and silver would be paid to the Danes in order to keep the peace.
Danish Viking ships on the Normandy coast from the Bayeux tapestry. (Bayeux Tapestry Museum / Public domain )
The Problem Continues
The treaty, however, did not bring about the end of the Danish raids. In 997 raids began again.
Devon, Cornwall, South Wales and Western Summerset were targets in 998, as well as Dorset, Hampshire and Sussex the next year. In 999 they raided Kent but in 1000 they left England for Normandy. This may have been because after their last raid the English had refused to pay them any tribute which by this time had become known as Danegeld (‘Dane-payment’).
In 1001 another Danish fleet arrived in England, it is unknown whether this was the same fleet as before or a new one. This time it raided West Sussex, regularly returning to the Isle of Wight where it probably had its base. In order to secure a truce, Aethelred agreed to pay the Danes £24,000 in the spring of 1002.
These continued and frequent payments of large amounts of gold and silver to his enemies is often used as an example of Aethelred’s incompetence as king. However, some historians beg to differ. Keynes has pointed out, for example, that the practice had been in place for at least a century prior to Aethelred’s reign. He states it was a practice adopted by Alfred the Great and Charles the Bald, amongst others.
Brice’s Day Massacre
One event of Aethelred’s reign that perhaps warrants his epitaph is that of the Brice’s Day massacre. On November 13th, 1002, St Brice’s day, Aethelred ordered the massacre of all the Danes in England. Fortunately for the Danes, in much of the country, a third to be exact, the order could not be carried out as there were simply too many Danish settlers and the English were vastly outnumbered.
The order, however, landed Aethelred in even more controversy because among those who were murdered was Gunhilde, the sister of Sweyn Forkbeard , King of Denmark. Ultimately, Sweyn would get his revenge.
Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, invading England in 1013 from a 13th-century miniature. ( Public domain )
A New King of England
In 1013, Sweyn launched an attack on England with the intention of invading and taking the crown for himself. By the end of 1013, the English resistance had all but collapsed and Sweyn had successfully conquered the country. This forced Aethelred II to flee to exile in Normandy.
This situation did not last long, however, because, in February 1014, Sweyn died. The Danish fleet, which was stationed in Trent on the River Trent , immediately swore allegiance to Sweyn’s cousin, Cnut the Great. Sensing this shift, the English ealdormen sent a message to Aethelred to negotiate his return to the throne.
The noblemen stated that before Aethelred could return to the throne, he must declare his loyalty to them. And he must also agree to bring in reforms they had agreed on and forgive all that had been said and done against him in the years prior. The terms of this agreement have been deemed by historians as influential in the constitutional history of England. They are the first recorded pact between a king and his subjects. The treaty is demonstrative of the fact that many of the English noblemen had only sided with Sweyn whilst Aethelred was in exile because of an innate distrust of Aethelred, rather than any feelings of loyalty to Sweyn.
Because of this message from his ealdormen, Aethelred II launched an attack against Cnut. Most of his supporters were located in Lindsey (North Lincolnshire today) but the Danes still held London. In order to recapture the capital, it is said that Aethelred sought the help of the Norwegian Olaf Haraldsson. Olaf helped Aethelred retake London as well as other areas of the country held by the Danes.
Cnut and his army were forced to withdraw from England in April 1014 abandoning his allies in Lindsey to the reinstated English king’s wrath. It is said the Olaf then left in 1016 in order to begin raiding in Western Europe.
Athelred’s charter from 1003, in London’s British Library, to his followers, which were his instructions to his people should he die suddenly, which he did about 10 years later. ( Public domain )
In the same year that Olaf left, Cnut returned but found a complex and uneasy situation unfolding in England. Aethelred’s son Edmund Ironside had led a revolt against his father and established his own power in the Danelaw (Danish-held areas). These areas were angry at both Cnut and Aethelred for the devastation at Lindsey. They were, therefore, prepared to support Edmund in an uprising.
Eventually, Edmund was forced back to his father in order to defend England when Cnut returned and began conquering again.
The fight for London, however, was cut short for Aethelred II because, in April 1016, he passed away. He was originally buried in Old St Paul’s Cathedral in London; however his tomb and monument were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.
The Legacy of Aethelred the Unready
Much of popular history has characterized Aethelred II or Aethelred the Unready by his epitaph, which was that he was unready and ill-advised.
Historians are beginning to reconsider his reign and point to the influential legislation he brought about. There are records of at least six legal codes which survive from his reign which cover a range of topics.
Despite the issues the Danes caused for most of his reign there is evidence that the quality of the coinage increased which is an indicator of good economic conditions. This was because of the multiple coinage reforms he put in place.
The way Aethelred’s reign has been characterized by history is illustrative of how popular history tends to look at the past with the unacknowledged benefit of hindsight. Whilst there is no doubt Aethelred II made some questionable choices during his reign, there is also no doubt that he was faced with immense problems and pressures which did not have easy solutions.
Top image: Aethelred II or Aethelred the Unready sitting on his throne unaware that history would judge him to be unready for what lay ahead as the Anglo-Saxons battled the Danish Vikings. From the illuminated manuscript, The Chronicle of Abindon, circa 1220 AD. Source: The British Library / Public domain
By Molly Dowdeswell
Keynes, Simon. 2012). The Burial of King Æthelred the Unready at St. Paul’s. Boydell Press.
Stenton, Frank Merry. 2001. Anglo-Saxon England . Oxford University Press.
Sawyer, Peter. 1987. Ethelred II, Olaf Tryggvason, and the conversion of Norway. Scandinavian Studies 59.3