The Life of Ethelred the Unready
The Son of Edgar the Peaceable
Ethelred the Unready was King of England from 978 to 1013 and from 1014 to 1016.
The son of Edgar the Peaceable, Ethelred’s reign was continuously troubled by Viking raids along the English coast. To make matters worse, Elthelred experienced difficulty rallying the kingdom to repel the invaders because of his perceived involvement in the assassination of Edward the Martyr.
Ethelred the Unready
Ethelred’s nickname, “The Unready” is derived from a mistranslation of “Aethelraed Unraed,” which means Ethelred the Illadvised. The epithet is thought to have been used in the primary sources to describe Ethelred’s royal council, the Witan, which was charged with giving the King sound advice. However, both Medieval and modern historians have focused on casting Ethelred as a blundering and incompetent king.
In the 1940s, Anglo-Saxon historian Sir Frank Stenton wrote, “much that has brought the condemnation of historians on King Ethelred may well be due to in the last resort the circumstances under which he became king.”
Following the death King Edgar in 975, Edward the Martyr became king after a power struggle with followers of Ethelred. Ethelred’s supporters contested Edward’s claim to the crown, arguing that the lingering questions concerning his parentage and legitimacy made him unfit to rule.
Danish Raids in Ethelred’s Reign
During the reign of King Edgar, England was at peace following the re-conquest of territory known as the Danelaw held by the Danes in the mid-10th Century. However, in 980, shortly after Ethelred became King, small companies of Danish raiders began attacking English coastal towns. Between 980 and 982, the Danes attacked Hampshire, Thanet, Cheshire, Devon and Cornwall. The raids themselves did little damage and had no lasting impact, but they are significant in English history because they brought the English into contact with Normandy for the first time.
In August, 991, a large Danish fleet appeared off the English coast, near Folkstone. It sailed up the Blackwater River and occupied Northey Island. A short distance away was the town of Maldon. The battle that followed was recorded in the epic poem, The Battle of Maldon, which described the futile efforts of Ealdorman Byrhnoth to hold off the Danes.
In the aftermath of the battle, the Danes were paid a tribute of 10,000 pounds. In spite of this, however, the Danes continued to attack towns and villages along the English coast. By 994, the Danish fleet had grown in size and attempted to attack London. The battle that was fought on the River Thames was inconclusive, and a tribute of 22,000 pounds was paid to the Danes.
The peace did not last long, however, and the Danes began raiding again in 997, attacking Cornwall, Devon, West Somerset and South Wales. The following year, the Danes attacked Kent again. In 1000, the Danes withdrew from England, retreating to Normandy. However, they returned in 1001, attacking Sussex and Devon.
In November, 1002, Ethelred ordered the massacre of all Danish men in England. This was not possible however, as there were a number of Danish strongholds that continued to harass the English until 1012.
In 1013, Sweyn Forkbeard launched an invasion of England with the intent of claiming the English crown. Sweyn quickly conquered England, forcing Ethelred into exile in Normandy. Unfortunately, Sweyn’s rule was short and he died in February, 1014. Ethelred’s restoration is significant because it marked the first recorded example of a written pact between a king and his subjects.
During the last two years of his reign, Ethelred spent much of his time and energy in a futile attempt to prevent Canute from conquering England. Ethelred died on November 30, 1016. He was buried in the Cathedral of St. Paul in London.
Godsell, Andrew “Ethelred the Unready” in “History For All” magazine September 2000, republished in “Legends of British History” (2008)
Higham, Nick, The Death of Anglo-Saxon England (1997),
Williams, Ann, Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counselled King (2003
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