AEthelred II the Unready - King of England
Created | Updated Mar 31, 2014
Æthelred1 II was King of England from 978-1016, and is known as Æthelred the Unready. His reign was not a success; in 1014 he was forced to flee England for a year, and on his death in 1016, England had been conquered by the Danish leader Cnut (aka Canute).
The Start of Æthelred II's Reign
In 975, King Edgar of England died. Edgar had ruled England since 959 after the death of his brother Eadwig, and his reign was considered a Golden Age in Anglo-Saxon England. On his death, his first son Edward, later known as Edward the Martyr, took the crown. Edward was Æthelred's half-brother.
In 978, Edward visited his brother Æthelred and Æthelred's mother Ælfthryth, Edward's step-mother, at their home in Corfe. Whilst there, he was murdered, presumably by Ælfthryth, and Æthelred became King at the age of about ten. Edward's body was left until 980 before being given a proper burial. His murder and lack of proper action by Æthelred to either bury or avenge his death meant that Æthelred II was, from the start of his reign, an unpopular king. When Edward was finally buried in 980 at Shaftesbury, miracles were considered to have happened near to his grave, which led to the adoption of his title 'the Martyr'.
Æthelred II also was given a title - the Unræd. The name Æthelred is constructed from Æthel meaning 'noble' and Ræd meaning 'counsel'. The title 'the Unræd' was a play on his name's meaning, calling Æthelred 'without good advice'. This title has, over the years, been corrupted into 'the Unready'.
Æthelred the Unready's reign of England was not as successful as his father Edgar's. It ended with the conquest of England by Swein and Cnut. From 980 AD onwards, until Æthelred's death in April 1016, Vikings attacked England more and more frequently. Finally, in 1016, Cnut was declared King of all England. The reason why the Vikings initially raided England was because England was a wealthy country. The Danegeld tribute2 was being increasingly paid; money which could have, perhaps, been paid to mercenaries to fight against the invaders, or, more profitably, in building an English armed force capable of defeating the invaders. Mercenaries and Vikings were used to try and protect the English kingdom; these included Thorkell in 1012, and Olaf Tryggvason, who promised to defend England from further raids after his conversion to Christianity in 994. Mercenaries and Viking allies, however, created their own problems, such as the risk of being betrayed by them. A better option was increasing the effectiveness of England's armed forces.
Could England Have Been Stronger?
There is evidence to suggest that England could have been a much stronger power and created a much stronger resistance than it in fact did. In 1008, Æthelred started work on building a navy whose ships were described as being 'more of them than had ever been in England in the days of any king'. This not only suggests that Æthelred's kingdom was potentially stronger than before, and therefore unlikely to be easily conquered, but could have been an effective force against the Viking invaders. However, this fleet proved to be ineffective. In this case, as in many others, those in positions to prevent the Viking invaders from doing harm turned traitor. In 1009, Prince Wulfnoth, commander of many of the ships, turned pirate and fled, resulting in the eventual loss of the entire fleet.
Æthelred did take action in response to the Viking invaders, yet what he did do was ineffective. In 1000, Æthelred campaigned against Strathclyde and the Isle of Man. Æthelred must have felt secure enough to be able to mobilise an army away from England's exposed North Sea and Channel coasts in order to do this, yet this army was not fully used against the Viking invaders. The army's potential can be seen by the events of 1014, when, after Swein's (King of Denmark) death, Æthelred returned to England from exile and, with his army, forced Cnut out of the country.
After Æthelred's death, and after nearly 36 years of raiding, England was severely weakened. However, there is evidence that suggests that England could have been a lot stronger. Edmund Ironsides, Æthelred's son, openly fought the Viking forces of Cnut effectively for the first time. The result at the battle of Ashingdon was a victory for Cnut against Edmund Ironsides, yet Edmund Ironsides maintained the freedom of the Kingdom of Wessex for the period of his reign, even though it proved to be only for just one year. Despite the defeat at Ashingdon, Edmund's actions showed that England was capable of raising an army against Viking invaders.
Only twice, in 992 and 1009, had large armies been gathered under Æthelred; at all other times the response to the Viking threat was on a local level. These local raids often resulted in the loss of brave men such as Byrhtnoth, Ealdorman3 of Essex. Those who were more willing to fight often fought with only local men and were defeated. As it was, the men who were more willing to fight were those who more likely to have died, so when a stronger attempt to face the Viking invaders was organised, it was too late for England fundamentally weakened. If a national response had been organised sooner, before the Viking forces had weakened England, it is possible that Æthelred's kingdom would not have been conquered, or at least, not as easily conquered.
What Advice did Æthelred Have?
The main weakness in Æthelred's reign was his lack of good counsel. This was apparent even to medieval historians, who named AElig;thelred the Unræd, meaning, as previously stated, 'without good advice'. This lack of good advice can be directly linked to a lack of experienced and wise advisors of any kind. When Æthelred came to the throne in 978, he was a child of around 10, with his main advisor in his first years being his mother. In the 980s and 990s, many of his advisors, inherited from the reign of Edgar, died, including Dunstan. Æthelred replaced many of these men by men who would prove to be traitors; a great example is Ealdorman Leofsige, who in 1002 killed Æfic, the King's High-Reeve4. Those who didn't turn traitor, such as Æthelgar who succeeded Dunstan, died within a very short time after their appointment. Other men who would have proved invaluable in organising a national response to the Viking threat died early too, such as Byrhtnoth in 991.
There was a very strong feeling of instability during his reign and a lot of this can be shown to have originated before Æthelred ascended the throne, during the reign of Æthelred's half-brother Edward the Martyr. During Edgar's reign, a lot of land that the Church had lost to many noble landowners was returned to the Church. After Edgar's death in 975, there were a number of attacks on Church property and the archbishops in the north of England resented being ruled by the south. This trend continued in Æthelred's reign, but did not originate in it. Edward was not, during his reign, a popular king, yet his death in Corfe also perpetuated the atmosphere of instability. As Edward's death was not avenged, nor was he given a proper funeral until 980, it seemed that England was undergoing a period of instability quite unlike the Golden Age experienced during Edgar's reign. The population at this time was very superstitious - Edward the Martyr's title itself was due to 'miracles' that occurred around the area where his body lay. This meant that people were perhaps more likely to question Æthelred's right to lead. What is certain is that many people betrayed Æthelred's decisions at one stage or another, including his son Edmund who defied Æthelred by marrying Sigeforth's widow and taking possession of the Danelaw. In fact, after Æthelred had fled to the Isle of Wight and Normandy after Swein's invasion in 1013 and his subsequent death in 1014, Æthelred was only allowed to resume being king on certain conditions negotiated by the nobles of England and Æthelred's son Edward. This suggests that there was a strong feeling of instability and division within Æthelred's kingdom, and as a result of this division, his dominions were more easily conquered.
The period of instability and division continued when the Viking raids became more serious. In 1002, Æthelweard, Ealdorman of Southwest England, died, yet the title of Ealdorman was not passed on and the area was being governed by shire-reeves alone. Æthelweard's son Æthelmaer, who would have been expected to inherit the title, later defected to Swein with considerable force. Other men in powerful positions were exiled, such as Ælfric of Mercia, Leofsige of Essex and Wulfgeat. By weakening and removing the power of those around him, Æthelred effectively removed many of those with power possibly capable of acting against the Viking invaders. Æthelred's willingness to exile and execute people he considered traitors may well explain why Wulfnoth was more willing to turn pirate and desert his king than to try and defend himself against accusations of treachery. This treatment of men in power could not fail to weaken England and this was a powerful contribution to why Æthelred's kingdom was so easily conquered.
How Loyal were Æthelred's Followers?
Æthelred's kingdom was easily conquered because of traitors such as Wulfnoth, Ælfric (Ealdorman of East Wessex) and Eadric (Ealdorman of Mercia). Yet it is important to try and understand why these people became traitors. One thing considered to be one of the King's duties at this time was to reward loyalty with grants of land and titles. In many cases, Æthelred failed to do this. He also failed to negotiate and smooth over rivalries. In 1015, Eadric betrayed Æthelred and Edmund. The Anglo-Saxon chronicles describes this:
The king then lay sick... Then Ealdorman Eadric gathered an army... when they came together, the Ealdorman [Eadric] wanted to betray the ætheling [Edmund]... and then Ealdorman Eadric enticed 40 ships from the king, and then submitted to Cnut.
One possible reason for Eadric's betrayal is due to a private feud between Eadric and Edmund. In 1015, Sigeforth and Morcar, Thegns5 of the Seven Boroughs were betrayed by Eadric and killed. When Edmund married Sigeforth's widow and took control of the Seven Boroughs, it seems likely that Eadric considered Edmund's actions to be a challenge against his own position. Eadric does not betray Æthelred until he is ill, and at Æthelred's age, this illness is likely to result in death. Edmund would be the most likely to inherit the throne, as indeed he later does after Æthelred's death in 1016. It is likely that Edmund would either exile or possibly even execute Eadric for his actions regarding Sigeforth and Morcar. Therefore, it was in Eadric's self-interest at this time to submit to Cnut, yet this rivalry between Edmund and Eadric, both men in great positions of power, weakened England so that Æthelred's kingdom was more easily conquered.
Æthelred did, however, manage to solve some problems effectively during his reign. In the late 980s, the Viking raiders were sheltered and aided by Normandy. This led to hostilities between England and Normandy, to the extent that even Pope John XV tried to bring peace between the two in a treaty in December 990. This problem was eventually solved by Æthelred's marriage to Emma, the Count of Normandy's daughter. Yet despite this, he was not able to effectively maintain this loyalty or prevent feuding among his own nobility. His actions in planning the St Brice's Day Massacre6 in 1002 did nothing to encourage loyalty among local Danes in England.
Were the Viking invaders remarkably strong during this period? This question is very simplistic, as the Viking Raids begin in the 980s, and end with the conquest of England in 1016. Although there was royal support for the raids on England, with the combined force of Norway and Denmark, the Viking forces were not united. Many Vikings, such as Thorkell, fought for Æthelred and England. Æthelred's reign lasted for 38 years, in which time there were three kings of Denmark - Harold Gormsson, Swein and Cnut. Harold Gormsson had been able to unite Denmark and Norway, yet Swein, his son, deposed him in 988 because Harold was unpopular for imposing state Christianity. Swein became king of both Denmark and Norway. Olaf Tryggvason reconquered Norway in the 990s, yet within ten years had been recovered by Swein. On Swein's death in 1014, his empire was divided with his son Harold proclaimed King of Denmark, and Cnut King of England. It was a period in which the Vikings were beginning to become more organised and strong. The raids started in the 980s when the influx of Islamic silver had ended, and another source of income was needed. However, attempts to conquer England itself started in the early 11th Century. This could be due to the possibility that Swein's sister had been killed in the St Brice's Day Massacre in 1002 and he desired revenge. In 1013, Swein was declared King of Northumbria and Æthelred had fled Britain. Later, after Swein's death in 1014, Cnut returned to England with the support of his brother Harold of Denmark. The raids on England had royal support and it is likely that Harold considered it wise to help Cnut's ambitions regarding England rather than risk Cnut turning his attentions to the throne of Denmark. The Viking invaders, therefore, were stronger and better organised than they had been before.
Overall, Æthelred's kingdom was so easily conquered because Æthelred was a poor king who did not do all that he could have to encourage loyalty among his men, and this weakness was exploited by the Viking invaders under the strong leaderships of Swein and Cnut.