Ethelred II began his reign under a cloud. Although he enjoyed a relatively long reign from 979 to 1016, he never managed to escape that cloud. Both of his predecessors had died prematurely, and he was still a youth when he ascended the throne. By the time he came of age, internal divisions were further complicated by intense Viking attacks that much like those that had resulted in the creation of the Danelaw on English soil. History calls him “The Unready,” reflecting the contemporary term Unraed; this contrasted his name, which means “noble counsel,” with its opposite, “without good advice.”
Ethelred was the son of King Edgar and his second wife, Elfrida. In 975, Edgar died unexpectedly at 32, with Ethelred only about 11 years of age, and his half-brother Edward 16. Edward was the more natural heir, and enjoyed the patronage of Archbishop Dunstan. Many among the nobility, however, were angry at the extensive expansion of monasteries under Edgar, and wished to see the monastic endowments curbed. Such a move would, of course, have benefited them, and they saw Ethelred as the better candidate.
After three years under Edward, Ethelred’s mother Elfrida took matters in her own hands and arranged the King’s murder. Ironically, given that she had assumed leadership in the anti-monastic nobility, she eventually repented of the deed and became a nun, but her son still became king. Edward died on March 18, 978; Ethelred’s coronation was just over a year later. Because of his age, he did not begin to govern in his own right until 983.
Trouble attended his reign from the start. In response to political developments in Scandinavia, in which Denmark and Norway were united and Christianized under Harold Gormsson, pagan Vikings again took to the seas in large numbers, and found England to be a relatively weak target. These attacks began before Ethelred’s majority, but while this observation absolves Ethelred of some measure of blame, it does nothing to mitigate England’s weakness.
Nor did the arrival of adulthood change the weakness of Ethelred’s rule; in some ways, it increased. The old advisors who had served his father well, such as Archbishops Dunstan and Oswald, were dying out between the late 980s and the early 990s. Ethelred showed little discernment in the elevation of new advisors, even as he showed little wisdom and constancy in his own behavior.
In theory, England still had the capacity to fight back against the Danes. Notable defenses, such as that performed by Byrhtnoth at the river Blackwater, demonstrated that both the will and the skill to fight existed. Ethelred squandered such potential, however, by offering tribute to dissuade further attacks, and in the process, he only encouraged more. At other times, he attempted to raise a force to meet the attackers, but such forces were never applied in a concerted effort, and nothing came of them.
As the 990s progressed, the Scandinavians came in ever greater numbers, led by important leaders such as Olaf Tryggvason of Norway and Sweyn, son of the Danish king. Rich tribute and ineffective battle encouraged them, and some Danes began to settle in England. In some areas, such settlement was significant. In 1002, Ethelred ordered the killing of all Danes in England on St. Brice’s Day, November 13. This act was truly the worst of both worlds: It could not have been carried out in those places where Danes lived in any great numbers, but it was executed in places where the Danes were few, and this inspired a desire for revenge. Among those slain was a princess, Gunnhild; her brother was Sweyn, who had since become the King of Denmark, and he was determined to avenge her death.
For the next several years, Danish attacks came heavily. Then, in 1013, Sweyn led a concerted invasion that resulted in Ethelred’s flight to Normandy, where he had connections due to his 1002 marriage to the Duke’s daughter, Emma. Sweyn was proclaimed king in England, but died the following year, and Ethelred returned to his throne.
Initially, Ethelred chased off Sweyn’s heir, Canute; when the latter returned, Ethelred hoped to use tribute to keep him away, with the same lack of success. Ethelred’s son, Edmund, fought Canute largely independently in the Danelaw. On April 23, 1016, this campaign became official when Ethelred died, leaving Edmund as the new king, Edmund II.
Overall, Ethelred’s memory is maligned more than is just. The crises that consumed his reign were not of his making, although he did little to ameliorate them and sometimes did much to exacerbate them. The real problem is that he lacked the firmness of purpose and the sense for selecting good advisors that characterized so many of his predecessors. As his challenges blossomed, he alternated between military action and the payment of tribute, gaining the benefits of neither while paying the price for both, all the while entrusting the execution of his plans to many who were unable or unwilling to play their appointed parts when the time came to act. The decline of Anglo-Saxon England really began with his long reign.
Cannon, John and Ralph Griffiths. The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Monarchy. Oxford, 1988.
Fisher, D.J.V. The Anglo-Saxon Age: c. 400-1042. Barnes & Noble, 1973.
Whitlock, Ralph. The Warrior Kings of Saxon England. Barnes & Noble, 1993.
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