Who Was Ethelred and Why Was He Unready?

By | April 29, 2019

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Medieval illumination depicting Kings Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut (right), from the Chronica Majora written and illustrated by Matthew Paris. Source:(en.wikipedia.org)

In my freshman year of college, I became entranced with Sid Meier’s Civilization. This computer game is a contest of empires in which you struggle through the ages to build the mightiest civilization in simulated history. You could be Alexander the Great and go to war with such luminaries as Napoleon Bonaparte or even the venerable Abraham Lincoln. At the end of the game, you saw how well you did in a scoreboard that compares you to historical leaders. The second worst score from the bottom, sandwich between Warren G. Harding and Dan Quayle, was the obscure “Ethelred the Unready.”

So who was Ethelred and why did he earn such an ignominious appellation?

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Circa 978 AD, Edward the Martyr (c 963 - 978), Anglo Saxon King of England, the elder son of King Edgar. About to be murdered at Corfe Castle. Source: (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Ethelred II, or Æthelred II if you go by the Old English spelling, was an Anglo-Saxon King of the English from 978 to 1016 a.d. He became king after intrigue worthy of “A Game of Thrones.” His father, Edgar the Peaceful died (apparently peacefully) in 975 leaving behind two sons. The elder, Edward, was probably illegitimate and born circa 962. The younger son, Ethelred, was Edgar’s legitimate son with Queen Elfthryth (also Ælfthryth) and born circa 966. Both half-brothers were no more than teenagers at the time of their father’s death.

Edward being older got enough support to take the throne although there were many discontents. In 978, a plot was hatched, either by his stepmother Elfthryth or Ethelred’s men. While visiting his half brother at Corfe Castle, he was pulled from his horse and stabbed by Ethelred’s retainers. Edward's foot was caught in the stirrup and the horse bolted in panic, dragging the murdered king away. It was generally assumed Ethelred was not responsible for the assassination but rather his mother. Thus Elfthryth forever got linked to evil stepmother tropes, Edward became a saint and was called Edward the Martyr, and Ethelred became King of the English as a preteen. There was understandably a dark cloud of suspicion about the succession.