Who Was Ethelred and Why Was He Unready?

CULTURE | April 30, 2019

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?

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.

coronation of Ethelred the Unready (From The Comic History of England, Volume I, by Gilbert A A'Beckett. [Bradbury, Agnew, & Co., London] Artist John Leech. Source: (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

Ethelred was unready to rule on his own due to his youth so the first few years of his reign were guided by Elfthryth and advisers. These first few years were quiet, and then after the death of one of his chief counselors in 984 started to strike out on his own.

The records state that Ethelred was led astray by counselors who advised him to seize church lands and redistribute it to the nobles as part of a back and forth dispute between monastic reforms and the rights of the aristocracy. It is probably from this, that Ethelred started to earn the Unready nickname. “Unready” as it turns out is a modern massacre of the original Old English which was un-ræd. This is a pun on Ethelred’s name which means “noble counsel” and un-ræd means “no counsel or ill-advised counsel.” Whatever the case, Ethelred himself admitted that he had been led astray.

Circa 1000, King Ethelred II of England, (ca 968 - 1016), known as 'The Unready', who reigned from 978 to 1016. He was the son of King Edgar. Original Artwork: Portrait taken from a scarce coin. Source: (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

But the big criticism of Ethelred has to do with how he handled Viking attacks on England. The Vikings had been raiding England since 793 in and had even settled in numbers in Britain. In fact, by the time of Ethelred large parts of northern and eastern England were governed by the laws of the Danes, and thus called the Danelaw. However, there had been a 25-year lull in the onslaught prior to Ethelred assuming the throne. But just as he came to power the attacks renewed peaking in 991 with the arrival of 93 Danish ships.

The English marshaled their forces but were soundly defeated at the Battle of Maldon. This resulted in Ethelred giving a large tribute of gold and silver to the Danes in 991. Further raids resulted in more payments in 994, and 1002. This tribute was called the Danegeld and eventually was turned into a tax. He had bought an uneasy peace.

But Ethelred wanted to get rid of the Danes, was he ready?  

Sweyn Forkbeard, detail of a mid-13th-century miniature. Cambridge University Library, Ee.3.59, fol. 4r. Source: (en.wikipedia.org)

After purporting that they were about to take his own life, Ethelred ordered a massacre of all Danish men in England on November 13, 1002, in the St. Brice’s Day Massacre. Villages of Danish settlers were wiped out, a church in Oxford was burned where fleeing Danes sought sanctuary. It is unknown just how many people were killed in the massacre, but it had limited success since it was ineffective in the lands of the Danelaw. Also, it managed to tick the Danes off, especially their king, Sweyn Forkbeard, whose sister had been killed in the massacre.

Sweyn invaded causing great destruction until a famine forced him and the Danes to leave in 1005. Ethelred duly continued paying the Danegeld. Finally, Sweyn invaded with a large force in 1013. He was declared King of England as English nobles declared for the Danish warlord. Ethelred fled to Normandy and the safety of his brother-in-law, the Norman King.

Cnut the Great. Source: (en.wikipedia.org)

Sweyn Forkbeard died in 1014 and the English nobles made feelers to Ethelred. Meanwhile, the Danes found a new leader in Sweyn’s son, Cnut the Great (sometimes Canute). Cnut abandoned England to Ethelred but came back in great force in 1016 with dreams of empire.

Ethelred died of unknown causes on April 14, 1016, leaving what was left of the realm to his son Edmund Ironside. After vicious fighting, Edmund and Cnut came into an agreement which divided England between them with the understanding that Cnut would become King of all England after the death of Edmund.

Ethelred the Unready, circa 968-1016. Detail of illuminated manuscript, The Chronicle of Abindon, c.1220. MS Cott. Claude B.VI folio 87, verso, The British Library. Source: (imple.wikipedia.org)

Curiously, Edmund died on November 30, 1016 – possibly of wounds he had earned from all the fighting, but it would be no surprise if he was murdered. Cnut went on to become King of England until 1035 and established a short-lived North Sea Empire between his English holdings and lands he amassed in Scandinavia.

Ethelred the Unready has gotten bad press by historians since most of the details of his reign were written well into when things were grimmest. All the same, earning the throne under the cloud of regicide and then losing that realm to foreign invaders certainly does qualify Ethelred the Unready for his paltry Civilization ranking.

Tags: King Ethelred II of England

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