Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

Aethelred the Unready

Steve Muhlberger

The original name was Aethelred Unraed -- Aethelred the Ill-advised. It was a pun. Aethelred, like many Old English names, had a meaning -- it meant "good advice," or "good counsel." So Aethelred Unraed meant "Good Counsel the Ill-Advised."

A  crucial talent for a king must be knowing who to trust and who to listen to. Aethelred did not have this gift, and so he spent most of his reign staggering from one defeat to the next. Finally he lost his throne and his wife both to Cnut (Knut), better known as Canute, king of Denmark.

This rather complicated story begins in 975, with the death of King Edgar, Aethelred's father. Edgarwas still a very young man -- he was in his early 30s. He left behind him two young sons, the half-brothers Edward and Aethelred. He also left a divided nobility and court, who lined up behind the two brothers.

The divisions were no doubt partly due to personalities, but there were also issues in doubt. Edgar had stepped on a lot of toes in his reforming zeal.  The person who was most bent out of shape was a man named Aelfhere, the ealdorman of Mercia and formerly the most important man in the district of Worcester. He was angry about that great territory around Worcester that had been given to Oswald.

With the reformers' support, Edward won the backing of most of the nobility and was chosen king. But he was in a weak position. Aelfhere, a bold character, started sacking abbeys in western Mercia and dispersing their monks. Elsewhere the reformers were not so vulnerable, but lesser landowners started suing monasteries for the return of property they had lost in Edgar's time.

Edward may have tried to halt this reaction, but he was not successful. Nor did he last long himself. In 978 some of Aethelred's retainers, almost certainly including Aelfhere, murdered him as he came to visit his brother. The crime was something of a shock, and it cast a shadow over Aethelred, who of course immediately followed his brother on the throne. He was too young to have been personally responsible, but the political atmosphere was soured nonetheless. An aggravating factor was that no one was ever accused of the crime or punished for it.

Aethelred had gained little but the throne itself. Aelfhere died a few years later, and his son, who took his place in Mercia, turned traitor at the first opportunity. So Aethelred had the misfortune of growing up as king with no close allies, no one he could really trust.

He was soon in need of those allies, because beginning in 980, Viking raids on England began again.

There were differences between the early Vikings and the Scandinavian attackers who worried England in the time of Aethelred. The ninth-century Vikings were either small groups of pirates or the followers of landless warlords looking for a country to rule.  The military regime built by Alfred and his children was specifically designed to keep England safe from such Viking attacks, and it worked.

By the late 10th century, however, the Vikings themselves had adapted. Scandinavia had produced a new breed of warlords who were more powerful and well-organized than their predecessors.  The evidence indicates that the warlords of Aethelred's time were a more sophisticated bunch, leading professional, well organized armies instead of larger or smaller pirate bands.

These warlords were correspondingly more powerful than the earlier ones. Two of the men who raided England in this period, Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf Haraldsson, later went home and made themselves King of Norway -- something earlier Vikings had been unable to do. Aethelred's most dangerous enemy, Svein Forkbeard, was dangerous precisely because he was already king of Denmark, and had the resources of that realm to throw against England.

The most detailed account of the new Viking attacks on England is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The section up to 1016 gives the impression that Aethelred's reign was one of unmitigated disaster and treachery, almost from the beginning. Actually, the whole section on Aethelred was written in retrospect in 1016, when the author knew that the outcome was complete defeat. Knowing the outcome, he saw a black cloud over the whole reign.

Those who were living in the 980s, even up to 994, might not have recongized this gloomy picture. Aethelred's kingdom was still the most powerful English state that had ever existed.  It was probably in this time, in fact, that the parishes of England were created.Religion was being brought directly to the ordinary people, who were thenceforth expected to pay for it on a regular basis through tithes -- a ten percent income tax paid to the parish priest or his patron. The government that was able to do this was also able to beat off a number of raids in force.

Aethelred also took the sensible precaution of forging an alliance with Richard, duke of Normandy in 991. Richard, a descendant of Danish Vikings, had long allowed pirates access to his ports, right across the English Channel. The agreement of Aethelred cut the Vikings off. Aethelred later, in 1002, strengthened this alliance by marrying Emma, Richard's daughter. Emma, rather confusingly, was known to the English as Aelfgifu, which had been the name of Aethelred's first wife.

Despite his diplomatic coup in 991, things started getting worse for Aethelred soon after. Near the end of that year, a sizeable Viking fleet under Olaf Tryggvason landed in Essex, and defeated an English army under Brythnoth, an old, experienced warrior who had long been a political power in the land. Aethelred and his advisors decided, rather than risk further losses, Olaf and his troops should be paid to go away. Aethelred's government had the power to collect a large amount of silver quickly, and the deal was made.

The paying out of so much silver at once encouraged others to try their luck in England. At the same time, the English military leadership faltered. In 994, England was attacked for the first time by Svein, king of Denmark, who in cooperation with Olaf Tryggvason ravaged the southeastern corner of England and tried to take London. The Londoners repulsed them, which created an opening for negotiation. In the end, 16,000 pounds were paid out, and both Scandinavian kings sailed away.

Olaf was gone for good.  Svein, however, would return in a few years, and in the meantime other armies were attacking England. Neither Aethelred nor his subordinates showed capable leadership. Armies were gathered, fleets assembled, but they were seldom put to effective use.

What is remarkable is that he retained administrative power. Aethelred's tributes, paid out in 991, 994, 1002, and 1007 were very large and collected very quickly. This is indicative of a well-organized government. The taking of tribute evolved very quickly into a permanent tax on land, eventually known as Danegeld. Aethelred was the only European monarch to have the ability to collect a land tax (excluding Muslim Spain), and he was perhaps the first since Roman times (excluding the Muslims) to do so. Thus militarily weak Aethelred was, curiously enough, uniquely strong when it came to raising taxes.

This emphasizes that England, even with poor leadership, was not the easy target it had been in the 860s. The large, tough Viking armies could loot and exact tribute, but for a long time they did not dare do more.

In 1009, the Vikings stepped up their campaigns.  A Dane named Thorkell the Tall, an ally of Svein ravaged SE England.   After two years of raiding, Thorkell went  over to Aethelred with forty ships. It was at this time that the Danegeld became a permanent tax -- it was used to pay Thorkell for his services. Thorkell, surprisingly enough, stayed loyal to Aethelred for several years, but his services were not sufficient to stem the tide.

In 1013, Svein showed up with a big fleet and started to conquer the country. Towns, counties and noblemen, fed up with war, submitted to Svein. At Christmas Aethelred and his wife Emma ran off to her relatives in Normandy. Svein was generally recognized as King of England.

Just a few month later, the Danish conquest of England came unravelled. Svein died at the beginning of February, 1014. The Danish army chose his son Cnut as king. The native aristocracy, however, had second thoughts. They sent messengers to Normandy, telling Aethelred that he would be king if he promised to forgive their defection and to be a better king than he had been before. Aethelred came right back and did his best. He led an army personally to attack Cnut's fleet and his Engish allies by the banks of the Humber. Cnut was actually forced to flee. This was not so much because he feared to fight the English (and Thorkell), but because he was worried about things in Denmark.

Thorkell, too, left England. Danes had become very unpopular suddenly, and his brother had been murdered.

It was a very short respite. In 1015, with things sorted out in Denmark, both Cnut and Thorkell returned. Despite his determined performance of the year before, Aethelred was unable to keep the loyalty of his chief men.  The one thing that prevented a quick collpase was the leadership of Edmund Ironside, Aethelred's eldest son,a ruthless and decisive man with a good amount of military talent. When his father died in 1016, Edmund claimed the kingship, forced concessions from Cnut,  but then himself diedat the end of November. Cnut, without a fight, got all of England.

Despite the long agony of Aethelred's reign, England was not wholly overthrown in the early years of the 11th century the way it had been in the years after 865. There was no large-scale settlement, no pagan presence (Cnut was a third generation Christian), and no destruction of monasteries and episcopal diocese.  The chief result of Cnut's victory was to give the richest, best organized government in Christian Europe and one of the most cultured of western Christian countries to the greatest warrior in Europe. For the near future, England was to find itself not so much a conquered country as the center of a large Scandinavian empire.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.