Who was Ethelred the Unready and What Did He Do?

History has portrayed King Ethelred II, often known as Æthelred the Unready, as a largely incompetent leader whose terrible decision making and drastic mismanagement of the Viking invasions almost bankrupted the country. Yet he also oversaw significant progress, such as a growing population and increased trade and wealth. Let’s take a look at the life and times of Ethelred of England.

History Rulers
3 April 2023

Born around 966, the reign of King Ethelred II was almost entirely dominated by war against the Vikings and in particular, Swein Forkbeard.

While Æthelred the Unready – as he came to be known to history – won’t necessarily be mentioned in the same breath as England’s greatest monarchs, his seeming incompetence and misfortune may not be down to inherent character flaws, rather due to the hand he was dealt.

Under his watch the circumstances that befell him would have been nigh on impossible for anyone to have remained in full control. Here is the incredible story of Ethelred the Unready.

Æthelred - The Early Years

King Edward (Photo: Print Collector via Getty Images)

After his father King Edgar died suddenly in 975, Æthelred entered into a particularly vicious power struggle with his illegitimate half-brother Edward. Edward took the throne for three years but he was largely seen as a weak and ineffective king, and he offended many of the nation’s most important men with ‘his intolerable violence of speech and behaviour.’ Edward was murdered in the grounds of where Corfe Castle now stands, aged just fifteen or sixteen. Thus, in 978, King Æthelred II was crowned.

Ethelred the Unready - The Most Famous Moniker in English Royalty

Ethelred the Unready (Photo: Print Collector via Getty Images)

Old English was very different to modern English, and the name Æthelred translates as Ethel meaning ‘noble’ and ræd meaning ‘advice’ or ‘counsel’. The nickname Unready, or Unræd is the exact opposite, meaning ‘bad advice’ or ‘evil counsel’. Therefore Æthelred the Unready, in fact means ‘noble counsel, bad counsel’. It has also been translated as ‘ill-advised’ or ‘ill-prepared’. Interestingly, it was not a name used by his contemporaries, in fact the epithet was given to him at least a century and a half after he died.

King Ethelred II

Portraits of Kings including Ethelred the Unready (Photo: Print Collector via Getty Images)

After the troubled reign of his half-brother, Ethelred’s coronation was seen as a joyous occasion. Although he was probably only eleven or twelve, he was described by Oswald, Archbishop of York, as ‘a young man in respect of years, elegant in his manners, with an attractive face and handsome appearance’.

His first years on the throne were overseen by a group of trusted councillors including his mother Ælfthryth and Æthelwold, the Bishop of Winchester. When the latter died, Ethelred, aged about fourteen, removed his mother from court and ushered in a new set of advisors whose advice, it seems, was less than ideal.

In 980, the Danes attacked. At first, the raiding parties were small, attacking Cheshire, Thanet in Kent and Hampshire. Further attacks a year later targeted Devon and Cornwall and a year later, Dorset.

Five or six years passed until the next set of Danish raids and these minor skirmishes may have been dismissed as mere inconveniences. It became clear however, that the Danes were a serious and increasing threat. This came to a head in the Battle of Maldon, a coastal town in Essex, where the English suffered a crushing defeat.

All About the Money

Ethelred the Unready sword in hand (Photo: Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

In contemporary portraits, Ethelred the Unready, sword in hand, was a common sight, but he was no warrior. Far from it. England lacked a cohesive fighting force or a sufficient navy to withstand the Danish attacks.

In response to the devastating defeat at Maldon, the Witan, or council, advised Ethelred the Unready to pay tribute to the Danes, in the form of money raised in a tax known as Danegeld. This was manna from heaven for the raiders from the north, and it may be this sorry episode is why later generations saw Ethelred of England as Unready, or ill-advised.

The Danes very quickly realised that they didn’t have to risk lives. They simply showed up, anchored offshore and threatened to invade. Officials would scrape together another tribute to pay them off. With each threat, the tribute got bigger.

One contemporary report stated ‘Everyone was incapable of forming a plan to get them out of the country or to hold the country against them.’

They showed up again in 1001 and it cost the English coffers £24,000. Æthelred the Unready needed to assert some sort of control. He needed to take action.

St Brice’s Day 1002

Viking And Anglo Saxon Silver Coin Hoard (Photo: TonyBaggett via Getty Images)

With all Danes now increasingly seen as a threat to the kingdom – both those from abroad and those already settled in England – King Ethelred II and his advisors decided that action must be taken. Thus, on St Brice’s Day, 13 November 1002, the king ordered the massacre of all Danes living in England. Many perished, including, it is believed, the sister of Danish king Swein Forkbeard. Not surprisingly the Danes retaliated a year later and again in 1007, this time being bought for £36,000. A further threat of invasion in 1009 was said to have cost £48,000.

The Danish King

Swain, King of Denmark and England. (Photo: Bettmann via Getty Images)

With each tribute payment, the credibility of Ethelred of England weakened until 1013, when Swein Forkbeard attacked with such force, the king fled to Normandy and the Danish leader became king of England. However, Swein died suddenly in February 1014, and negotiations took place for Æthelred to return to the throne.

Ethelred the Unready - The End

Canute the Great (Photo: Print Collector via Getty Images)

Ethelred came back to England on condition he ruled more justly and satisfied the grievances of his council of advisors. After Swein’s death, the fight raged on with Swein’s son Cnut, known to history as Canute the Great. Ethelred himself died on St George’s Day, 23 April 1016. His son and heir, Edmund II Ironside, succeeded him, but died shortly after, leaving Canute to claim the English throne.

Ethelred was buried at the old St Paul’s Cathedral, but both the tomb and the cathedral were lost in the Great Fire of London in 1666.


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