King Æthelred, known as Æthelred the Unready, was the king of England from 978 to 1016, giving him one of the longest reigns (approximately 38 years) of any early medieval English monarch. Despite his long reign, he gained the reputation as an incompetent ruler.
Æthelred’s early life
Æthelred was the son of King Edgar of England (reigned 959–975). Edgar’s reign was remembered as a time of peace and prosperity, which saw a flourishing of learning and reform of the English Church and government. Æthelred’s mother, Queen Ælfthryth (died 999–1001), was a key part of this process, as an ally and patron of the reformers.
When Edgar died in 975, he was succeeded by his son, Edward. King Edward the Martyr was murdered by nobles near Corfe Castle in Dorset in 978, and was succeeded by Æthelred, aged about 10. In later years, Æthelred helped to promote the cult of Edward the Martyr.
In the early years of Æthelred’s reign, two of the most powerful forces in the kingdom were Ælfthryth, the king’s mother, and Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester. When Æthelwold died in 984, Æthelred took advantage of the situation to seize more power, sending his mother away from court and promoting new advisors. This was the first of several upheavals at the royal court during Æthelred’s reign.
The second Viking Age
These changes at court coincided with renewed Viking attacks in the 980s and 990s. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 980 or 981 ‘for the first time seven ships [from the North] came and ravaged Southampton’. Further attacks were recorded in 982, 987, 988 and 991, when the English suffered a huge defeat at the Battle of Maldon.
There was a brief respite in attacks in 994/5, when Æthelred concluded a peace agreement with the Scandinavian leader, Olaf Tryggvason. Æthelred’s officials, including the archbishop of Canterbury, arranged for the English to pay money known as ‘Danegeld’ to the Scandinavian forces in order to avoid further attacks.
Meanwhile, Æthelred improved diplomatic relations with Richard II, duke of Normandy (reigned 996–1026), whom he had accused of harbouring the Viking forces that were attacking England. After Æthelred’s first wife died, he married Richard’s sister, Emma of Normandy.
Æthelred’s later years
The Scandinavian attacks on England resumed in the first decade of the 11th century, despite the payment of Danegeld. By late 1013, Æthelred was forced to flee to Normandy, as the forces of the Scandinavian leader, Swein Forkbeard, swept through the kingdom.
After Swein’s death in 1014, King Æthelred was invited to return from exile by the Anglo-Saxon nobles, on the condition (according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) that ‘he would govern them more justly than he did before’.
Æthelred’s luck did not change for the better. His eldest son, the Atheling Æthelstan, died suddenly in June 1014, and the Scandinavian forces continued their attacks. Æthelred increasingly relied on the treacherous English nobleman, Eadric Streona, who would switch sides multiple times during the war.
Æthelred was also in ill health. He died on 23 April 1016, as the future King Cnut (reigned 1016–1035) advanced on London. For a brief period, Æthelred was succeeded as king by his son, Edmund Ironside, who died in November 1016.
Æthelred’s nicknames, ‘Unræd’ and ‘Unreddi’, are first attested in sources written many decades after his death. But he did not have a glowing reputation in historical accounts written shortly after his reign. The longest description of Æthelred’s reign is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This account was apparently composed after Æthelred’s death by someone who was bitter about the repeated invasions:
He ended his days on St George’s Day, and he had held his kingdom with great toil and difficulties as long as his life lasted.
Translated by Dorothy Whitelock and others, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), p. 95.
Æthelred was completely written out of other narratives associated with the new regime of King Cnut, including, most notably, the first version of a work written in praise of his wife, Queen Emma.
This should be balanced by other manuscripts which show that he was commemorated in England after his death, such as the New Minster Book of Life.