Ethelred the Unready

The Anglo-Saxon king Ethelred the Unready (c. 968-1016) ruled the English from 978 to 1016. During his reign England was repeatedly attacked by Danish armies seeking to destroy the sovereignty of the Anglo-Saxons and to plunder their land.

Born into the royal house of Wessex, which was at that time the effective ruler of all the Anglo-Saxons, Ethelred was a direct descendant of Alfred the Great and the son of King Edgar, who had ruled a united and peaceful England for 16 years. At Edgar's death in 975, the realm passed to Ethelred's brother Edward, who was still a child. The nobles of the kingdom formed rival parties around Edward and Ethelred, and the latter's supporters murdered Edward on March 18, 978, making Ethelred king. Edward was soon widely honored as a martyred saint, and devotion to him gave many an excuse to withhold allegiance from his successor.

From the time of Ethelred's accession at the age of 9 or 10, his reign was tragically marred by the treason and revolt of his leading thegns (noblemen). The ensuing disorder was nourished by his own indecisive character and by the renewal of Danish raids on England in 980 after a pause of 25 years. Increasing Danish aggressiveness complemented the increasing English disunity and military ineffectiveness. In 991 Ethelred instituted a policy of buying off Danish raiders with lavish payments of silver. Given the inadequacy of English defenses, it was a strategically sound but psychologically demoralizing decision that mocked the heroic traditions of the Anglo-Saxons.

In 1009 an enormous army, sent by King Swein of Denmark, arrived in England to depose Ethelred. Although the English bought the invaders off in 1012, the following year Swein led another invasion. Much of the demoralized English nation submitted to his rule. Ethelred resisted from London for some months, then finally fled to Normandy. After Swein died suddenly in February 1014, Ethelred was reinstated as king. His rule was challenged by Cnut, Swein's younger son, and apparently by his own son Edmund Iron-sides.

Cnut's first campaign misfired, and he retreated to Denmark, only to return to England with a new army in 1015. Ethelred and Edmund joined forces against the invader early in 1016 at London. But on April 23, 1016, Ethelred died. Edmund succeeded him and struggled on for a few months. However, by the end of the year Edmund too was dead, and Cnut became the ruler of England.


Further Reading on Ethelred the Unready

The primary source for Ethelred's reign is The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, edited and translated by G. N. Garmonsway (1953; 2d ed. 1955); its account of these troubled years is unusually thorough and impassioned. The best analysis of Ethelred's policies and shortcomings is in F. M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (1943; 2d ed. 1947). See also Christopher N. L. Brooke, The Saxon and Norman Kings (1963).