Ethelred II (c. 968 – 23 April 1016), also known as Æthelred II, Aethelred II, Ethelred the Unready, Æthelred the Unready and Aethelred the Unready (from Old English Æþelræd), was King of England (978–1013, and 1014–1016). He was a son of King Edgar and his queen Ælfthryth. The majority of his reign (991–1016) was marked by a developing, defensive war against Danish invaders.
The story of Ethelred's notorious nickname, "Ethelred the Unready", from Old English Æþelræd Unræd, goes a long way to explaining how his reputation has declined through history. His first name, composed of the elements æðele, meaning "noble", and ræd, meaning "counsel" or "advice", is typical of the bombastic compound names of those belonging to the royal house of Wessex, and it characteristically alliterates with the names of his ancestors like, for example, Æthelwulf ("noble-wolf"), Ælfred ("elf-counsel"), Edward ('prosperous-protection'), and Edgar ("rich-spear"). His nickname Unræd is usually translated into present-day English as 'The Unready', though, because the present-day meaning of 'unready' no longer resembles its ancient counterpart, this translation completely disguises the meaning of the Old English term. Bosworth-Toller defines the noun unræd in various ways, though it seems always to have been used pejoratively. Generally, it means "evil counsel", "bad plan", "folly". Bosworth-Toller do not record it as describing a person directly; it most often describes decisions and deeds, and at least once refers to the nature of Satan's deceit. The element ræd in unræd is the element in Ethelred's name which means 'counsel'. Thus Æþelræd Unræd is a pun meaning "Noble counsel, No counsel". The nickname has alternatively been taken adjectivally as "ill-advised", "ill-prepared", "indecisive", thus "Ethelred the ill-advised".
The epithet would seem to describe the poor quality of advice which Ethelred received throughout his reign, presumably from those around him, and specifically the royal council, known as the Witan. Though the nickname does not suggest anything particularly respectable about the king himself, its invective is not actually focused on the king but on those around him, who were expected to provide the young king with god ræd. Unfortunately, historians, both medieval and modern, have taken less an interest in what this epithet suggests about the king's advisers, and have instead focused on the image it creates of a blundering, misfit king. Because the nickname was first recorded in the 1180s, more than 150 years after Ethelred's death, it is doubtful that it carries any implications for how the king was seen by his contemporaries or near contemporaries.
Edward ruled for only three years before he was murdered by his brother's household. Though we know little about Edward's short reign, we do know that it was marked by political turmoil. Edward, perhaps owing to his close connections with Dunstan and Oswald, was fond of endowing monasteries with large land-holdings, which often had to be at the expense of the local influence of the ealdormen and thegns whose job and privilege it was to govern England's many shire communities. Resentment on the part of the king's royal officers was inevitable, and perhaps an air of hostility towards Edward was beginning to propagate through the nobility. Nevertheless, favour for Edward must have been strong among the monastic communities. When Edward was killed at Ethelred's estate at Corfe in Dorset in March of 978, the job of recording the event, as well as reactions to, it fell to monastic writers. Stenton offers a summary of the earliest account of Edward's murder, which comes from a work praising the life of Saint Oswald of Worcester: "On the surface his [Edward's] relations with Æthelred his half-brother and Ælfthryth his stepmother were friendly, and he was visiting them informally when he was killed. [Æthelred's] retainers came out to meet him with ostentatious signs of respect, and then, before he had dismounted, surrounded him, seized his hands, and stabbed him. ... So far as can be seen the murder was planned and carried out by Æthelred's household men in order that their young master might become king. There is nothing to support the allegation, which first appears in writing more than a century later, that Queen Ælfthryth had plotted her stepson's death. No one was punished for a part in the crime, and Æthelred, who was crowned a month after the murder, began to reign in an atmosphere of suspicion which destroyed the prestige of the crown. It was never fully restored in his lifetime. Nevertheless, at first, the outlook of the new king's officers and counsellors seems in no way to have been bleak. According to one chronicler, the coronation of Ethelred took place with much rejoicing by the councillors of the English people. Simon Keynes notes that "Byrhtferth of Ramsey states similarly that when Æthelred was consecrated king, by Archbishop Dunstan and Archbishop Oswald, 'there was great joy at his consecration’, and describes the king in this connection as ‘a young man in respect of years, elegant in his manners, with an attractive face and handsome appearance’. Ethelred could not have been older than 13 years of age in this year.
During these early years, Ethelred was developing a close relationship to Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, one who had supported his unsuccessful claim to the throne. When Æthelwold died, on 1 August 984, Ethelred deeply lamented the loss, and he wrote later in a charter from 993 that the event had deprived the country of one "whose industry and pastoral care administered not only to my interest but also to that of all inhabitants of the country.
England had experienced a period of peace after the reconquest of the Danelaw in the mid-10th century by King Edgar, Ethelred's father. However, beginning in 980, when Ethelred could not have been more than 14 years old, small companies of Danish adventurers carried out a series of coast-line raids against England. Hampshire, Thanet, and Cheshire were attacked in 980, Devon and Cornwall in 981, and Dorset in 982. A period of 6 years then passed before, in 988, another coastal attack is recorded taking place to the south-west, though here a famous battle was fought between the invaders and the thegns of Devon. Stenton notes that, though this series of isolated raids had no lasting effect on England themselves, "their chief historical importance is that they brought England for the first time into diplomatic contact with Normandy. During this period, the Normans, who remembered their origins as a Scandinavian people, were well-disposed to their Danish cousins who, occasionally returning from a raid on England, would seek port in Normandy. This led to grave tension between the English and Norman courts, and word of their enmity eventually reached Pope John XV. The pope was disposed to dissolve their hostility towards each other, and took steps to engineer a peace between England and Normandy, which was ratified in Rouen in 991.
However, in August of that same year a sizable Danish fleet began a sustained campaign in the south-east of England. It arrived off Folkestone, in Kent, and made its way around the south-east coast and up the river Blackwater, coming eventually to its estuary and occupying Northey Island. About 2 km east of Northey lies the coastal town of Maldon, where Byrhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex, was stationed with a company of thegns. The battle that followed between English and Danes is immortalized by the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, which describes the doomed but heroic attempt of Byrhtnoth to defend the coast of Essex against overwhelming odds. Stenton summarizes the events of the poem: "For access to the mainland they [the Danes] depended on a causeway, flooded at high tide, which led from Northey to the flats along the southern margin of the estuary. Before they [the Danes] had left their camp on the island Byrhtnoth, with his retainers and a force of local militia, had taken possession of the landward end of the causeway. Refusing a demand for tribute, shouted across the water while the tide was high, Byrhtnoth drew up his men along the bank, and waited for the ebb. As the water fell the raiders began to stream out along the causeway. But three of Byrthnoth's retainers held it against them, and at last they asked to be allowed to cross unhindered and fight on equal terms on the mainland. With what even those who admired him most called 'over-courage', Byrhtnoth agreed to this; the pirates rushed through the falling tide, and battle was joined. Its issue was decided by Byrhtnoth's fall. Many even of his own men immediately took to flight and the English ranks were broken. What gives enduring interest to the battle is the superb courage with which a group of Byrhtnoth's thegns, knowing that the fight was lost, deliberately gave themselves to death in order that they might avenge their lord. This would be the first of a series of crushing defeats felt by the English at the hands of first Danish raiders, then organized Danish armies.
In 991 Ethelred was around 24 years old. In the aftermath of Maldon, it was decided that the English should grant the tribute to the Danes that they desired, and so a gafol of 10,000 pounds was paid them for their peace. Yet it was presumably the Danish fleet that had beaten Byrhtnoth at Maldon that continued to ravage the English coast from 991-93. In 994, the Danish fleet, which had swollen in ranks since 991, turned up the Thames estuary and headed towards London. The battle fought there was inconclusive. It was about this time that Ethelred met with the leaders of the fleet, foremost among them Olaf Tryggvason, and arranged an uneasy accord. A treaty was signed between Ethelred and Olaf that provided for seemingly civilized arrangements between the now-settled Danish companies and the English government, such as regulation settlement disputes and of trade. But the treaty also stipulates that the ravaging and slaughter of the previous year will be forgotten, and ends abruptly by stating that 22,000 pounds of gold and silver have been paid the raiders as the price of peace. In 994, Olaf Tryggvason, already a baptized Christian, was confirmed as Christian in a ceremony at Andover; King Æthelred stood as his sponsor. After receiving gifts, Olaf promised "that he would never come back to England in hostility. Olaf then left England for Norway and never returned, though "other component parts of the Viking force appear to have decided to stay in England, for it is apparent from the treaty that some had chosen to enter into King Æthelred's service as mercenaries, based presumably on the Isle of Wight.
In 997 Danish raids began again. According to Keynes, "there is no suggestion that this was a new fleet or army, and presumably the mercenary force created in 994 from the residue of the raiding army of 991 had turned on those whom it had been hired to protect. It harried Cornwall, Devon, western Somerset, and south Wales in 997, Dorset, Hampshire, and Sussex in 998. In 999 it raided Kent, and in 1000 it left England for Normandy, perhaps because the English had refused in this latest wave of attacks to acquiesce to the Danish demands for gafol or tribute, which would come to be known as Danegeld, 'Dane-payment'. This sudden relief from attack Ethelred used to gather his thoughts, resources, and armies: the fleet's departure in 1000 "allowed Æthelred to carry out a devastation of Strathclyde, the motive for which is part of the lost history of the north.
In 1001 a Danish fleet - perhaps the same fleet from 1000 - returned and ravaged west Sussex. During its movements, the fleet regularly returned to its base in the Isle of Wight. There was later an attempted attack in the south of Devon, though the English mounted a successful defence at Exeter. Nevertheless, Ethelred must have felt at a loss, and in the Spring of 1002 the English bought a truce for 24,000 pounds. Ethelred's frequent payments of immense Danegelds are often held up as exemplary of the incompetency of his government and his own short-sightedness. However, Keynes points out that such payments had been practice for at least a century, and had been adopted by Alfred the Great, Charles the Bald, and many others. Indeed, in some cases it "may have seemed the best available way of protecting the people against loss of life, shelter, livestock, and crops. Though undeniably burdensome, it constituted a measure for which the king could rely on widespread support.
It seems that no amount of money could staunch the flow of Danish assaults, however, indeed it may have encouraged them, for in 1003 Danish armies were again active in the west under the command of Swein Forkbeard, who had been with fleet that had attacked London in 994. By 1004 Swein was in East Anglia, where he sacked Norwich. In this year a nobleman of East Anglia, Ulfcytel Snillingr met Swein in force, and made an impression on the, until then, rampant Danish expedition. Though Ulfcytel was eventually defeated, outside of Thetford, he caused the Danes heavy losses and was nearly able to destroy their ships. The Danish army left England for Denmark in 1005, perhaps because of their injuries sustained in East Anglia, perhaps from the very severe famine which afflicted the continent and the British Isles in that year.
During the next twelve years England was devastated by a succession of large Danish armies, either under the leadership of King Sweyn I of Denmark or of other commanders such as Thorkell the Tall, which Ethelred's government failed to combat effectively. He was only able to halt the depredations of these armies by the payment of large payments of Danegeld. Each payment led to the withdrawal of the Danes, but on each occasion a fresh onslaught began after a year or two, and each Danegeld payment was much larger than the last. Ethelred's most desperate response was the massacre of the Danes living in England on St Brice's Day (13 November) 1002. Finally in 1013 English resistance collapsed and Sweyn conquered the country, forcing Ethelred into exile, but after his victory Sweyn lived for only another five weeks. In 1014, Canute the Great was proclaimed King of England by the Danish army in England, but was forced out of England that year. Canute launched a new invasion in 1015. Subsequently, Ethelred's control of England was already collapsing once again when he died at London on 23 April 1016. Ethelred was buried in St Paul's and was succeeded by his son, Edmund Ironside.
His second marriage, in 1002, was to Emma of Normandy, sister of Richard II, duke of Normandy. Emma's grandnephew, William I of England, would later use this relationship as the basis of his claim on the throne. They had two sons, Eadweard (later King of England and known now as Edward the Confessor) and Ælfred Ætheling. By this marriage, he also had Goda of England, who married Drogo of Mantes, Count of Vexin.
Despite the failure of his government in the face of the Danish threat, Ethelred's reign was not without some achievements. The quality of the coinage, a good indicator of the prevailing economic conditions, significantly improved during his reign due to his numerous coinage reform laws.
Efforts to rehabilitate Ethelred's reputation have gained momentum since about 1980. Chief among the rehabilitators has been Simon Keynes, who has often argued that our poor impression of Ethelred is almost entirely based upon after-the-fact accounts of, and later accretions to, the narrative of events during Ethelred's long and complex reign. Chief among the culprits is in fact one of the most important sources for the history of the period, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which, as it reports events with a retrospect of 15 years, cannot help but interpret colour events with the eventual English defeat a foregone conclusion. Yet, as virtually no strictly contemporary narrative account of the events of Ethelred's reign exists, historians are forced to rely on what evidence there is. Keynes and others thus draw attention to some of the inevitable snares of investigating the history of a man whom later popular opinion has utterly damned. Recent cautious assesments of Ethelred's reign have more often uncovered reasons to doubt, than uphold, Ethelred's later infamy. Though the failures of his government will always put Ethelred's reign in the shadow of the reigns of kings Edgar, Aethelstan, and Alfred, historians' current impression of Ethelred's personal character is certainly not as unflattering as it once was: "Æthelred's misfortune as a ruler was owed not so much to any supposed defects of his imagined character, as to a combination of circumstances which anyone would have found difficult to control.
But the wording here suggests that Ethelred is perhaps revamping or re-confirming a custom which already existed. He may actually have been expanding an established English custom to be used among the Danish citizens in the North (the Danelaw). Previously, King Edgar had legislated along similar lines in his Whitbordesstan code:
The 'legend' of an Anglo-Saxon origin to the jury was first challenged seriously by Heinrich Brunner in 1872, who claimed that evidence of the jury could only been seen for the first time during the reign of Henry II, some 200 years after the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, and that the practice had originated with the Franks, who in turn had influenced the Normans, who thence introduced it to England. Since Brunner's thesis, the origin of the English jury has been much disputed. Throughout the twentieth century, legal historians disagreed about whether the practice was English in origin, or was introduced, directly or indirectly, from either Scandinavia or Francia. Recently, the legal historians Patrick Wormald and Michael Macnair have reasserted arguments in favour of finding in practices current during the Anglo-Saxon period traces of the Angevin practice of conducting inquests using bodies of sworn private witnesses. Wormald has gone as far as to present evidence suggesting that the English practice outlined in Ethelred's Wantage code is at least as old as, if not older than, 975, and ultimately traces it back to a Carolingian model (something Brinner had done). However, no scholarly consensus has yet been reached.