Ethelred the Unready: A Thousand Years
Amidst much national reflection today of the four hundredth anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, and celebration of Saint George’s Day, some people are also recalling Ethelred the Unready, a much-maligned monarch of England, who died a thousand years ago today.
Here is a piece I wrote about Ethelred, included in the book Legends of British History.
A thousand years ago England was ruled by King Ethelred II, a man widely recalled due to his nickname, Ethelred “the Unready”. This suggests that Ethelred was simply not prepared for the responsibilities required of a king, but the meaning is more subtle. The familiarity of the name Ethelred “the Unready” contrasts with the confusion into which the fascinating events of his life have fallen.
Ethelred was probably born in 968, being the son of King Edgar, who had ruled England since 959. Edgar died in 975, and was succeeded by his elder son, Edward, who was still a child. The government of England effectively fell into the hands of the nobility, who were divided into factions. One group, refusing to accept the rule of Edward and his supporters, advanced the cause of Ethelred. In 978 Edward was murdered by members of Ethelred’s household as he arrived at Corfe, in Dorset, to visit his brother. Ethelred, aged about 9, was proclaimed king by his supporters who, along with his mother, Elfrida of Devon, governed the country in his name for several years. Ethelred was innocent of involvement in the murder, but the manner in which he became king was to undermine the new monarch’s rule. Within a few years of his death Edward gained a reputation as the performer of miracles. Ethelred was to recognise his brother as a saint in 1001, in an attempt at posthumous reconciliation, but treacherous nobles used the mythology surrounding the murdered king as partial justification for disloyalty to his successor.
During the middle of the 980s Ethelred assumed responsibility for the governance of England, and married Elgiva, the daughter of an English nobleman. Ethelred and Elgiva were destined to become the parents of six sons and five daughters. The sons were named Athelstan, Edmund, Edgar, Edred, Edwy, and Egbert. Three of the daughters were Edith, Elgiva, and Wulfhilda, but the names of the other daughters are no longer known. Ethelred and his family lived for most of the time in Hampshire, the traditional heartland of Wessex, with residences at both Winchester and Andover.
Ethelred understandably distrusted the nobility, and was unwilling to take advice from them. This was the source of the name Ethelred “the Unready”, which is a later mistranslation of “Ethelred Unraed”, the phrase coined during his reign. The name Ethelred meant “noble counsel”, while Unraed meant “no counsel”. The nickname referred to the way in which Ethelred frequently took important decisions without consulting the Witan, the body of nobles which acted as a council for the Anglo-Saxon kings, while also reflecting the fact that these nobles often failed to provide him with either advice or support. Ethelred’s rule was also undermined by indecision, as policy swung between appeasement of enemies and savage repression, without apparent consistency.
Amidst an atmosphere of mistrust and uncertainty, Ethelred battled to defend England from Danish invasions, which followed on from Viking raids referred to in the chapters on Egbert and Swithin. Large parts of the midlands and east were already under the control of noblemen from Denmark, who had established autonomy in an area known as the Danelaw over several generations. The weakness of England in the early years of Ethelred’s reign prompted forces from Denmark to launch new attacks. The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” provides a thorough account of the Danish raids. The entry for 980 records “Southampton was sacked by a naval force, and most of the citizens killed or taken captive”. Sporadic Danish attacks during the 980s were followed by regular invasions in the next decade. Ethelred stopped attacks in both 991 and 994 by paying the Danish army a large amount of money, known as Danegeld, to leave England. In 1000, during a respite from the Danish invasions, Ethelred led English attacks on Strathclyde and the Isle of Man. The Danes returned in 1001, and left again in the early part of the following year, as Ethelred made a third payment of Danegeld.
Elgiva, Ethelred’s wife, died at Winchester in February 1002. Ethelred immediately arranged to marry Emma, the sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy. The marriage sealed an alliance with Normandy, by which Ethelred sought to bolster his position in the struggle against the Danes. It also marked the beginning of Norman influence in England, which was to pave the way for the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066. Ethelred and Emma married at Winchester Cathedral on April 5 1002, and subsequently had two sons, Edward – who became King Edward “the Confessor” – and Alfred, as well as a daughter, named Goda. In the course of his two marriages, Ethelred fathered fourteen children, with all eight of his sons being named after men among his predecessors as kings of Wessex and England.
In November 1002 Ethelred organised the massacre of many of the Danes living in England, in a failed attempt to end the influence of their fellow settlers. Gunhilda, a sister of Swein, King of Denmark, was among those murdered, and the event provoked a further Danish invasion, which took place the following year. The next Danish incursion was launched in 1006, and halted in 1007 by a payment of Danegeld. Each time they received payment the Danes promised a lasting peace, only to carry out another attack within at most a few years, as they sought further plunder.
Ethelred achieved occasional success, despite the troubles that dominated his reign. He oversaw a strengthening of government administration, which enabled the Danegeld to be repeatedly raised, and paid over to the Danish invaders. These payments appeared to represent weakness on Ethelred’s part, but offered hope of preventing the complete conquest of England by the Danes. During the majority of Ethelred’s reign, England was a prosperous country compared to its neighbours in northern Europe, a point made by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger in “The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium – An Englishman’s World” (published in 1999). This book, with an impressive multi-layered title, provides an excellent survey of life in Engla-lond, the name by which the country was known in the latter part of the Anglo-Saxon period. Ethelred took a notable interest in law-making, and produced enlightened legislation, although his actions did not always match the theory. In 997 Ethelred issued the Wantage code, which consolidated the legal practices of the Danelaw, and accorded full recognition to local customs.
Another of Ethelred’s projects was a major expansion of the English navy, which took place during 1008 and 1009. Unfortunately most of the new ships were destroyed by the Danes when they launched an invasion during the latter year. The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” entry for 1009 writes that the Danes “ravaged and burnt, as is their custom, everywhere in Sussex and Hampshire, and also in Berkshire”. This was the start of a sustained onslaught, with the Danish army remaining in England until 1012, showing a military superiority that undermined English morale, before leaving in return for a huge payment of Danegeld. In 1013 Swein carried out a new invasion, by which he aimed to conquer England. An efficient campaign by the Danes secured control of the Danelaw, followed by the surrender of Winchester and London. At the end of the year the nobility accepted Swein as king of England, while Ethelred fled from London to the Isle of Wight, where he spent Christmas, before taking refuge in Normandy. The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” lamented “At this time nothing went right for this nation, neither in the south nor in the north”. Ethelred had become the first king of England to lose his throne to a foreign invader, having ultimately failed to emulate earlier monarchs, most notably Alfred – his great great grandfather – in thwarting the Danes.
Swein only ruled England for a few weeks, as he died in February 1014. Ethelred soon returned to England and regained his crown, having promised the nobility that his rule would be more just, but continued to be surrounded by problems. In 1015 Canute, a son of Swein, conquered Wessex, while Ethelred’s son Edmund established himself as ruler of part of the Danelaw, following a rift with the king. At the start of 1016 Canute invaded the Danelaw, and Ethelred was reconciled with Edmund, as the father and son planned to defend London together. The strain of events, combined with an illness, overwhelmed Ethelred, and he died in London on April 23, aged approximately 47. The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” reflected that “He ended his days on St George’s Day, and he had held the kingdom with great toil and difficulties as long as his life lasted”.
Ethelred was buried at the Church of St Paul the Apostle (the original of St Paul’s Cathedral), but his tomb was to be destroyed in 1666 by the Great Fire of London. The surviving site most closely linked with Ethelred is Corfe Castle. This ruined castle, which was virtually destroyed in 1646, following its capture by Parliamentary forces in the Civil War, dates from the Norman period. Remains of an earlier Anglo-Saxon building have been found within the grounds of the castle, and it is believed this was the home of Elfrida and Ethelred during the latter’s childhood. In August 2000 I visited Corfe Castle, which is managed by the National Trust, and was struck by the atmospheric setting of the ruins, set at the top of a hill, towering above the adjoining village. A few months earlier, the start of a new millennium had prompted me to look back to the England of a thousand years earlier, and write the original version of this biographical sketch of Ethelred. My essay on Ethelred was featured in “History For All” magazine a few weeks after I visited the castle. Part of my material on Ethelred was to be re-published in 2002 in an educational text book, being bracketed with a poem by Rudyard Kipling entitled “Dane-Geld”. The piece was also used in the advance publicity for the text book on the publishers’ website during 2001, thereby becoming my first piece of writing to appear on the Internet.
The remarkable story of Ethelred’s life provides a tantalising glimpse of English history before the Norman Conquest. Much of the history of that period is beyond our grasp, but we can treasure the knowledge we possess, and reflect upon the continuity of the national heritage. The names of many residential areas, including Ethelred Gardens at Totton, in Hampshire, are derived from the Anglo-Saxon kings. Ethelred was king of England for thirty eight years, apart from an interval of a few weeks, making his reign the longest of any Anglo-Saxon monarch, and he remains one of the few English sovereigns to have both lost and regained the throne. Nevertheless Ethelred “the Unready” is mostly recalled because of a nickname for which the real meaning has been lost in translation. I wonder how King Ethelred II will be viewed a thousand years from now.