Aethelred The Unready
AETHELRED THE UNREADY, AETHELRED II (or ETHELRED) (c. 968-1016), king of the English (surnamed THE UNREADY, i.e. without rede or counsel), son of King Edgar by his second wife AElfthryth, was born in 968 or 969 and succeeded to the throne on the murder of his step-brother Edward (the Martyr) in 979. His reign was disastrous from the beginning. The year after his accession the Danish invasions, long unintermitted under Edgar the Peaceful, recommenced; though as yet their object was plunder only, not conquest, and the attacks were repeated in 981, 982 and 988. In 991 the Danes burned Ipswich, and defeated and slew the East Saxon ealdorman Brihtnoth at Maldon. After this, peace was purchased by a payment of L. 10,000-a disastrous expedient. The Danes were to desist from their ravages, but were allowed to stay in England. Next year AEthelred himself broke the peace by an attack on the Danish ships. Despite the treachery of AElfric, the English were victorious; and the Danes sailed off to ravage Lindsey and Northumbria. In 994 Olaf Tryggvason, king of Norway, and Sweyn, king of Denmark, united in a great invasion and attacked London. Foiled by the valour of the citizens, they sailed away and harried the coast from Essex to Hampshire. AEthelred now resorted to the old experiment and bought them off for L. 16,000 and a promise of supplies. Olaf also visited AEthelred at the latter's request and, receiving a most honourable welcome, was induced to promise that he would never again come to England with hostile intent, an engagement which he faithfully kept. The Danish attacks were repeated in 997, 998, 999, and in 1000 AEthelred availed himself of the temporary absence of the Danes in Normandy to invade Cumberland, at that time a Viking stronghold. Next year, however, the Northmen returned and inflicted worse evil than ever. The national defence seemed to have broken down altogether. In despair AEthelred again offered them money, which they again accepted, the sum paid on this occasion being L. 24,000. But soon afterwards the king, suspecting treachery, resolved to get rid of his enemies once and for all. Orders were issued commanding the slaughter on St Brice's day (December 2) of "all the Danish men who were in England." Such a decree could obviously not be carried out literally; but we cannot doubt that the slaughter was great. This violence, however, only made matters worse. Next year Sweyn returned, his hostility fanned by the desire for revenge. For two years he ravaged and slew; in 1003 Exeter was destroyed; Norwich and Thetford in 1004. No effectual resistance was offered, despite a gallant effort here and there; the disorganization of the country was complete. In 1005 the Danes were absent in Denmark, but came back next year, and emboldened by the utter lack of resistance, they ranged far inland. In 1007 AEthelred bought them off for a larger sum than ever (L. 36,000), and for two years the land enjoyed peace. In 1009, however, in accordance with a resolution made by the witan in the preceding year, AEthelred collected such a fleet "as never before had been in England in any king's day"; but owing to a miserable court quarrel the effort came to nothing. The king then summoned a general levy of the nation, with no better result. Just as he was about to attack, the traitor Edric prevented him from doing so, and the opportunity was lost. In 1010 the Danes returned, to find the kingdom more utterly disorganized than ever. "There was not a chief man in the kingdom who could gather a force, but each fled as he best might; nor even at last would any there resist another." Incapable of offering resistance, the king again offered money, this time no less than L. 48,000. While it was being collected, the Danes sacked Canterbury and barbarously slew the archbishop Alphege. The tribute was paid soon afterwards; and about the same time the Danish leader Thurkill entered the English service. From 1013 an important change is discernible in the character of the Danish attacks, which now became definitely political in their aim. In this year Sweyn sailed up the Trent and received the submission of northern England, and then marching south, he attacked London. Failing to take it, he hastened west and at Bath received the submission of Wessex. Then he returned northwards, and after that "all the nation considered him as full king." London soon acknowledged him, and AEthelred, after taking refuge for a while with Thurkill's fleet, escaped to Normandy. Sweyn died in February 1014, and AEthelred was recalled by the witan, on giving a promise to reign better in future. At once he hastened north against Canute, Sweyn's son, who claimed to succeed his father, but Canute sailed away, only to return next year, when the traitor Edric joined him and Wessex submitted. Together Canute and Edric harried Mercia, and were preparing to reduce London, when AEthelred died there on the 23rd of April 1016. Weak, self-indulgent, improvident, he had pursued a policy of opportunism to a fatal conclusion.
AEthelred's wife was Emma, or AElfgifu, daughter of Richard I. the Fearless, duke of the Nurmans, whom he married in 1002. After the king's death Emma became the wife of Canute the Great, and after his death in 1035 she struggled hard to secure England for her son, Hardicanute. In 1037, however, when Harold Harefoot became sole king, she was banished; she went to Flanders, returning to England with Hardicanute in 1040. In 1043, after Edward the Confessor had become king he seized the greater part of Emma's great wealth, and the queen lived in retirement at Winchester until her death on the 6th of March 1052. By AEthelred Emma had two sons, Edward the Confessor and the aetheling AElfred (d. 1036), and by Canute she was the mother of Hardicanute. Emma's marriage with AEthelred was an important step in the history of the relations between England and Normandy, and J. R. Green says "it suddenly opened for its rulers a distinct policy, a distinct course of action, which led to the Norman conquest of England. From the moment of Emma's marriage Normandy became a chief factor in English politics."
AUTHORITIES.--The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (edition by C. Plummer, 2 vols. Oxford, 1892-1899); Florence of Worcester (ed. B. Thorpe, London, 1848-1849); Encomium Emmae (ed. by G. H. Pertz in the Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum, Band xix., Hanover, 1866) for the latter part of the reign. See also J. M. Kemble, Codex Diplomaticus acti Saxonici (London, 1839-1848); and B. Thorpe, Ancient Laws (London, 1840). (C. S. P.*)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)