Aethelred the Unready

(Ethelred II of England)


The reign of Ethelred the "Unready" was disastrous for the Saxon Kingdom of England and resulted in the takeover of the English throne by Danish Kings. Certainly Ethelred is not entirely to blame for these calamities, which resulted from several new waves of viking attacks. But he pursued policies which tended to make a difficult situation worse and multiply problems rather than contain them. For this he is held by history in relative ignominy.

Ethelred came to the throne at a young age, when his elder half-brother was murdered with the involvement of Ethelred's mother, Elfrida, who wished to place her own son on the throne. This was highly unfortunate for Saxon England, because Olaf I of Norway had recently come to the throne and was determined to win back the Danish kingdoms of England that had submitted long ago to Saxon rule. This resulted in a new wave of viking attacks, and the boy king was unable to provide the leadership to meet them. The heroic alderman Brithnoth held the Vikings at bay for some time, but was killed in 997 at the disastrous Battle of Maldon. After this, Ethelred agreed to pay tribute, but the viking attacks continued unabated.

Without any plan to raise and army and fight off the invaders, Ethelred conceived of the idea of a mass murder of his Danish subjects, and this was carried out, but by no means thoroughly in 1002. This outrage only inflamed the anger of the Danish pirates, particularly that of Sweyn I of Denmark, whose sister was killed in the massacre, and the attacks continued with even greater fervor. This time, however Swyen undertook the offensive with the political objective of making himself king of England, and he sought to win the peaceful submission of nobles rather than plunder and demand tribute. By 1013 much of northern England had submitted to Sweyn, and Ethelred was forced into exile in Normandy, the native home of his Norman wife Emma.

The elder son of Ethelred was Edmund Ironside, and when his father was exiled, he returned to England, against his father's wishes to claim the Saxon crown for himself. He fought bravely against Canute, the son of Sweyn, and the two princes eventually made peace. The peace was short lived however, because both Ethelred and Edmund Ironside died the following year, leaving no adult Saxon claimant to the throne who was able to stand against Canute.

Key events during the life of Ethelred the Unready:

Ethelred born, to Edgar, the king of Saxons, and his second wife, Elfrida.
Ascends throne at age ten, after the murder of his half-brother, Edward.
Series of viking raids under Olaf I of Norway commences. More raids in 982, and 988.
Saxons defeated at the Battle of Maldon; forced to pay "dane-gold" to Olaf I.
Combined fleet of Olaf I, and Sweyn I attacks London, but is driven away.
Viking attacks continue, mostly on eastern seaboard.
Marries Emma, sister of the Duke of Normandy.
Ethelred orders the massacre of all Danes living in England.
More viking attacks at Exeter, Norwich, and Thetford. This time under Sweyn I.
Sweyn I of Denmark conquers England. Ethelred sent to exile in Normandy.
Death of Ethelred.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Lady Emma  in  William the Conqueror  by  Jacob Abbott
Olaf in England  in  A Child's Book of Warriors  by  William Canton
Ethelred the Unready  in  Our Island Story  by  H. E. Marshall

Short Biography
Elfrida Saxon queen, wife of Edgar, mother of Athelred the Unready. Thought to be involved in her stepson's murder.
Byrthnoth Leading Saxon general under Ethelred. Defeated at Maldon.
Olaf I Great-grandson of Fairhair, he overthrew Earl Hakon and succeeded in Christianizing Norway.
Emma of Normandy Norman princess, wife first of Aethelred, then of Canute. Mother of Edward the Confessor.
Dunstan Influential archbishop at the court of Edgar of England.
Sweyn I Viking king of Denmark who conquered England from the Saxons. Father of Canute.
Canute the Great Danish king of Britain who ruled well. Married Emma, the wife of his enemy, Ethelred the Unready.
Edmund Ironside Eldest son of Aethelred the Unready, fought Canute for the throne, but then died.