Æthelred the Unready


Æthelred of Wessex or Æthelred the Unready (966 – 23 April 1016) King of England (978-1013 and 1014-1016) of the House of Wessex. He was the youngest son of Edgar the Peaceful and Elfrith, heir to his elder brother Edward the Martyr after his tragic death. The nickname “Unprepared” comes from Old English and translates as “bad advice”.

He succeeded his older brother Edward the Martyr at the age of 12, his brother”s murderers were his own followers who demanded that Ethelred ascend to the throne of Denmark even though he was too young for the position. The main problem during Ethelred”s reign was the attacks of the Danes, after many years of peace the Danes started attacking in the 980s. The English were defeated at the Battle of Maldon (991) and Ethelred was forced to pay tribute to the Danish king. In 1002, Ethelred ordered the famous St Bryce”s Night Massacre to be carried out with the slaughter of Danish settlers, this massacre forced Sven I of Denmark to launch vigorous attacks to seize the English throne. In late 1013, Sven personally undertook an attack on England, Ethelred and his entire family escaped to Normandy, Sven the Diocletian was proclaimed king but died shortly afterwards. Ethelred returned and retook the throne from his young son Sven Knut, Ethelred”s reign was the longest reign of an Anglo-Saxon monarch, later surpassed by Henry III of England. Cnut in two years decided to make another invasion (1016), Ethelred abdicated on behalf of his son Edmund the Ironborn and died a few months later at the time Cnut was besieging his country.

Ethelred”s first name is a compound of the words “noble” and “counsel”. It is a common name among the English-Saxon members of the House of Wessex, similar names are found in all of Ethelred”s ancestors such as Ethelstan of England, Elfward of Wessex, Ethelwulf of Wessex.His nickname translates from English into Greek as “Anetimos”. But in fact according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle his nickname comes from Old English and is translated as ill-advised, an alternative translation would be “ill-prepared”, probably referring to the attack on his kingdom late in his life by Knut. The name “Unprepared” seems to be first recorded in the 1180s some 150 years after his death, this probably means that it was not used during his lifetime.

Reign of his brother Edward the Martyr

The writer Frank Stendon (1880-1967) says that the circumstances in which Ethelred ascended the throne were strange. His father Edgar died suddenly in July 975, leaving two young minor sons : the eldest Edward the Martyr was on the verge of adulthood but was probably illegitimate since he was born two years before his marriage to Ethelfeld”s first legitimate wife Mercury (964). At the time of his father”s death Ethelred was less than 10 years old, young Edward had many outbursts of violent behaviour which had greatly displeased many members of the royal court. A group of nobles came together to defend young Ethelred”s rights to the throne and overthrow Edward on the grounds that he was his father”s illegitimate son and had no rights to succeed to the throne. The two children were too young to take on a political role, the initiatives were carried out mostly by their followers, on behalf of Ethelred the negotiations were led by his own mother Elfthraith who defended her son”s rights to the throne and had the support of Earl Elphar of Mercia and Bishop Ethelgold of Winchester. Edward”s followers on the other hand had the support of Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury and Oswald Archbishop of York. The followers of Edward the Martyr managed to prevail, he was crowned king before the end of the year. Edward reigned for about 3 years and was then assassinated by members of the royal household who were followers of his brother, from the little information we have about his reign it is known that there was great political unrest. Their father Edgar had ceded large tracts of land to the monasteries at the expense of the nobles, the nobles saw an opportunity on his death to regain their lost power. This event brought the reaction of Archbishop Dunstan, the author Shiryl Hart (1913 – 2009) points out : “the existence of priests among the followers of both young kings proves that the conflict was more religiously motivated with the aim of greater control of church property”.

Rise to the throne

Edward however had much stronger links with the church and monasteries, when Edward was assassinated at Dorset in March 978 the work of recording the events and the assassination was carried out by the monasteries. Stendon based his work on “The Life of St Oswald” states :

“Edward”s relations with his half-brother Ethelred and his mother Elfrith were superficially good; Edward had visited them at the time of his assassination, at one point the courtiers surreptitiously surrounded him and slaughtered him. The crime must have been premeditated by the followers of little Ethelred in order to raise their chosen one to the throne, there is however no evidence that he or his mother had called for his murder, Ethelred was crowned king about a month later in a climate of great suspicion which would mark him for the rest of his life.”

But he and his advisers were received with enthusiasm by the English people. The writer Simon Caines (b. 1952) states : “the young king was recognised by Archbishops Dunstan and Oswald, had the respect of the church for many years, was described as elegant in his manner with a fine appearance and face”. Ethelred was only 13 years old when he became King of England. During his reign, Ethelred developed a close relationship with Ethelwald, the Bishop of Winchester who had helped him to ascend to the throne. When Ethelgold died on 1 August 984, Ethelred, deeply saddened, wrote a statute (994) in which he stressed that Bishop Ethelgold”s contribution was important not only to the church but also to the people of the whole country.

The Battle of Maldon

England was in a period of lasting peace after the recapture of Danelaw in the mid-10th century by Edgar”s father Ethelred. In the early 980s the Danes took advantage of King Ethelred”s young age to launch raids on the English coast, beginning with raids on Hampshire and Cheshire (980), Devon and Cornwall (981) and Dorset (982). There then followed a six-year period of peace until the new raids began (988), Stendon points out that these raids caused nothing serious in English life except that for the first time they came into diplomatic contact with Normandy. The Normans as Viking descendants related to the Danes offered them ports to serve them, this brought a strong reaction from the English who complained to Pope John XV. The pope took strong initiatives to reconcile them, which was finally done and ratified by an agreement at Rouen (991).In August of the same year a powerful Danish fleet launched a campaign in south-east England, reached Kent, circumnavigated the south-east coast and then through the Blackwater River captured the Isle of Norfolk. About 2 miles west of Northythe was the seaside town of Maldon in which Birtnoth, Earl of Essex camped waiting to confront the Danes. The ensuing battle between the Danes and the English is described in the epic poem ”The Battle of Maldon”, describing Birtnoth”s heroic attempt to defend Essex from the Danes but to no avail.

“In order to access the mainland the Danes had to depend on the quay because of a strong tide from North Sea to the southern coast. Before the Danes reached the island Birtnoth had managed with an army corps to gain the southern end of the quay he gathered his men and waited for the tide to pass. When the tide fell Birtnoth allowed the Danes to pass in order to fight on equal terms. What was most impressive was the immense courage with which Birtnoth and his men fought to defend their king even though they knew the battle was lost.”

Danish raids

The Battle of Maldon was the first of a long series of English defeats by the Danes.The day after the Battle of Maldon (991), Ethelred was obliged to pay the Danes a sum of about 10,000 pounds in order to make peace. Danish raids continued through the period (991 – 993), then the Danish fleet marched along the Thames to take London, no details of the battle are available. At the same time Ethelred struck a deal with Olaf Trigvason who had overthrown the Danish king Sven the Dihalogen (995) from the throne of Norway, a sum of £22,000 was to be paid to the raiders as the price of peace. The following year Olaf was baptized a Christian and became an ally of Ethelred, he decided to withdraw permanently from England, a group of his men remained in Ethelred”s service on the Isle of Wight. In 997 the Danes came back with new raids, Keynes notes :

“there is no evidence that this is a new army or fleet but the remnants of the army that made the raids in 991.” He sacked Cornwall, Devon, Somerset (997), Hampshire and Sussex (998), Kent (999) and the following year the Danes abruptly left Denmark for Normandy. The reasons for the departure are unknown probably because the English stubbornly refused to pay the taxes demanded by the Danes, this temporary relief from the Danes allowed Ethelred to regroup his army. The Danish fleet returned again (1001) and began the sack of Sussex, later they made a surprise attack on Devon after the English had successfully defended Exeter, Ethelred after his new defeat was again forced to pay the Danes the sum of £22,000 to make peace. The continued payments to the Danes are seen by many historians as an indication of Ethelred”s inability to deal with the Danes by other means. This practice, as Keynes points out, “had been used by other great kings such as Alfred the Great and Charles the Bald in order to ensure the life, safety and protection of his subjects” crops and was therefore accepted by the inhabitants.”

Massacre of the Danes and an upset

On November 13, 1002 on St. Bryce”s Day, Ethelred ordered the slaughter of all Danes in England, the victims were innumerable because the Danes were strong in about one third of the country, among the victims is said to have been Sven Gingild”s own sister. The following year Sven decided to attack England in order to avenge the massacre, he started with the sack of Norwich (1004). In the same year an English earl Ulfkittel confronted Sven”s army, although he lost he caused considerable losses to the Danes, injuries and starvation forced Sven to leave the British Isles (1005). A new expedition was mounted in the following years by the Danes in early 1007 but was again bought off for the sum of £36,000 so that for the next two years England was not disturbed by attacks. The government of England created a new fleet of ships on a national scale but when it was discovered that one of the leaders was involved in piracy the king decided not to endanger the country further. Sterton states : “in the following years between 1009 – 1012 the fall in morale in English defence caused irreparable damage to the country, England”s defences had collapsed”.

The Danish fleet led by Thorkel the High attacked England while Ethelred was still king (1009), forcing the English to pay an additional 48,000 pounds in April 1012. Sven the Dihalogenes carried out his campaign in late 2013, proved himself at the time to be the most powerful political leader of any Viking leader in his time, conquered England, was crowned king and forced Ethelred into exile in Norway.

Second reign of Ethelred

The situation changed soon afterwards as Sven died just five weeks after being crowned king of England on 3 February 1014. Sven”s Danish followers immediately swore allegiance to Sven”s son and heir Knut, but English nobles loyal to the Wessex dynasty pressured Ethelred to return to retake England. The same nobles pressed Ethelred to declare their support for him to renounce all previous negative arrangements which had greatly displeased them in the latter part of his reign. The agreement was the first historically recorded between the English king and his subjects proving that English nobles were forced to submit to Sven the Diocletian only because of his displeasure with Ethelred. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states:

“The lords sent a letter to Ethelred stating that they would have no problem with him ruling again if he decided to be a just monarch, abandon the previous authoritarian rule and abolish all the regulations which had made him hateful. The agreement was ratified by oaths on both sides, it was decided that any Danish monarch with his entire family would be banished from Denmark forever.”

Ethelred campaigned against Knut and his allies, only the kingdom of Lindsay (now Lincolnshire) supported Knut, Ethelred”s first priority was to retake London with the help of Olaf II of Norway. The Icelandic Sagas and Snorri Sturlusson report that Olaf undertook a successful operation at London Bridge with a fleet of ships, with Olaf”s help Ethelred managed to retake London and many other parts of England. Cnut was forced to withdraw from England, leaving his followers at the mercy of Ethelred”s revenge, in 1016 Olaf decided to carry out raids in western Europe, at the same time Cnut took advantage of the favourable circumstances for him. Ethelred”s son Edmond the Ironborn rebelled against his father, Knut did not hesitate to immediately side with Edmond.In the following months Knut managed to conquer most of England,Ethelred allied with his son to defend their kingdom but died on 23 April 1016. The ensuing war ended with a decisive victory for Knut on 18 October 1016 at the Battle of Ashington, according to the subsequent agreement between them, Edmond took Wessex and Knut took the rest of England. Edmond died prematurely on 30 November of the same year and Cnut was proclaimed king of all England. Ethelred was buried in St Paul”s Cathedral in London, his tomb was destroyed by the great fire that struck London in 1666.


Ethelred”s reign was known for reforming his legislation with six new legal codes. One of the key members of his council was Wolfen II, Archbishop of York who was an outspoken homosexual, three of the codes of Ethelred”s reign appear to have been written by Wolfen. These codes appear to have been related to church affairs and to the rhetorical skills of Wolfen, who recycled the codes used by Ethelred. Ethelred is also known for his major reform of the monetary system, improving all the coins in circulation up to his time. Later historical opinions about Ethelred were more in the form of anecdotes, one of them from William of Malmesbury states that when he was a child he had his royal seal removed as a sign that he would be overthrown from the reign. This story was similar to that of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine of Copronymus who was in the same way hated by his subjects. In the 1980s, efforts by contemporary writers to restore Ethelred”s reputation began in the 1980s. The writer Simon Kaines (b. 1952) states that negative opinions of Ethelred were based on later writers who had nothing to do with the period he ruled. The writers as he states are often biased by the constant defeats of the English during the 15 years Ethelred ruled with no concrete evidence regarding the narrative of events in his time. Ethelred”s failure as king according to Kaines and other writers was not only due to his incompetence of character but a series of negative circumstances which happened to erupt during his reign.


Ethelred is credited with reforming the delivery of justice in England by appointing 12 aristocrats of the royal court who were called “Thegnes” to 12 respective provinces of the kingdom with the aim of making public the names of criminals in the respective provinces they ruled. The members of each of the respective 12 juries were sworn an oath to work for this purpose in accordance with the law and their conscience, this is seen as a precursor to the present day English Grand Jury. The law signed by Ethelred at Vandaz (997) states :

“In each of the 12 great provinces 12 Thegn will be placed and will swear, holding the holy relics in their hands, that they will never accuse an innocent person, nor will they try to protect a guilty one.”

Ethelred”s legislative system was not the first to be created in England, he simply improved on older legislative systems which were in use particularly in Danelaw, among the Danish inhabitants of the north. In some older legislative system King Edgar notes :

“My wish is that every person should be safe in every region and in every city. I will place 36 witnesses in each town, in the smaller towns 12 or less as needed, each witness will be present at all transactions and purchases within the town or county. Each of these witnesses will take an oath that he will never conceal if necessary what he has seen or heard in any sale of goods.”

The myth that the Anglo-Saxons were the first to introduce justice in England was strongly disputed by the historian Henry Brunner (1840-1915), Brunner explicitly pointed out in 1972 that Henry II of England some 200 years later was the king who introduced justice in England. Brunner”s thesis that there was no justice in England before the reign of Henry II was strongly contested by later historians. The historian Patrick Wormald (1947 – 2004) found strong traces of the application of justice in England during the time when the House of Wessex ruled with corps of witnesses and juries referring to the principle of justice earlier than 975, probably going back to Charlemagne. Historians” opinions on this matter, however, are in conflict.

With the first wife of Elphgiphus of York, daughter of Thorent of Northumbria (985), he had:

With his second wife Emma of Normandy he had:


  1. Έθελρεντ του Ουέσσεξ
  2. Æthelred the Unready
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