Æthelred the Unready: What Lies Beneath the Legends

This article is adapted from a conference presentation I delivered at The Mid-America Medieval Association in September 2019. To view this article with all footnotes and citations, click here.

Cover image: Æthelred’s coronation depicted in Gilbert Abbott À Beckett, John Leech, and William Randolph Hearst’s The Comic History of England (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1847): 33.

For nearly a thousand years, Æthelred the Unready has been an easy target for ridicule among writers and historians, who have often included their own interpretations of why Anglo-Saxon England collapsed during his rule (978-1016). The image that had emerged by the 12th century was of a ruler who was afraid of candles, had defecated at his baptism, was scolded at his own coronation, was haunted by the ghost of his murdered brother, and who preferred drinking and sleeping to fighting vikings. Colorful as these later legends may be, it is not hard to see why Æthelred was singled out for abuse among the many Anglo-Saxon kings of England. During his 38-year reign, viking hordes invaded England repeatedly, apparently with great success. We know from the near-contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) that Æthelred sometimes resorted to paying off viking raiders in exchange for peace, a strategy that in hindsight has garnered much criticism. As if nearly four decades of viking invasions were not bad enough for the king’s legacy, Cnut the Great of Denmark would conquer England just after Æthelred’s death in 1016. The Danish Conquest appears even more startling when compared to the reign of Æthelred’s father, which had been one of comparative peace and prosperity.

Post-Conquest writers and chroniclers tried to make sense of England’s fall from grace under Æthelred, and recording stories of his incompetence and phobias was one way to do that. The influence of these later legends on the king’s modern reputation, especially in popular circles, should not be understated; one of the aforementioned legends, about Æthelred’s baptism defecation, was mentioned in The New York Times as recently as 2011, showing that these legends continue to function as simplistic methods for understanding the long and complex reign of Æthelred the Unready. However, it should go without saying that there must have been other factors at play in the decline of an entire regime. In fact, sources from the 10th and 11th centuries rarely blame Æthelred at all, instead accusing the nobility of undermining him, while noting that Æthelred led armies, built navies, and defended his cities like previous Anglo-Saxon kings.

Legends About King Æthelred: 12th Century Origins

Before addressing these earlier Anglo-Saxon sources, though, an overview of some of the later legends will shed light on why Æthelred’s reputation is so poor today. Two post-Conquest writers, William of Malmesbury and John of Worcester, help illustrate how the king’s reputation was evolving in the 12th century. William’s account of Æthelred’s life is perhaps the most famous ever written, thanks at least in part to its memorable portrait of a lazy, drunken, and entirely inept ruler. William’s status as a beloved English historian also lends considerable influence to his writing: “His life is said to have been cruel in the beginning, wretched in the middle, and disgraceful in its ending,” William begins, adding that “he was cruel, base in his effeminacy and flight.” William also relays the aforementioned tale of Æthelred soiling the font at his baptism.

Æthelred came to the throne in 978, following his brother Edward’s assassination. William says that young Æthelred was so upset by his brother’s slaying that he would not stop crying until his mother beat him with candlesticks and that “on this account he dreaded candles.” William’s Æthelred fares no better as an adult. The king is “admirably calculated for sleeping…and would only yawn. If he ever recovered his senses enough to raise himself upon his elbow, he quickly relapsed into his original wretchedness.” William also says the king was haunted by the ghost of his dead brother and disgraced his queen by “his libidinous intercourse with harlots.” William presents Æthelred near the end of his reign as “a driveller…wholly given to wine and women…[whose] last thoughts are those of war…he was hateful to his own people.”

While William clearly has a low opinion of the king, he makes moral judgements of others, as well, both positively and negatively. The king’s advisor Eadric, for example, is “the refuse of mankind…an abandoned glutton, a cunning miscreant.” The viking Sweyn Forkbeard is “naturally cruel.” Richard I of Normandy, on the other hand, is presented as saintly in every way.

While William was no admirer of Æthelred, he also records some conflicting information that suggests his view of the king was not universal. He includes a counter-argument where he says that “it seems wonderful how a man who, as we have been taught to suppose, was neither very foolish nor excessively cowardly, should pass his life in the dismal endurance of so many calamities. Should any one ask me the reason of this, I could not easily answer, except by saying that the revolt of the generals proceeded from the haughtiness of the king.” The words “as we have been taught to suppose” suggest that William was aware of other traditions that portrayed the king more positively, perhaps as intelligent and brave, if we turn William’s negative phrasing (“neither very foolish nor excessively cowardly”) into positives. William also includes curious lines like, “Who can tell how often he collected his army? How often he ordered ships to be built? How frequently he called out commanders from all quarters?” Since the ASC’s primary focus during Æthelred’s reign is on military affairs (including campaigns led by Æthelred himself), there was no way for William to ignore the king’s energy entirely. Instead, he was forced to acknowledge these campaigns, but to supplement them with unflattering details about the king’s personality.

William of Malmesbury’s contemporary, John of Worcester, likewise mentions the king’s efforts against the vikings. In his chronicle, which draws heavily from the ASC, John takes the opposite approach of William: John preserves warlike references to Æthelred, even accentuating them in places. In an entry for 1006, John adds Æthelred’s motives to a passage that originally lacked them, saying the king wanted to “give [the vikings] battle with great vigor” – the original version of the ASC only says Æthelred raised an army. For 1009, where the ASC records Æthelred trapping the vikings with his army, John adds that the king had resolved to “conquer or die.” In other entries, John is sure to preserve existing warlike references to Æthelred. During the king’s re-conquest of 1014, John writes that Æthelred “put as many inhabitants to the sword as he could,” closely mirroring the ASC’s wording. For the same year, 1014, the ASC says the king’s noblemen forced him to rule “more justly,” but John’s later version adds that the king had to rule “more justly and with greater gentleness.” However, despite John’s portrayal of an active monarch, William of Malmesbury’s account would win out in the centuries to come. His story of Æthelred and the candles was still circulating in the 1500s and, as mentioned earlier, was reprinted in The New York Times as recently as the 2010s.

Interpretations of King Æthelred: Victorian Era to Present

Æthelred as “Old Slowcoach” in The Comic History of England, 41.

Victorian historians, who were no strangers to moral judgements, likewise eagerly built on William of Malmesbury’s writing. For example, in 1842, Thomas Fuller said that the vikings were “advantaged by the unactiveness of King Ethelred, surnamed ‘the Unready’…when the unready king meets with the Danes, his over-ready enemies, no wonder, if lamentable, is the event thereof.” Æthelred also appears as a bumbling and lazy monarch in The Comic History of England, written in 1847, where he is given the unflattering nickname of “Old Slowcoach.” The nickname, according to the author, is “used to denote a person of sluggish disposition and not very brilliant mental faculties.” E.A. Freeman calls Æthelred “a bad man and a bad king,” only to begrudgingly concede that “he had a certain amount of energy.” In the early 20th century, Rudyard Kipling famously wrote a poem lampooning Æthelred’s tendency to pay tribute to the vikings in order to secure peace:

It is always the temptation of a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say:
‘Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away’.
And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.

Moving closer to the present, Æthelred is the main character in a Broadway play and film called The Ceremony of Innocence, written in the late 1960s, where the king complains of the pointlessness and futility of war. He would rather take refuge in a monastery than lead an army, even though his people are willing to fight. In 1992, Æthelred was even featured in his own comedic opera, where, now existing somewhere in the afterlife, the king petitions “the muse of history” to re-write his legacy. Æthelred and his wife Emma allege that William of Malmesbury was too harsh, but nonetheless Æthelred mopes and yawns throughout the performance.

Not all writers and historians have accepted wholly negative views of Æthelred’s reign, though. Since the 1980s, assessments of the reign have become far more measured, even if not glowing; in the last twenty years alone, several academic books have been written about Æthelred, all of which aim to re-evaluate the king on some level, frequently making note of his successes and strengths. Because of this recent scholarship, there is now a considerable gap – or perhaps a widening gulf – between how popular culture portrays Æthelred and how Anglo-Saxon experts perceive him.

Beneath the Legends: Æthelred in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Only when critically examining the earliest sources of the reign – mainly the ASC – does Æthelred’s decidedly mixed modern reputation begin to make sense. The ASC is by no means a perfect source; as Keynes points out, the ASC offers few details about the reign outside of military affairs. That said, the ASC still affords us the broadest look at Æthelred’s nearly 40-year reign. The versions dealing with Æthelred were composed just after his death, most likely during Cnut’s reign (1016-1035), making them far earlier than any of the other sources mentioned so far. The ASC records the events of Anglo-Saxon England year by year, focusing primarily on the royal family and national politics. The ASC records King Edward’s murder in 978 and his younger brother Æthelred’s consecration the next year: “Æthelred was consecrated king…this same year a cloud red as blood was seen, frequently with the appearance of fire and…it took the form of rays of light, and at the first streak of dawn it vanished.” It would seem that the ASC already contains portents and warnings at the young king’s accession, perhaps interpreting these lights as a sign that the new king was cursed. However, another version of the ASC for the same year merely says, “Æthelred came to the throne, and very quickly after this amid great rejoicing was consecrated king.” Also note that in neither passage does Archbishop Dunstan scold the king, like in William’s later legend, even though Dunstan had just been mentioned in an entry for 978. Rather, the king’s accession is a joyous event in one version, not one of portents and omens.

For the rest of the reign, the ASC mentions Æthelred most frequently in connection to military events. In 986, probably aged about 20, he launches a raid on the Diocese of Rochester. In 992, Æthelred constructs a national fleet of ships to protect the nation and calls out national armies against vikings in 999. He leads a land invasion of Strathclyde, a center of significant Norse activity, in 1000, “laying waste to very nearly the whole of it.” His fleet ravages the Isle of Man, another area sympathetic to the vikings, the same year. Æthelred would again call out national armies to fight the vikings in 1006 and 1009; he also constructs a new fleet in 1009, greater “than there had ever been before in the days of any king.” He personally defends London from the vikings twice in 1013 before finally going into exile after the Danish king, Sweyn, had conquered the rest of England. Following Sweyn’s death in 1014, Æthelred returns and leads a successful military campaign against the vikings and their allies, effectively re-conquering his kingdom. Finally, in 1016 he leads his army one last time despite deteriorating health. His death is recorded just after this, “after a life of much hardship and many difficulties.” He was about 50, making him one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon kings of England. Clearly Æthelred, despite his later reputation as a cowardly and lazy ruler, was not afraid of directly involving himself in the viking struggle according to the earlier ASC. In fact, of all the military events the king personally leads in the ASC, he is only defeated once, in 1013, when London falls after two consecutive attacks.

In the ASC, Æthelred often convinces the vikings to leave by other, less glorious means, though: he pays invading armies to leave the country numerous times between 991 and his death in 1016. However, a closer reading reveals that all of these payments followed local or regional military defeats, sometimes several in a row, that Æthelred had not been present for. Due to the size of the kingdom, it was not practical or possible for him to lead every initial defense against the vikings. The immediate assembly of armies fell to local leaders – reeves and ealdorman – who were expected to quickly raise levies and react to invasions in the king’s stead. Abbot Ælfric the Homilist, writing in the middle of the reign, notably defends the king’s policy of delegating generalship. When these generals were defeated, the king used tribute not as a solution in its own right, but for two other main reasons. First, it was used to stop immediate damage after a military defeat. Second, it was used to buy time to organize a more coherent national response, usually involving the king himself, such as when Æthelred constructs navies after paying tributes in 991 and 1007. The behavior of paying off vikings was not unique at the time, either: tribute had been frequently paid by Frankish kings, and successful English rulers like Alfred the Great had paid tribute long before Æthelred did. It was an entirely normal way of addressing viking invasions during the early and high middle ages.

So, whereas Æthelred’s military actions are usually presented as successful or neutral in the ASC, the chronicler is quick to name and blame generals who caused defeats: an ealdorman named Ælfric is blamed for military disasters in 991 and 1002, three generals in 993, a reeve named Hugh in 1002, Ealdorman Ælfhelm in 1006, and Ealdorman Eadric in 1009, 1015, and 1016. Only once, in 1010, is King Æthelred’s military policy directly criticized, and part of the blame is deflected onto his advisors in this passage, as well.

Treachery is a major theme in the ASC, and it records the king mutilating or assassinating several treacherous leaders, suggesting the king was well-aware of the need for change within his own circle. When viewed through the lens of the ASC, Æthelred appears as an energetic and active ruler, unafraid of confronting the vikings – he defends his cities, leads his men into battle, invades neighboring countries, and punishes traitors. So, unlike in Kipling’s poem, it seems that Æthelred did have time to meet the vikings. In short, in the ASC he behaves as a typical Anglo-Saxon king, albeit one plagued by fickle nobles and subjects.

However, the ASC does treat Æthelred differently than other kings in some respects. For example, while previous kings are frequently addressed by name and seem to act unilaterally, Æthelred is rarely called by name (usually only appearing as “the king”) and almost never acts without the advice of his council. While some have interpreted this as proof of an anti-Æthelred bias in the ASC, others have argued that this portrayal is in fact sympathetic to the king, noting again that ASC typically blames advisers for failures and gives the king sole credit for successes. When armies are led by his advisors and regional leaders, disaster follows, with only a few exceptions. When the king is mentioned alone, without any connection to his advisors, his campaigns are successful. This suggests the writer of the ASC wanted to isolate the king’s advisors from these successes and name Æthelred alone as responsible. In this way, the chronicler avoids directly criticizing the king. In Æthelred’s own time, removed from centuries of later legend and myth, the ASC tries to present the king as a competent and sometimes successful ruler, whose downfall was not his “unreadiness” but the failure of the political structure surrounding him.

The only prominent exception to this view comes in 1014, when Æthelred returns from his exile to reclaim his kingdom. According to the ASC, the English nobles force Æthelred to agree to be a “more just” ruler before accepting him back. According to this entry, Æthelred is not a poor ruler because he is lazy, inattentive, or cowardly, but because he is personally unjust. A text written during Æthelred’s exile, the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, likewise notes that the reign had been plagued not by unreadiness or passivity, but by other problems: high taxes and a government that is perceived as arbitrary and unfair. If anything, Sermo and the ASC present the king not as unready, but perhaps active to the point of being self-destructive. He kills nobles without trial, relies heavily on corrupt favorites, and even orders widespread massacres.

A rare gold Æthelred coin from the early 1000s, depicting the king in military gear (The British Museum).

Clearly the king was capable of forceful action, but what of Æthelred’s personality, which has been so harshly condemned by later legends and writers? Was he afraid of candles, or was he a drunkard? There is little the historian can say for certain about the man himself. Simon Keynes, for example, says that after many years of study he “experienced only a deepening frustration that one has hardly the faintest idea of what [Æthelred] was really like,” going on to call the king an “unknown quantity.” Another expert, Ann Williams, comes to a similar conclusion: “We do not and cannot know what kind of a man Æthelred was.” There is, however, one contemporary source describing the king personally, and it does not fit the later narrative of a lazy, effeminate, self-indulgent ruler. The account comes from Byrhtferth of Ramsey, writing near the middle of Æthelred’s reign. He recalls that many had supported young Æthelred during the 970s because he appeared mellower than his violent brother, King Edward.

Perhaps Byrhtferth’s account influenced John of Worcester’s later summary of Æthelred as an “illustrious ethling [or prince], a youth of graceful manners, handsome countenance, and fine person.” In all, it may be safer to doubt Æthelred’s alleged personality flaws than to uphold them, especially considering that the only early description of his personality is a positive one, while John of Worcester’s aforementioned description is also flattering even though John wrote around the same time William of Malmesbury did.

Æthelred’s Mixed Legacy

As for what lies beneath all the later legends, it seems William of Malmesbury answered his own question when he wondered how England could have fallen with Æthelred at the helm: William said that he could not think of a response unless it had something to do with the king’s leading men. Indeed, the earliest sources suggest the vikings were successful not because of Æthelred, but rather in spite of him. The ASC and Sermo paint a similar picture – the collapse of loyalty to the king and the treachery of advisors. The king is not portrayed as lazy, unready, or incompetent, but as ruthless, even toward his own citizens. He had placed unreliable men in power and they in turn failed to support him. The original meaning of Æthelred’s nickname (Unraed) thus holds some weight even if it was recorded much later. Unraed meant “No Counsel,” and in a sense, those words sum up the earliest views of the reign: Æthelred himself may have been a typical, forceful Anglo-Saxon king, but without the support of the political structure surrounding him, not even his best efforts could save England.


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