The End of Æthelred: On this day in 1016, King Æthelred II Died

Featured image: an etching from Wenceslaus Hollar depicts Æthelred’s tomb (on the right) at St. Paul’s in London as it appeared in the 17th century.

King Æthelred II, the longest-reigning Anglo-Saxon King of England, died on April 23rd, 1016. He was about 49 years old, making him among the longest-lived kings of his dynasty. Only three pre-Norman Kings of England lived as long as Æthelred: Alfred and Edward the Elder reached about 50, while Æthelred’s son Edward the Confessor lived into his early 60s. More commonly, rulers from the House of Wessex died in their teens, 20s, or early 30s, sometimes due to violence. As a result of these short life spans, Æthelred had come to the throne very young, at about age 11, because his father had died at 32 and his elder brother was assassinated at 16. Æthelred’s 38-year reign dwarfed those of both his predecessors and successors. No English king would surpass Æthelred’s nearly four decade-long rule until Henry III (another long-lived, former boy king). 

Æthelred is better known today as Æthelred “the Unready,” which is a corruption of the Old English unraed (meaning “ill-advised”). On the anniversary of his death, let’s take a closer look at the demise of one of England’s most notorious rulers.

“He Ended His Days on St. George’s Day”

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that Æthelred died on April 23rd, 1016, at what must have seemed like the worst possible time. Cnut’s viking army controlled most of the country, augmented by support from English leaders who had turned their backs on Æthelred. London was the last stronghold still loyal to the old king, but just as Cnut was preparing to lay siege to it, Æthelred died inside its city walls. The Chronicle marks his passing with a brief but melancholy entry:

“Then it happened that King Æthelred died before the ships arrived. He ended his days on St. George’s Day, and he had held his kingdom with great toil and difficulties as long as his life lasted.” [1]

He certainly had many difficulties in his life — a classic understatement if there ever was one. Æthelred’s England had been plagued by viking raids since the 980s, although they did not become severe until the 990s and they did not threaten to overwhelm the kingdom entirely until the 1010s. For the majority of the reign, Æthelred ruled with firm authority, spending his time passing laws, killing and ousting rivals, and raiding neighboring territories. Nonetheless, despite the early decades of the reign being relatively successful and prosperous, the massive viking invasions of Thorkell the Tall (1009-1012), Sweyn Forkbeard (1013), and Cnut the Great (1014-16) would come to dominate later narratives, including that of the Chronicle itself. The most dramatic months of Æthelred’s life were in late 1013 and early 1014: already weakened by Thorkell’s campaigns in the preceding few years, England fell to Sweyn, King of Denmark, in late 1013. Æthelred held out in London for a time, resisting with “full battle,” but soon the entire nation regarded Sweyn as “full king.” [2] Æthelred withdrew to Normandy, where he lived in exile with his queen, Emma, and their young children. 

But Sweyn himself was an old man by the standards of the day. The House of Denmark had its own share of rulers who died young (Harold I and Harthacnut, for example, both died in their 20s) and Sweyn was nearing 55. He died suddenly in February 1014, prompting the English magnates to recall Æthelred, as long as he promised to behave better this time. [3] Æthelred agreed and came back to England, beginning his second tenure as King of the English. He still had to deal with Sweyn’s viking supporters, though, who now looked to Sweyn’s son Cnut for leadership.

Cnut wanted to live up to his father’s legacy, and the Chronicle tells us he made his base in Lindsey and was preparing to raid and harry England in the spring of 1014. It turns out that the old king Æthelred was the only one raiding and harrying that spring, though: before Cnut was ready, Æthelred amassed an army and attacked, causing Cnut to flee back to Denmark. Æthelred’s army “ravaged and burnt” the land and “all who could be got at were killed.” [4] In mid-1014, England was again ruled by the man it was most accustomed to, who had been on the throne since 978 (minus a few inconvenient months in Normandy). It was a stunning comeback, but Æthelred was approaching the end of his life.

The Final Months of King Æthelred 

 In 1015, the Chronicle tells us that King Æthelred fell ill. Normally the Chronicle flatly states that kings died, with no context whatsoever, so it’s highly unusual that the chronicler tells us of Æthelred’s illness. Despite the return of Cnut’s raiding army in 1015, Æthelred’s activity in the Chronicle largely ceases after his illness is announced. In 1016, he leads the London garrison out to meet with the army of his son Edmund, but then quickly returns to London, where he dies. 

Scholars have repeatedly suggested that the chronicler for these entries was based in London, perhaps due to the heavy emphasis he places on the city throughout Æthelred’s reign. If this is the case, then it’s possible (though by no means provable) that the chronicler had firsthand information about the king’s death and illness, which could explain why Æthelred’s illness is mentioned. London, after all, was where Æthelred died. 

The Londoners then proclaimed Æthelred’s son Edmund as king, but his reign was to be short and tragic. Despite leading a valiant campaign against Cnut, Edmund himself died later in 1016. The Chronicle remembers Edmund as one who “stoutly defended his kingdom while his life lasted.” [5] 

What Killed Æthelred the Unready?

We know Æthelred was ill in 1015, but little else. It’s not even certain that the illness of 1015 is the same one that killed him. 

However, we do know that two of Æthelred’s ancestors, Alfred (reigned 871-899) and Eadred (reigned 946-955), suffered from digestive issues. Asser’s Life of King Alfred says that Alfred suffered from “piles” (hemorrhoids) “even from his youth” [6] and was often debilitated by pain and illness. Throughout the Life of Alfred, the reader is constantly reminded that Alfred is sickly, such as how the king often carries out tasks “as far as his health and abilities would allow.” [7] Despite the piles and the mystery illness that plagued him later, Alfred managed to live a relatively long life by the standards of the day. Eadred was not so fortunate. He died at just 32, suffering from an illness that prevented him from swallowing his food, leaving his diagnosis somewhat less clear. [8] Was it a digestive issue, a problem with his throat, dental issue, or something else entirely? 

As for Æthelred’s illness, stomach problems stand out as the most prominent possibility, but that’s a very low bar to clear. It just as easily could have been cancer, a debilitating stroke, or something else. So, while stomach issues are possible due to family history, let’s be clear: we don’t know what killed Æthelred and never will, barring the unexpected discovery of his body. Speaking of the body, where is it? Well, it was at St. Paul’s in London.

The Remains of Æthelred the Unready

Given that London was under attack from Cnut, it’s hard to imagine Æthelred could have been interred or buried anywhere else. Traditionally, Winchester had been the location of many royal burials, but London was where the king died and the city had repeatedly proved to be fiercely loyal to him. Although Winchester was the closest thing the West Saxons had to a capital, it’s fitting that the king was laid to rest in the city that was most devoted to him. Maybe Æthelred himself would have wanted his mortal remains to lie there. 

Although the Chronicle doesn’t specifically identify St. Paul’s as the location, it was common knowledge that Æthelred’s body rested there. An etching from 1658 specifically depicts Æthelred’s tomb inside St. Paul’s, just eight years before the cathedral was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. [9] The king’s tomb was also lost in the fire, although Michael Wood concluded his Æthelred documentary with a tantalizing possibility. “Maybe his bones still lie here in a common grave somewhere in these little gardens around the back of Wren’s church,” Wood said, standing outside the modern cathedral. [10] It could have been little more than an off-the-cuff ad lib, but I can’t help but wonder. Is there any possibility that Æthelred’s remains, at least some of them, survived the catastrophic fire and were tossed into a common grave? I’ll admit it’s unlikely, but after the Richard III discovery, who knows?

We do have the remains of Æthelred’s wife Emma and their son Edward, and possibly those of another son, the aforementioned Edmund Ironside. It’s a shame that Æthelred is the one left out. Isn’t that just his luck? So today we remember this hardworking but unfortunate king. Like Ann Williams, I can’t help but feel “a certain fondness, even a certain admiration, for him.” [11] The Chronicle said that he “held his kingdom with great toil and difficulties as long as his life lasted.”  In my book, I took it a step further. My conclusion was that despite all his setbacks (some of which were self-inflicted), King Æthelred was “a survivor and a fighter.” [12]

Notes

  1. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, translated by Dorothy Whitelock in English Historical Documents c. 500-1042, Second Edition (Routledge, 1979; accessed through the Taylor & Francis e-library), 249. 
  2. ASC, 246-47.
  3. ASC, 247. See also Brandon M. Bender, “The Anglo-Saxon Magna Carta,” presented at The Kansas Association of Historians, 2019. 
  4. ASC, 247.
  5. ASC, 249.
  6. Asser, Life of King Alfred, translated by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (Penguin, 1983; reprinted 1987), 89.
  7. Life of King Alfred, 107, 109.
  8. David Pratt, “The illnesses of King Alfred the Great,” Anglo-Saxon England 30 (2001), 74.
  9. Peter Stone, “The founding of St. Paul’s Cathedral,” The History of London, https://www.thehistoryoflondon.co.uk/the-founding-of-st-pauls-cathedral/.
  10. Michael Wood, “In Search of Ethelred the Unready,” In Search of the Dark Ages (BBC, 1981). 
  11. Ann Williams, Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counseled King (Bloomsbury Academic, 2003), xiii.
  12. Bender, England’s Unlikely Commander: The Military Career of Æthelred the Unready (Rounded Globe, 2019), 68.

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