“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.”
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.” 
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.”  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.  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.”  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.” 
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”  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.”  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.  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.  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.  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.”  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.” 
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.
ASC, 247. See also Brandon M. Bender, “The Anglo-Saxon Magna Carta,” presented at The Kansas Association of Historians, 2019.
Asser, Life of King Alfred, translated by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (Penguin, 1983; reprinted 1987), 89.
Life of King Alfred, 107, 109.
David Pratt, “The illnesses of King Alfred the Great,” Anglo-Saxon England 30 (2001), 74.
Æthelred’s plan was to invade Normandy and capture Duke Richard II.
Sometime around 1060-1070, a Norman monk named William of Jumieges wrote of an earlier, undated English attack on Normandy. The invasion had been led by Æthelred II, better known as Æthelred the Unready, who reigned from 978-1016. William described the event in colorful, bordering on florid, detail, noting that Æthelred’s plan was to invade Normandy and capture Duke Richard II. However, the English were opposed by a local leader named Nigel (sometimes written Neel or Niel) and a force of angry peasants who soundly defeated Æthelred .
Few historians would be willing to accept the dramatic details of this account at face value, but some Anglo-Saxon academics seem to believe the account has a historical core. In other words, even if Æthelred did not really blush with embarrassment after being defeated by peasants, the English very well could have crossed the channel and raided Duke Richard II’s territory. But when exactly did this raid take place — if it took place at all?
Background: English and Norman Relations During Æthelred’s Reign
Regardless of the attack’s dating and historicity (we’ll get there), it would be helpful to understand the context of this alleged invasion. Æthelred had ruled England since his childhood. He came to the throne in 978, around the age of 11 (most historians believe Æthelred was born sometime between 966 and 968). Little of note occured during his minority, but intermittent viking raids affected English coastal areas in the 980s .
In the early 990s, we find our first connection between Æthelred and Normandy. A peace agreement between Æthelred and Duke Richard I was mediated by Pope John XV’s legate, Leo of Trevi . The agreement states that neither ruler should aid the other’s enemies, but who are those enemies? For Æthelred, it has long been assumed that his enemies were the vikings, but we should not rule out more mundane possibilities, such as political exiles . The treaty is dated to 991, a year that also saw the English fight the Battle of Maldon against the viking Olaf Tryggvason. Maldon is often seen as a watershed moment in English history — as the point when viking incursions evolved from local nuisance to national threat. I’ve never been too fond of “watershed moments” in general, and many would argue that the arrivals of Sweyn Forkbeard in 1003 and Thorkell the Tall in 1009 were far more significant to the decline of Æthelred’s kingdom. Nonetheless, the early 990s did see escalating viking raids on England and it’s curious that this aligns with the treaty’s date. No matter what prompted the treaty, Richard I and Æthelred II were obviously on poor terms prior to the pope’s intervention.
The next connection between Normandy and England comes in 1000, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that the vikings had left England and taken refuge in “Richard’s kingdom.” Richard I had died in 996, so this is his son, Richard II. In the same entry, the Chronicle says Æthelred took advantage of the vikings’ absence by leading an army to Strathclyde (Cumbria) and “ravaging very nearly all of it,” while his navy harassed the Isle of Man at the same time.
The third notable link between England and Normandy occurs in 1002, when Æthelred married Emma, Richard II’s sister. Emma was crowned queen, which is notable because Æthelred’s previous wife had little to no political standing, and certainly was not elevated to the rank of queen. Emma’s status as English queen must have greatly enhanced the prestige of Normandy, but what was in it for Æthelred? Presumably, the king sought Richard II’s cooperation against the vikings, or at least wanted him to close his ports to the raiders; remember that in 1000, the Chronicle places the vikings in “Richard’s kingdom.”
Normandy was absent from English politics in any meaningful sense for a decade after the marriage. Normandy became significant again in 1013, when the Danish king Sweyn had overrun large parts of England, leaving Æthelred with control of only London. Emma and her children by Æthelred fled the country at this time, sailing to her brother’s court in Normandy . Æthelred stayed behind to defend London, but when London did finally capitulate, the king also sought refuge in Normandy. At least from what the Chronicle tells us, this is the first concrete benefit of the marriage alliance between Æthelred and Emma. Æthelred may have benefitted in other ways, but we have been left no record of them. At the very least, he had a safe place to go after being expelled from his own nation. Early the next year, Sweyn died and Æthelred was invited to reclaim his crown — as long as he agreed to certain conditions . Still living in Normandy, Æthelred sent envoys to England to negotiate his return to power. Once the negotiations were complete, he left Normandy in spring 1014, arriving to widespread support in southern England. He attacked Cnut (Sweyn’s son) shortly after this, expelling the vikings from the country. Æthelred died two years later amidst renewed viking attacks, aged about 49 .
Anglo-Saxon Historians on the Normandy Invasion
So, with this summary of Anglo-Norman relations in mind, let’s take a look at what experts have to say about the alleged invasion of Normandy, which is not mentioned in the Chronicle. Ann Williams is somewhat skeptical of the account in her Æthelred biography, owing to William of Jumieges’ confused chronology,  but not all scholars have expressed similar reservations. For example, Ryan Lavelle readily accepts the account in his 2002 biography of Æthelred. After a lengthy analysis, he concludes that “there is no valid reason to expect the account of William of Jumieges to have been anything other than correct” . He also mentions the Normandy attack in Alfred’s Wars . Eric John also includes the invasion, without questioning its historicity, in his memorable Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England . Levi Roach mentions William of Jumieges’ tale in his own Æthelred biography, but clarifies that it should be “treated with caution” due to its “unreliable” chronology .
However, Richard Abels, in his 2018 Æthelred biography, omits the Normandy invasion entirely — the only campaign led by Æthelred that he does not discuss . It’s not hard to see why, though; this event is one of the murkiest details of an already dimly-lit era. It’s not mentioned in the Chronicle, one of the few broadly-focused sources of the era. It has little to do with Æthelred’s overall struggle against the vikings (although it does have a tenuous connection if Æthelred was trying to disrupt Normandy as an area of Norse influence). It does not directly connect to the St. Brice’s Day Massacre, with Æthelred’s remarkable expressions of piety, or with his exile and triumphant return.
Non-Academic Interpretations of the Normandy Invasion
In fact, the Normandy invasion is so obscure that little about it has made its way onto the internet — it has still stayed, for the most part, contained to the middle chapters and footnotes of strictly academic books. I could find only two detailed references to it online. The first was on a site called Military Wikia, which summarizes William of Jumieges’ account and adds occasional analysis, citing a single French source (Francois Neveux’s A Brief History of the Normans) but, curiously, not William’s account itself. The second comes from a blog post by author A.J. Sefton, which also largely summarizes William of Jumieges’ version. Military Wikia and Sefton both call it the Battle of Val-de-Saire. A website called English Monarchs makes brief reference to the invasion, if only to condemn Æthelred for his foolishness (the page is a safe haven for many of the most antiquated views on the king). Aside from those, though, I could find no supplemental detail outside of the handful of academic works I mentioned earlier.
So we already have very little to go on. However, this under-researched conflict in Æthelred’s reign is still worthy of attention. It’s a fascinating event, and one that helps fight back against the prevailing view (at least in popular culture) of Æthelred as a battle-shy monarch. But when did this alleged invasion take place, and should we consider it a historical event at all?
Dating Æthelred’s Normandy Invasion
Ryan Lavelle believes Æthelred’s attack took place c. 1000, while Levi Roach places it c. 1002 . Here we have two of the foremost Æthelred experts placing the alleged invasion within a two-year span, which is remarkable considering that William of Jumieges does not provide a year at all.
How have these scholars managed to narrow the attack down to a two-year range? Let’s start with the obvious and work our way backwards. The supposed invasion of Normandy must have taken place during Æthelred’s reign (978-1016) and can be further narrowed down to the years when Æthelred and Richard II were both in power. Richard II ruled Normandy from 996-1026, so our range of years is now 996-1016. However, it would be nearly unthinkable that Æthelred would have attacked Richard after the marriage to Emma, which further shrinks our range to 996-1002. We’re getting pretty close now, but we still aren’t quite there. I suspect there are two main reasons for the narrower 1000-02 estimate.
First, the Chronicle places the vikings in Normandy in 1000, not earlier. Æthelred clearly wants to punish the Normans for something in William’s account, and the Chronicle gives us a very strong motive when it independently notes that the Normans had been giving vikings shelter. Hadn’t the Normans and English agreed to avoid such practices in their 991 treaty? It could be that the agreement effectively terminated with Richard I’s death in 996 . Either way, though, giving shelter to a viking force that had just been in England (!) was reason enough for Æthelred to be angry.
Second, remember that Æthelred conducted two similar raids on Norse-influenced territory at this time: against Strathclyde (or Cumbria) and the Isle of Man, both in 1000. The Chronicle considers them part of the same expedition, an amphibious campaign that involved Æthelred marching north by land with his army, while his navy “went out round by Chester”. When the ships failed to make contact with the king’s land force, they ravaged the Isle of Man. So we know from the Chronicle that Æthelred was already engaging in behavior like this at precisely this time.
However, not everyone has placed the Normandy invasion at the start of the eleventh century. Eric John mentions that “it seems sensible to suppose [the treaty of 991] followed the invasion” . While it does seem possible for the 991 treaty to be a side-effect of armed confrontation, William’s original words make this doubtful. Even though both dukes in question are named Richard, William identifies his Richard as the brother of Emma, so it can only be Richard II. I don’t think John meant to imply that there could have been two English invasions of Normandy; there is no reason to duplicate Æthelredian attacks without compelling evidence, so he most likely mixed up his Richards (an easy thing to do when dealing with turn-of-the-millennium Normandy).
Williams declines to provide an exact date at all, which is understandable given the odd chronology of William of Jumieges’ account (for example, Nigel, who supposedly repelled Æthelred’s attack, does not appear until the 1020s, well after Æthelred had died) .
The only other non-1000-02 date I could find comes from a non-academic source, the aforementioned English Monarchs site. The site’s page for Æthelred says that, “Behaving with his customary arrogance, Ethelred succeeded in alienating his new brother-in-law and made an unsuccessful attempt to invade Normandy.” Judging by the word “new,” the page’s author seems to mean the invasion took place after Æthelred and Emma’s marriage, but not by much. So let’s call it 1003-04. I find this dating implausible, mainly because such an act would be incredibly stupid, even by Æthelred’s standards. Æthelred did make colossal errors in judgement from time to time, such as the St. Brice’s Day Massacre or his decision to assassinate Sigeferth and Morcar in 1015. But the idea that Æthelred would enter a marriage alliance and immediately break it is well outside the realm of possibility. It’s also worth noting that it’s hard to find a monarch who reigned as long as Æthelred who didn’t commit some severe errors of judgement; 38 years is a very long time to rule mistake-free.
So is the Invasion of Normandy a Historical Event?
Unfortunately, answering such a question is rarely straightforward, so it’s more helpful to think in terms of probability than “totally true vs. totally untrue.” As for the flamboyant details, like a blushing Æthelred and the dialogue that takes place between Æthelred and one of his soldiers, I think it’s safe to store them away as fiction.
But as for the general core of the idea, that Æthelred attacked Normandy, I don’t think there is any strong reason to disbelieve it. We have been presented with the account from William and supplemented it with detail from the Chronicle and from papal negotiations, and it’s clear that there was tension between England and Normandy at this time. As for Æthelred’s marriage to Emma, it’s true that marriage alliances between friendly kingdoms did take place in the Middle Ages, but England and Normandy (as shown earlier) were not friends. This makes the marriage look far more like a diplomatic solution to long-running tensions.
With that said, how likely is it that Æthelred would risk his people’s lives (and his own) to attack a neighboring territory? Well, judging by the Chronicle, very likely. He did the exact same thing with Strathclyde and the Isle of Man in 1000. Inside his own country, he had attacked Rochester in 986 in response to a land dispute. He led an army against Cnut in 1014, as well. Cnut then put to flight, “leaving his allies to endure Æthelred’s very bloody reprisals,” in the words of Eric John .
So with all that in mind, it’s looking more and more like the Normandy attack fits snugly into English history c. 1000.
William of Jumieges’ poor chronology is cause for reservation, but not enough for me to disregard the source as a whole. I accepted the core of a much later account in my book, where I concluded that Olaf Haraldsson probably did help Æthelred retake London in 1014, despite the account’s late composition, its dramatic details, and some occasional diversions from the Chronicle . Another source, De obsessione Dunelmi, has far more egregious chronology errors when discussing Æthelred (it’s about 40 years off), but that has not stopped academics from using that portion of the source .
Perhaps the biggest strike against William’s account is that it does not appear in the Chronicle . The Chronicle is the most valuable account of English politics in Æthelred’s reign, and many of its entries can be corroborated by other sources. For example, the Chronicle mentions a battle at Maldon in 991, which is also the subject of an epic poem. In 986, the Chronicle says Æthelred ravaged Rochester, which is confirmed by two later writers (Sulcard of Westminster and Osbern of Canterbury) and by Æthelred’s own charters. However, I would be wary of using the Chronicle’s silence as the main basis for discrediting the attack. If the attack made no sense in the political context of the time, I would be more likely to write it off. But it does make sense in the political context of the time: England and Normandy had been at odds for at least a decade (judging by the treaty), Normandy had been offering shelter to vikings, Æthelred had been embarking on punitive campaigns, and something prompted these two unfriendly territories to seek a marriage alliance .
So in all, yes, I think it’s probable that Æthelred the Unready really did attempt to invade Normandy around the year 1000, even if it cannot be proven beyond a doubt. Suspicion should fall on William’s identification of Nigel as the Norman defender, and on his more theatrical details, but I do not think the general premise of the account should be discarded.
William of Jumieges, Gesta Normannorum Ducum, translated by Elizabeth M. C. Van Houts (Claredon Press, 1995).
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle (ASC) records attacks in 980-982 and 987-88, but none from 983-86.
See Dorothy Whitelock, English Historical Documents 500-1042: Second Edition (Routledge, 1979; online version from the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2007); Ann Williams, Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counselled King (Bloomsbury Academic, 2003), 43-44; Ryan Lavelle, Æthelred II: King of the English 978-1016 (Tempus, 2002), 51; and Levi Roach, Æthelred the Unready (Yale University Press, 2016), 117, 187.
Brandon M. Bender, “The Anglo-Saxon Magna Carta: Æthelred the Unready’s Agreement of 1014.” Presented at The Kansas Association of Historians, 2019.
Lavelle’s full analysis in Æthelred II can be found on pages 97-99, with the quoted sentence on page 99.
Lavelle, Alfred’s Wars, 9-10.
Eric John, Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England (Manchester University Press, 1996), 141.
Richard Abels, Æthelred the Unready: The Failed King (Penguin, 2018).
Lavelle, Æthelred II, 97-99. Roach, 187.
Bender, England’s Unlikely Commander: The Military Career of Æthelred the Unready (Rounded Globe, 2019), 55-58.
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.
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
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.
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.
À Beckett, Gilbert Abbott, John Leech, and William Randolph Hearst. The Comic History of England. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1847.
Abels, Richard. Æthelred the Unready: The Failed King. London: Penguin, 2018.
Abels, Richard. “Paying the Danegeld: Anglo-Saxon peacemaking with vikings.” War and Peace in Ancient and Medieval History. Cambridge University Press, 2008.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Translated by G.N. Garmonsway. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1954. Reprint: 1990.
“The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (C).” English and Norse Documents Relating to the Reign of Ethelred the Unready. Translated by Margaret Ashdown. Cambridge University Press, 1930. Reprint: 2014.
Using the restoration agreement of 1014 as a starting point, it is possible to make sense of one of the most dramatic eras in English history, when King Æthelred not only had to fend off massive Viking invasions, but also had to navigate through dangerous factions, disloyal subjects, and an open rebellion by his own son.
This article was originally presented at The Kansas Association of Historians in April 2019. Its original printed version, with all accompanying footnotes and sources, can be accessed here. Above image: an Anglo-Saxon king with his councilors from The Old English Hexateuch, dated to Æthelred’s reign.
Magna Carta is seen as a turning point in English history and is commonly regarded as the first formal agreement between an English king and his nobles. It holds significant status both constitutionally and culturally, and rightly so. However, it is not the earliest written agreement between an English monarch and his subjects – far from it. Almost exactly two centuries earlier, an exiled Anglo-Saxon king negotiated his way back into power thanks to an agreement that has been almost completely forgotten. This event has been so neglected that it does not even have an established name to go by. David Starkey once called it “The Anglo-Saxon Magna Carta,” a name that I have borrowed here for my title, but the restoration agreement of 1014 is worthy of attention in its own right. The restoration agreement is just one part in a larger puzzle of complex politics surrounding the Danish Conquest of England (1013-1016). Using the agreement as a starting point, it is possible to make sense of the events of one of the most dramatic eras in English history, when King Æthelred not only had to fend off massive Viking invasions, but also had to navigate through dangerous factions, disloyal subjects, and an open rebellion by his own son.
The context surrounding the agreement of 1014 is distinct from the one surrounding Magna Carta. Æthelred’s England was a very different world than King John’s, and it was an era that still embodied the ideals of Beowulf. Eleventh century England was dominated by Viking incursions, where regular Anglo-Saxons lined up in shieldwall formations to defend their land from professional Norse soldiers. Æthelred II was the Anglo-Saxon king tasked with fending off the Vikings. Æthelred, known to history as “the Unready,” became king of the English in 978, when he was no more than 12 years old (“Unready” is a mistranslation of the Old English word unraed, which actually meant “ill-advised”). For the next several decades, his kingdom would be pillaged and raided by Viking fleets with increasing intensity. Æthelred and his councilors answered the Viking onslaught with virtually every resource available to them, from diplomacy and tribute, to war, to outright massacres of Danish citizens. By 1013, Æthelred had held the crown for 35 years and had been involved in numerous military campaigns.
It would not be enough. Near the end of 1013, the Danish king Sweyn had conquered nearly all of country, and when London finally submitted before Christmas, Æthelred fled into exile. It is in this context that the restoration agreement takes place – an England that had been lost to a foreign, occupying army and whose native king had taken refuge in Normandy.
In February 1014, though, King Sweyn died. Sweyn’s son Cnut was already present in England, so Sweyn’s men proclaimed him as king. The country’s leading men had sworn allegiance to Sweyn, so Cnut surely perceived himself as the most legitimate option. However, things were not that simple. In Wessex, the English magnates sent word to Æthelred that Sweyn had died and asked him to come back and negotiate his restoration to the throne. The agreement between Æthelred and the English nobles is summarized in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
Then all the councillors, both spiritual and temporal, advised that king Æthelred should be sent for, declaring that no lord was dearer to them than their rightful lord, if only he would govern his kingdom more justly than he had done in the past. Then the king sent his son Edward hither with his messengers, and bade greet all his people, and said that he would be a gracious lord to them, and would remedy each of the things which they all abhorred, and everything should be forgiven, that had been said or done against him, on condition that they all unanimously and without treachery returned to their allegiance. Then a complete and friendly agreement was reached and ratified with word and pledge on either side, and they declared every Danish king outlawed from England for ever. Then during Lent of that year king Æthelred came home to his own people, and was received with joy by them all.
After the swift collapse of his support just a few months
prior, Æthelred’s cautious approach seems understandable. He notably only
returned to England after the general terms of the agreement were in place. In
all likelihood, once he was back on English soil, the agreement was solidified
(note the Chronicle’s use of the word
“ratified”) in a royal charter, which the Chronicle’s
account is probably based on.
However, it would be hasty to assume
that matters were as straightforward as the Chronicle
implies. We have been given the end result of the talks – that the English
wanted Æthelred and that he would forgive all that had been done against him – but
the decision to recall Æthelred in the first place was anything but obvious.
The English magnates could have easily acknowledged Cnut as king and washed
their hands of the succession problem altogether.
That said, while they clearly still wished to be ruled by an Englishman, Æthelred was not the only mature member of the English royal family. In later centuries, this might be have been a moot point: older members of the royal family would take precedence over younger or illegitimate claimants. The Anglo-Saxons did not have strict and formal rules of succession like later dynasties, though. Instead, claimants were “elected” by a loose group of nobles and clergymen called the witan. Sometimes successions were seamless, with one obvious candidate whose recognition by the witan was little more than a formality. However, the issue of kingship was not always that simple, and throughout the long history of the House of Wessex, sons had leapfrogged their fathers, brothers were chosen over sons, and the kingdom had even been formally divided between two legitimate kings as recently as the 950s. This is important to consider because Æthelred had many children. His two eldest sons, Æthelstan and Edmund, were both adults and would have been eager to assume power. As if the existence of Æthelstan and Edmund did not complicate matters enough for the witan, the two princes had the advantage of convenience on their side, too. They had not followed their father into exile (the Chronicle does not mention them fleeing with Æthelred, Queen Emma, and his two younger sons). They seem to have stayed in England, perhaps rallying support from the fringes of the kingdom.
So why would the witan choose a failed, aging ex-ruler over his two grown sons? One possibility is that Æthelstan and Edmund both voiced their loyalty to Æthelred, but this possibility raises more questions than it answers. For one, the royal family suffered from a rift during these years because Æthelred’s children came from two different marriages. Æthelstan and Edmund were produced by the first marriage, and they seem to have barely acknowledged the “other” side of the royal family – the side King Æthelred had been associated with in recent years. Æthelstan’s will still exists, and it makes no mention of his half-brothers or Queen Emma. Secondly, Edmund would go on to rebel against Æthelred just a year later, proving that his loyalty to the old king was not absolute.
Another possibility is that the witan declined to elect the princes because
it could provoke the exiled Æthelred, fragmenting the nation even further. Choosing
any member of the English royal family guaranteed a fight with Cnut, but picking
Æthelstan or Edmund might have opened them up to an undesirable war on two
fronts – the new king would have to contend with Cnut in the north and a
bypassed Æthelred returning to the south.
However, the most likely reason
Æthelred was restored may instead be more straightforward, and it defies his
later reputation as a “bad king.” The witan
probably chose Æthelred because he was the best option. Although Æthelred’s
status as a prestigious, anointed king had been tainted by his exile, he had
decades of administrative and military experience. For 35 years he had managed
to preserve England from destruction through diplomacy and delegation, while
also frequently leading military campaigns in his own right (Æthelred had led
armies in 986, 1000, 1009, built fleets in 992 and 1008, and had defended London
twice in 1013). In other words, he was an old hand who had seen some success
against a militarily superior foe.
While Æthelred had some redeeming qualities, the restoration agreement makes it clear that the nobles had grievances to address first. A 1014 sermon from Archbishop Wulfstan complains that under Æthelred, the English had been weighed down by high taxes, oath-breakers, and a government that is portrayed as arbitrary and corrupt. The Chronicle’s agreement of 1014 likewise implies that Æthelred is personally unjust, perhaps due to the same issues mentioned by Wulfstan. It is also notable that the nobles sought protection against their old king; they were fully aware of the destruction a vindictive Æthelred could unleash on them. The Anglo-Saxon magnates had abandoned him just a few months earlier for a Danish usurper, after all, so they knew the king would perceive them as traitors. Even if Æthelred expressed forgiveness on the surface, securing a formal, written pardon would better guarantee their safety, especially since Æthelred could be a ruthless and erratic leader at times. Aside from overseeing political assassinations, the king also orchestrated the St. Brice’s Day Massacre in 1002, where he ordered all Danes in England killed. He had even opened his majority rule by raiding church lands in 986 after a political squabble with the Bishop of Rochester. Although historians like Levi Roach note that Æthelred was not unusually reckless compared to other eleventh century rulers, the nobles were still wise to secure their protection against him and his enforcer, Eadric Streona (“the Grasper”).
With his legitimacy fully restored, Æthelred returned home and forgave his people, and they in turn forgave him. The king instead took out his righteous anger on those who still supported the Danish prince, Cnut. The Saga of Olaf Haraldson recalls that Æthelred retook London by force in early 1014 by pulling down London Bridge – an account that is probably genuine despite its later composition. There Cnut’s men submitted to him. The Chronicle then records another attack shortly after this, where Æthelred (with his army at “full strength”) quickly marched north to Lindsey (Lincolnshire), which was held by Cnut. In Lindsey, Æthelred “made raids and burned and slew every human being” he could find. After this lopsided affair, Cnut retreated by sea and fled back to Denmark.
Following the restoration agreement of 1014, England had been fully reconquered by Æthelred the Unready, but the peace would not last long. Prince Æthelstan died that summer, perhaps wounded in his father’s battles, upsetting the balance of power. The very next year, Æthelred had two northern nobles – Sigeferth and Morcar – murdered, confiscating their lands in the process. It is unclear whether these two nobles had originally submitted to Æthelred during the restoration agreement or if they had only rejoined the king after Cnut’s defeat. Either way, though, Æthelred was breaking the general terms of his agreement by returning to his old ways. Instead of putting old grudges aside like he had promised, the king had almost immediately resumed his practice of assassinating rivals. The Anglo-Saxons had other ways to deal with suspected criminals and traitors: trials and ordeals would have been appropriate, but not outright assassinations. However, now that Æthelred was back in control, he seems to have felt he could circumvent the very laws he was supposed to uphold, disposing of rivals as he pleased.
He was wrong. Prince Edmund quickly seized on the outrage his father had caused and married the widow of one of the killed nobles. This was an undeniable power grab by Edmund; he gained his new bride’s lands, which were supposed to revert to the king, and also won the allegiance of those disgusted by Æthelred’s actions. Edmund spent most of 1015 in rebellion, which made rallying the English difficult when Cnut returned later that year. The 49 year-old Æthelred – who was already old by Saxon standards – fell seriously ill shortly after this, making matters even messier. Edmund struggled to oppose Cnut without his father’s help; many times, Edmund called out the troops only to find that they longed for the king’s presence instead.
Only after Æthelred’s death in 1016 did Edmund find success against Cnut. King Edmund led a valiant campaign against the Vikings, but his own death later in 1016 allowed Cnut to take the rest of the country without opposition. Cnut’s Viking dynasty would rule England for a generation.
Although Æthelred reconquered the rest
of his kingdom by force, the forgotten agreement of 1014 provided his initial
foothold. Similarly, after Æthelred’s re-conquest, the agreement’s terms help
explain his downfall. Even if the Chronicle
does not say word for word that the king had agreed to stop assassinating
his own noblemen, it does say that he was required to extend forgiveness to
those who had turned against him and approach issues in a “more just” manner.
Prince Edmund may have been looking for an opportunity to seize power anyway, but
the king’s violation of a formal agreement gave Edmund a valid excuse to rebel.
Fragmented and disorganized, the English were unable to mount a successful defense
against the Vikings while Æthelred lived. In this sense, the agreement had been
a blessing and a curse for Æthelred, and for England as a whole. It had helped
the English briefly re-establish their own dynasty, but in breaking the
agreement, Æthelred had been hoisted by his own petard.
 David Starkey, “Ængla-Land,” Monarchy with David Starkey (Channel 4, 2004).
 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. G.N. Garmonsway (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1954. Reprint: 1990), hereafter abbreviated in the footnotes as ASC.
 ASC. Æthelbald had overseen the kingdom when his father, Æthelwulf, had gone on pilgrimage, and he displaced Æthelwulf entirely by 856. In 955, the councilors formally divided the kingdom between Eadwig and Edgar. Cnut and Edmund Ironside would formally divide the kingdom again briefly in 1016.
 “Will of the Ætheling Æthelstan S 1503,” trans. Dorothy Whitelock in English Historical Documents Vol.1 c. 500-1042, 2nd edition, (Routledge, 1979). A full online version of Whitelock’s translation can be found at The Online Sawyer, http://www.esawyer.org.uk/charter/1503.html
 Stephanie Dien, “Sermo Lupi ad Anglos: The Order and Date of the Three Versions,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 76.4 (1975): 561-70. Although scholars have debated which version of Sermo Lupi ad Anglos is the earliest, the consensus is that this sermon was first composed in 1014 because it specifically mentions Æthelred’s exile.
 Dien, 568.
 “Æthelred II restores to the see of Rochester six sulungs at Bromley and the use of forest in the Weald. A.D. 998” in the Textus Roffensis, trans. Christopher Monk, Rochester Cathedral Research Guild, 2017. Æthelred recalls his role in the Rochester raids in this charter. The attack is also mentioned in the ASC for 986.
 Levi Roach, Æthelred: The Unready (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
 Snorri Sturluson, The Saga of Olafr Haraldsson(The Saint), trans. Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes (London: Viking Society for Northern Studies, University College London, 2014).
 ASC. Æthelred’s illness is noteworthy because the ASC is almost always silent about illnesses, merely noting that kings died. For the king’s illness to be recorded, it was probably well-known and incapacitating.
 ASC: “nothing would please them more but that the king should join them.”
 ASC. Edmund won a series of skirmishes and battles against Cnut after Æthelred’s death, forcing Cnut to the sea. They fought a final battle at Ashingdon, where Cnut destroyed the English army. The Chronicle blames Eadric Streona, Æthelred’s old enforcer, for the defeat, claiming that he was the first to flee from battle.
 Cnut would reign from 1016-35, followed by his sons Harold I (1035-40) and Harthacnut (1040-42). Cnut’s line died out at this point, restoring Æthelred’s bloodline to power from 1042-66 under Edward the Confessor.
Abels, Richard. Æthelred the Unready: The Failed King. Penguin, 2018.
“Æthelred II restores to the see of
Rochester six sulungs at Bromley and the use of forest in the Weald. A.D. 998”
in the Textus Roffensis. Translated
by Christopher Monk. Rochester Cathedral
Research Guild, 2017.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Translated by George Norman
Garmonsway. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1954. Reprint, 1990.
Bender, Brandon M. England’s Unlikely Commander: The Military Career of Æthelred the Unready. Rounded Globe, 2019.
Dien, Stephanie. “Sermo Lupi ad Anglos:
The Order and Date of the Three Versions.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 76, no. 4 (1975): 561-70.
Roach, Levi. Æthelred: The Unready. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.
Starkey, David. “Ængla-Land.” Monarchy with David Starkey. Channel 4,
“Will of the Ætheling Æthelstan S
1503.” Translated by Dorothy Whitelock in English
Historical Documents Vol.1 c. 500-1042, 2nd edition. Routledge,
1979. A full online version of Whitelock’s translation can be found at The Online Sawyer, http://www.esawyer.org.uk/charter/1503.html.
Williams, Ann. Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counseled King. Bloomsbury Academic,
England’s Unlikely Commander takes a look at the military practices of late Anglo-Saxon England, using sources like The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Gesta Normannorum Ducum, and royal charters. Late Anglo-Saxon England, particularly during the reign of Æthelred the Unready, was plagued by recurring Viking invasions. Viking armies under Danish rulers even conquered England twice during this era — temporarily in 1013 and again in 1016.
Accordingly, the English king Æthelred has gone down in history as an inept and passive ruler who did far too little to stem the tide against the Vikings. However, when looking at the sources more closely, I found more reasons to doubt Æthelred’s “unreadiness” than to uphold it. In fact, in England’s Unlikely Commander I make the case that Æthelred was a very typical (and highly engaged) English king who enjoyed plenty of military triumphs.
This book is not the first to re-assess King Æthelred’s reign — far from it. It is deeply indebted to the work of phenomenal scholars like Simon Keynes, Ryan Lavelle, Ian Howard, Ann Williams, Levi Roach, Richard Abels, and many others. Many of these scholars also make note of Æthelred’s military career, although it is rarely the sole focus of such research. So, while many of these scholars have touched on Æthelred as a military leader (Abels and Howard in particular), I still felt that a book focused squarely on the king’s military engagements would nicely complement this existing scholarship. After all, the main sources for the reign (especially the many versions of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) focus on military affairs above all else. That is not to say, however, that Æthelred’s military career can be divorced from the wider reign; it cannot and should not be.
However, there is far more to the Danish Conquest than Æthelred’s failure. In this new book, I argue that England fell to the Vikings in spite of Æthelred, not because of him. The king presented in England’s Unlikely Commander is not passive and weak, but resilient, persistent, and resourceful: even when faced with setbacks and failures (and an exceptionally difficult enemy!), Æthelred always had an idea up his sleeve. Over a 38-year reign (the longest in Anglo-Saxon England), the king led armies into battle, constructed fleets to protect his shores, defended his cities, refortified his strongholds, and even managed to re-conquer his own kingdom after being overthrown just months earlier.
It is my hope that readers will find this short book an enlightening and easy-to-read guide to Æthelred’s military career. The Danish Conquest is one of the most exciting periods in early English history, and there is far more to it than the ferocity of the Vikings and the supposed cowardice of the English leaders; it was a far closer contest than most realize, thanks at least in part to the many efforts of Æthelred the Unready.
In the realm of popular history, it’s common to hear the claim that Æthelred the Unready, King of the English, was a military failure in an age where kings had to be warriors. Due to the unflattering nickname (unraed actually means “poorly-advised”) and the Danish Conquest of England, it might seem that these critics have won the argument before it’s even started.
That isn’t the case, though, as Bender’s research has found. This book seeks to redress King Æthelred’s military reputation, arguing that he was militarily prepared and often successful against his many enemies, including the Vikings. Tracking the king’s movement and activity over his 38-year reign, this book argues that Æthelred the Unready was anything but a battle-avoider.
Early Praise for England’s Unlikely Commander:
In this exciting new book, Brandon Bender sheds considerable new light on the life and military career of one of England’s most notorious kings. Both scholarly and accessibly written, it deserves a wide audience both within and beyond the halls of modern academe.
-Dr Levi Roach, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History, University of Exeter. Author of Æthelred the Unready (Yale University Press, 2016)
This readable and engaging study of Æthelred the Unready’s military career is a welcome contribution to the current scholarly movement reconsidering the reputation of this much-maligned king. Building his argument on careful analysis of the sources, Brandon Bender offers a concise but thorough re-evaluation of Æthelred’s military policies, exploring the different political and personal factors which might have motivated the king’s decisions. Anyone interested in the military and political history of Anglo-Saxon England will find that Bender’s book provides much food for thought.
My first book is getting published! It’s called “England’s Unlikely Commander: The Military Career of Æthelred the Unready.”
My first book is getting published! It’s
called England’s Unlikely Commander: The
Military Career of Æthelred the Unready. While I have been fortunate enough
to publish articles, stories, and poems, this is my first book. It’s not a very
long book, but it’s taking on a subject of English history that has yet to be
England’s Unlikely Commander:
This book is about a king of England named Æthelred
the Unready whose reputation is exceptionally poor. In a list of “worst kings
ever,” his name is sure to come up. There have been numerous books and
biographies on Æthelred: Ryan Lavelle wrote one in 2002, Ann Williams in 2003,
Levi Roach in 2016, and Richard Abels just a few months ago. Those books cover
the 38-year reign in its entirety, and I’m deeply indebted to the research
contained in them. Each one has its own bent – its own set of themes. Lavelle’s
focuses on the king’s surprisingly strong use of his authority, while Roach’s
deals heavily with religion in Anglo-Saxon England.
My book also has its own focus, and I am
less concerned with covering the reign as a whole – that has already been done
extremely well in each of the existing books. Mine is different, however, in
that it focuses on perhaps the most-criticized aspect of the reign: the
military strategies of King Æthelred. During his long reign, Æthelred’s England
was relentlessly harassed and invaded by Vikings, culminating in two Danish
conquests: one in 1013 and another in just after his death in 1016. In popular
history books, podcasts, and articles, it’s common to hear the claim that Æthelred
was a military failure in an age where kings had to be warriors. The more
careless writers and presenters sometimes go so far as to claim that the king
never marched into battle at all! Due due to the unflattering nickname (which
actually means “poorly-advised” – unraed)
and the conquests, it might seem that these critics have won the argument
before it’s even started.
That isn’t the case, though, as my recent research
has found. My book seeks to redress this aspect of Æthelred’s reputation and
argues that he was militarily prepared and often successful against his many
enemies, including the Vikings. And yes, he did march into battle and often
left a trail of destruction in his wake. He even became one of the few English
kings to reconquer his own country after being deposed, something most other
exiled monarchs never accomplish.
Rounded Globe is home to some of the best scholarly e-books available, including two others on Anglo-Saxon England by Eleanor Parker and Christopher Monk. Rounded Globe’s goal is to be both accessible to the public and academically thorough. In other words, their readers don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for access to a thick tome full of academic jargon. In addition to being readable, all of Rounded Globe’s books are free to read online and free to download.
That does not mean the authors make no
money from their books, however. Rounded Globe also affords plenty of freedom
to its authors, who often sell their books on Kindle and Amazon. This leads to
the final advantage of this publisher: the reader can decide for themselves
what they want to do. If they merely wish to skim the article on the site, they
can. If they want to download it, they can. If they wish to buy a print copy,
they can. If they want to purchase the Kindle version, they can.
This was also appealing to me because in my
own research, I frequently was blocked by a paywall. Unless you’re a member of
academia, it’s hard to gain access to a lot of scholarly research.
Finally, I wrote this book for one main
reason: so people would read it! This
publisher will allow me the platform to share my research with the world. A
print and Kindle version will be following soon. Stay tuned.
The cover art and design are by Dasha Lebesheva. The cover art is a re-imagined version of the most famous image of King Æthelred, which comes from a copy of the Abingdon Chronicle (13th Century).