The Anglo-Saxon Magna Carta: Æthelred the Unready’s Agreement of 1014

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,”[1] 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).[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] He had even opened his majority rule by raiding church lands in 986 after a political squabble with the Bishop of Rochester.[11] Although historians like Levi Roach note that Æthelred was not unusually reckless compared to other eleventh century rulers,[12] 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[13] 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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19]

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.[20] Cnut’s Viking dynasty would rule England for a generation.[21]

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.


Notes

[1] David Starkey, “Ængla-Land,” Monarchy with David Starkey (Channel 4, 2004).

[2] For an overview of the Danish Conquest, see Eleanor Parker, A Short History of the Danish Conquest (Rounded Globe, 2016), https://roundedglobe.com/books/f067b2a6-0eb3-4479-8307-2b242adcc3aa/A%20Short%20History%20of%20the%20Danish%20Conquest/. For a more in-depth treatment, see Ian Howard, Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991-1017, (Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2003).

[3] Brandon M. Bender, England Unlikely Commander: The Military Career of Æthelred the Unready (Rounded Globe, 2019).

[4] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. G.N. Garmonsway (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1954. Reprint: 1990), hereafter abbreviated in the footnotes as ASC.

[5] ASC.

[6] 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.

[7]  “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

[8] 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.

[9] Dien, 568.

[10] ASC.

[11] “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.

[12] Levi Roach, Æthelred: The Unready (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

[13] 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).

[14] Jan Ragnar Hagland and Bruce Watson, “Fact or Folklore? The Viking attack on London Bridge,” London Archaeology 10, no. 12 (Spring 2005), http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-457-1/dissemination/pdf/vol10/vol10_12/10_12_328_333.pdf. For further analysis of the Saga’s authenticity, see Bender, 55-58.

[15] ASC.

[16] ASC.

[17] ASC.

[18] 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.

[19] ASC: “nothing would please them more but that the king should join them.”

[20] 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.

[21] 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.

Bibliography

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.

Hagland, Jan Ragnar and Bruce Watson. “Fact or Folklore? The Viking attack on London Bridge.” London Archaeology 10, no. 12 (Spring 2005). http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-457-1/dissemination/pdf/vol10/vol10_12/10_12_328_333.pdf.

Howard, Ian. Sweyn Forkbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991-1017. Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2003.

Lavelle, Ryan. Aethelred II: King of the English 978-1016. Stroud: Tempus, 2002.

Parker, Eleanor. A Short History of the Danish Conquest. Rounded Globe, 2016. https://roundedglobe.com/books/f067b2a6-0eb3-4479-8307-2b242adcc3aa/A%20Short%20History%20of%20the%20Danish%20Conquest/.

Roach, Levi. Æthelred: The Unready. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

Starkey, David. “Ængla-Land.” Monarchy with David Starkey. Channel 4, 2004.

“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, 2003.

New Book: England’s Unlikely Commander

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 fully explored.

About 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.

About the Publisher:

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.

About the cover:

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).

The image that my book’s cover is based off of. Although this is the most famous image of Æthelred the Unready, it is probably not an actual representation of what he looked like. This image comes from the 1200s, whereas Æthelred himself died in 1016.