Æthelred the Unready: What Lies Beneath the Legends

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.

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

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

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

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

Legends About King Æthelred: 12th Century Origins

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

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

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

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

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

Interpretations of King Æthelred: Victorian Era to Present

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

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

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

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

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

Beneath the Legends: Æthelred in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Æthelred’s Mixed Legacy

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

Bibliography

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.

Bender, Brandon M. “The Anglo-Saxon Magna Carta: Æthelred the Unready’s Agreement of 1014.” Presented at The Kansas Association of Historians, 2019.

Bender, Brandon M. England’s Unlikely Commander: The Military Career of Æthelred the Unready. Rounded Globe, 2019.

Braekman, W. “Wyrdwriteras: an Unpublished Ælfrician Text in Manuscript Hatton 115.” Revue belge de Philologie et d’Histoire 44, no. 3 (1966): 959-970.

Byrhtferth of Ramsey. The Lives of St. Oswald and St. Ecgwine. Edited by Michael Lapidge. Oxford University Press, USA, 2009.

Dien, Stephanie. “Sermo Lupi ad Anglos: The Order and Date of the Three Versions.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 76, no. 4 (1975): 561-70.

Edmonds, Fiona. “The emergence and transformation of medieval Cumbria.” Scottish Historical Review 93, no. 2 (October 2014): 195-216. https://doi.org/10.3366/shr.2014.0216.

Edmonds, Fiona. “The expansion of the kingdom of Strathclyde.” Early Medieval Europe 23, no. 1 (2015): 43-66. https://doi.org/10.1111/emed.12087.

Foxe, John. Fox’s Book of Martyrs: The Acts and Monuments of the Church. Edited by John Cumming. London: George Virtue, 1851.

Freeman, E.A. The History of the Norman Conquest of England: The Preliminary History to the Election of Eadward the Confessor. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1867.

Fuller, Thomas. The Church History of England: Third Edition. London: Thomas Tegg, 1842.

Howard, Ian. The Reign of Aethelred II King of the English Emperor of all the Peoples of Britain 978-1016. British Archaeological Reports, 2010.

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

John of Worcester. Florence of Worcester’s Chronicle. Translated by Thomas Forester. London: Bohn’s Antiquarian Library, 1854.

Keynes, Simon. The Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready.’ Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Kipling, Rudyard. “Dane-geld.” A School History of England. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1911.

Konshuh, Courtnay. “Anraed in their Unraed.” English Studies 97, no. 2 (2016).

Kozinn, Allan. “A Long-Dead King Sets Out to Upgrade His Brand’s Image.” The New York Times, 2011.

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

Ribman, Ronald. The Ceremony of Innocence. Broadway Theatre Archive, 1970.

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

Weiler, Björn. “William of Malmesbury on Kingship.” History 90, no. 1 (2005).

William of Malmesbury. “The History of the Kings of England.” The Church Historians of England Vol III Part I. Translated by Joseph Stevenson. London: Seeley’s, 1854

Williams, Ann. Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counseled King. Bloomsbury Academic, 2003.

Wilson, Richard. Æthelred the Unready: An Opera in Seven Scenes, 1992.

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.