Æthelred II, more commonly known as the Unready, was king of England from 978 to 1013 and again from 1014 to 1016. He didn’t gain the ‘Unready’ part of his name until some 150 years after his death, so it is no indication of how he was seen at the time. Furthermore, it does not derive from the modern word ‘unredy’, but in fact comes from the Old English word ‘unræd’, which means poorly advised. This is an attempt at humour, because ‘Æthelred’ means ‘well advised’.
Æthelred came to the throne on the 18th March 978 when his older stepbrother, Edward the Martyr was assassinated. There was speculation that the plot to kill Edward was led my Æthelred mother and though there is no evidence to support this allegation, following Æthelred ascension to the throne, no one was punished for a part in the crime. Thus, Æthelred’s reign began in an atmosphere of suspicion which badly affected the prestige of the crown.
England had experienced a period of peace after the reconquest of the Danelaw in the mid-10th century by Æthelred's father, King Edgar the Peaceful. However, early in Æthelred's reign Danish Vikings began raiding the English coast, with Hampshire, Thanet and Cheshire attacked in 980, Devon and Cornwall in 981, Dorset in 982 and Devon in 988. In August 991 things became more serious when a sizeable Danish fleet began a sustained campaign in the south-east of England. Things truly came to ahead when the Danes and English met at The Battle of Maldon, resulting in a crushing defeat upon the English. Following the battle Æthelred decided that the English should grant the tribute to the Danes that they desired, and so a gafol of £10,000 was paid them for their peace. This does not seem to have worked however and the Danes continued to raid and an inconclusive battle was fought near London. Another treaty was signed with a tribute of that £22,000 of gold and silver paid for peace. These payments would become known as Danegeld.
Yet, this treaty was little more than a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with the leader of the raiders, Olaf Tryggvason, who subsequently entered the employ of the English crown as a mercenary. In 997 the Danes returned under different leadership. The Danes harried England until 1000, then they left for Normandy. In their absence, Æthelred attempted to reinforce his military position. He also invaded the British kingdom of Strathclyde, the motive for which is unknown. The Danes returned in 1001, ravaged west Sussex. And were only subdued with a payment of £24,000 in the Spring of 1002.
On November 13th 1002, St Brice's Day, Æthelred ordered the massacre of all Danish men in England to take place. Among the dead were Gunhilde, sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark. Probably in response, Sweyn invaded England. The English put up a stiff resistance and although the Danes were able to harry much of England, they returned to Denmark in 1005. An expedition the following year was bought off in early 1007 by tribute money of £36,000, and for the next two years England was free from attack. Conflict returned in 1009 when a Danish army under Thorkell the Tall and his brother Hemming invaded and harried England until 1012, when it was bought off by a sum of by £48,000.
In 1013 Sweyn launched an invasion with the ultimate aim of gaining the English crown. Sweeping aside any opposition he conquered the country within the year and Æthelred and his family, including the future kings Edmund and Edward, were forced into exile in Normandy. Sweyn was however unable to enjoy his victory for long, dying on February 3rd 1014 and while the Danes threw in the support for Sweyn’s son, Cnut, the English sent a deputation to Normandy to negotiate Æthelred’s restoration to the throne.
Æthelred returned to England with an army and found support for him still existed in England. Cnut and his army decided to withdraw from England, in April 1014, but would return in 1016 to find a complex and volatile situation unfolding in England. Æthelred's son, Edmund Ironside, had revolted against his father and established himself in the Danelaw. Over the next few months Cnut conquered most of England, and on 23rd April 1016 Æthelred died, leaving Edmund as the sole opposition to the Danes.
These scenes was built by James Pegrum and Dan Harris as part of a series of models on the Kings and Queens of England and British history in general. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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