King Ethelred the Unready

Just by his name, one can tell that Ethelred the Unready was not one of England’s most effective–or popular–kings.

Ethelred_the_Unready

King Ethelred the Unready. The absurdly big sword is just Dark Ages propaganda. This guy was no warrior.

By the tenth century, it had been several hundred years since the warrior-king Alfred had united most of southern England under his rule, and earned the name “Alfred the Great”. But now, that kingdom was unraveling. In 979 CE, in a faction fight, King Edward was assassinated by a group of court nobles (and became known as “Edward the Martyr”), who placed his ten-year old half brother Ethelred II on the throne. With the boy-king counseled by a regency known as the Witan (“Wise Men”), the nobles became the real power in the kingdom.

But another group of people also took notice of the resulting political chaos in England. For centuries, raiders from Scandinavia–known then as Danes, but today called “Vikings”–had been pillaging the island’s coast, looting monasteries and burning coastal villages. Only a year after the English coup, the raiders were back, striking Kent. The raids continued through the 980s.

In earlier times, the aim of the Vikings had been to seize land in England and establish settlements. Eventually they controlled a large chunk of the island, known as the Danelaw. Over time, however, these Viking settlements came to view themselves as native Englanders, and when Ethelred took the throne, there were still large numbers of their descendants living there.

But this new wave of Viking raiders had entirely different motives: they were not interested in farming or settling–they were simply after plunder. England was at the time one of the richest countries in Europe, and also one of the most vulnerable.

It is of course the duty of a King to protect his people, but the Witan who ruled in the name of the boy-king were completely unable to form any effective response. The English kingdom lacked a navy that was strong enough to take on the Viking longships, and the hit-and-run raids made it impossible for local military forces to gather for a timely defense.

By 990 CE, Ethelred, having reached adulthood, now ruled on his own. He was an articulate speaker who was known for his impeccable politeness and grace, but he was no war-leader in the mold of Alfred the Great. In August 991, Ethelred’s local militia force did manage to confront a group of Danish raiders at Maldon, and tried to fight back. The Vikings found themselves separated from the militia by a causeway that had flooded with the tide. “There’s no need for blood”, the Viking leader called to the English. “You have much silver, you can afford to pay us and we’ll leave.” “We will pay you with spear and sword”, the English defiantly replied. “Very well”, said the Vikings. “But at least make it a fair fight–let us cross over the causeway and assemble there.” Incredibly, the English agreed to this. They were slaughtered.

After this defeat, Ethelred apparently decided that he simply did not have the means to effectively oppose the Vikings. So, in what probably was intended as a temporary expedient, the English King decided to take a different approach: he paid an enormous bribe, 5 tons of silver coin, to make the raiders go away. It was known as the “Danegeld”.

It changed the entire character of the raids. Now, the Vikings no longer needed to plunder or sack. Instead, it all turned into a sort of giant protection racket, with a fleet of longships showing up and anchoring off the coast, making a few threats, and the frantic officials scraping together another bribe to pay them off. Over the next 20 years, the size of the Danegeld grew bigger and bigger. As one chronicle noted, “Everyone was incapable of forming a plan to get them out of the country or to hold the country against them.” Ethelred received the whispered nickname unraed, (a pun on his name that means “badly-advised” but is today mis-translated as “The Unready”).

In 1002 CE, in a desperate attempt to take some sort of action, the King made a colossal blunder: distrusting the loyalty of the Danish descendants living in England, Ethelred demanded that on the Feast Day of St Brice, they all be rounded up and killed. Most local officials sensibly refused to carry out these orders, but the Massacre of St Brice’s Day now provoked a political and military response. One of those who had been killed was the sister of King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark, and he landed an army in revenge. True to form, Ethelred the Unready never met him in battle. Sweyn plundered with impunity, until Ethelred once more yielded to extortion and paid a Danegeld of 18 tons of silver.

Then, somewhat surprisingly, Ethelred suddenly grew a spine. He ordered the construction of a fleet of 300 warships, strong enough to meet the Viking fleets at sea and beat them. The ships assembled at Sandwich. But then, things once again fell apart. In yet another faction fight, one of the nobles took his 20 ships and left, and another noble took 80 ships to pursue him. They were caught in a storm that wrecked them. Faced with the loss of one-third of his navy, Ethelred, amazingly, abandoned the entire effort. The remaining ships returned home.

By 1010, Danish armies, virtually unopposed, occupied most of southeast England. Sweyn, seeing how weak the island was, now had his eye on the English throne itself. In 1013, as the Danes approached London, Ethelred fled to Normandy. Sweyn was offered a tribute of 24 tons of silver; he demanded the crown. But he was not to get the chance to enjoy it. In February 1014, Sweyn Forkbeard died in his camp on the Trent River.

And now the story took yet another odd turn. By right of succession, the English throne should have passed to Sweyn’s oldest son Cnut. But rather than accept this, the English Witan contacted Ethelred, in exile in France, and offered him the crown back–on the condition that he do a better job as King than he had before. Throughout 1015, Cnut and Ethelred’s armies chased each other across England without fighting a major battle. But then, unexpectedly, Ethelred the Unready died in 1016. Cnut became King of England.

Ethelred was buried inside St Paul’s Cathedral where, in the final bit of bad luck for the most incompetent King in English history, his tomb was later destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

 

 

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