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Æthelred II [Ethelred; known as Ethelred the Unready]locked

(c. 966x8–1016)
  • Simon Keynes

Æthelred II (c. 966x88–1016)

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© Copyright The British Museum

Æthelred II [Ethelred; known as Ethelred the Unready] (c. 966x8–1016), king of England, was the younger son of King Edgar (r. 959–75) and his wife, Ælfthryth (d. 999x1001), daughter of Ealdorman Ordgar. The separate elements of his name (Æthel-ræd) mean 'noble' and 'counsel'; and although the name was in common usage, contemporaries might well have been more than usually conscious of its literal significance when applied to a king. Æthelred's record was, however, such that already in the twelfth century (if not before) his name was associated by wits and critics with the noun un-ræd, denoting an ill-advised course of action and implying criticism of his conduct of the warfare against the Danes. The noun unræd was later transformed into the adjective unredi, with a very different kind of pejorative import, and it was as the outcome of this process that the king came to be known to posterity as Æthelred ‘the Unready’. Æthelred's posthumous reputation has rendered him synonymous with bad rulership and left him a figure of fun; yet while there is no mistaking the ultimate defeat of the English, a rather different impression of the king emerges when the attempt is made to understand the course of the viking invasions in relation to all other aspects of his long and complex reign.

Æthelred's family

Æthelred had an elder half-brother Edward, born c.962, and an elder half-sister Edith (St Edith of Wilton), born between 961 and 964. King Edgar married Ælfthryth in 964; their eldest son, Edmund, was born c.965, and Æthelred himself was probably born not earlier than 966 and not later, or much later, than 968. The paternity of Æthelred's half-siblings is not in question, but there seems to have been some confusion about the identity of Edward's mother and some doubt about the legitimacy of Edith's birth. Edward was described by Osbern of Canterbury as Edgar's son from an illicit union with a nun of Wilton Abbey, and by Eadmer of Canterbury (and John of Worcester) as born to Edgar's first wife, Æthelflæd the Fair; Edith is said to have been Edgar's daughter from an illicit union with Wulfthryth, who later became abbess of Wilton. It is possible, against this background, that the marriage of Edgar and Ælfthryth in 964 was intended not least to resolve a situation which had given cause in high places for some embarrassment and concern; and it may well have been regarded, at the time, as a significant moment in Edgar's reign. Interestingly, it was in 964 that King Edgar took decisive action in driving clerks from the old and the new minsters at Winchester, and replacing them with monks from Abingdon. In a charter issued just two years after the king's marriage, in 966, Edmund was accorded precedence over his elder half-brother, Edward, and was perhaps pointedly styled (clito legitimus'legitimate prince'); no less pointedly, Edmund's mother, Ælfthryth, was styled (legitima coniunx'legitimate wife'). The charter in question, which is extant in its original form (AS chart., S 745), was drafted by none other than Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, and symbolized the king's confirmation of privileges to the New Minster, which had been reformed two years before. It was patently not a product of the royal writing office, and may not in that sense have represented an 'official' point of view; but it lay on the high altar of the New Minster at Winchester for the rest of King Edgar's reign, within reach of the community and in full sight of God.

Æthelred the atheling

It is not known where Æthelred was born, and it is only possible to guess how he might have spent the earliest years of his life. The prevailing impression of the 960s, and especially the later 960s, is of a period when Edgar was engaged in the consolidation of a realm reunited in 959, and when his enthusiastic support for the monastic reform movement was beginning to make a significant impression on the course of affairs. The atheling Edmund died in 971, and it seems likely that whatever recognition he had enjoyed as King Edgar's legitimate heir was accorded henceforth to his younger brother. Yet it was beyond anyone's power effectively to determine the succession in advance; and when Edgar died, on 8 July 975, those left in positions of power would have had to make their choice between the king's eldest surviving son, Edward (aged about thirteen), and his youngest son, Æthelred (aged at most about nine and perhaps only six or seven). Queen Ælfthryth would naturally have promoted the cause of her son Æthelred, and might in this respect have enjoyed the support of Bishop Æthelwold; others would no less naturally have preferred Edward, as the elder son, and would presumably have been prepared to set aside any lingering doubts about his parentage.

In the event, Edward was 'elected' king, on 17 July 975; Æthelred, perhaps by way of compensation, was assigned the use of those estates which pertained to kings' sons. The evidence of charters and coinage suggests that the business of royal government continued as usual, yet there seem to have been many who tried to take advantage of the situation, in their own interests, by seeking to undo whatever had been done during Edgar's reign. Three estates (Bedwyn and Burbage, in Wiltshire, and Hurstbourne, in Hampshire) which King Edgar had previously given to Abingdon Abbey, even though they properly belonged to kings' sons, were withdrawn from the abbey and reassigned to Æthelred 'by the decree and order of all the leading men' (AS chart., S 937; English Historical Documents, 1, no. 123); so it would appear that King Edward's councillors were concerned to ensure that Æthelred's interests were respected. Æthelred is said to have visited Ely Abbey during Edward's reign, perhaps significantly in the company of Bishop Æthelwold; but little else is known of his activities at this time.

Less than three years after his accession, King Edward fell foul of an opposing faction among the secular nobility. On 18 March 978 he came to visit his 'much-loved brother' Æthelred, who was staying with his mother, Queen Ælfthryth, at Corfe in Dorset; and although Edward is said to have been intent upon 'the consolation of brotherly love', he was soon surrounded by Æthelred's thegns and treacherously killed (Byrhtferth, 4.18). Æthelred and Ælfthryth benefited most directly from Edward's death, but there is no need to presume that they had organized it themselves. Edward was probably murdered by men acting on their own initiative and in their own interests, who hoped they would prosper under Æthelred; however, it was Queen Ælfthryth who as the wicked stepmother later attracted the blame and who is said (by William of Malmesbury) to have founded religious houses at Amesbury and at Wherwell in expiation for her part in the crime.

The young king, 978–991

It must be assumed that soon after King Edward's death a meeting was convened at which the atheling Æthelred was chosen as king in his place. Æthelred was at most about twelve and perhaps only nine or ten years old. The conduct of the kingdom's affairs would at this stage have been in the hands of a group of the king's councillors, presumably including Queen Ælfthryth herself, as well as Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, and Ælfhere, ealdorman of Mercia. The most pressing issue in the opening months of the new reign was doubtless the identification and punishment of those responsible for Edward's murder (an obscure and contentious issue), and appropriate obsequies for the late king's body would also need to be performed for the matter ever to be allowed to rest. Almost a year elapsed before the discovery of Edward's supposed remains, their burial at Wareham on 13 February 979, and their ceremonial translation from Wareham to Shaftesbury five days later. Within three months of the ceremony at Shaftesbury, Æthelred was anointed king at Kingston, Surrey, on 4 May 979. According to one chronicler, the event took place 'with much rejoicing by the councillors of the English people' (ASC, texts D, E). Byrhtferth of Ramsey states similarly that when Æthelred was consecrated king, by Archbishop Dunstan and Archbishop Oswald, 'there was great joy at his consecration', and describes the king in this connection as 'a young man in respect of years, elegant in his manners, with an attractive face and handsome appearance' (Byrhtferth, 5.4). Another important event was the completion of Bishop Æthelwold's building works at the Old Minster, Winchester, marked by the rededication of the church of St Peter, in the presence of the king, on 20 October 980. Bishop Æthelwold brought a great throng of bishops, abbots, ealdormen, and thegns to Winchester, from a meeting of the king and his councillors at Andover, and entertained them lavishly; and 'all who had previously seemed his enemies, standing in God's path, were suddenly made, as it were, sheep instead of wolves' (Wulfstan of Winchester, Life of St Æthelwold, chap. 40).

Viking raids on England resumed in 980, after a lull of nearly a hundred years. Initially, the raids were sporadic, and probably amounted to little more than local irritation: Southampton, Thanet in Kent, and Cheshire were ravaged in 980; St Petroc's Monastery, at Padstow, Cornwall, was sacked in 981, and great damage was done along the coast in the south-west; three ships of vikings ravaged Portland, Dorset, in 982; Watchet, in Somerset, was ravaged in 988, and Goda, 'the Devonshire thegn', was killed. The more significant factors at play in the 980s were probably personal and domestic, as the king, now in his teens, broke free from the influence of those who had controlled events in his boyhood. It might be supposed that there was a formal occasion when Æthelred came of age, at which stage he would have gained greater independence of action; but while distinctions between infancy, boyhood, adolescence, manhood, and old age are commonplace in the literature, there is no clear indication that the passage from boyhood (pueritia) into adolescence (adolescentia), at the age of fourteen, need have made much difference in itself.

The significant turning point at this stage in Æthelred's reign seems to have been the death of Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, on 1 August 984. By this date the king would have been at most about eighteen years old and perhaps only fifteen or sixteen, but in either case fully capable of making his own way in the world. The immediate consequences of Æthelwold's death are indicated in a charter drawn up in summer 993 (AS chart., S 876), whereby the king restored privileges to Abingdon Abbey. The event had deprived the country of one 'whose industry and pastoral care administered not only to my interest but also to that of all inhabitants of the country', and had ushered in a period of wrongdoing, when the king was under the influence of councillors who in their greed had led him astray. The wrongdoing would appear to have involved the abuse of church privileges, though not all of the king's men were implicated, and the wrongdoing was not necessarily widespread. Following the death of Ælfhere, ealdorman of Mercia, on 22 October 983, the principal ealdormen during the 980s were Æthelwine of East Anglia, Byrhtnoth of the East Saxons, and Æthelweard of the western provinces. Æthelwine and Byrhtnoth were committed to the protection and promotion of the interests of religious houses at (respectively) Ramsey and Ely, and the credentials of Æthelweard, the chronicler, are equally impeccable. Yet not all religious houses could rely upon the same level of support in high places. Abingdon Abbey, which had done so well in the 960s and early 970s, was a case in point. There the death of Abbot Osgar in May 984, compounded by Bishop Æthelwold's death soon afterwards, exposed the abbey to the danger of exploitation by unscrupulous men. The king was persuaded to reduce the abbey to servitude by Wulfgar, bishop of Ramsbury and a certain Ealdorman Ælfric. The latter was almost certainly the ealdorman of Hampshire, eager to take advantage of an opportunity for advancing the career of his brother Eadwine, for whom he was able to purchase the abbacy. A different kind of local difficulty arose at Rochester. A bald statement in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, to the effect that in 986 'the king laid waste the diocese of Rochester' (ASC, texts C, D, E), seems at one level to exemplify the king's supposed violent streak, but analysis of the king's charters reveals that it represents the expression of more deep-rooted factors. Æthelred had fallen out with Ælfstan, bishop of Rochester, in 984, and had then been persuaded by Æthelsige, a royal household thegn, into giving him some of the church's land. In short, it looks as if in 984 unscrupulous men took advantage of the loss of firm direction in order to advance their own interests, just as others had done in 975, following the death of King Edgar. The development was one of which Æthelred came to be ashamed, and to regret.

It must have been during this period (c.985) that Æthelred married for the first time. According to material compiled c.1100 at Worcester, his first wife was called Ælfgifu, daughter of a nobleman (comes) called Æthelberht, who is otherwise unknown; William of Malmesbury does not give her name, and seems to have presumed that she was a woman of low birth; while the north-country monk Ailred of Rievaulx, writing in the early 1150s, identifies her (without naming her) as the daughter of a comes called Thored (Thorth). In his youth Ailred had served as chief steward in the household of David I, king of Scots (r. 1124–53), who through his mother, Margaret, was a great-great-grandson of King Æthelred and his first wife; Ailred was thus in a good position to know about David's maternal forebears. Combining his evidence with that from Worcester makes it possible to say that Æthelred's first wife, Ælfgifu, was the daughter of Thored who held office as earl of Northumbria from c.975 to c.992, attesting Æthelred's charters quite regularly in the 980s; he also gave land in Yorkshire to the church of St Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street (AS chart., S 1660). The marriage must have served to strengthen Æthelred's position in a region where a king of the West Saxon line always needed friends; and although the names chosen for their sons (Æthelstan, Ecgberht, Edmund, Eadred, Eadwig, and Edgar) suggest that Æthelred and Ælfgifu had decided from the outset to commemorate the king's own predecessors, it is important to bear in mind that the sons had some natural affinity, through their mother, with the nobility of the northern Danelaw. Æthelred also had at least three daughters from his first marriage, called Edith, Ælfgifu, and Wulfhild. It is striking, however, that Queen Ælfgifu left no trace of her own position in the king's household or at court. She did not attest any of her husband's charters in the later 980s or 990s; and there is reason to believe that at least some of her children (including Æthelstan) were brought up by a foster-mother and by their paternal grandmother, Queen Ælfthryth.

There is evidence that King Æthelred was engaged in at least some diplomatic activity in the late 980s. In 990 Pope John XV (r. 985–96) dispatched Leo, bishop of Trevi, to England, in an attempt to make peace between Æthelred, ‘king of the West Saxons’, and Richard ‘the marquis’ (count of Rouen). Nothing is known of the cause of the dispute, though it is a reasonable presumption that it had to do with Norman readiness to give shelter and sustenance to viking raiders. Æthelred sent his own envoys to Normandy, and on 1 March 991 Leo issued a letter at Rouen on the pope's behalf addressed 'to all the faithful', declaring that peace between the king and the marquis 'should remain ever unshaken' (English Historical Documents, 1, no. 230). Unfortunately for all concerned, the effectiveness of the treaty depended largely upon the quiescence of those who were not themselves party to it.

The viking army in England, 991–1005

The direction of events in Æthelred's reign was affected in the 990s by a dramatic increase in the scale and incidence of viking activity. The circumstances of this development are hard to elucidate. The raiders of the 980s had doubtless told tempting tales of rich pickings in England, and might well have represented the English as vulnerable to attack; but it seems unlikely that such reports reflected on the competence or otherwise of the government carried on in Æthelred's name. For the viking leaders of the 990s, the furtherance of their ambitions back home was probably their chief purpose, with the acquisition of English gold and silver, rather than the conquest of territory, their prime objective. Understanding of their impact on the English in these years depends largely upon the answer to a simple question: were the English faced with a succession of separate raiding armies, which returned home for the winter only to come back the following summer, or were they dealing with a single force which after its first arrival maintained a threatening presence in England for well over a decade? Although the question will always remain open to discussion, a close reading of the annals in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests that the bulk of the viking force was based in England throughout the years 991 to 1005.

In late summer 991 a large viking fleet arrived off Folkestone, in Kent, and made its way around the south-east coast and up the Blackwater estuary. The viking force was opposed at Northey Island, near Maldon, by an English army led by Ealdorman Byrhtnoth, as told in the famous Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon. It was decided in the aftermath of Ealdorman Byrhtnoth's death, and the defeat of his army, that 'tribute' (gafol) should be paid to the vikings, 'because of the great terror they were causing along the coast' (ASC, texts C, D, E); and on this first occasion, the payment was of 10,000 pounds. There is no indication that the victorious viking fleet returned whence it came; indeed, it would appear that the fleet was active along the east coast in 992 (when the king's father-in-law, Earl Thored, was one of those entrusted with the leadership of the English fleet) and again in 993 (when 'a very large English army' was collected, the leaders of which 'first started the flight' (ASC, texts C, D, E), and that it was essentially the same fleet, now led by Olaf Tryggvason and Swein Forkbeard, which came up the Thames estuary, towards London, in 994.

At this point the king and his councillors came to terms with the vikings. The army received another payment of gafol, said to be '16,000 pounds in money' according to the chronicler (ASC, texts C, D, E), or '22,000 pounds in gold and silver' according to a treaty drawn up at about this time (II Æthelred, chap. 7.2). The leaders of the viking force are identified in the treaty as Olaf, Jostein, and Guthmund, son of Steita, without mention of Swein Forkbeard; so it may be that Swein had gone his own way—he is reported to have been active in the Irish Sea in 995 before leaving to reassert his position as king of Denmark. Olaf Tryggvason, on the other hand, was in 994 received into the Christian faith in a ceremony at Andover, with King Æthelred standing sponsor to him; he received gifts from the king, promised 'that he would never come back to England in hostility' (ASC, texts C, D, E), and seems then to have returned to Norway, where he set about establishing himself as king in his own land. Other component parts of the viking force appear to have decided to stay in England, for it is apparent from the treaty that some had chosen to enter into King Æthelred's service as mercenaries, based presumably on the Isle of Wight.

For some three years following (994–7) the mercenary force seems to have had little to do, and to have remained at peace; but although the circumstances are unrecorded, the vikings eventually resumed hostile activities. In 997 'the Danish army went round Devon into the mouth of the Severn', ravaging extensively in Wales and the south-west; in 998, 'the army turned back east', ravaging first in Dorset and operating thereafter from the Isle of Wight; and in 999 'the army came again round into the Thames', ravaging in Kent (ASC, texts C, D, E). There is no suggestion that this was a new fleet or army, and presumably the mercenary force created in 994 from the residue of the raiding army of 991 had turned on those whom it had been hired to protect. Nor is it suggested that these ‘Danes’ received gafol during the years 997–1000, and it may have been in despair or desperation that in the summer of 1000 the viking fleet went to Normandy; if it received shelter there from Duke Richard II, any pact which had hitherto existed between England and Normandy must have been broken.

It was probably much the same force which returned to England in May 1001, ravaging first in Hampshire and then further west in Devon, before returning to its base on the Isle of Wight. The king and his councillors determined to make 'peace' (frith) with the fleet 'on condition that they should cease their evil-doing', and in the opening months of 1002 the vikings received a payment of 24,000 pounds (ASC, texts C, D, E). In 1003 the Danish army was active in the west country, and it emerges from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that the army was now under the command of Swein Forkbeard, suggesting that he had decided to resume operations in England. It is doubtless significant that in the coinage introduced at about this time the king was portrayed neither crowned nor bareheaded but wearing a helmet, capturing the spirit of a kingdom under sustained attack from a foreign power. In 1004 Swein and his fleet were in East Anglia, where they met fierce opposition from Ulfcytel. But although there does not appear to have been any further payment of gafol, in the end it was not a feat of arms which drove the Danes from England but an act of God. The effects of the great famine of 1005 were felt widely on the continent, and in the British Isles. The Anglo-Saxon chronicler, enjoying the inestimable advantage of hindsight, comments wryly that the army 'let little time elapse before it came back' (ASC, texts C, D, E).

English responses

It is within this context that Æthelred's response to the viking threat in the 990s and early 1000s must be assessed, and the impact of the viking raids on the course of his reign judged. The king himself has acquired particular notoriety for his policy of paying large sums of gold and silver to the vikings, in the hope thereby of inducing them to go away; but this policy must take its place as just one among a number of measures adopted in the 990s for the defence of the kingdom. Present knowledge of the military response—and indeed of such matters as the quality of leadership displayed by the king and his commanders in the field, and of the degree of loyalty shown by others towards the king—depends largely upon the word of an anonymous chronicler conducting the nation's post-mortem soon after its conquest by a foreign power. It is almost impossible not to be affected by his compelling account of disaster precipitated by treachery, compounded by incompetence, and relieved only by defeat, though by no means does he tell the whole story. The payments of gafol appear at first sight to be a poor substitute for military action, and hardly seem calculated to achieve any purpose other than to encourage the raiders to come back for more. Yet the policy had been adopted in the past by Alfred the Great, Charles the Bald, and many others, and in certain circumstances may have seemed the best available way of protecting the people against loss of life, shelter, livestock, and crops. Though undeniably burdensome, it constituted a measure for which the king could rely on widespread support. It is an irony of Æthelred's reign, however, that the coinage thus accumulated by those whose business was terrorism and extortion, and carried back to Scandinavia by them, now supplies the bulk of the evidence for the effective operation of the monetary system of England in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries.

The English response to viking raids gained an additional dimension in 994, when for the first time the king was able to deal directly with their leaders. Olaf Tryggvason had not been defeated in battle; but by receiving him 'at the bishop's hands', Æthelred took advantage of the power of the Christian faith to bind sponsor and subject together, and at the same time to bring the subject into a new political order, just as Alfred and many others had done before him. No less significant is the inception, at least in the context of Æthelred's reign, of the decision to employ vikings as mercenaries, charged with defending the kingdom against other viking raiders. The policy appears to have had some effect in 994–7, but the arrangement seems then to have been abandoned, to be followed by the renewed outbreak of hostilities in 997–1001, and the further payment of gafol in 1002. The so-called massacre of St Brice's day, when Æthelred ordered the killing of 'all the Danish men who were in England' (ASC, texts C, D, E), implemented on 13 November 1002, is another of the king's counter-measures which has attracted strong disapproval; yet judged in its immediate context, and shorn of later accretions, the ‘massacre’ should be seen as the reaction of people exasperated by the behaviour of the vikings in their midst, after a decade of slaughter, pillage, and extortion, directed not at the inhabitants of the Danelaw but at precisely those ‘Danes’ who had so recently been employed as mercenaries and then turned against their employers.

Another counter-measure, adopted in 1000–01, in the immediate aftermath of the sheltering of the viking army in Normandy, was the renewal of the Anglo-Norman alliance. This probably came immediately after Æthelred's dispatching of a fleet to Normandy, for the express, but in the event frustrated, purpose of conquering the duchy and capturing Duke Richard; unsurprisingly, the story, as told by the Norman chronicler William of Jumièges, does not redound to the king's credit. It was at about the same time (c.1000) that Æthelred's first wife died, and, perhaps no less significantly, that his mother, Queen Ælfthryth, died. The king entered into negotiations with Richard II, and as a result secured the hand of his sister Emma (d. 1052), daughter of Richard I, who in the spring of 1002 came to England and on her marriage to the king was accorded a new name (Ælfgifu) and full dignity at the king's court.

To judge from the witness lists in the king's charters, Æthelred's sons from his first marriage had from 993 onwards been accorded a place of honour at court, and it is significant that they retained this status after their mother's death and after their father's marriage to Emma. Æthelred and his new wife soon had a family of their own. The eldest son Edward (King Edward the Confessor), was born between 1003 and 1005, followed by at least two further children, Gode and Alfred. A later commentator, blessed with the advantage of hindsight, stated that just before Edward's birth all the men of the country took an oath that if a boy should come forth he would rule over them (Barlow, i.1), and a Norman source states that in his youth Edward was 'anointed and consecrated as king' (Inventio et miracula S. Wulfrani, chap. 18). The truth is likely to have been different. His parents are said to have been at Ely c.1005, when they presented their eldest son, Edward, at the holy altar, and entrusted him to the community for upbringing with the boys there. Æthelstan, eldest son of the king's first marriage, evidently remained the prospective heir, and the charters show that Edward had to take his place behind his elder half-brothers.

Law, culture, and government

The arrival of the viking army in England in 991, and its threatening presence thenceforth until its departure in 1005, no doubt significantly affected domestic affairs in the kingdom throughout this extended period. The invasion of 991 would have been regarded, in accordance with a rationale reaching back through Alfred to Alcuin, and ultimately to the Old Testament, as divine punishment for the sins of the English people, prompting many to reflect on whatever might have been the underlying cause. So, in addition to the various forms of response directed at the vikings themselves, other forms of response are encountered, aimed, in effect, at appeasing the Almighty.

By summer 993, when the viking force was active north and south of the Humber estuary, Æthelred had seen the errors of his ways and was beginning to break free from the influence of the men who had led him astray in the later 980s. A different group of councillors now had the king's ear, and a period of wrongdoing gave way to one of reflection and reform. The great triumvirate of monastic reformers—Bishop Æthelwold and archbishops Dunstan and Oswald—had been succeeded in court circles by those trained during the golden age of Edgar's reign, including Sigeric and Ælfric, successive archbishops of Canterbury from 990 to 1005, Ælfheah, bishop of Winchester, Wulfstan, bishop of London, Ælfweard, abbot of Glastonbury, Wulfgar, abbot of Abingdon, and Ælfsige, abbot of the New Minster, Winchester. Prominent among the king's lay advisers during this period were his kinsman Ealdorman Æthelweard, his maternal uncle Ordwulf, and Æthelweard's son Æthelmær. Yet the witness lists in the king's charters which allow detection of these changes in the composition of the king's council suggest that by the end of this period some of those in high places had had enough. Æthelmær founded a monastery at Eynsham, in Oxfordshire, and to judge from the charter confirming its foundation, issued in 1005 (AS chart., S 911), chose this moment to retire from the secular life. Ordwulf also disappears from the witness lists in 1005, and seems to have withdrawn to the monastery which he had founded at Tavistock, in Devon. Perhaps the departure of the viking force in 1005 encouraged Æthelmær and Ordwulf to think that the time had come for them to seek a quieter life; if so, their optimism proved sadly mistaken.

It is difficult to detect particular instances where these men influenced the course of affairs in the 990s, though Archbishop Sigeric is credited with devising the policy of paying gafol, and Abbot Ælfsige and the thegns Æthelmær and Ordwulf are specifically mentioned in an important charter of 993 in favour of Abingdon Abbey (AS chart., S 876), and may be presumed, with Abbot Wulfgar, to have persuaded the king to set off in a new direction. Yet what is so striking about the years from 991 to 1005, when the vikings were at large and men such as these were in control of the nation's affairs, is that the period witnessed some of the most intense activity in the proper ordering of Christian society among the English. Whether it was fear of the impending millennium which concentrated the collective mind, or simply fear of the vikings, is a moot point; but the evidence of all this activity does much to compensate for the very incomplete record of events in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The king's charters reveal that several estates which had been taken from churches in the later 980s were in the mid- and later 990s restored to their rightful owners. Yet there was far more to it than that. This was a period for church building, for recruitment into the religious life, and for the furnishing of churches with relics, privileges, books, treasures, and estates, and so for the increase of their revenues. The dedication of Bishop Æthelgar's multi-storeyed tower at the New Minster, Winchester, in the mid-980s, was matched by Bishop Ælfheah's further building works at the Old Minster, including additional crypts (each with its own altar and relics), a more powerful organ, and a new tower (surmounted by a golden weathercock) dedicated some time between summer 993 and late October 994. Between 995 and 1002 there seems to have been a veritable outburst of enthusiasm for the translation of the relics of saints from one resting-place to another, suggestive of a determination to secure their intercession as well as to ensure the safety of their remains: Cuthbert at Durham in 995; Æthelwold at Winchester on 10 September 996; Edith at Wilton on 3 November 997; Edward at Shaftesbury on 20 June 1001; Oswald at Worcester on 15 April 1002; Ivo at Ramsey on 10 June 1002; and several others who appear to have been translated at about the same time.

Following his charter of 993 for Abingdon, in 994 Æthelred confirmed Ealdred, bishop of St Germans (in the exposed south-eastern corner of Cornwall), in his control of St Petroc's Minster, Bodmin, which lay inland and further west (AS chart., S 880). A monastery at Cholsey in Berkshire was founded c.994 in honour of Æthelred's half-brother Edward. In 998 the king authorized Wulfsige, bishop of Sherborne, to convert his community to the Benedictine rule (S 895). The relics of Edward had been translated at Shaftesbury in the midst of intense viking activity in Wessex, and later in the same year Æthelred granted the minster of Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, to the nuns of Shaftesbury, for use as a refuge 'against the inroads of the barbarians' (adversus barbarorum insidias), by a charter which shows that the abbey had become the centre of a flourishing cult (S 899). Other religious houses to benefit from royal support during this period include Wherwell, Hampshire, which received a charter in 1002 (S 904), Burton, Staffordshire, which received a charter in 1004 (S 906), and Eynsham, Oxfordshire, which received its charter in 1005 (S 911).

It is the concentration of all this activity in a relatively short period of time that makes it so impressive, and creates a context for intense productivity of other kinds. The fine arts, represented by sculpture, manuscript decoration, and metalwork, would appear to have flourished. The need for books, extending from essential service books to works of learning and literature, was matched by the availability of the resources and expertise necessary to produce them. Scholars of the calibre of Wulfstan of Winchester, Byrhtferth of Ramsey, and Ælfric of Cerne (later of Eynsham) produced a remarkable variety of works, in Latin and in the vernacular. Wulfstan followed his Narratio metrica de S. Swithuno, composed in the mid-990s, with his life of St Æthelwold, composed c.1000. Byrhtferth's life of St Oswald was composed at about the same time. A person known only by his initial B produced a life of St Dunstan, also c.1000. The greater part of Ælfric's output was generated within this period, and reflects his own response to the worsening events. When Ælfric had completed his 'First series' of homilies c.990, followed by his 'Second series' c.992, he was still based at Cerne, in Dorset, some distance removed from the dangers which at that time afflicted the people of the south-east, London, and East Anglia; so it is not surprising that the viking raids did not at that stage loom large in his consciousness. By the mid-990s, when he was writing his Lives of Saints on behalf of Ealdorman Æthelweard and his son Æthelmær, the need for prayer against the heathen was made more explicit. He subsequently translated the book of Judith into English, expressly for the instruction of laymen charged with the defence of their land 'against the invading army' (Crawford, 48). Perhaps it is paradoxical that so much activity could take place when the country was under viking attack, or perhaps the reign of Alfred shows that this is precisely what should be expected. At all events, there is no mistaking the determination of the English to have God on their side.

The measures taken in direct response to the viking raids, and the other activities of a kind intended to be pleasing in the sight of God, were matched by administrative reforms which reflect some credit on the institutions and practices of royal government at a time of great stress. The two law-codes known to modern scholarship as I Æthelred and III Æthelred appear to have been intended to complement each other. The former, promulgated at Woodstock in Oxfordshire, was 'for the promotion of peace [frith] for all the people', in accordance with English law; the latter, promulgated at Wantage in Berkshire, was similarly 'for the promotion of peace [frith]', but was directed towards the five boroughs of the Danelaw. The codes are not dated, but were produced probably in the mid-990s, perhaps in 997, when a meeting was convened at Wantage 'for dealing with matters of various kinds' (AS chart., S 891); and together they represent an attempt to codify aspects of the different practices which had arisen in different parts of Æthelred's kingdom. Like other kings before and after him, Æthelred did not find it easy to deal effectively with the entrenched power of his ealdormen, though by building on administrative arrangements established earlier in the tenth century he encouraged the emergence of the shire-reeve (sheriff) as the king's representative in the localities. There is otherwise every indication that the business of royal government continued to be conducted in the normal way, at periodic meetings of the king's council held on royal estates at various places in southern England, and no doubt also in darker corners as the king and his household moved from one place to another.

The renewal of viking attacks, 1006–1009

It is Æthelred's misfortune, however, that he has come to be judged, not altogether unreasonably, on the basis of the last decade of his reign, when matters went progressively from bad to worse to calamitous. The period from 1006 to 1012 witnessed two of the most devastating of all viking raids on England, which had the cumulative effect of undermining the ability of the English to resist any further attack. It is no coincidence that these years also witnessed the meteoric rise of Eadric Streona, ealdorman of the Mercians, who in 1015–16 came to play a major role in the downfall of the English, while in the same period Archbishop Wulfstan of York came to the fore as one of the king's leading statesmen, writing law-codes and homilies which reflect not so much the inability of an enfeebled government to respond in a crisis, as the desperation of a battered people praying for deliverance from their enemies.

The annal in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1006 reports dissension among the king's councillors in its usual inscrutable way: 'In the same year Wulfgeat was deprived of all his property, and Wulfheah and Ufegeat were blinded and Ealdorman Ælfhelm killed' (ASC, texts C, D, E). But what at first sight reads like a series of punishments inflicted on certain laymen for their respective misdemeanours, proves when taken together with charter and other evidence to represent nothing less than a palace revolution, as remaining members of the old guard, now without the protection of the king's kinsmen Æthelmær and Ordwulf, succumbed to a plot engineered by Eadric Streona. Wulfgeat was a prominent thegn and leading member of the king's household; so his forfeiture, for unspecified reasons, has all the makings of political intrigue. Ælfhelm, ealdorman of Northumbria, was a member of a prominent Mercian family, while Wulfheah and Ufegeat were his sons. The evidence implicating Eadric Streona is relatively late, but charter witness-lists suggest that he and his brothers were conspicuous at court in 1005–6, and were at the core of the party which benefited most noticeably from the passing of the old order. It so happened that Malcolm II, king of Scots (r. 1005–34), penetrated deep into Northumbria in 1006, until repulsed at Durham by Uhtred, son of Earl Waltheof, who as a reward for his good services received the earldom of the whole of Northumbria. Malcolm may have been taking advantage of trouble in the south, or acting on his own initiative at the outset of his reign; in any event, the fact that Malcolm's attack is not registered in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a salutary reminder that the horizons of a chronicler writing in southern England were somewhat restricted.

Some time after midsummer in 1006, continues the chronicler, a force described as 'the great fleet' arrived at Sandwich, 'and did just as they were accustomed, ravaged, burnt, and slew as they went'. That the leader of the viking force was probably a certain Tostig was of no consequence to the annalist, who simply reports the devastating impact of the vikings as they passed through Hampshire and Berkshire and back to their base on the Isle of Wight, leaving their mark 'on every shire of Wessex'. The king and his councillors were driven against their inclinations to make another payment of gafol to the viking army. The sum of 36,000 pounds was collected and paid over to the vikings in 1007, whereupon the 'great fleet' presumably returned to Scandinavia. The only other recorded event in 1007 seems in an unexplained way to have arisen from the agonies of the previous year, and marks the next stage in the rise of Eadric Streona—he was now made ealdorman of Mercia. At least the payment of gafol brought temporary respite for the English, who used the time well. In 1008 'the king ordered that ships should be built unremittingly over all England, namely a warship from 310 hides, and a helmet and corselet from eight hides' (ASC, texts C, D, E); and in the same year, at Pentecost (16 May), a meeting was convened at (King's) Enham in Hampshire, at which Archbishop Wulfstan produced the first of the codes of law (represented by the texts known as V and VI Æthelred) in which he set out to reform English society in ways calculated to earn God's support in the struggle against the vikings. In 1009 the newly built ships were brought to Sandwich, 'and were to stay there and protect this country from every invading army'. Unfortunately, the ambitious Brihtric, brother of Eadric Streona, chose this moment to make an accusation against Wulfnoth 'the South Saxon' (probably the father of Godwine, later earl of Wessex), leading to the destruction of many of the ships and the dispersal of the ship-levy; 'and no better than this was the victory which all the English people had expected' (ASC, texts C, D, E).

The immediate sequel must have seemed inevitable. The chronicler continues, 'When this ship-levy had ended thus, there came at once after Lammas [1 August] the immense raiding army, which we called Thorkell's army, to Sandwich'. The king and his councillors were at Bath, and their immediate response was the promulgation of a law-code ( VII Æthelred) which laid down an elaborate programme of public prayer to be implemented on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday preceding Michaelmas, which in 1009 fell on Thursday 29 September. On these three days, all the nation was enjoined to fast on bread and herbs and water; priests were instructed to lead their people barefoot to church, carrying relics and invoking Christ; religious communities were to sing their psalters; and mass-priests were to say mass 'for our lord and for all his people'. Among other measures, one penny (or the value of a penny) was to be paid from each hide of land, and brought to church, where all the money would be divided up into three and distributed 'for God's sake'. Perhaps it was in specific connection with the programme of prayer that the authorities decided to issue a special type of silver penny, without parallel before or after, bearing on one side not a stylized image of the king but an image of the Lamb of God, and on the other side not a standard cruciform device but an image of the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit. The extraordinarily distinctive and highly charged Agnus Dei coinage was current for only a short period, in the autumn of 1009; and it may be significant that the design which had presumably been chosen in 1009 to serve as the next substantive issue, after Helmet, was a reversion to the Small Cross type introduced by and perhaps therefore associated with King Edgar, at his moment of glory in 973.

The impact of Thorkell the Tall, 1009–1012

Some impression of the course and impact of 'Thorkell's army', as it ravaged large parts of southern England in 1009 and 1010, can be gained from reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for those years; it explains how, when Æthelred and his councillors sued for peace in 1011, they were clearly a broken regime. 'All those disasters befell us through bad policy [unrædas], in that they were never offered tribute [gafol] in time nor fought against; but when they had done most to our injury, peace and truce were made with them; and for all this truce and tribute [gafol] they journeyed none the less in bands everywhere, and harried our wretched people, and plundered and killed them' (ASC, texts C, D, E). The final outrage took place after the 'peace and truce' had been agreed. Some time between 8 and 29 September 1011 the vikings besieged Canterbury, captured Archbishop Ælfheah and several others, ransacked the whole borough, and then took the archbishop back with them to their ships. The chronicler goes on to record how in early April 1012, 'Ealdorman Eadric and all the chief councillors of England' were at London, apparently in order to supervise the payment of gafol, amounting to 48,000 pounds. The payment was made soon after Easter (13 April), and at Greenwich, on the following Saturday (19 April), the vikings, in a drunken stupor, pelted the defiant archbishop with bones and ox-heads, until one of their number struck him down with the back of an axe and killed him. The viking army then dispersed 'as widely as it had been collected'.

The failure of the English to withstand the onslaught of the viking army in 1009–10 testifies to the success of Thorkell's own tactics, always on the move and creating terror wherever he went, as much as it proclaims the incompetence and irresolution of those responsible for organizing the kingdom's defence. A charter of Æthelred's granting land in Derbyshire to his thegn Morcar, issued in late December 1009 (AS chart., S 922), is enough to show that business was then continuing as usual, in the aftermath of Thorkell's invasion, but no charter survives for the annus horribilis of 1010, and only abbreviated texts of two charters issued in 1011; consequently little is known of the continued operation of royal government in those years. It is apparent, however, that a major development took place while Thorkell's army was at large in Æthelred's kingdom. Charters issued in 1012 show that Eadric Streona had by then gained significant promotion in the order of precedence so carefully observed among the king's ealdormen. Ealdorman Ælfric had occupied the prime position for the previous ten years, from the death of Ealdorman Æthelweard (probably in 998) until the charter of late 1009; but some time during the period 1010–12 Eadric overtook the two ealdormen senior to him, and he must have gained this promotion at the expense of Ælfric, who continued to attest charters until his death in 1016.

Eadric's new position finds due reflection in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1012, and it was perhaps later in the same year that Eadric found a pretext or opportunity for ravaging St David's in south-west Wales. Interestingly, all three of Æthelred's known daughters from his first marriage are said to have been given in marriage to earls who came into prominence during the latter years of the reign: Eadgyth (Edith) married Eadric Streona of Mercia; Ælfgifu married Uhtred of Northumbria; and Wulfhild married Ulfcytel of East Anglia. Marriage within the English nobility represented a departure from earlier practice, when kings' daughters were sent overseas or hidden away in nunneries; and it may be that the policy, if it can be dignified as such, was itself an indication of Æthelred's determination to bind the kingdom together in any way that he could.

After the dispersal of the viking force in 1012, forty-five ships from the Danish army 'came over to the king, and they promised him to defend this country, and he was to feed and clothe them' (ASC, texts C, D, E). It transpires that it was Thorkell himself who thus entered into King Æthelred's service, as leader of a mercenary army based at Greenwich; and it was in this connection that Æthelred instituted the annual land-tax known as the heregeld or 'army-tax', later known as 'danegeld' because it was paid to the Danish mercenaries (the term was later still mistakenly applied to the gafol levied to pay off invaders). A chronicler reporting on the abolition (in fact only the temporary suspension) of the tax in 1051, remarks how oppressive it had been, and how it 'always came before other taxes' (ASC, text D); yet it was one of the earliest and (from the king's point of view) most effective systems of public taxation in medieval Europe, and the basis of much that would follow.

The invasions of Swein Forkbeard and Cnut, 1013–1016

The raids of 1006–7 and 1009–12 all but destroyed the capacity of the English to offer any further resistance to the Danes. The point was probably not lost on Swein Forkbeard, king of Denmark, who took the earliest opportunity to launch an invasion, bent on conquest rather than merely on extortion. He arrived with his fleet at Sandwich in the summer of 1013, whereupon he made his way northwards up the coast to the Humber, and from there came south through the east midlands, receiving submission wherever he went. King Æthelred and Thorkell held out against him at London, so Swein went westwards via Wallingford to Bath, and there received the submission of Ealdorman Æthelmær (who had evidently come out of his retirement at Eynsham) and all the western thegns, before returning to his ships; 'and all the nation regarded him as full king' (ASC, texts C, D, E). The citizens of London also submitted; whereupon Swein demanded full payment and provisions for his army over the winter, and Thorkell demanded the same for the mercenary force at Greenwich. Æthelred stayed initially with Thorkell's mercenaries, then, after Queen Emma and the athelings Edward and Alfred had crossed the sea to seek refuge in Normandy, he moved to the Isle of Wight for the Christmas festival, before joining his family in Normandy.

Swein Forkbeard died on 3 February 1014. The Danish force elected his son Cnut as king, but the councillors of the English people 'determined to send for King Æthelred, and they said that no lord was dearer to them than their natural lord if he would govern them more justly than he did before' (ASC, texts C, D, E). Æthelred sent his son Edward back to England, with messengers, and undertook 'that he [Æthelred] would be a gracious lord to them, and reform all the things which they all hated'; moreover, everything said and done against the king would be forgiven, 'on condition that they all unanimously turned to him without treachery'. Æthelred came home to his people in the spring, 'and he was gladly received by them all'. Soon afterwards Æthelred took decisive action, bringing his full force to Lindsey and driving Cnut from the kingdom. It was at about this same time that Archbishop Wulfstan first preached his Sermo ad Anglos ('Sermon to the English'), commenting at length on the decline which had set in since the days of King Edgar and had aroused the displeasure of God, and calling upon the English to mend their ways. Also in 1014 Wulfstan drafted further legislation for the king, including a code dealing with ecclesiastical matters ( VIII Æthelred), probably complemented by a code focusing on secular matters (now lost, except for parts incorporated in II Cnut, chaps. 69–76), which may have enacted some of the promised reforms.

Æthelred's return to England in the spring of 1014 raised the profile of Æthelstan, his eldest son from his first marriage, as his most obvious prospective successor. A glimpse of the circles in which Æthelstan moved is provided by his will (AS chart., S 1503; English Historical Documents, 1, 129), which suggests that the atheling enjoyed good relations with his father, with his brothers Edmund and Eadwig, and with a number of prominent thegns, including Sigeferth and his brother Morcar. Æthelstan died, however, on 25 June 1014, and henceforth his younger brother Edmund must have been regarded as their father's likely successor. Although it is difficult on the available evidence to understand the full complexity of domestic politics in the last years of Æthelred's reign, it is apparent that matters came to a head in 1015, at a 'great assembly' convened at Oxford. According to the chronicler, Eadric Streona 'betrayed Sigeferth and Morcar, the chief thegns belonging to the Seven Boroughs: he enticed them into his chamber, and they were basely killed inside it' (ASC, texts C, D, E). The king seized their property, and held Sigeferth's widow at Malmesbury; whereupon the atheling Edmund took her against Æthelred's will, married her, went to the east midlands, and took possession of all Sigeferth's estates, and Morcar's, 'and all the people submitted to him'. At first sight, it looks as if Edmund was taking a stand against his father; but beneath the surface it was perhaps more a matter of Edmund taking a stand against the machinations of Eadric Streona, who was himself the driving force behind the king's actions at this time. Eadric had been the dominant voice in the king's council for at least three years, and it may be that his actions at Oxford had left Edmund with no choice but to take drastic action.

After his death in 1014 Swein Forkbeard had been succeeded as king of Denmark by his son Harald, whose younger brother Cnut not unnaturally sought to make a kingdom for himself in England. It was Cnut's good fortune that when he invaded England, in the late summer of 1015, he came in the midst of this major domestic crisis, and was soon able to benefit from it. Upon arrival at Sandwich, he went south round the coast and then west into Wessex, so perhaps intending to leave Eadric Streona and Edmund temporarily to their own devices. Edmund's challenge had effectively denied Eadric any further prospect of advancement, and may even have helped to bring the king and Edmund back together; if so, it was under these circumstances that Eadric deserted from the English side, taking the Danish mercenary fleet with him into Cnut's service. The West Saxons submitted to Cnut, who stayed in the south-west until Christmas. In the opening months of 1016 Cnut and Eadric were active in Mercia, while Edmund and Æthelred attempted without much success to organize resistance. Edmund then joined forces in Northumbria with his brother-in-law Earl Uhtred, and went on the offensive into Eadric's home territory; but they were outmanoeuvred by Cnut, who was soon threatening York. Uhtred returned to Northumbria, where he submitted 'out of necessity' to Cnut and was then killed on the orders of Eadric Streona. For his part, Edmund rejoined his father in London. After Easter (1 April) Cnut turned with all his ships towards London, but his adversary died just as the campaign was drawing to its climax. In the words of the chronicler: 'He [Æthelred] ended his days on St George's Day [23 April], and he had held his kingdom with great toil and difficulties as long as his life lasted' (ASC, texts C, D, E).

Æthelred was succeeded as king by his eldest surviving son, Edmund Ironside, who after some spirited resistance was eventually defeated by Cnut at the battle of Ashingdon on 18 October 1016. For a few weeks the kingdom was divided between Edmund, in Wessex, and Cnut, in Mercia and Northumbria; then, after Edmund's death on 30 November 1016, Cnut succeeded to the whole kingdom. Æthelred's only remaining son from his first marriage, Eadwig, styled king of the Ceorls, was soon killed on Cnut's orders. He was also survived by the three children of his second marriage: Edward, Alfred, and Gode (who married first Dreux, count of the French Vexin, and then Eustace (II), count of Boulogne). All three took refuge in Normandy. In 1017 Cnut married their mother, Emma, hoping thereby to undermine their position, to gain her support for himself, and to provide for the succession with a son of his own. Æthelred's grandson through Edmund Ironside was Edward the Exile (d. 1057), whose children included Margaret, wife of Malcolm III, king of Scots. Through her, the descendants of Æthelred came to include several kings of Scotland; and through Margaret's daughter Matilda, wife of Henry I, the blood of the West Saxon kings was passed on from Æthelred to the Plantagenet kings of England.

According to Goscelin of St Bertin, Queen Emma moved Æthelred's body from London to Wilton Abbey, so that he could rest beside the body of his half-sister, St Edith; but all the indications are that he was buried at St Paul's. During the middle ages Æthelred's mortal remains lay entombed beside those of Sæbbi, king of the East Saxons, in the north wall of the choir of Old St Paul's Cathedral. An inscription placed on a tablet on the wall above Æthelred's tomb (shown in an engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar published in Dugdale's History of St Paul's Cathedral, 1658), tells the tale of St Dunstan's prophecy on the day of the king's coronation, and of the unhappy outcome of the king's reign. The tombs of both kings were destroyed when fire engulfed Old St Paul's in September 1666.

Assessments of King Æthelred

Æthelred has gained notoriety as a king whose acts of cruelty, cowardice, and incompetence were equalled only by the treachery, guile, and greed of those around him, and in this process he has come to be regarded as the personification of an age of national degeneracy. The major source of information is the account of the reign in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which deals largely with the viking invasions; it was put together in its received form soon after the Danish conquest in 1016, so only when the chronicle is read in conjunction with and in relation to the king's charters, law-codes, coinage, and other forms of evidence, does a properly balanced picture of the reign begin to emerge. Yet Æthelred made enough of an impression, for better or worse, to ensure that he would always capture the historical imagination. The stories about Archbishop Dunstan's prophetic powers, displayed first on the occasion of Æthelred's baptism (when the boy urinated in the font) and again on the occasion of his coronation in 979, appear to have originated in the successive lives of St Dunstan by Adelard, Osbern, and Eadmer; they were picked up thereafter by the Anglo-Norman historians writing in the first half of the twelfth century, and thus entered the mainstream of English historical tradition. The story of the king's lifelong hatred of candles, because his mother had beaten him with them as a boy when he was so upset about his half-brother's death, originated in the Passio S. Eadwardi.

The more general presentation of Æthelred's reign, as a period when the people suffered under a king of singular incompetence, was developed by William of Malmesbury on the basis of his own reading of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, though it was Henry, archdeacon of Huntingdon, who propounded the notion that Æthelred's marriage to Emma of Normandy set in motion a train of events leading to the Norman conquest, and who took the view that the payments of tribute represented the origins of the oppressive taxation of his own day. It is also instructive to see how tales of the so-called ‘massacre of St Brice's day’ became steadily worse as they were told and retold in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

It is perhaps not surprising that the principal Æthelredian subjects found among the paintings, prints, and other illustrations of English history in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are the murder of Edward the Martyr and the massacre of St Brice's day; there was nothing that was uplifting, and precious little that was romantic. Among modern historians, the prime example was set by Sharon Turner, whose influential History of the Anglo-Saxons was first published between 1799 and 1805. Turner made little attempt to assess the quality of the evidence or to consider dimensions of the subject beyond the tale of military catastrophe related in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. To his credit he made some use of the poem on the battle of Maldon, and found in Archbishop Wulfstan's Sermo ad Anglos 'a contemporary picture of the internal state of England during this reign'. Yet Æthelred is made personally responsible for the outcome of events, and when the time comes is dismissed with utter contempt: 'At this crisis, the death of Ethelred released England from its greatest enemy' (Turner, 1.277). For E. A. Freeman, writing in the 1860s, Æthelred 'is the only ruler of the male line of Ecgberht whom we can unhesitatingly set down as a bad man and a bad King' (Freeman, 1.258–9), and few of his readers would have missed the resonances of a formulation adapted from the Book of Common Prayer: 'Under Æthelred nothing was done; or, more truly, throughout his whole reign he left undone those things which he ought to have done, and he did those things which he ought not to have done' (ibid., 1.297).

In the early 1940s Sir Frank Stenton wrote of 'national degeneracy', and regarded Æthelred himself as 'a king of singular incompetence' (Stenton, 394–5). There has since been some attempt at rehabilitation, based on a deeper understanding of the problems that confronted the king, on a more critical assessment of the literary sources which form the basis of the traditional account of his reign, and on the integration of evidence derived from Æthelred's charters, law-codes, and coins. It remains difficult, however, for modern historians of the revisionist persuasion to have much effect on such a deeply rooted tradition. Indeed, it will long remain Æthelred's fate to be ridiculed among the very worst of English kings, as for example in the American composer Richard Wilson's one-act comic opera, Aethelred the Unready, which received its world première in New York on 13 May 2001.

Æthelred the Unready undoubtedly deserves better. It is clear that much lay beneath the surface of recorded events, just as it is self-evident that a reign of thirty-eight years, in which so much took place, cannot be reduced to a simple matter of good or bad kingship. In the final analysis it is as difficult to decide what credit, if any, Æthelred can take for the positive aspects of his reign as it is to apportion blame for its manifestly disastrous outcome. It is enough, however, to suggest in this way that there was more to Æthelred than the familiar tale of viking invasions, exacerbated by incompetence, treachery, and intrigue in high places: unequal to the challenge that confronted him, and unfortunate in the circumstances that engulfed him, but always more interesting than merely unready.


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D. Whitelock, D. C. Douglas, & S. I. Tucker, eds. and trans., (1961)
John of Worcester, ed. R. R. Darlington & P. McGurk, trans. J. Bray & P. McGurk, 2–3; OMT (1995–) [vol. 1 forthcoming]
P. H. Sawyer, , Royal Historical Society Guides and Handbooks (1968)
Early English Text Society
Oxford Medieval Texts