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Æthelred the Unready

he tribute to the Danes that they desired, and so a gafol of 10,000 pounds was paid them for their peace. Yet it was presumably the Danish fleet that had beaten Byrhtnoth at Maldon that continued to ravage the English coast from 991 to 993. In 994, the Danish fleet, which had swollen in ranks since 991, turned up the Thames estuary and headed toward London. The battle fought there was inconclusive. It was about this time that Æthelred met with the leaders of the fleet, foremost among them
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Edward the Martyr
King of the English
Succeeded by
Sweyn Forkbeard
Preceded by
Sweyn Forkbeard
King of the English
Succeeded by
Edmund Ironside
  • "Æthelred 32 (Male) the Unready; king of the English, 978–1016". Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England. Retrieved 25 November 2007. 
  • Miller, Sean. "Æthelred the Unready". Retrieved 25 November 2007. 
  • Documentary – The Making of England: Aethelred the Unready

External links

  • Cubitt, Catherine (2012). "The politics of remorse: penance and royal piety in the reign of Æthelred the Unready". Historical Research 85 (228): 179–192.  
  • Hart, Cyril, ed. and tr. (2006). Chronicles of the Reign of Æthelred the Unready: An Edition and Translation of the Old English and Latin Annals. The Early Chronicles of England 1.
  • Keynes, Simon (1980). The Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’ 978–1016. New York: Cambridge University Press.  
  • Lavelle, Ryan (2008). Aethelred II: King of the English 978–1016 (New ed.). Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press.  

Further reading

  • Bosworth, J., & Toller, T. N., eds., An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1882–98); with Supplement (1908–21) .
  • Gilbride, M.B. "A Hollow Crown review". Medieval "Reviews of Outstanding Historical Novels set in the Medieval Period". Retrieved 9 May 2012. 
  • Godsell, Andrew "Ethelred the Unready" in "History For All" magazine September 2000, republished in "Legends of British History" (2008)
  • Hart, Cyril, "Edward the Martyr", in C. Matthew, B. Harrison, & L. Goldman (eds.), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2007), [accessed 9 November 2008].
  • Higham, Nick, The Death of Anglo-Saxon England (1997), ISBN 0-7509-2469-1.
  • Keynes, Simon, "The Declining Reputation of King Æthelred the Unready", in David Hill (ed.), Ethelred the Unready: Papers from the Millenary Conference, British Archaeological Reports, British Series 59 (1978), pp. 227–53.
  • Keynes, Simon, "A Tale of Two Kings: Alfred the Great and Æthelred the Unready", Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series 36 (1986), pp. 195–217.
  • Keynes, Simon, "Æthelred II (c.966x8–1016)", in C. Matthew, B. Harrison, & L. Goldman (eds.), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), [accessed 12 June 2008].
  • Liebermann, Felix, ed., Die Gesetze der Angelsaschen, vol. 1 (1903).
  • Miller,Sean, "Edward the Martyr", in M. Lapidge, J. Blair, S. Keynes, & D. Scragg (eds.), The Blackwell Encyclopædia of Anglo-Saxon England (1999), p. 163. ISBN 0-631-22492-0.
  • Phillips, G. E.,  
  • Schröder, Edward, Deutsche Namenkunde: Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kunde deutsche Personen- und Ortsnamen (1944).
  • Stafford, Pauline, Unification and Conquest: A Political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries (1989), ISBN 0-7131-6532-4.
  • Skinner, Patricia, ed, Challenging the Boundaries of Medieval History: The Legacy of Timothy Reuter (2009), ISBN 978-2-503-52359-0.
  • Turner, Ralph V. (1968). "The Origins of the Medieval English Jury: Frankish, English, or Scandinavian?". The Journal of British Studies 7 (2): 1–10.  
  • Williams, Ann, Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counselled King (2003), ISBN 1-85285-382-4.
  • Wormald, Patrick, The Making of English Law – King Alfred to the Twelfth Century, vol. 1: Legislation and its Limits (1999).
  • Wormald, Patrick (1999). "Neighbors, Courts, and Kings: Reflections on Michael Macnair's Vicini".  
  • Wormald, Patrick, "Wulfstan (d. 1023)", in C. Matthew, B. Harrison, & L. Goldman (eds.), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), [accessed 12 June 2008].


  1. ^ The use of either the cognomen or the numeral distinguishes him from King Æthelred of Wessex, who ruled from 865 to 871.
  2. ^ Different spellings of this king’s name most commonly found in modern texts are "Ethelred" and "Æthelred" (or "Aethelred"), the latter being closer to the original Old English form Æþelræd.
  3. ^ a b Bosworth-Toller, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, with Supplement. p.1124
  4. ^ Schröder, Deutsche Namenkunde.
  5. ^ Keynes, "The Declining Reputation of King Æthelred the Unready", pp. 240–1. For this king's forebear of the same name, see Æthelred of Wessex.
  6. ^ Wickham, Chris. "Problems in Doing Comparative History". In Skinner. Challenging the Boundaries of Medieval History. pp. 15, 22, 27. 
  7. ^ Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, p. 374.
  8. ^ a b Hart, Cyril (2007). "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". Oxford: Oxford University Press. Retrieved 9 November 2008. 
  9. ^ a b Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, p. 372.
  10. ^ Miller, "Edward the Martyr."
  11. ^ Higham, The Death of Anglo-Saxon England, pp. 7–8; Stafford, Unification and Conquest, p. 58.
  12. ^ Phillips, "St Edward the Martyr."
  13. ^ Keynes, The Diplomas of King Æthelred 'the Unready' 978-1016, p. 166.
  14. ^ Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, p. 373.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Keynes, "Æthelred II (c.966x8–1016)."
  16. ^ Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, p. 375.
  17. ^ Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, pp. 376–77.
  18. ^ Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, pp. 377–78.
  19. ^ Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, p. 379.
  20. ^ Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, p. 380.
  21. ^ Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, pp. 381–4.
  22. ^ Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, pp. 384–6.
  23. ^ Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, pp. 386–393.
  24. ^ The Burial of King Æthelred the Unready at St. Paul's, Simon Keynes, The English and Their Legacy, 900-1200: Essays in Honour of Ann Williams, ed. David Roffe, (Boydell Press, 2012), 129.
  25. ^ The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester
  26. ^ The Gunnlaugr Saga of Gunnlaugr the Scald
  27. ^ a b , Oxford Online DNB, 2004Edmund IIM. K. Lawson,
  28. ^ Frank Barlow, Edward the Confessor, Yale University Press: London, 1997, p. 28 and family tree in endpaper.
  29. ^ Wormald, "Æthelred the Lawmaker", p. 49.
  30. ^ Liebermann, ed., Die Gesetze der Angelsaschen, pp. 216–70.
  31. ^ Wormald, "Wulfstan (d. 1023)."
  32. ^ Wormald, The Making of English Law, pp. 356–60.
  33. ^ . Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. p. 1. 
  34. ^ Keynes, "A Tale of Two Kings", p. 217.
  35. ^ a b Turner, "The Origins of the Medieval English Jury", passim.
  36. ^ "III Æthelred" 3.1–3.2, in Liebermann, ed., Die Gesetze, pp. 228–32.
  37. ^ Note that this terms specifies the north and north-eastern territories in England which were at the time largely governed according to Danish custom; no mention is made of the law's application to the hundreds, the southern and English equivalent of the Danish wapentake.
  38. ^ "IV Edgar" 3–6.2, in Liebermann, ed., Die Gesetze, pp. 206–14.
  39. ^ Turner, "The Origins of the Medieval English Jury", pp. 1–2; Wormald, The Making of English Law, pp. 4–26, especially pp. 7–8 and 17–18.
  40. ^ Wormald, "Neighbors, Courts, and Kings", pp. 598–99, et passim.


See also


The 'legend' of an Anglo-Saxon origin to the jury was first challenged seriously by Heinrich Brunner in 1872, who claimed that evidence of the jury was only seen for the first time during the reign of Henry II, some 200 years after the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, and that the practice had originated with the Franks, who in turn had influenced the Normans, who thence introduced it to England.[39] Since Brunner's thesis, the origin of the English jury has been much disputed. Throughout the twentieth century, legal historians disagreed about whether the practice was English in origin, or was introduced, directly or indirectly, from either Scandinavia or Francia.[35] Recently, the legal historians Patrick Wormald and Michael Macnair have reasserted arguments in favour of finding in practices current during the Anglo-Saxon period traces of the Angevin practice of conducting inquests using bodies of sworn, private witnesses. Wormald has gone as far as to present evidence suggesting that the English practice outlined in Æthelred's Wantage code is at least as old as, if not older than, 975, and ultimately traces it back to a Carolingian model (something Brinner had done).[40] However, no scholarly consensus has yet been reached.

It is my wish that each person be in surety, both within settled areas and without. And 'witnessing' shall be established in each city and each hundred. To each city let there be 36 chosen for witnessing; to small towns and to each hundred let there be 12, unless they desire more. And everybody shall purchase and sell their goods in the presence a witness, whether he is buying or selling something, whether in a city or a wapentake. And each of them, when they first choose to become a witness, shall give an oath that he will never, neither for wealth nor love nor fear, deny any of those things which he will be a witness to, and will not, in his capacity as a witness, make known any thing except that which he saw and heard. And let there be either two or three of these sworn witnesses at every sale of goods.
ic wille, þæt ælc mon sy under borge ge binnan burgum ge buton burgum. & gewitnes sy geset to ælcere byrig & to ælcum hundrode. To ælcere byrig XXXVI syn gecorone to gewitnesse; to smalum burgum & to ælcum hundrode XII, buton ge ma willan. & ælc mon mid heora gewitnysse bigcge & sylle ælc þara ceapa, þe he bigcge oððe sylle aþer oððe burge oððe on wæpengetace. & heora ælc, þonne hine man ærest to gewitnysse gecysð, sylle þæne að, þæt he næfre, ne for feo ne for lufe ne for ege, ne ætsace nanes þara þinga, þe he to gewitnysse wæs, & nan oðer þingc on gewitnysse ne cyðe buton þæt an, þæt he geseah oððe gehyrde. & swa geæþdera manna syn on ælcum ceape twegen oððe þry to gewitnysse.[38]

But the wording here suggests that Æthelred was perhaps revamping or re-confirming a custom which had already existed. He may actually have been expanding an established English custom for use among the Danish citizens in the North (the Danelaw). Previously, King Edgar had legislated along similar lines in his Whitbordesstan code:

that there shall be an assembly in every wapentake,[37] and in that assembly shall go forth the twelve eldest thegns and the reeve along with them, and let them swear on holy relics, which shall be placed in their hands, that they will never knowingly accuse an innocent man nor conceal a guilty man. And thereafter let them seize those notorious [lit. "charge-laden"] men, who have business with the reeve, and let each of them give a security of 6 half-marks, half of which shall go to the lord of that district, and half to the wapentake.
þæt man habbe gemot on ælcum wæpentace; & gan ut þa yldestan XII þegnas & se gerefa mid, & swerian on þam haligdome, þe heom man on hand sylle, þæt hig nellan nænne sacleasan man forsecgean ne nænne sacne forhelan. & niman þonne þa tihtbysian men, þe mid þam gerefan habbað, & heora ælc sylle VI healfmarc wedd, healf landrican & healf wæpentake.[36]

Æthelred has been credited with the formation of a local investigative body made up of twelve thegns who were charged with publishing the names of any notorious or wicked men in their respective districts. Because the members of these bodies were under solemn oath to act in accordance with the law and their own good consciences, they have been seen by some legal historians as the prototype for the English Grand Jury.[35] Æthelred makes provision for such a body in a law code he enacted at Wantage in 997, which states:

Did Æthelred invent the jury?

Efforts to rehabilitate Æthelred's reputation have gained momentum since about 1980. Chief among the rehabilitators has been Simon Keynes, who has often argued that our poor impression of Æthelred is almost entirely based upon after-the-fact accounts of, and later accretions to, the narrative of events during Æthelred's long and complex reign. Chief among the culprits is in fact one of the most important sources for the history of the period, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which, as it reports events with a retrospect of 15 years, cannot help but interpret events with the eventual English defeat a foregone conclusion. Yet, as virtually no strictly contemporary narrative account of the events of Æthelred's reign exists, historians are forced to rely on what evidence there is. Keynes and others thus draw attention to some of the inevitable snares of investigating the history of a man whom later popular opinion has utterly damned. Recent cautious assessments of Æthelred's reign have more often uncovered reasons to doubt, rather than uphold, Æthelred's later infamy. Though the failures of his government will always put Æthelred's reign in the shadow of the reigns of kings Edgar, Aethelstan, and Alfred, historians' current impression of Æthelred's personal character is certainly not as unflattering as it once was: "Æthelred's misfortune as a ruler was owed not so much to any supposed defects of his imagined character, as to a combination of circumstances which anyone would have found difficult to control."[34]

Later perspectives of Æthelred have been less than flattering. Numerous legends and anecdotes have sprung up to explain his shortcomings, often elaborating abusively on his character and failures. One such anecdote is given by William of Malmesbury (lived c. 1080–c. 1143), who reports that Æthelred had defecated in the baptismal font as a child, which led St. Dunstan to prophesy that the English monarchy would be overthrown during his reign. This story is, however, a fabrication, and a similar story is told of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Copronymus, another mediaeval monarch who was unpopular among certain of his subjects.

Short cross type penny with portrait of Æthelred II, struck in London.


Despite the failure of his government in the face of the Danish threat, Æthelred's reign was not without some important institutional achievements. The quality of the coinage, a good indicator of the prevailing economic conditions, significantly improved during his reign due to his numerous coinage reform laws.[33]

Æthelred's government produced extensive legislation, which he "ruthlessly enforced."[29] Records of at least six legal codes survive from his reign, covering a range of topics.[30] Notably, one of the members of his council (known as the Witan) was Wulfstan II, Archbishop of York, a well-known homilist. The three latest codes from Æthelred's reign seemed to have been drafted by Wulfstan.[31] These codes are extensively concerned with ecclesiastical affairs. They also exhibit the characteristics of Wulfstan's highly rhetorical style. Wulfstan went on to draft codes for King Cnut, and recycled there many of the laws which were used in Æthelred's codes.[32]


All of Æthelred's sons were named after predecessors of Æthelred on the throne.[28]

In 1002 Æthelred married Emma of Normandy, sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy. Their children were:

Their known children are: [15], in about 985.Thored, earl of Northumbria, daughter of ÆlfgifuÆthelred married first
A charter of Æthelred's in 1003 to his follower, Æthelred.

Marriages and issue

"[A] youth of graceful manners, handsome countenance, and fine person..."[25] as well as "[A] tall, handsome man, elegant in manners, beautiful in countenance, and interesting in his deportment."[26]

Appearance and character

Æthelred was buried in old St Paul's Cathedral, London. The tomb and his monument were destroyed along with the cathedral in the Great Fire of London in 1666.[24] A modern monument in the crypt lists him among the important graves lost.

Over the next months, Cnut conquered most of England, and Edmund had rejoined Æthelred to defend London when Æthelred died on 23 April 1016. The subsequent war between Edmund and Cnut ended in a decisive victory for Cnut at the Battle of Ashingdon on 18 October 1016. Edmund's reputation as a warrior was such that Cnut nevertheless agreed to divide England, Edmund taking Wessex and Cnut the whole of the country beyond the Thames. However, Edmund died on 30 November and Cnut became king of the whole country.[23]

Death and burial

Æthelred then launched an expedition against Cnut and his allies, the men of the Kingdom of Lindsey. Cnut's army had not completed its preparations and, in April 1014, he decided to withdraw from England without a fight leaving his Lindsey allies to suffer Æthelred's revenge. In August 1015, he returned 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, which was angry at Cnut and Æthelred for the ravaging of Lindsey and was prepared to support Edmund in any uprising against both of them.

[22] Sweyn then launched an invasion in 1013 intending to crown himself king of England, during which he proved himself to be a general greater than any other Viking leader of his generation. By the end of 1013 English resistance had collapsed and Sweyn had conquered the country, forcing Æthelred into exile in Normandy. But the situation changed suddenly when Sweyn died on 3 February 1014. The crews of the Danish ships in the Trent that had supported Sweyn immediately swore their allegiance to Sweyn's son

Invasion of 1013

An expedition the following year was bought off in early 1007 by tribute money of 36,000 pounds, and for the next two years England was free from attack. In 1008, the government created a new fleet of warships, organised on a national scale, but this was weakened when one of its commanders took to piracy, and the king and his council decided not to risk it in a general action. In Stenton's view: "The history of England in the next generation was really determined between 1009 and 1012...the ignominious collapse of the English defence caused a loss of morale which was irreparable." The Danish army of 1009, led by Thorkell the Tall and his brother Hemming, was the most formidable force to invade England since Æthelred became king. It harried England until it was bought off by 48,000 pounds in April 1012.[21]

On 13 November 1002, Æthelred ordered the massacre of all Danish men in England on St Brice's Day. No order of this kind could be carried out in more than a third of England, where the Danes were too strong, but Gunhilde, sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, was said to have been among the victims. It is likely that a wish to avenge her was a principal motive for Sweyn's invasion of western England the following year.[20] By 1004 Sweyn was in East Anglia, where he sacked Norwich. In this year, a nobleman of East Anglia, Ulfcytel Snillingr met Sweyn in force, and made an impression on the until-then rampant Danish expedition. Though Ulfcytel was eventually defeated, outside of Thetford, he caused the Danes heavy losses and was nearly able to destroy their ships. The Danish army left England for Denmark in 1005, perhaps because of their injuries sustained in East Anglia, perhaps from the very severe famine which afflicted the continent and the British Isles in that year.[15]

St. Brice's Day massacre of 1002

In 1001, a Danish fleet – perhaps the same fleet from 1000 – returned and ravaged west Sussex. During its movements, the fleet regularly returned to its base in the Isle of Wight. There was later an attempted attack in the south of Devon, though the English mounted a successful defence at Exeter. Nevertheless, Æthelred must have felt at a loss, and, in the Spring of 1002, the English bought a truce for 24,000 pounds. Æthelred's frequent payments of immense Danegelds are often held up as exemplary of the incompetency of his government and his own short-sightedness. However, Keynes points out that such payments had been practice for at least a century, and had been adopted by Alfred the Great, Charles the Bald, and many others. Indeed, in some cases it "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."[15]

In 997, Danish raids began again. According to Keynes, "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."[15] It harried Cornwall, Devon, western Somerset, and south Wales in 997, Dorset, Hampshire, and Sussex in 998. In 999, it raided Kent, and, in 1000, it left England for Normandy, perhaps because the English had refused in this latest wave of attacks to acquiesce to the Danish demands for gafol or tribute, which would come to be known as Danegeld, 'Dane-payment'. This sudden relief from attack Æthelred used to gather his thoughts, resources, and armies: the fleet's departure in 1000 "allowed Æthelred to carry out a devastation of Strathclyde, the motive for which is part of the lost history of the north."[19]

Renewed Danish raids

[15] Olaf then left England for Norway and never returned, though "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."[15]; King Æthelred stood as his sponsor. After receiving gifts, Olaf promised "that he would never come back to England in hostility."Andover as Christian in a ceremony at confirmed In 994, Olaf Tryggvason, already a baptised Christian, was [18]

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