Ethelred the Unready
He had the misfortune to be a person with little natural aptitude as a military leader or enthusiasm for war, whose reign coincided with a resurgence in Viking (Danish) attacks on the country. He came to the throne under suspicion of implication in the murder of his predecessor, and could gain the trust of neither the nobles nor the people. It seems, though, that in the early years of his reign he was an able financial administrator and law maker in a time that produced fine literature and ecclesiastical reform. (Certainly, the enormous sums later collected for tribute to the Danes are evidence of an efficient taxation system!) In the later years, as the kingdom came under increasing pressure, he relied too much on the advice of those who were incompetent, self-serving, or downright treacherous.
The nickname “Unready” is a modern rendering of “Unræd”, which was first seen in the 13th century, although probably used earlier. A modern translator of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles states it to mean “poor counsel”, “evil counsel” or “unwise”. She also writes that Ethelred was unlucky to face a foe that, unlike previous incursions, was well organised and equipped, and originated from the recently united state of Denmark and Norway ruled by an autocratic and efficient king. (Harald Bluetooth) The forces arrayed against Ethelred were greater than those bested by Alfred the Great a century or so earlier.
He is known for the introduction of Danegeld into England, an attempt, as tried by France over 40 years previously, to buy off the Danes. From 991 increasingly large amounts of silver were handed over to little avail. His problems were compounded in 1002 when he ordered the deaths of all the Danish living in the land, having been advised they “meant to beguile him out of his life”. The St. Brice's Day Massacre had the opposite effect – the death of the Danish king’s sister in the massacre brought on massive reprisals. During the next few years much of southern England was laid waste.
In 1013 Sweyn Forkbeard made a full-scale invasion, ravaging East Anglia and the Humber region, then inland and south as far as Oxford and Winchester and across to Bath. He became effectively king of England. He died the next year, though, and Ethelred was recalled on promise of a fair and just reign.
Death and legacy
He died in 1016 as the Danish king Canute was ravaging the land.
Ethelred's agreement with the people for good government would have far reaching effects. When under the reign of Henry I, the people began to become distrustful of the crown, leading to the creation of the 1100 Charter of Liberties.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles – translated by Anne Savage, 1982
- A Short History of England: The Glorious Story of a Rowdy Nation
- The rise and progress of the English Commonwealth: Anglo-Saxon period, Volume 1
- Select Charters and Other Illustrations of English Constitutional History: From the Earliest Times to the Reign of Edward the First