Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Who Are All These Kings?: Ethelred II Part One

Ethelred II, the King known to posterity as Ethelred the Unready, was the younger of the surviving sons of King Edgar, by his second wife Elfrida of Devon. He was born in 968.

His nickname “the Unready” was not used in his lifetime. It was originally “Redeless”, meaning that he was lacking in good rede, or advice. He was in many ways a very poor King – certainly weak, sometimes spiteful, but always dependent on advisers who usually gave very poor advice.

When Edgar died in 975, his elder son, Ethelred’s half brother Edward, succeeded as King. Edward, however, was an unpleasant teenager given to tantrums. There was a strong political movement which objected to the increase in monastic influence begun in Edgar’s day under St. Dunstan. Furthermore, there were undoubtedly influential people, notably the powerful ealdorman Alfhere and Ethelred’s mother Elfrida, who could see the value of her young son being King, rather than her stepson.

Edward was duly murdered, at Corfe Castle. It is most unlikely that Ethelred himself, a boy of about ten, would have been implicated in the plot, although it would be na´ve to suggest that his mother was innocent.

So Ethelred succeeded as King. He would no doubt have been a pretty frightened boy, having witnessed his half brother’s assassination. It was not an auspicious start to what would turn out to be a long reign.

Ethelred was crowned at Kingston-on-Thames, as was the custom, within weeks of his brother’s death.

Edward’s body was translated by Alfhere from its original burial place at Wareham Abbey to the much more important Shaftesbury Abbey. Popular belief, coupled with a distaste for regicide, which was regarded as blasphemy, converted the unpleasant Edward into a saint (Edward the Martyr), and Alfhere wanted to be seen to be at one with the people on this.

Ethelred, when he became old enough to make decisions for himself, and when Alfhere had died, reversed the anti-monastic policy of Alfhere and reverted to his father’s support of the monasteries.

He was a pretty good administrator, and set about updating England’s laws, culminating in the Wantage Code of 997, which enshrined many long standing traditions, including those of the Danelaw. If he could have been remembered for his administrative qualities, he would have been seen in a much more kindly light. It is worth noting that until the final years of his reign nobody seems to have blamed the King for England’s troubles, and the nation’s loyalty to him can be underlined by the fact that he was even invited to return as King after fleeing the country in 1013.

It was during Ethelred’s reign that the Danish invasions reached a new peak. England was particularly open to attack as the navy built up by Alfred and his successors had been disbanded. After a few raids in the West Country, Southampton was sacked in 982, and this was followed immediately by a devastating attack on London. The Isle of Thanet was also attacked, and so was Cheshire.

Ethelred’s first recorded act as an adult, in 986, was to lay waste to the Diocese of Rochester, as punishment for not dealing effectively enough with invasion.

After a few years of relative peace, the attacks started again in 987, firstly in the West Country. In 988, Goda, a leading thane in Devon, was killed in battle, and Watchet in Somerset was burned to the ground. The local army gave battle, but were soundly defeated.

In 991, he came to an understanding with the Duke of Normandy, to reduce the help that the Danes could expect from their kinsmen there.

Then later in 991, the feared Danish adventurer Olaf Tryggvason led an attacking force, which included Sweyn Forkbeard, the son of Harold Bluetooth, on the East Coast. After sacking Sandwich and Ipswich, they camped on Northey Island in the Blackwater in Essex.

It was here that Olaf and his men were met by Britnoth, the aged Ealdorman of Essex, at the Battle of Maldon. Olaf asked for his men to be given safe passage across the causeway to the mainland so that a fair fight could ensue. Britnoth agreed, allowed the Danes across, and Olaf’s force were mightily victorious.

Britnoth himself was killed, his head being hacked off. His very tall body was later buried at Ely Cathedral, but minus his head, which was never found. In its place was a ball of wax.

The Battle of Maldon is the subject of the earliest known narrative poem in the English language.

Britnoth has been scoffed at over the centuries for his folly in allowing the Danes across from Northey Island. But had he not done so, Olaf’s force would almost certainly have moved off and attacked somewhere else. Britnoth was the only credible English general at the time, so stood the best chance of actually defeating the Danes.

It was after the Battle of Maldon that the infamous Danegeld was instituted, at the suggestion of Sigeric, the Archbishop of Canterbury and one of Ethelred’s major givers of advice. Danegeld amounted to protection money, and was a direct encouragement to the Vikings, as they were often known, to come and get some more money. The payment after Maldon was the staggering sum of twenty two thousand pounds.