Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Who Are All These Kings?: Ethelred II Part Two

It was in 992 that Ethelred reinstated Alfric, Ealdorman of Mercia, who had been exiled in 985. Alfric was put in charge of the navy, but betrayed the King’s plans to the Danes. Ethelred’s reaction was to have Alfric’s son blinded. Alfric was later reinstated yet again, but pretended to be ill when it was time to fight, and he was eventually replaced by Edric Streona.

London was attacked again in 994, after which Ethelred paid sixteen thousand pounds to Olaf Tryggvason, on condition that Olaf accepted Christianity and left England alone in future. He kept his promise and concentrated on bidding to become King of Norway. But of course there were plenty of others who had made no such agreement.

So the country, a very rich one not long before, grew poorer and poorer, and the national spirit, without an inspirational national leader, grew weaker and weaker, especially as the Millennium was approaching, and men were looking for signs of the forthcoming end of the world, and of course finding plenty of such signs. Not least of the signs was a famine.

A more positive move in the 990s was the refortification of some of the burghs that had been created by Alfred and Edward the Elder, and some new ones were built.

But in 999, a Danish fleet sailed from the Isle of Wight into the Thames Estuary and up the Medway to Rochester. The men of Kent tried to resist, but had no help from the King or elsewhere.

Ethelred actually led an expedition in 1000, in a lull while all the Danish forces were otherwise occupied, into Strathclyde, while his fleet attacked the Norse colony on the Isle of Man.

Earl Pallig defected to Sweyn in 1001, disgusted by Ethelred’s inability or unwillingness to defend his Kingdom.

In 1002, Ethelred made his most extraordinarily bad decision. He ordered the St. Brice’s Day massacre, having heard a rumour that there was a plot to assassinate him. All Danes in England, except those in the Danelaw, were to be killed. No doubt there were many towns which did not carry out his orders, but certainly other towns did, and there was dreadful slaughter throughout the land.

In particular, the citizens of Oxford excelled themselves. The frightened Danish people of this old town on the River Thames fled to the sanctuary of St. Frideswide’s monastery. This did them little good, however, as it was set alight and they all perished.

Among those so gratuitously killed were Gunnhild, the sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, and her husband. Sweyn, not surprisingly, was none too pleased about this, and swore a mighty oath against Ethelred and his Kingdom.

Sweyn brought a force to England in 1003. He terrorised the nation, sacking in turn Exeter, Salisbury, Norwich, Sandwich, Wallingford, Oxford and Cambridge. Winchester was judged to be too strong to attack, but the citizens had to watch helplessly as the Danish host marched past their gates carrying booty from elsewhere.

Ulfketl of East Anglia came close to defeating Sweyn’s army in 1004, but the men who were sent to burn the fleet did not carry out their orders, and eventually Sweyn defeated him in battle. Ulfketl lived to fight another day.

Sweyn ravaged the land until 1007, when Ethelred made peace with him and paid a Danegeld of thirty thousand pounds. Sweyn then went away for a while.

In 1009, Ethelred took to the field again, intercepting the Danish army as it was returning to its ships carrying booty from East Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and Berkshire. Here was an opportunity to gain at least one military success, but Ethelred was dissuaded from action by Edric Streona, the Ealdorman of Mercia and Ethelred’s son-in-law, who made a career out of changing sides.

The next major invader was Thorkell the Tall, who arrived in 1009 and ravaged Southern England. During this campaign, St. Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury, was captured and held to ransom. Alphege, however, forbade the citizens of Canterbury to raise money for this purpose. During a drunken feast, the Danes pelted Alphege with bones from their food, eventually killing him.

Thorkell, however, was not present at the time, and was horrified. To try to make amends, he offered his services to Ethelred, at a price. He joined the English side and was a far better defender of England than the actual English army, as he led his own troops effectively.

In 1013, Sweyn returned to England, landing in the Humber. He was immediately submitted to by the Northumbrians, followed by the Danes living in the Danelaw.

Ethelred waited for Sweyn’s attack on the South with Thorkell’s fleet in the River Thames below London, but Sweyn attacked Bath, where the men of both Mercia and Wessex surrendered. London held out for a little longer, but Ethelred then fled, with his second wife Emma and their young children, to the Isle of Wight and then to Normandy, leaving Sweyn in control of England.

The older athelings, however, Athelstan, Edmund and Edwy, stayed in England and harried the Danes, although they risked being hunted down by Edric Streona, now firmly (for the time being) on Sweyn’s side.

Sweyn did not have a long reign, however. Three months later, in 1014, he died at Gainsborough. His son Cnut was torn between remaining in England to consolidate his father’s gains and returning to Denmark to establish himself there. Amid the confusion Ethelred was invited to return as King, on condition that he governed “more justly than he had done in the past”.