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Æthelred II (c. 966 – April 23, 1016), known as the Unready, was King of the English from 978 to 1013 and again from 1014 until his death in 1016.

Æthelred was the son of King Edgar the Peaceful and Queen Ælfthryth, the daughter of Ealdorman Ordgar. Her mother was a member of the royal family of Wessex. The family’s power lay in the west of Wessex.

Ælfthryth was the first wife of an English king known to have been crowned and anointed as queen. She had two sons with Edgar, the ætheling Edmund (who died young) and King Æthelred the Unready. Ælfthryth was a powerful political figure and possibly orchestrated the murder of her stepson, King Edward the Martyr, in order to place her son Æthelred on the throne. She appeared as a stereotypical bad queen and evil stepmother in many medieval histories.

Æthelred came to the throne at about the age of 12, following the assassination of his older half-brother, King Edward the Martyr. Æthelred’s mother may have ordered the murder of his half-brother in order to place Æthelred on the throne.

The chief problem of Æthelred’s reign was conflict with the Danes. After several decades of relative peace, Danish raids on English territory began again in earnest in the 980s, becoming markedly more serious in the early 990s.

Following the Battle of Maldon in 991, Æthelred paid tribute, or Danegeld, to the Danish king. In 1002, Æthelred ordered what became known as the St. Brice’s Day massacre of Danish settlers. In 1013, King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark invaded England, as a result of which Æthelred fled to Normandy in 1013 and was replaced by Sweyn. After Sweyn died in 1014, Æthelred returned to the throne,

Over the next few months Canute the Great of Denmark conquered most of England, while Edmund rejoined Æthelred to defend London when Æthelred died on April 23, 1016. The subsequent war between Æthelred’s successor, Edmund Ironside and Canute ended in a decisive victory for Canute at the Battle of Assandun on October 18, 1016.

Edmund’s reputation as a warrior was such that Canute nevertheless agreed to divide England, Edmund taking Wessex and Canute the whole of the country beyond the Thames. However, Edmund died on November 30, 1016 and Canute became king of all of England.

Æthelred was buried in Old St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

Æthelred’s 37-year combined reign was the longest of any Anglo-Saxon English king, and was only surpassed in the 13th century, by Henry III. Æthelred was briefly succeeded by his son, Edmund Ironside, but he died after a few months and was replaced by Sweyn’s son Cnut. Another of Æthelred’s sons, Edward the Confessor, became king in 1042.


Æthelred’s first name, composed of the elements æðele, “noble”, and ræd, “counsel, advice”, is typical of the compound names of those who belonged to the royal House of Wessex, and it characteristically alliterates with the names of his ancestors, like Æthelwulf (“noble-wolf”), Ælfred (“elf-counsel”), Eadweard (“rich-protection”), and Eadgar (“rich-spear”).

Æthelred’s notorious nickname, Old English Unræd, is commonly translated into present-day English as “The Unready” (less often, though less inaccurately, as “The Redeless”). The Anglo-Saxon noun unræd means “evil counsel”, “bad plan”, or “folly”. It was most often used in reference to decisions and deeds, but once in reference to the ill-advised disobedience of Adam and Eve.

The element ræd in unræd is the same element in Æthelred’s name that means “counsel” (compare the cognate in the German word Rat). Thus Æþelræd Unræd is an oxymoron: “Noble counsel, No counsel”. The nickname has also been translated as “ill-advised”, “ill-prepared”, thus “Æthelred the ill-advised”.

Because the nickname was first recorded in the 1180s, more than 150 years after Æthelred’s death, it is doubtful that it carries any implications as to the reputation of the king in the eyes of his contemporaries or near contemporaries.