Æthelred II (c. 966 – 23 April 1016), was King of the English from 978 to 1013 and again from 1014 until his death.
Æthelred was the son of King Edgar and Queen Ælfthryth. He came to the throne at about the age of 12, following the assassination of his older half-brother, Eadweard the Martyr. His brother’s murder was carried out by supporters of his own claim to the throne, although he was too young to have any personal involvement.
Æthelred II the Unready, King of the English
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”.
The element ræd in unræd is the same element in Æthelred’s name that means “counsel”. 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.
Æthelred’s father, King Edgar, had died suddenly in July 975, leaving two young sons behind. The elder, Eadweard (later Eadweard the Martyr), was probably illegitimate, and was “still a youth on the verge of manhood” in 975. The younger son was Æthelred, whose mother, Ælfthryth, Edgar had married in 964. Ælfthryth was the daughter of Ordgar, ealdorman of Devon, and widow of Æthelwold, Ealdorman of East Anglia.
At the time of his father’s death, Æthelred could have been no more than 10 years old. As the elder of Edgar’s sons, Eadweard – reportedly a young man given to frequent violent outbursts – probably would have naturally succeeded to the throne of England despite his young age, had not he “offended many important persons by his intolerable violence of speech and behaviour.” In any case, a number of English nobles took to opposing Eadweard‘s succession and to defending Æthelred’s claim to the throne; Æthelred was, after all, the son of Edgar’s last, living wife, and no rumour of illegitimacy is known to have plagued Æthelred’s birth, as it might have his elder brother’s.
Both boys, Æthelred certainly, were too young to have played any significant part in the political manoeuvring which followed Edgar’s death.
Æthelred II the Unready, King of the English
Eadweard reigned for only three years before he was murdered by members of his brother’s household. Though little is known about Eadweard‘s short reign, it is known that it was marked by political turmoil. Edgar had made extensive grants of land to monasteries which pursued the new monastic ideals of ecclesiastical reform, but these disrupted aristocratic families’ traditional patronage. The end of his firm rule saw a reversal of this policy, with aristocrats recovering their lost properties or seizing new ones.
Marriages and issue
Æthelred married first Ælfgifu, daughter of Thored, earl of Northumbria, in about 985. Their known children are:
* Æthelstan Ætheling (died 1014)
* Ecgberht Ætheling (died c. 1005)
* Edmund Ironside (King of England, died 1016)
* Eadred Ætheling (died before 1013)
* Eadwig Ætheling (executed by Cnut 1017)
* Edgar Ætheling (died c. 1008)
* Eadgyth or Edith (married Eadric Streona)
* Ælfgifu (married Uchtred the Bold, ealdorman of Northumbria)
* Wulfhild? (married Ulfcytel Snillingr)
* Abbess of Wherwell Abbey?
In 1002 Æthelred married Emma of Normandy, sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy. Their children were:
* Edward the Confessor (King of England, died 1066)
* Ælfred Ætheling (died 1036–37)
* Godgifu or Goda of England (married 1. Dreux de Vexin, Count of Mantes, Valois and the Vexin also known as: Drogo of Mantes and 2. Eustace II, Count of Boulogne)
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. Following the Battle of Maldon in 991, Æthelred paid tribute, or Danegeld, to the Danish king, Sweyn Forkbeard.
St. Brice’s Day massacre of 1002
Æthelred ordered the massacre of all Danish men in England to take place on November 13, 1002, 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.
Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark
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 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 the losses they sustained in East Anglia, perhaps from the very severe famine which afflicted the continent and the British Isles in that year.
In 1013, King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark invaded England once again, as a result of which Æthelred fled to Normandy in 1013 and was replaced by Sweyn. However, he returned as king for two years after Sweyn’s death in 1014. Æthelred’s 37-year combined reign was the longest of any Anglo-Saxon king of England, 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 the Great, King of Denmark and Norway.
Over the next few months Cnut conquered most of England, while Edmund rejoined Æthelred to defend London when Æthelred died on April 23, 1016. The subsequent war between Edmund and Cnut ended in a decisive victory for Cnut at the Battle of Ashingdon on October 18, 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. Another of Æthelred’s sons, Eadweard the Confessor, became king in 1042.
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. A modern monument in the crypt lists his among the important graves lost.