Ethelred the Unready

"Ethelred the Unready was dragged along by problems not of his own making and was finally broken by the impossibility of the task that lay before him." Discuss.
Ethelred’s remarkably long reign of 37 years (979-1016) was one of such failure and disaster that it left a definite mark on English folk memory that still lingers today. It is only in recent years that people have taken a fresh look at his reign and examined the possibility firstly that the disastrous nature of the reign was perhaps more because of factors outside Ethelred’s control and that, in his impossible situation, nearly anyone would have failed, and secondly that the reign did have some positive aspects.

One factor which almost certainly marred the reign from the start was the manner in which Ethelred came to the throne. The death of his father, Edgar, had led to division in the royal family over who should succeed - he had two sons, Edward and Ethelred, both of whom were very young, but whose supporters struggled for power. Ethelred was the younger of the two, and supporters of his brother had serious doubts about his character. Ethelred’s supporters may have claimed that he was "born in the purple", that is while his parents were reigning, although this idea only became popular later on. Edward succeeded in becoming king, but the followers of Ethelred, not content to allow him to rule, murdered him as he came to visit his brother and buried his body without ceremony. And so Ethelred became king - but he had become king through treachery and violence, something that the people did not forget quickly. Even in the often brutal and violent days of the 10th Century, the murder of an anointed King was shocking, especially as it was not avenged and the body was dishonoured. The authority of the crown was certainly damaged, for although Ethelred was too young to be an accomplice himself, it had been done for his benefit.

Meanwhile a cult was forming around his brother, King Edward "The Martyr". His body had been unearthed and after rumours it was miraculously uncorrupted, it became a holy relic and his memory attracted ever increasing public sympathy. Eventually Ethelred pronounced his brother a saint and the anniversary of his death a solemn festival. This might have been a concession forced from a weak king by supporters of his dead bother, but could alternatively been initiated by Ethelred in an attempt to tap some of this popular support for himself (and distance himself from the murderers). If Ethelred was trying to increase his popularity by this move it was a miscalculation - the annual anniversary was a constant reminder of the manner his reign had begun in, to himself and the people, and Edward’s bones became a rallying point for opposition and disloyalty, of which there was to be much over the reign.

However, the reign of Ethelred was remembered as a time of national humiliation and defeat because of the Vikings, who attacked the country successfully for most of the reign and even conquered the demoralised and weakened kingdom by the end. In the respect of being attacked by Vikings, the England of Ethelred was hardly experiencing a new phenomena. However, the Viking invaders of Ethelred’s time were different to their predecessors - rather than independent crews after plunder or settlement, they were more closely associated with the royal government and often commanded by the Danish king himself. By several years into Ethelred’s reign they were no longer isolated attacking groups, but an organised campaign to wear down the country in preparation for invasion, something very new to England.

The first raids began only 2 years after Ethelred’s succession, while he was still very young. The pattern for the next 25 years was set when a large Danish force appeared off the English coast and started to attack the country. After several English defeats and Hampshire, Kent and West Wessex buying off the invaders, the government raised a heavy tax to pay the Danes to go home. This set a dangerous precedent, and this happened several more times, with the Danes fighting, causing immense damage, and then being paid to leave. These short periods of peace were often broken by the Danish themselves, often through poor communication and organisation.

This first payment of tribute, in 992, showed how short-term this policy was to prove. There were attacks in 993 and in 994 a major Viking fleet appeared, including Swein, the Danish king, and Olaf Tryggvason of Norway. They had over 94 warships and 2000 men, the largest force in over half a century. The situation was made worse, as just as unity was essential, some English nobles seemed prepared to accept Swein as king. Again, the Viking invaders were bought off with ‘Danegeld’, and stayed away for only 2 years, although Olaf was confirmed a Christain and never returned. Then, in 997, there was a new kind of threat. This force was a departure from previous attack as, rather than an indepandant company of men who raided until they had an adequate return and then left, they were prepared to spend years systematically plundering an area, coastal Wessex, until they were paid off in 1002.

In the same year Ethelred committed a political crime which would seem to uphold his traditional reputation of irrational, vicious incompetence. He seems to have ordered the deaths of all Danish men in the Kingdom "Because he had been told they intended to kill him and his counsellors, and afterwards possess his kingdom". Since about a third of his kingdom was Danish it is certain that this order could not have been carried out. Still, even if the order was only issued it can hardly have increased the loyalty of his Danish subjects and made them far more disposed to supporting Swein. Although some activity seems to have taken place in Oxford, we only know of two victims of this "massacre", a Danish captain called Pallig (who had pledged loyalty to Ethelred and later joined a Viking force to raid the English coast) and his wife, Gunnhild. She had been given as a hostage to the English by Pallig but as he broke his word her life was forfeit. Unfortunately she proved to be the sister of Swein and gave him another motive to attack, which he did the following year, penetrating further than ever before.

The pattern of attacks, English defeats and short periods of peace bought by increasingly large amounts of tribute continued into the first decade of the 11th Century. By 1013 it had become clear that it was in the intention of Swein to replace Ethelred as king, and the Viking attacks reached their final stage. As he set sail to deal the final blow to his opponent he was sure of success - he was secure in his home kingdom of Denmark, the English were weary and half beaten already, and he was confident that he would be accepted by the Danish men of England. Danish England did indeed accept him, and Oxford and Winchester surrendered, but London resisted him, as Ethelred was still there with his household troops. He marched to Bath and the Western Theigns surrendered. The whole of England had submitted to Swein and London finally gave in. Ethelred followed his wife and sons to Normandy and all the English accepted Swein as their king. This conquest was short lived as Swein died after only a few months, in 1014, leaving his inexperianced son Cnut in charge. In the confusion, the leading magnates of England sent a deputation to Normandy to negotiate for the return of Ethelred. They said they would always rather serve their anointed lord, but asked that his rule be less arbitrary than of late. Ethelred replied he wanted loyalty from all, and these conditions satisfied, he returned and was joyfully received by the people. He put himself at the head of an army and drove out Cnut, who retreated to Denmark. This could have proved to have been a more glorious end to the reign but for his son, Edmund "the Ironside", who betrayed him, marrying the widow of a landlord executed for treason. As Cnut brought a fleet down the Thames and landed in Wessex, the king lay on his deathbed, about to be released from his unhappy life. His son became king, but died after only a few months and Cnut at last became the undisputed king of England.

Therefore, the reign of Ethelred was not a successful one. But does this mean that Ethelred was a poor king and military leader? One policy that has to be examined to determine the quality of Ethelred’s leadership is the payment of Danegeld to the Vikings. This is often seen as a policy of a weak and misguided leader, but in the extremely difficult situation Ethelred was in, facing the enemy that he did, it may have been the only sensible policy. England was a very rich country, with an extremely well organised currency, and while silver was more plentiful than loyal and experienced armies it was a good policy. Indeed, even after such huge payments had been made to the Danes, the English still had enough silver to easily release an effective coinage. In any case, with use of silver and some reliable armies, he kept the country together for 3 decades, and the policy was hardly new, having been employed by King Alfred towards the Vikings far earlier. However, the difference is that Alfred used tribute as a short term measure to buy time, not a long term policy, which over time had the effect of building up the enemy and weakening the domestic economy.

Of course Ethelred is judged on his failure to defend the kingdom against the Danish, and the most obvious point to make in his defence is that the enemy he faced was very formidable, and it would have taken a truly great leader to counter it. The Danes were very professional, having even established centres for training of their troops, many of whom had experience from fighting in Norway, as opposed to the English who had not seen significant conflict since the 950’s and so were relatively inexperianced. The English could often muster larger forces, but the Danes took care to avoid direct battles, and were mobile enough to do this and cause immense damage. Magnates selfishly refused to help their neighbours when attacked for fear of losing their own forces. This underlines another problem that Ethelred faced, the fact that his kingdom was far from a united England with a common sense of identity. The last Scandinavian king at York had only died 24 years before Ethelred, meaning the political system was new and the men who had obeyed the York king might have dubious loyalty to their new English sovereign. Indeed, from 899-950’s the kingdom had expanded from Wessex, more than doubling in size. "Regionalism" was a damaging feature - people recently brought into the English kingdom, were not used to "Englishness", and pressure from outside the kingdom strained these problems even more. It has to be remembered when comparing Ethelred with seemingly more successful leaders, such as King Alfred, that he is judged on his success in defending this large and disunited kingdom, with little power base outside Wessex.

However, perhaps the most important reason why we can absolve Ethelred from at least some of the blame for the defeat by the Danes is the disloyalty and division of not only the common people but also the leaders and nobility. He could never count on the loyalty of many of his subjects and was deserted by many at times of crisis. Many nobles made no secret for their contempt for their king from the start and the cult of his brother Edward formed a centre for this discontent. Even if Ethelred had been a more capable soldier he could not have defeated the threat of the Vikings without much more loyalty than he could command. This became worse through the reign as the odds mounted against the English and past policies, which seemed sensible when they were enacted, began with hindsight to look poorly chosen.

Another factor we must remember when assessing the reign of Ethelred is that much of our information comes from the misleading and defeatist author of the entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the reign. It would seem that the entries were written by one man one a single occasion, sometime after the death of the King, in full knowledge of the final defeat. The entries are therefore simply a catalogue of defeat - the story of the conquest by the Danes with little attention paid to other aspects of the reign or court. The author also does not seem to have any real knowledge of military technique nor any access to restricted information. Yet this has become the chief source for the bad reputation of Ethelred, representing the public mood at the end of the reign rather than the genuine situation throughout it.

The traditional view of Ethelred tends to ignore the many positive aspects to his reign, heaping all the blame on him for the disasters and giving him none of the credit for the achievements. A medieval king certainly needed to inspire loyalty and be an able military commander, but also needed luck. Ethelred was unlucky in that the Danish people had pulled together into a single kingdom after a century of disunion in the middle of the 10th century, just before his reign began, and they came to England increasingly interested in conquest rather than simple plundering. He was also unlucky that the raiding parties were ready to attack England only 2 years after he came to power, as only a young boy. He was unlucky and undermined from the start by the policies that his father had created, and the divisions they left him to cope with. Natural as well as political and military problems beset him as well. In 1005 a harvest failure caused a great famine, further wearing both the strength and the patience of the people. 1014 there seems to have been a terrible flood which destroyed property and drowned many more people. He has been criticised personally for being "a king prone to spasmodic violence", with events such as the ravaging of Rochester in 980 given as examples. However, the reasons for his behaviour on these occasions are rooted in the political and military affairs of the time, carried out for legitimate reasons, for example the attack on Rochester ended a 3/4 year long feud with the local Bishop, Ælfstan, and was only one of many incidents at the time when ravaging an area was used as a punishment.

The reign of Ethelred is rightly seen as a black time in English history, but this does not mean that England was devastated. Towns might be burned, but their wooden houses were quickly rebuilt. Much money was given to the Scandinavian invaders, but some of this was even spent in this country and so found its way back to the English, and there remained great reserves of silver and gold for use if needed. London remained an important city of wealthy merchants. Ethelred carried on many responsible acts of government, often forgotten because of they were omitted from the Chronicle, such as the practice of issuing effective law codes; ten were issued over the course of his reign, introducing and reforming legislation. The administration system did not break down, despite the huge demands and strains put on it, indeed the system was reformed with the introduction of the shire-reeve or sheriff, becoming the chief executive agent in local government. Charters and other government documents were drawn up in stately Latin by the king’s writing office, and sealed writs and commands were used. Ethelred was faced with a motivated, professional opponent, a demoralised people, selfish magnates, a divided kingdom and probably poor counsellors and yet he kept the struggle going for a 37 year reign. Perhaps the most eloquent indication that he was not the disastrous incompetent many believe him to be was near the end of the reign, in 1014, when after Swein’s death the English magnates and nobles invited their exiled king to return and rule them again, something that shows that although his reign was hardly a glorious time in English history, perhaps Ethelred has been judged too harshly upon this fact.

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