In the Dark Ages, technology and discoveries were stagnant. Yet, to this day, creative minds dive into history to grab a piece of its history. While some things stood still, the battle for kingdoms had begun. Reign of Mad Kings roared over lands, and Æthelred II was one of them.
Dark Ages Fun Fact & Warning
A Dark Ages fun fact: people had no surnames or family names. In fact, they had either sobriquets or a nickname to separate them from others wearing the same first name. For that reason, many last names today carry words that once meant something different.
I should warn you that this article is about Æthelred II, ‘the Unready’ from later in history and not based on the fantastic character from the television series, The Last Kingdom. Those are two different Æthelred II. While native from the same kingdom apart in time.
The Story Of Æthelred II The Unready
Born in 966, he died on April 23rd, 1016. Æthelred II bore the name ‘the Unready.’ He was King of the English from 978 to 1013 and regained power in 1014 to his death in 1016. His father, Edgar the Peaceful and mother, Ælfthryth, were King and Queen of Northumbria, one of England’s main six kingdoms before it became one kingdom to rule.
The ‘Unready’ epithet does not mean what it reads but derives from the Old English, ‘unræd, ‘which translates to ‘poorly advised.’ It became a nickname as a pun on the king’s name, Æthelred meaning, ‘well advised.’
At the young age of twelve, Æthelred II sat on the throne. When the kingdom learned of the assassination of King Edward the Martyr, Æthelred II’s half-older brother, the throne needed a new ruler.
We can only imagine what a twelve-year-old boy would do given so much power to use at will. Æthelred II had to grow up fast, like most children in the Dark Ages had to do, but with power comes corruption.
A Short Story About The Reign Of Æthelred II
Before we go any further…
We must note here that Viking is a title referring to Scandinavian seafarers. Vikings encompass the Norsemen, Swedes, and Danes. A Dane can be a Viking, but a Viking might not be a Dane because they were natives of Denmark. However, the Danes were the most politically advanced and organised people in all of Scandinavia at the time.
The main poison that spread throughout Æthelred II’s reign was his struggle with the Danes. Despite decades of tolerable peace, Æthelred II is under Danish raids on his English territory and kingdom. This occurred in the early 980s and grew in terror until the 990s.
Not given a choice, Æthelred II paid his tribute to Danegeld, the Danish king. This took place after the Battle of Maldon in 991. But what separates Æthelred II from the other kings of his time is the order he gave in the year 1002. The order he gave now has a title: St Brice’s Day Massacre.
It was in 1013 that King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark conquered England. The invasion took place, and Æthelred II fled to Normandy while Sweyn occupied his kingdom. Following the death of the Danish king in 1014, Æthelred II moved back home to sit on his throne again.
Æthelred II reigned only for two more years after his return. Æthelred II’s reign was the longest of any Anglo-Saxon English king, as he died at age thirty-seven. He lost the title in the thirteenth century to King Henry III.
After Æthelred II’s death, his son, Edmund Ironside, wore the crown only for a few months before his replacement at the hands of Sweyn’s son, Cnut.
What Made Æthelred II Turn Evil
Because of the young age of both half-brothers, it is hard to blame them for the politics left by their father at the time. A king doesn’t act alone but with a council and the Church, unless Pagan still, but that wasn’t the case for Æthelred II, part of the House of Wessex.
Edward reigned for three short years before he died. The cause of death was a murder at the hands of his half-brother’s household members. Edward drew his last breath at Æthelred II’s estate at Corfe Castle in Dorset. The date was March 978.
While not much outlived the centuries regarding Edward’s reign, historians know that the most influential members of the council were on his side over his half-brother. However, Edward was unaware of what awaited him. He inherited from his father quite a headache in terms of grants of lands to monasteries following the ideals of ecclesiastical reform.
Aside from silver and Celtic treasures, the land was the most priceless possession one could have. Sadly, Edgar gave away an amount of land to the Church, creating havoc among the nobility and the two brothers.
A prolonged political and religious story short, the land ownership and what it implied had Æthelred II assassinated his half-brother and taken the throne. Let’s remember that he was twelve years old and influenced mainly by the monasteries, which would prefer him to manipulate over Edward.
The Day Æthelred II Saw Red
While his reign brought wealth and more people to the kingdom, the Danes remained a problem for Æthelred II. Clearly, the king couldn’t stand the view or name of the Scandinavians. Æthelred II’s laws and legislation were strict and cruel when addressing the Danes and would provoke the Dane settlers. However, because of his lack of understanding, he would often instead agree to pay tribute to the Danes. It would happen every year until his reputation was one of a coward among his subjects.
The stain on Æthelred II’s reign happened on November 13th, 1002, St Brice’s Day. King Æthelred II ordered the slaughter of all Danes in all of England. He wanted them all dead and slaughtered.
Æthelred chose St Brice’s Day because he received information that some would treacherously deprive him. He would then suffer betrayal by his councillors and lose it all down to his kingdom. He chose to act before the coup took place if there was a coup at all.
The order could only go to a third of England, as Danes were too strong in some places, more than Anglo-Saxons. One victim was Gunhilde, King of Denmark Sweyn Forkbeard’s sister.
The Repercussion Of A Hatred Massacre
It was enough of a motive for Sweyn’s invasion of western England the following year to avenge his sister’s death. That order had innocent Danes massacred and left for dead if not spotted first and thrust by a blade after. That order had Sweyn conquer East Anglia and sack Norwich. Despite losing men’s power to Ulfcytel Snillingr, a nobleman, the Danes kept going.
Most historians agree that famine struck the British Isles and couldn’t sustain a Danish army. We also must remember that sea travel between Scandinavia and England was only possible before frost. Vikings had an open window to go back and forth until winter would knock on the British Isles’ door. However, almost losing their ships had them return to Denmark in 1005.
1007, England suffered no attack from the Danes for two years thanks to a lavish tribute. However, despite taking that borrowed time to build a fleet of warships against the Danes, the commanders turned to raiders. Those actions had irreparable consequences on the morale of everyone in England at the time.
Two brothers, Thorkell the Tall and Hemming, led the Danish Army of 1009. They were the most significant force to invade the British Isles since Æthelred II’s rule. It was a collapse of the English defence and happened under the reign of Æthelred II, followed by the massacre he ordered.
The Legacy Of A Mad King
So far, nothing shows that Æthelred II was mad or unfit to rule. People around the king had different opinions of the king’s personality. The stories are less than flattering. The truth is that Æthelred II had many shortcomings. He had many successes but equally damaging failures during his reign.
Æthelred defecated in the baptismal font as a child, leading St Dunstan to make a prophecy regarding the English monarchy. He said that someone would overthrow them during Æthelred II’s reign. Coincidentally, it happened despite Æthelred II repossessing his crown the following year. However, this story is up for debate as another king had a similar epithet and was unpopular among his subjects.
Æthelred II’s infamy is often due to an accumulation of unfortunate situations that anyone would find difficult to address and control. His kingdom suffered for years, and ferocious nonstop Viking attacks occurred following his command to massacre the Danes. However, it does not forgive his actions against ‘all Danes’ to be slaughtered.
Then again, when the most significant attack from Sweyn took place, he fled to France with his queen and children. He remained there until the council addressed him and asked for his return so they could have a king. What does that say about Æthelred II? Not much changed. He still feared the Danes, and I believe that was his downfall.
A Not-So-Epic Conclusion For A Not-So-Epic King
Æthelred II was an uninspiring king in the Dark Ages. The king dealt with the Danes by showing he didn’t care for his subjects or the settlers. He would pay them not to take over English territories, so enough to have food and clothing. He paid them instead of trying to find a solution and reach an understanding.
His reign was a long period of betrayal, greed, and murder. Some say that his nickname meant ‘evil council,’ describing him as a cruel king. His most outstanding achievements were artistic and literary advancement and a notable administration.
Whatever Æthelred II tried to do to fight off the Danes from the British Isles wasn’t enough because it had no plan or council. His obsession with them had his name tarnished, and despite historians wanting to clear his reputation, I believe it to be too late. His actions spoke for themselves.
Æthelred II, ‘the Unready,’ was not depicted in The Last Kingdom. This Æthelred II mentioned in this article arrived later in the Dark Ages.