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Aeþelraed Unraed (968 - 1016,) also known as Ethlelred the Unready or Ethelread II, was King of England (9781013, and 10141016.) He was a son of King Edgar and his queen Aelfthryth. The majority of his reign (9911016) was marked by a series of wars against Danish invaders.

Early Life[]

Ethelred's father, King Edgar, had died suddenly in July of 975, leaving two young sons behind him. The eldest, Edward (later Edward the Martyr), was Edgar's son by his first wife, Aethelflaed, and was "still a youth on the verge of manhood" in 975. The youngest was Ethelred, whose mother, Aelfthryth, 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, Ethelred could have been no more than 10 years old. As the eldest of Edgar's sons, Edward - 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 Edward's succession and to defending Ethelred's claim to the throne; Ethelred was, after all, the son of Edgar's last, living wife, and no rumour of illegitimacy is known to have plagued Ethelred's birth, as it might his elder brother's. Both boys were too young to play any significant part in the political manoeuvring which followed Edgar's death; it was the brothers' supporters, and not the brothers themselves, who were responsible for the turmoil which accompanied the choice of a successor to the throne. Ethelred's cause was led by his mother and included ealdorman Aelfhere and Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester. while Edward's claim was supported by Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Oswald of Worcester, the Archbishop of York among other noblemen, notably Aethelwine, Ealdorman of East Anglia, and Byrhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex. In the end, Edward's supporters proved the more powerful and persuasive, and he was crowned king before the year was out.

Edward ruled for only three years before he was murdered by his brother's household. Edward's short reign was marked by political turmoil. Edward, perhaps owing to his close connections with Dunstan and Oswald, was fond of endowing monasteries with large land-holdings, which often had to be at the expense of the local influence of the ealdormen and thegns whose job and privilege it was to govern England's many shire communities. Resentment on the part of the king's royal officers was inevitable, and an air of hostility towards Edward was beginning to propagate through the nobility. Nevertheless, favour for Edward was strong among the monastic communities. When Edward was killed at Ethelred's estate at Corfe in Dorset in March of 978, the task of recording the event and reactions to it fell to monastic writers.

Stenton offers an account of Edward's murder, which comes from a work praising the life of Saint Oswald of Worcester:

"On the surface his [Edward's] relations with Æthelred his half-brother and Ælfthryth his stepmother were friendly, and he was visiting them informally when he was killed. [Æthelred's] retainers came out to meet him with ostentatious signs of respect, and then, before he had dismounted, surrounded him, seized his hands, and stabbed him. ... So far as can be seen the murder was planned and carried out by Æthelred's household men in order that their young master might become king. There is nothing to support the allegation, which first appears in writing more than a century later, that Queen Ælfthryth had plotted her stepson's death. But no one was punished for his part in the crime, and Æthelred, who was crowned a month after the murder, began to reign in an atmosphere of suspicion which destroyed the prestige of the crown. It was never fully restored in his lifetime."

Nevertheless, at first, the outlook of the new king's officers and counsellors was not bleak; the coronation of Ethelred took place with much rejoicing by the councillors of the English people.

Byrhtferth of Ramsey stated that when Ethelred was consecrated king by Archbishops Dunstan and Oswald, there was great joy at his consecration, and describes the king in this connection as ‘a young man in respect of years, elegant in his manners, with an attractive face and handsome appearance’. Ethelred was 13 years of age at the time.

During these early years, Ethelred was developing a close relationship to Aethelwold, bishop of Winchester, one who had supported his unsuccessful claim to the throne. When Aethelwold died, on August 1, 984, Ethelred deeply lamented the loss, and he wrote later in a charter from 993 that the event had deprived the country of one "whose industry and pastoral care administered not only to my interest but also to that of all inhabitants of the country."

Conflict with the Danes[]

England had experienced a period of peace after the reconquest of the Danelaw in the mid-10th century by King Edgar, Ethelred's father. However, beginning in 980, when Ethelred could not have been more than 14 years old, small companies of Danish adventurers carried out a series of coastal raids against England. Hampshire, Thanet, and Cheshire were attacked in 980, Devon and Cornwall in 981, and Dorset in 982. A period of 6 years then passed before, in 988, another coastal attack took place to the south-west, though here a famous battle was fought between the invaders and the thegns of Devon.

This series of isolated raids had no lasting effect on England in themselves, but they brought England for the first time into diplomatic contact with Normandy. During this period, the Normans, who then remembered their origins as a Scandinavian people, were well-disposed to their Danish cousins who, occasionally returning from a raid on England, would seek port in Normandy. This led to grave tension between the English and Norman courts, and word of their enmity eventually reached Pope John XV. The pope was disposed to dissolve their hostility towards each other, and took steps to engineer a peace between England and Normandy, which was ratified in Rouen in 991.

However, in August of that same year a sizable Danish fleet began a sustained campaign in the southeast of England. It arrived off Folkestone, in Kent, and made its way around the south-east coast and up the river Blackwater, coming eventually to its estuary and occupying Northey Island. About a league east of Northey lay the coastal town of Maldon, where Byrhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex, was stationed with a company of thegns. The battle that followed became known as the The Battle of Maldon, in which the doomed Byrhtnoth attempted to defend the coast of Essex against overwhelming odds. This would be the first of a series of crushing defeats felt by the English at the hands of first Danish raiders, then organized Danish armies.

Stenton summarizes the events of the battle:

For access to the mainland they [the Danes] depended on a causeway, flooded at high tide, which led from Northey to the flats along the southern margin of the estuary. Before they [the Danes] had left their camp on the island Byrhtnoth, with his retainers and a force of local militia, had taken possession of the landward end of the causeway. Refusing a demand for tribute, shouted across the water while the tide was high, Byrhtnoth drew up his men along the bank, and waited for the ebb. As the water fell the raiders began to stream out along the causeway. But three of Byrthnoth's retainers held it against them, and at last they asked to be allowed to cross unhindered and fight on equal terms on the mainland. With what even those who admired him most called 'over-courage', Byrhtnoth agreed to this; the pirates rushed through the falling tide, and battle was joined. Its issue was decided by Byrhtnoth's fall. Many even of his own men immediately took to flight and the English ranks were broken. What gives enduring interest to the battle is the superb courage with which a group of Byrhtnoth's thegns, knowing that the fight was lost, deliberately gave themselves to death in order that they might avenge their lord.

In 991 Ethelred was around 24 years old. In the aftermath of Maldon, it was decided that the English should grant the tribute to the Danes that they desired, and so a gafol of 10,000 pounds was paid them for their peace. Yet it was the Danish fleet that had beaten Byrhtnoth at Maldon that continued to ravage the English coast from 991-93. In 994, this fleet, which had swollen in ranks since 991, turned up the Thames estuary and headed towards London. The battle fought there was inconclusive. It was about this time that Ethelred met with the leaders of the fleet, foremost among them Olaf Tryggvason, and arranged an uneasy accord. A treaty was signed between Ethelred and Olaf that provided for seemingly civilized arrangements between the now-settled Danish companies and the English government, such as regulation settlement disputes and of trade. But the treaty also stipulated that the ravaging and slaughter of the previous year will be forgotten, and eneds by stating that 22,000 pounds of gold and silver have been paid the raiders as the price of peace. In 994, Olaf Tryggvason, already a baptized Christian, was confirmed as Christian in a ceremony at Andover; King Ethelred stood as his sponsor. After receiving gifts, Olaf promised "that he would never come back to England in hostility." Olaf then left England for Norway and never returned, though many Danes did settle in England, some even taking service as mercenaries in Ethelred's employ.

In 997 Danish raids began again, abetted many many of these same settlers and nercenaries turning on their English neighbors. It harried Cornwall, Devon, western Somerset, and south Wales in 997, and Dorset, Hampshire, and Sussex in 998. In 999 it raided Kent, and in 1000 it left England for Normandy, perhaps because the English had refused in this latest wave of attacks to acquiesce to the Danish demands for gafol or tribute, which would come to be known as Danegeld, 'Dane-payment'. This sudden relief from attack Ethelred used to gather his thoughts, resources, and armies.

In [[1001] the Danish fleet returned to ravage west Sussex, returning regularly to its base on the Isle of Wight. There was also an attempted attack in the south of Devon, though the English mounted a successful defence at Exeter. Nevertheless, Ethelred must have felt at a loss, and in the Spring of 1002 the English bought a truce for 24,000 pounds. Ethelred's frequent payments of immense Danegelds are often held up as exemplary of the incompetence of his government and his own short-sightedness, but such payments had been practice for at least a century, and had been adopted by Alfred the Great, Charles the Bald, and many others. In some cases it seemed the best available way of protecting the people against loss of life, shelter, livestock, and crops. Though undeniably burdensome, it constituted a measure for which the king could rely on widespread support.

It seemed that no amount of money could staunch the flow of Danish assaults; indeed, it likely encouraged them, for in 1003 Danish armies were again active in the west under the command of Sveinn Forkbeard, who had been with fleet that had attacked London in 994. By 1004 Sveinn was in East Anglia, where he sacked Norwich. In this year a nobleman of East Anglia, Ulfcytel Snillingr met Sveinn in force, and made an impression on the previously unchallenged Danish expedition. Though Ulfcytel was eventually defeated, outside of Thetford, he caused the Danes heavy losses and was nearly able to destroy their ships. The Danish army left England for Denmark in 1005, due to the injuries sustained in East Anglia and the very severe famine which afflicted all Europe in that year.[24]

During the next twelve years England was devastated by a succession of large Danish armies, either under the leadership of King Sveinn of Denmark or of other commanders such as Thorkell the Tall, which Ethelred's government failed to combat effectively. He was only able to halt the depredations of these armies by the payment of large payments of Danegeld. Each payment led to the withdrawal of the Danes, but on each occasion a fresh onslaught began after a year or two, and each Danegeld payment was much larger than the last. Ethelred's most desperate response was the massacre of the Danes living in England on St Brice's Day, November 13, 1002. Finally in 1013 English resistance collapsed and Sweyn conquered the country, forcing Ethelred into exile, but after his victory Sveinn lived for only another five weeks. In 1014, Canute the Great was proclaimed King of England by the Danish army in England, but was forced out of England that year. Canute launched a new invasion in 1015. Subsequently, Ethelred's control of England was already collapsing once again when he died at London on April 23, 1016. Ethelred was buried in St Paul's and was succeeded by his son, Edmund Ironside.

Marriages and issue[]

Ethelred married first Ælfgifu, daughter of Thored, the ealdorman of York, by whom he had six sons: Aethelstan Aetheling (died 1011), Edmund Ironside, Ecgberht Aetheling, Eadred Aetheling, Eadwig Ætheling (killed 1017) and Eadgar Ætheling the Elder. They also had four daughters: Edith, who married Eadric Streona, ealdorman of Mercia, and Ælfgifu, who married Uchtred the Bold, ealdorman of Bamburgh. Less certainly there may also have been a daughter named Wulfhild married to Ulfcytel Snillingr, and a fourth daughter, Aethelreda married to Gospatric.

His second marriage, in 1002, was to Emma of Normandy, sister of Richard II, duke of Normandy. Emma's grandnephew, William I of England, would later use this relationship as the basis of his claim on the throne. They had two sons, Eadweard (later King of England and known now as Edward the Confessor) and Alfred Aetheling. By this marriage, he also had Goda of England, who married Drogo of Mantes, Count of Vexin.