European history is full of rulers whose names have included nicknames that designate some outstanding characteristic. For example, Richard I of England was known as Lionheart for his bravery in battle. Then there is Joan, Queen of Castile, also known as Joanna the Mad. She acquired this nickname after the death of her husband Philip of Burgundy, also known as Philip the Handsome. Purportedly, she was driven mad by jealously of her husband, who was very attractive to other women. After his death, she traveled Europe with his body in its coffin. But of all of these, my favorite has long been the Anglo-Saxon king, Ethelred the Unready.
I first encountered Ethelred as a teenager in the historical fiction work Avalon. I have to confess I did not finish this book but, from what I remember, Ethelred was the weak son of a scheming mother who murdered his older stepbrother so that he could inherit the throne. The Unready in his name was not explained but one assumed he was a tool in his mother’s bid for power.
I recently reencountered Ethelred this fall when I went on a reading splurge, gobbling up books on the Dark Ages, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Norman Conquest. Ethelred was a much more interesting character than he had seemed when I first met him. He also shared a questionable distinction with King John in having been forced to come to a written agreement with his nobles over his governance of the kingdom. Indeed, although Magna Carta established important principles for English governance and law, it was not the first time the English nobility had the upper hand with a king and forced the king to come to terms with their demands.
Ethelred the Unready had one of the longest reigns in Anglo-Saxon history (978-1016), but he was not a very capable king. He inherited the throne at a young age in 978 when his half-brother Edward was killed at Corfe Castle. As well as being young and dependent on his advisors, Ethelred was also faced with several problems which were not of his own making. One was the unrest in the country over his father’s (King Edgar’s) program of monastic reform in which lands had been seized for monasteries from various nobles. Ethelred was also faced with a resurgence in Viking raids during this time period as well. And he was a ruler at the time of great anxiety throughout western Europe as he reigned during the millennium (1000 A.D.).
One of Ethelred’s biggest problems was the latest round of Viking raids which had largely died out during the first three quarters of the 10th century. Beginning in 980, small Viking bands raided the English countryside until by 991 an invading force believed to be 93 ships strong landed in Kent and defeated an English army at the Battle of Maldon. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, this loss forced Ethelred to pay the Vikings to leave. Ethelred should not be condemned for this action alone – other English and French rulers had resorted to paying off the Vikings since they had first appeared in the 9th century, including King Alfred. But Ethelred continued to pay off the Vikings, raising taxes on his subjects to meet the increasingly large sums required. He was also not a warrior and generally did not lead his own troops into battle with the Vikings. In the modern world, we are used to professional armies led by career soldiers, but in the Middle Ages, strong kings were expected to lead their armies in person.
Then, in 994, Ethelred negotiated a treaty with the Vikings who were still in England, paying them to defend England against other raiders rather than attack English subjects. The agreement, however, did not last, and by 997, this mercenary force was again attacking those they were supposed to defend. Other Vikings joined them, defeating the English attempts at resistance, and in 1001, Ethelred had to negotiate another peace agreement which required an even larger tribute payment to the invaders. The next 12 years saw more of the same with all attempts to raise an English army being stymied by the in-fighting at Ethelred’s court, while the country had to pay a regular national tax, the heregeld. In 1013, King Sweyn of Denmark landed in northern England where he seems to have been welcomed by the local population, and his son, Cnut, was married to a nobleman’s daughter. King Sweyn advanced through England and by Christmas of 1013 Ethelred and his family had fled to Normandy.
King Sweyn had a very short reign and died in early 1014. Rather than welcoming his son Cnut as king, the English noblemen turned to Ethelred. As with King John in 1215, the nobles presented Ethelred with a list of grievances which they wished him to address before inviting him back. Among other conditions, he had to agree to forgive his subjects for rebelling against him. An agreement was eventually reached and by spring 1014, Ethelred had returned to England. However, he was not able to keep the terms of the agreement, particularly as he continued to need money to pay a mercenary army to drive Cnut out of the kingdom. Tensions at his court continued to erupt until Ethelred died on April 23, 1016. In the meantime, Cnut had returned with another army, and when Ethelred’s son Edmund died on November 30, 1016, Cnut became king of England.
As for Ethelred’s nickname, it was coined sometime after he died and it refers to the king as being badly counseled or ill-advised and was derived from the Anglo-Saxon word, unræd. Given that one of his most prominent nobles was known as Eadric the Grabber, who regularly switched sides for money and murdered his opponents, one cannot disagree with this epithet.
Jones, Dan. Powers & Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages. New York, Viking 2021.
Morris, Marc. The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England 400-1066. New York, Pegasus Books, 2021.
Morris, March. The Norman Conquest: the Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England. New York, Pegasus Books, 2013.
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