Ethelred was the second son of King Edgar. He was ten years old when his brother Edward the Martyr was murdered in 978AD. The Chronicle says of Edward that “Men murdered him but God magnified him”. In keeping with its prophecies of doom that are usually written in times of turmoil, it goes on to say that “In the same year a bloody cloud was seen in the likeness of fire, most often manifested at midnight”. With the approaching millennium, the church was also forecasting “gathering darkness and natural disaster”.
Ethelred comes down to us in history as “the Unready” taken nowadays to mean ill prepared. It should be remembered however, that the nickname was first recorded in the 1180s, more than 150 years after his death and it unlikely that he was known by the name in his time. He was clearly no warrior king and his reign is remembered for his constant “buying off” of the Norsemen and his inability to muster and direct his forces, which, if properly commanded, could have withstood and defeated them. Once these traits became known to the raiders, they raided at will throughout the country.
A better explanation of the title is “Unraed”, which in Old English means “ill advised” or “bad counsel” and refers to the bad feeling among some of the nobility over the continuing struggle between the gentry and the clergy over the gifts and allocations of land made by Edgar and later, Edward to the church. These nobles wanted Ethelred to return the lands to the original owners and felt that his clerical advisors in the Witan were preventing this. It was this questionable counsel from the Witan that led to Ethelred’s soubriquet of “ill advised”.
Furthermore, the suspicion of his involvement in the death of Edward did much to diminish the moral authority of the Crown at a time when strong leadership was sorely needed.
This term refers to warriors from Denmark, but also includes Swedes and Norwegian raiders previously referred to as Vikings or Norsemen, who by the end of the 10th century were coming under the influence of Danish kings such as Harald who had also imposed his rule on Norway and parts of Sweden. The Chronicle continues to use the term “the force” to describe them all.
The first warning of trouble with the Danes was when some small Danish raiding parties attacked Hampshire and Thanet. Ethelred, or more probably his advisors, compounded the problem by blaming locals for not resisting the attacks and in a fit of spiteful retaliation, sent his troops to ravage Rochester as a punishment for their lack of spirit. In 981AD further raids were made around Devon and Cornwall and more raids were made in Dorset one year later. Strangely, the raids ceased for the next six years until 988AD when a larger raid was carried out in Devon and the local thegns raised a force and drove them away.
The raids themselves, while being mostly minor, did create tension between the English court and Normandy. The Normans, no doubt remembering their Scandinavian origins, were favourably disposed to the Danish raiders who would often shelter in Norman ports following their raids. This led to much hostility between the Normans and the English, so much so that Pope John XV convened a meeting in 991AD between the two sides at Rouen where a treaty of mutual support was ratified, but with little change in the actual situation.
However, in the same year, a much larger Danish force, led, according to some sources, by the Norwegian subking, Olaf Tryggvason, and others by Sweyn Forkbeard himself, arrived off Folkestone and sailed around the south east coast to the River Blackwater and occupied Northey Island situated near Maldon where on the 10th of August 991AD he was confronted by Byrhtnoth, Ealdorman of Essex and his troops. The size of his force is not known, but it is recorded that he was heavily outnumbered by the Danes who were reckoned to have between 2000 and 4000 men. The monks of Ely, writing of the battle in their Liber Eliensis, notes that Byrhtnoth “was neither shaken by the small number of his men, nor fearful of the multitude of the enemy”.
The island was connected to the mainland by a causeway which was only usable at low tide and Byrhtnoth stationed Wulfstan, “the war hardened warrior”, and two others on the landward end of the causeway. The arrogant Danes shouted insults at the force and demanded payment of tribute. As the tide ebbed, the Danes began to stream over the causeway, but it was so narrow that only a few could cross at a time and these were easily cut down by besiegers. In a rare glimpse of the attitude to war and honour of the time, the Danes called out asking to be allowed to cross the causeway unhindered and fight on equal terms. Surprisingly Byrhtnoth agreed to this, a move that even his admirers reckoned as “ofermode” or over courage. The Danes crossed and with their superior numbers began to overwhelm the Essex men. The battle ended when Byrhtnoth was cut down and his horse was grabbed by a Saxon named Godric who fled the field together with his brothers Godwine and Godwig.
The remaining Saxons, recognizing Byrhtnoth’s horse and thinking he was deserting them, tried to escape but were slaughtered as they ran, the only exception being the household troops of Byrhtnoth who, knowing that the battle was lost, bravely fought on the death to avenge their leader.
The defeat clearly shook Ethelred and a meeting of the Witan was hurriedly convened to decide what should be done. On the advice of Archbishop Sigeric it was agreed to “buy off” the Danes and a payment recorded by the Chronicle as Ten Thousand Pounds was made to the invaders.
When word reached Denmark of Ethelred’s willingness to pay Danegeld, even more raiders set sail to join those already harrying Britain’s coastline. The king’s response was to order all serviceable ships to be assembled in London and sent to destroy the invaders. An Ealdorman named Aelfric was given command of the fleet by the king, which turned out to be a poor choice because, as the Chronicle records, “Then Aelfric sent a command that the force (the Danes) be warned, and in the night he fled from his troops to his own great disgrace”.
It goes on to relate that the force then met the ships of East Anglia and London “and made much slaughter of them”. Ethelred, still seeking to appease the Danes, met with Olaf Tryggvason and his warlords and concluded a treaty whereby laws and regulations, settlements and disputes were to be enacted peaceably and, more importantly, that the ravaging and slaughter of the previous year be forgotten. The treaty also noted that 22,000 pounds of silver and gold had been paid to the Danes as the price of peace.
Despite the agreement, the year 993AD saw more raiding, this time in the north. Olaf Tryggvason, together with Swein Forkbeard, king of Denmark and ruler of much of Norway, attacked and destroyed Bamburgh “seizing much plunder”. They sailed to the mouth of the Humber and ravaged throughout Northumbria, “doing much evil”. An army was gathered to oppose the raiders, but its appointed leaders, Fraena, Godwine and Frithegist clearly had no stomach for the fight and in the Chronicle’s words, “were the first to set the example of flight”.
The king’s indecision, plus the poor state of his armies made it easy for the Danes to roam almost at will. The attackers had also learned the advantage of cavalry which enabled them to travel great distances quickly as well as being able to break shield walls. The British were much slower in developing this form of warfare and suffered for it. Ethelred’s spite can further be seen in his ordering of the blinding of Aelfgar, the son of Aelfric in punishment for his father’s desertion earlier and perhaps also to stiffen his remaining officers.
The next year Olaf and Swein, with a force of ninety four ships, attacked London, but Ethelred had gathered his forces on London Bridge and drove the raiders off. The Danes retreated and began some savage raiding in Essex, before moving on to attack the coastline of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. These raids were recorded as particularly vicious with contemporary writers noting that, “they wrought the most evil that any force had ever done and worked unspeakable evil”. Still Ethelred refused to confront the raiders; instead, after consulting with the Witan, he offered yet more tribute payment, plus provisions in return for an end to the raiding. The Danes agreed and took winter quarters in Southampton where, according to the Chronicle, “they were provisioned throughout the West Saxon kingdom” and given Danegeld of sixteen thousand pounds.