Reigned 978 – 1013 and 1014 – 1016
Aethelred II became king following the murder of Edward the Martyr. What followed was a disastrous time for England where all the good work was to go to waste. England, as affluent as it had ever been since the time of the Romans was about to descend back into the dark pit it had spent all those years climbing out of.
To blame Aethelred for all that was about to happen would be unfair, but one must ask the question of how Alfred, Edward I or Aethelstan would have dealt with the particular set of circumstances that now confronted Aethelred.
His weak leadership and favouritism for selected henchmen. with nepotism abound, probably because of his perpetual fear of insurrection and plot, England declined rapidly. The countries strength had kept the Danes away. In 980 the Danes returned in force. England was slowly returning to the dark ages again. Aethelred did virtually nothing. It was left to valiant individuals to resist their advance. The most famous was the Battle of Maldon in 991, where Byrhtnoth, the reeve of Essex defended the causeway from the onslaught before being killed.
Aethelred did not have the fighting spirit of others that preceded him. His method of securing peace was to buy off the Danes. The first payment of danegeld was in 991 and amounted to 10,000 pounds ( weight ) of silver. He should of known from history that they would return.
Three years later in 994 they demanded another payment of danegeld to maintain the peace. This time it was 16,000 pounds of silver. In 1002, Olaf and his men demanded more. Now it 24,000 pounds of silver. This was an incredible amount which related to 2 years gross national product. Corruption was rife, it was as though the leaders were working against the interests of the population.
Your Money Or Your Lives – St Brice’s Day
Unfortunately, the pride and patriotism of Edgar’s reign was no longer evident and the decay continued, Aethelred became more neurotic, fearing attacks and plots, especially from the earlier settled Danes in Danelaw, he devised a plan.
A plan so heinous, it is without parallel in this countries history. He gave the order that all resident Danes shall be killed. He chose the 13th November 1002 for this co-ordinated massacre, St. Brice’s day. The deed was done. Thousands were killed including the sister of the king of Denmark, Swegn ( Sweyn ) Forkbeard. This so incensed Swegn, that he planned a near full scale invasion of England. Massacres by Danes were catalogued all over the country. England was more or less bankrupt and starving. Even the Danes returned to Denmark in 1005. They returned in 1006 and demanded even more danegeld.
Aethelred agreed to 36,000 pounds of silver in a final attempt to buy peace.
We Can Pay No More
This last payment of danegeld was the straw that broke the camels back Aethelred decided that he was going to fight back. To this end he built large ships in Sandwich to combat the Viking longboats. By 1009 many of the boats were beached, sunk and were manned by captains and inexperienced sailors who cared more about themselves than their country. In 1013, Swegn returned with his son, Canute.
He managed to subdue the Northumbrian and Mercian Danes who were left and who were more English than Danish by this time. The cowardly Aethelred fled to the Duke of Normandy. Aethelred was known as the Unready – a derogatory term from the word redeless, or without council.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "King Aethelred the Unready" https://englishhistory.net/middle-ages/king-aethelred-the-unready/, February 7, 2022