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Ethelred The Unready

Corfe Castle

Edgar the Peaceable ruled during a time of unparalleled peace between 959 - 975. The peace of this reign made for a long eulogy in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. It also meant that the Chronicle struggled to find anything specific to say about Edgar. Following Edgar's death in 975 this lack of trouble and news came to an end. Following the old king's death, Edgar's eldest son Edward became king. He was supported by the clergy, who were keen to hold onto land grants made to them during the peaceful years of Edgar's reign. Meanwhile Edward's younger brother Ethelred was supported by England's land-owning nobility, who had become uneasy about the amount of land, and power, granted to the Church. It was remarkable how quickly the stability of preceding decades disappeared. Soon the murder of King Edward was being planned, and in 978 young King Edward, or Edward the Martyr, was struck down in front of his brother Ethelred at Corfe Castle in Dorset. Following this violent beginning to his rule Ethelred grew into a guilty, insecure ruler, very different to his assured and competent father. Insecurity and guilt were hallmarks of this age in general. The millennium was approaching, with the Church predicting gathering darkness, social breakdown and natural disaster. Edward's murder, the strength of anti Church feeling, and renewed Viking attacks all seemed to fit this vision.

The first two years of Ethelred's reign were the calm before the storm. In March 979 there was a ceremony on the anniversary of Edward's murder. Edward's body was taken from its undistinguished grave at Wareham and buried with much pomp at the nunnery at Shaftesbury. Then in 980 trouble really began. Viking raids, and then full scale invasions hit England's shores. Following over twenty five years of peace, defences were in poor repair, and Ethelred was not the man to restore them. Rather than resist Viking attacks, Ethelred used huge wealth built up over years of peace to try and buy off the Vikings. Once news reached Scandinavia that the English king was so ready with his money, any Scandinavian who could buy a boat and get a few men together was on his way across the North Sea. Ethelred ended up with the worst of all worlds. He was paying protection money, while raiders continued their attacks. In 980 there were raids at Southampton, Thanet and Cheshire.



The Medway near Rochester

Rather than rallying his troops to fight, Ethelred lashed out in frustration at his own people. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records that in 986 Ethelred's troops destroyed crops and food supplies in the diocese of Rochester, possibly for not resisting a Viking raid on the Medway. The hypocrisy of this action when Ethelred himself was busy paying protection money seemed lost on the king. In 988, perhaps in light of what happened to the people of Rochester, resistance was given to a Viking raid at Watchet on the Somerset coast. But the town fell. The next defeat in 991 was even more serious. A huge fleet of over ninety ships attacked Essex and the Thames Estuary. The English fought hard at what became known as the Battle of Maldon, but were wiped out by Olaf Trygyvason and his men. This kind of resistance, even if it was unsuccessful, could at least have dissuaded further attacks, but Ethelred went back to paying protection money. A huge fee of £22,000 in gold and silver was paid following a treaty in 991. This policy had been futile in the past, and was futile now. The raids continued.


As at Rochester in 986 Ethelred turned his frustration inwards. Throughout the conflict Danes living in England had been staunchly loyal, until in 1001 Earl Palig, disgusted at Ethelred's inability to defend his lands, defected to Sweyn of Denmark. On 13th of November 1002 Ethelred took his revenge, ordering the massacre of Danes living throughout England. The St Brice's Day Massacre was a terrible event. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records people being burnt in churches where they had gathered to find sanctuary. One of the massacre's victims was Gunnhild, sister of Sweyn of Denmark. After the fortune paid in protection money, Sweyn had now been turned into a mortal enemy of Ethelred, and set out to conquer England. This he did with remorseless efficiency. The campaign began in 1003 with the destruction of Exeter, and the taking of Old Sarum Castle. Sweyn kept up the pressure in the years that followed. A stained glass window at Canterbury Cathedral shows Canterbury being besieged by Danes during this turbulent period. By early 1014 Ethelred had fled with his family into exile, to Normandy, the home of Ethelred's second wife Emma. England was left under the rule of Sweyn.

Sweyn only remained king for a few weeks, dying on 3rd February 1014. The Danish fleet in the Thames then elected Sweyn's son Canute (Cnut) as his successor. The English ruling council, the Witan, reacted by writing to Ethelred and imploring him to return. Ethelred, characteristically, did not return himself, but instead sent his younger son Edward back to face the dangers of the situation. Once it seemed clear that there was still support in England for its former king, Ethelred led an expedition to the east of the country. Taken by surprise Canute took to his ships and decided to head back to Denmark for reinforcements. Ethelred finding no Danes to fight took out his frustration, as usual, on his own people, ravaging the province of Lindsey which had given support to Canute.

Ethelred's eldest son Edmund now took over effective authority, while his ailing father took refuge in London. It was Edmund who in 1016 led resistance to Canute who had now returned with his additional soldiers. When Ethelred died on 23rd April 1016, Edmund was proclaimed king, but only in London. The Witan meeting in Southampton, home of the Danish fleet, declared for Canute. Edmund led a vigorous resistance, earning the name "Ironsides" before being defeated at Ashington in Essex on 18th of October 1016. Edmund fled west and tried to continue the struggle, his doggedness reminiscent of Alfred struggling against the Scandinavians two centuries before. Edmund's continued resistance forced Canute into negotiation. The two kings met on an island in the river Severn at Alney near Gloucester. Here England was carved up between them. Edmund was given Wessex while Canute had everything else. Since the time of Alfred things had come full circle. Once again Wessex was the last Saxon kingdom holding out against the Danes. Then, unexpectedly Edmund died, on 30th November 1016, perhaps from the effect of wounds suffered at Ashington. He was buried at Glastonbury, beside his grandfather Edgar the Peaceable. Now Canute ruled England.