In the entire history of the English monarchy, there are very few rulers who are remembered with more negative connotations than Æthelred the Unready, a man who some sources have even referred to as ‘England’s worst king.’ His combined 37 years (978-1013, 1014-1016) on the throne are remembered as a period of intense instability and of English weakness in the face of growing Viking threats. His epithet, ‘the Unready’, serves as an enduring testament to the uncertainty and turmoil with which his long reign is commonly associated. It would be a disservice to Æthelred’s legacy, however, to simply accept this posthumous moniker as an expression of historical reality. His legacy has been the subject of historical debate, and his negative portrayal has to some extent been questioned by scholars such as Simon Keynes, who argued that Æthelred was presented with an unwinnable battle against increasingly aggressive Viking incursions. In light of this, a deeper assessment of Æthelred’s reign is required to determine whether his legacy in British public and scholarly memory is a fair reflection of his ability and character.
It is crucial to frame any analysis of Æthelred within the context of his time. Æthelred ascended the throne of England in tumultuous circumstances; his brother and predecessor Edward the Martyr had been murdered while still a juvenile after just three years on the throne, leaving the ten year old Æthelred to rule England. His reign was marred by ongoing Viking incursions into England, beginning in the very early years of his reign while Æthelred was still a child. To combat this relentless threat, Æthelred resorted to bribing Viking leaders, which eventually proved unsuccessful when Sweyn Forkbeard, and later Sweyn’s son Cnut invaded England with ambitions of conquest.
The Epithet Itself
As a tangent, it is interesting to note that our modern association of Æthelred with the epithet ‘the Unready’ is the result of a simple misunderstanding. His original moniker stems from the Old English word unræd, which meant ‘ill-advised’, rather than ‘unready’, which is a pun on his name ‘Æthelred’, which can be translated as ‘well-advised’.
Of course, the power of hindsight means we know that Æthelred’s reign ended with England being conquered by Danes. To reduce his tenure to this simple fact, however, ignores Æthelred’s more positive achievements. For example, he instituted a major development in the early history of trial by jury by decreeing that when major crimes were committed, a group of twelve local nobles would investigate the evidence in order to reach a verdict. Additionally, to hold onto royal power for 37 years in an era of assassination and instability was in itself an accomplishment for Æthelred, who surely would have been removed from power early if the noble networks deemed him unfit to rule?
Even the action which has earned Æthelred the most ridicule, his consistent bribery of Viking leaders to stop raiding England, can be explained within the historical context in which it took place. Prior to the aggressive expansionism of Sweyn and Cnut in the early eleventh century, the primary objective of Viking raids during Æthelred’s reign was to extort gold and other valuable resources; it was only in the aftermath of the St. Brice’s Day Massacre, during which Æthelred ordered the death of all Danes in England, that conquest became the Viking objective. Bribing the Vikings, and in doing so fulfilling their aim of financial gain, should be seen not as a weak move by a cowardly king, but rather a necessary defensive action taken in place of fighting a war Æthelred and the nobles knew they would likely not win.
The Burden of Legacy
The legacy of Æthelred, that of an unprepared and inadequate king who did little to defend against Viking aggression, is one that was crafted by scholars writing with the benefit of hindsight. The sections of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that deal with his reign were not written during his lifetime, but instead during the reign of Cnut. It is unsurprising, then, that an Anglo-Saxon account would portray Æthelred negatively, since the writer knew what after his death, England had come to be ruled not by Anglo-Saxons, but by Danes. The account, therefore, is ‘coloured by knowledge of its unhappy end’, as Simon Keynes puts it. It is largely from the writings of this post-Æthelred chronicler that William of Malmesbury based his own description of Æthelred in the twelfth century, which has gone on to form the basis for our modern understanding of Æthelred’s character. Active during the Norman period, and the son of a Norman father, William, like the anonymous contributor to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, would have held pre-existing negative beliefs about Anglo-Saxons, and so his work naturally presents Æthelred as a poor ruler. For a king that did so much for the early development of jury trials, he has not been given a fair one himself.
Æthelred the Underappreciated?
Despite his shortcomings, and the disastrous political situation in England at the end of his long reign, one must feel a degree of sympathy for Æthelred. He was, undoubtedly, influenced greatly by a network of nobles, who accounted for a large part of the poor decision-making in England during his reign. Furthermore, the extreme threat of the Vikings presented a political situation that even the ‘greatest’ of English monarchs, Æthelred’s ancestor Alfred, would likely have been hard-pressed to resolve. While this short article by no means addresses all aspects of Æthelred’s rule, it is clear that his failure to keep the Vikings out of England was largely not a product of his lack of ability, but instead of the highly-unfavourable hand he was dealt. Perhaps it is time for a reassessment of Æthelred’s reign that aims to paint him in a slightly more positive light, one that portrays him not as Æthelred the Unready but as Æthelred the Unfortunate.
Featured Image: MyPhotoWall on Flickr