Aethelred the Unready (Ethelred)
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
Murder of a king
No sooner was Edgar dead than troubles began. He was succeeded by Edward, his son by his first wife, a boy of thirteen; but he left also AEthelred, a boy of seven, the son of his second wife AElfthryth, who also survived him and was determined to place her boy on the throne. Within three years the young king was murdered by the retainers of AElfthryth.
In those three years dissension and disorganisation among the magnates had reached such a pitch that no attempt was made to avenge Edward's death, and his half-brother was immediately crowned, though miraculous properties were attributed to the body of the murdered king, who became known to posterity as Edward the Martyr.
The 'redeless' king
Little enough cause had AEthelred to thank his mother for the crime which placed him on the throne and secured to the man "evil of counsel," the "Redeless," the "Unready," the execration of his contemporaries and the contempt of posterity. But it was not until he was grown up that the unhappy king proved himself the evil genius of his country. While he was a boy there was still a decent semblance of government; but when he was old enough to choose his own advisers he always collected the worst available.
Of Alfred a hundred years before it has been aid that every word and every act of his seems to have been about the best that could have been said or done at the time, Athelred invariably did the worst things that he could do. When the time demanded action he was passive; but if an opportunity occurred for being destructively active he never missed it - Quern deus vult perdere, prius dementat; it is as though AEthelred had been stricken with mental and moral blindness as the penalty for the crime which placed him on the throne. For eight and thirty years he was more or less king of England, and most of those years are a sort of nightmare.
The Danes return
For after leaving England in peace for more than three-quarters of a century the Danes from overseas again began to trouble the land. Vikings who had attempted to harry England since the days of the Great Alfred had invariably received such severe lessons that they were in no haste to repeat their experiments. Now in 980 and the two following years raiders appeared on the coasts. Encouraged by success, they came again in 988.
These appear, indeed, to have been merely movements as much Norse as Danish, emanating from Ireland. But enough had been done to make it known among the rovers that organised attack would no longer be met by organised national defence. In the first four years of the last decade of the century the coasts were repeatedly ravaged by the great Viking Olaf Trygg-vesen, who was subsequently converted to Christianity and became king of Norway. When the Norsemen landed they found no one to face them but the militia or fyrd of the shire where they happened to make their descent, hastily summoned together, who fought against them now and again stoutly enough.
Paying off the invaders
AEthelred had already begun the disastrous practice of buying the raiders off, when Olaf found an ally in Sweyn, the son of Harald Bluetooth, King of Denmark. Their onslaught in 994 produced the second great payment of ransom; and although there was now a brief interval, the story from 997 onwards is practically a record of perpetual invasions and occasional ransoms, each one larger than the last, diversified here and there by a stubborn fight and more frequently by ignominious disasters, brought about, according to the chronicler, by the flagrant treachery of one or another of AEthelred's favourites, among whom looms portentous the arch-traitor, Eadric Streona.
Massacre of the Danes
Perhaps of all AEthelred's performances the most outrageous was the massacre of the Danes, upon St. Brice's Day in the year 1002. It is certainly impossible to accept the traditional assertion that a literal massacre of all the Danes in the kingdom was carried out by the orders of the king but something of the kind certainly occurred in Wessex. The Danes in the Danelagh seem to have played their part quite as energetically as their neighbours in fighting the raiders. But the practical effect was to bring down Sweyn himself, now king of Denmark and of Norway as well, with the whole Danish host. Still it was not till some years later that Sweyn seems to have made up his mind to eject or slay AEthelred and make himself king of England.
Meanwhile AEthelred's incompetence had been made more manifest than ever; for though the extortion of a huge ransom in 1007 made him turn desperately to an attempt more or less successful to construct a large fleet, the fleet, when built, was so hopelessly mismanaged that it served no useful purpose whatever. At last in 1013, when Sweyn again came into the Humber with a mighty host, the Danes of the Danelagh made up their minds to offer him the crown of England. Sweyn marched through the country, AEthelred fled across the seas, and Sweyn was acknowledged king. But a few days later the Dane died suddenly, leaving his son Knut, popularly known as Canute, to claim the succession.