May 4, 979: Coronation of King Æthelred the Unready

As discussed under March 18, when King Edgar died in 975, he left two sons by different mothers, Edward ("the Martyr") and Æthelred ("the Unready"). Edward was killed on 18 March 978, and it is surprising and unusual that Æthelred was not officially consecrated king until 4 May 979, over a year later (exact date from Anglo-Saxon Chronicle).

Consecration usually followed the assumption of power pretty immediately, both for domestic reasons (it was the anointing, and not the simple assumption of power, that conferred "divine right") and for reasons of foreign policy (so as not to tempt foreign invaders with a show of weakness or indecision). Further, we can see from charters that Æthelred was already wielding royal power in 978 -- some charters give both the AD year and the regnal year, and S 865 was issued in 987, in the tenth year of Æthelred's reign. If 987 is in Æthelred's tenth year, he must have assumed power in 977 or 978, and the simplest explanation is that he took power immediately after his half-brother's death.

So why wait a year before the official coronation? Edward and Æthelred had been in a civil war, and Edward's supporters might have been reluctant to support Æthelred, but after Edward's death Æthelred was probably the only plausible candidate. However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that Edward's body was originally buried at Wareham with no royal honours, and only in the following year borne with great honour to Shaftesbury. It may be that for part of 978 the body was hidden or in an uncertain location -- there may even have been doubts as to whether or not Edward was still alive. It would make perfect sense then for Æthelred to assume power on his half-brother's disappearance, but not to be anointed king until the matter of his predecessor was dealt with to everybody's satisfaction.

Review the history, 947-1016.