Æthelred the Unready, king of England (978 [cons. 4 May 979] - 23 April 1016 [1013-4 exile in Normandy])

Æthelred the Unready (d. 23 April 1016), son of Edgar and Ælfthryth, was king of England (978-1016) after his half-brother Edward the Martyr. Æthelred's epithet "Unready" is a very late coinage, probably twelfth century. Its first certain appearance is in the early thirteenth century, as "Unrad", a pun on the literal translation of Æthelred's name, "noble counsel", and un-ræd, meaning "no counsel" or "ill-advised counsel". As he himself admits in 993 that advisors were able to take advantage of his ignorance, and as he supported the treacherous Eadric Streona after 1006, the charge that he was sometimes a poor judge of advisors seems well-deserved.

The facts that Æthelred was forced into exile in Normandy in 1013-14 by the Dane Swein Forkbeard, and that by the end of 1016 Swein's son Cnut was king of England, demonstrate that Æthelred was not equal to the task of keeping the Vikings out of England. This may have more to do with the strength of the Vikings than with Æthelred's alleged incompetence. Æthelred ruled for thirty-eight years and had to deal with the Viking threat for over three decades; so perhaps it is no wonder that there were major problems in the last decade of his reign. It is clear from the continuation of Edgar's reform of the coinage and the institution of heregeld in 1012 that the machinery of government worked well throughout Æthelred's reign. But the best-known narrative sources were written towards the end of the reign when things looked very grim, and Æthelred's reputation has suffered in consequence. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the whole reign was written after Æthelred's death, and perhaps designed to explain the eventual conquest. The one contemporary annal that does survive (for 1001) is certainly less doom-laden than the later chronicle. Likewise Wulfstan's Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, that great catalogue of things rotten in England, is a reflection of the state of things in 1014, not the whole reign.

The internal politics of Æthelred's reign can be divided into four periods. The first period dates from Æthelred's accession in 978 to 984. These were Æthelred's teenage years, and he was probably carefully guided by Æthelwold and Ælfthryth. Æthelwold died in 984, and in that same year Ælfthryth ceased witnessing her son's charters. In the second period, 984 to 993, Æthelred was led astray by greedy counsellors into seizing church lands and redistributing them to his nobles, as he repentantly explains in a charter of 993 (S 876). The third period, from 993 to 1006, was marked by the return of Ælfthryth and seems to be a much more stable period for English internal affairs, though Viking attacks continued. Such a stable period helps to explain the flowering of literature (works by Ælfric, Byrhtferth, Wulfstan of Winchester), manuscripts, and other artwork datable to the turn of the century. The fourth period, from 1006 to 1016, was marked by an upheaval of the king's council in 1006 and the growing prominence thereafter of the notorious turncoat Eadric Streona, who became the king's chief counsellor.

The Viking attacks during Æthelred's reign can also be divided into four phases. The first phase, 980 to 991, saw the resumption of Viking activity in England after a twenty-five year absence, though with mainly local effects. The second phase, 991 to 1005, involved much heavier Vikings attacks, and could be seen as the effects of a single large Viking army on English territory from its arrival with 93 ships in 991 until the famine of 1005 forced it to return to Denmark. It was this army that fought Byrhtnoth at the Battle of Maldon, and received tribute in 991 (10,000 pounds), 994 (16,000 pounds), and 1002 (24,000 pounds). The third phase, from 1006 to 1012, saw two major invasions. The first, in 1006, was only stopped by a massive payment of tribute in 1007 (£36,000). In 1008 Æthelred ordered that a huge English fleet be built, but feuds involving Eadric's kin limited its usefulness, and it did not prevent the arrival in 1009 of another immense Viking army led by Thorkell the Tall. This army ravaged much of southern England, and only stopped after the payment of tribute of £48,000 in 1012. The fourth phase, from 1013 to 1016, again saw two major invasions, both of which culminated in the conquest of England, by Swein in 1013 and Cnut in 1016.

Æthelred was twice married, and all his sons bear the names of earlier English kings. With his first wife, Ælfgifu, he had six sons (Æthelstan, Ecgberht, King Edmund Ironside, Eadred, Eadwig, Edgar), and perhaps five daughters. In 1002 Æthelred married Emma, sister of Richard II, duke of Normandy, and they had three children, King Edward the Confessor, Alfred the ætheling, and Godgifu.