March 18, 978. Edward the Martyr killed

There has been some confusion on the dates of Edward's murder and Æthelred's consecration, but it seems likeliest that Edward died in 978 and Æthelred was consecrated in 979; see Keynes, p.233 n.7. One version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle adds the details that the killing took place at Corfe in the evening of 18 March, and that Edward was buried at Wareham without royal honours. In the following year Ealdorman Ælfhere (of Mercia) fetched the king's body from Wareham and bore it with great honour to Shaftesbury.

The nearly-contemporary Life of St Oswald adds the details that the murder was committed by some zealous thegns of Æthelred, who surrounded and killed Edward when he had come to visit his half-brother Æthelred and Ælfthryth (see EHD 236, pp.914-5). The Life calls Edward a martyr of God, and adds that he was taken to the house of an unimportant person and left there under a mean covering, until a year later Ælfhere came and found the body uncorrupted and buried it honorably.

The late 11th-century Passion of St Edward adds that it was Ælfthryth who plotted the killing, so that her son could be king (Fell, pp.3-4; on the date, see Fell, p.xx). This may be a truth that was known at the time and suppressed in the Life of St Oswald for fear of royal displeasure, but could just as well be the first stage in the transformation of Ælfthryth from a historical person into a fairy-tale wicked stepmother (at the extreme end of which she is reduced to using magic potions and torturing abbots with hot irons; see Wright, pp.158-60). At this distance, without clearer information, the mystery of who plotted Edward's death remains unsolved. (See further Keynes, pp.166-74.)

A cult of St Edward soon developed: Æthelred called his half-brother a saint in a charter of 1001 (S 899), and stated that St Edward's festival was to be celebrated over all England on 18 March in one of his law codes (V Æthelred 16, issued 1008; see EHD 44, p.444, and references at Ridyard, p.157 n.71).

C. Fell, Edward King and Martyr (Leeds: 1971)

S. Keynes, The Diplomas of King Æthelred "The Unready" 978-1016: A Study in their Use as Historical Evidence (Cambridge: 1980), pp.163-74

S. Ridyard, The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England: A Study of West Saxon and East Anglian Cults (Cambridge: 1988), pp.44-50 and 154-75

D. Rollason, "The cults of murdered royal saints in Anglo-Saxon England", Anglo-Saxon England 11 (1982), pp.1-22

C. Wright, The Cultivation of Saga in Anglo-Saxon England (London: 1939)

978. Æthelred, Edgar's son, succeeds to England
May 4, 979. Æthelred consecrated king

Æthelred came to power in 978 after the murder of his half-brother Edward on 18 March 978; he was probably twelve or younger. From the regnal years of some of his charters we know he was already acting as king in 978, but he seems not to have been consecrated until 979 (see Keynes, Diplomas, p.233). We have no means of knowing why there was a delay of over a year between Æthelred's accession and his coronation, but if Edward's body was really hidden and in an uncertain location for a year after the death it was perhaps thought inappropriate to consecrate a successor; it may not even have been absolutely certain that Edward was dead.

From a study of Æthelred's charters, Simon Keynes has divided the internal affairs of the reign into four periods (see Keynes, Diplomas). In his teenage years (978-84) he seems to have been carefully guided by his mother Ælfthryth and Æthelwold, the bishop of Winchester. Æthelwold died in 984 and his mother disappeared from his charters until 993; in this period, called by Keynes the period of "youthful indiscretion", Æthelred seems to have been manipulated by counsellors to alienate church lands in ways that by 993 he admits he regrets. In 993 a new group of witnesses became prominent in the charters, Æthelred was making amends to the churches, and were it not for the Viking raids from without this might have come down to us as a period of peace and prosperity. In about 1006 there seems to have been another abrupt change in the witnesses of charters, coincident with the emergence in 1007 of Eadric as ealdorman of Mercia. Eadric is increasingly prominent in the closing years of Æthelred's reign.

Æthelred's reign is however much better known for the Viking raids, which resumed in 980. They seem to have become more serious in 991, when after the battle of Maldon it was first decided to pay tribute to the Vikings to try to get them to leave. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records five "national" payments in Æthelred's reign (?10,000 in 991, ?16,000 in 993, ?24,000 in 1002, ?36,000 in 1007, ?48,000 in 1012), but there were probably also many unrecorded "local" payments (like the ?3,000 from Canterbury and East Kent in 1009). Sometimes these payments did gain the English a respite, but the escalating amounts and the repeated return visits show that the situation was out of control. Æthelred was driven from the country at the end of 1013; though he returned early in 1014 and drove the Vikings out, they returned the following year. At his death in 1016 the Danish Vikings were over-running the country, and by the end of that year Cnut the Dane was king of all England.

Most of our narrative sources for Æthelred come from the end of the reign and so are understandably grim. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for Æthelred's reign seems to have been written after Cnut's conquest, and may project more gloom than was actually present in the earlier years (a contemporary annal for 1001 survives from one version of the Chronicle, and is much less doom-laden than the annal for 1001 in the sequence composed after 1016). Wulfstan of York's Sermo Lupi ad Anglos of 1014 reads like a catalogue of all that is wrong with England, but like the Chronicle it is reporting on a society after three decades of invasion, and this should not be extended back over the thirty-eight years of Æthelred's reign. Wulfstan is also writing in a self-centred tradition in which foreign invasions are explained not by the needs or desires of the foreigners, but by the sins of the natives, which have caused God to turn his face from them and allow them to be chastised. In this context it is not surprising that Wulfstan does not mention the flowering of literature (works by Ælfric, by Byrhtferth of Ramsey, by Wulfstan of Winchester), illuminated manuscripts (see The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art, nn.33-58), and other artwork (Golden Age, nn. 74-5, 118-9) that can be dated to the turn of the 10th/11th centuries.

Æthelred was twice married, and all his sons were given the names of earlier English kings. By his first wife, Ælfgifu, he had Æthelstan (who died in 1014 and left a will, S 1503, EHD 129), Ecgberht, Edmund Ironside (who was king in 1016), Eadred, Eadwig (killed by Cnut in 1017), Edgar, Edith (who married Ealdorman Eadric after 1006), Ælfgifu, and perhaps three other daughters. (Two 12th-century sources state that Æthelred's first wife Ælfgifu was the daughter of an ealdorman, but since they name different ealdormen, Æthelberht and Thored, and it is not clear which is more trustworthy, Ælfgifu's parentage remains uncertain. See Barlow, Edward the Confessor, p. 28 n. 5.) In 1002 Æthelred married Emma of Normandy, and they had three surviving children: Edward (the Confessor, who became king in 1042), Alfred (killed in 1036), and a daughter, Godgifu, who married Drogo the count of the Vexin, and then after Drogo's death in 1035 married Eustace the count of Boulogne.

Æthelred's nickname, "the Unready", only appears centuries after his death. It is first recorded in the late 13th century as "Unrad", a comment on his reign meanaing "no counsel" or "ill-advised counsel", and intended as a contrast to the literal meaning of Æthelred's name, "noble counsel". By the fifteenth century the pun was no longer understood and the meaning came closer to the modern "Unready" (see Keynes, "Declining Reputation", in Hill 1978). Since Æthelred himself admits in 993 that counsellors had been able to take advantage of his ignorance, and later in his years of maturity he placed his trust in the treacherous Eadric, it seems undeniable that he was at times a poor judge of character.

J. Backhouse and others, The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art, 966-1066 (London: 1984)

F. Barlow, Edward the Confessor, 2nd edn (London: 1997)

D. Hill (ed.), Ethelred the Unready: Papers from the Millenary Conference (Oxford: 1978)

S. Keynes, The Diplomas of King Æthelred "The Unready" 978-1016: A Study in their Use as Historical Evidence (Cambridge: 1980)

S. Keynes, "The Vikings in England", The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford: 1997), pp.48-82