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
980. Return of the Vikings: Southampton, Thanet, and Cheshire ravaged
981. Vikings ravage Devon and Cornwall
982. Vikings ravage in Portland (Dorset), burn London
983. Ælfhere of Mercia ravages Dyfed
The Annales Cambriae record that the Saxons, led by Ælfhere (ealdorman of Mercia), ravaged the lands of Einion ab Owain (Dyfed).
984. Æthelwold of Winchester dies
Beginning of Æthelred's "irresponsible phase"
985. Ealdorman Ælfric exiled
985-7. Abbo of Fleury teaches at Ramsey
986. Æthelred lays waste the diocese of Rochester
986. Vikings raid Iona
988. Vikings ravage Watchet (Somerset)
March 1, 991. Peace treaty between England and Normandy
From a letter from Pope John XV of this date (translated at EHD 230) we learn that there were strained relations between Æthelred of England and Richard of Normandy in the late 980s or early 990s. (The letter is the only surviving record of these difficulties.) The Pope received many reports of this enmity and finally sent a legate, Leo of Trevi, with letters for both Æthelred and Richard. Both kings confirmed the peace at Rouen on 1 March 991, and it was set out in these terms: that if either of them or any of their people did wrong to the other, it should be atoned for with fitting compensation, that the peace should remain forever unshaken, and that the duke should receive none of the king's men, or of his enemies, nor the king any of the duke's, without their seal.
The stricture against the duke of Normandy receiving Æthelred's enemies may suggest that the Vikings had been using Normandy as a base for their raids against England in the 980s.
S. Keynes, "Introduction to the 1998 Reprint" of Alistair Campbell (ed.), Encomium Emmae Reginae (Cambridge: 1998), at p.xvi
August 10/11, 991. Battle of Maldon
Tribute payment to the Vikings: ?10,000
D. Scragg (ed.), The Battle of Maldon, AD 991 (Oxford: 1991)
992. English fleet gathered at London
Ealdorman Ælfric deserts
993. Vikings sack Bamburgh, and Lindsey and Northumbria
English army gathered, but leaders flee
Æthelred has Ælfgar, son of Ealdorman Ælfric, blinded
September 993. Olaf and Sveinn come to London with 94 ships, but are repulsed
Vikings ravage along the coast and Essex, Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, etc
Tribute payment to the Vikings: ?16,000
Vikings winter at Southampton
993. End of Æthelred's "irresponsible phase"
997. Vikings attack Cornwall, Wales, Devon
998. Vikings attack Dorset, terrorize Isle of Wight, Hampshire, Sussex
999. Vikings ravage West Kent
1000. Æthelred ravages Cumberland
Summer 1000. Vikings to Normandy
1001. Vikings ravage Hampshire, Devon, etc.
1002. Tribute payment to the Vikings: ?24,000
Spring 1002. Æthelred marries Emma of Normandy
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the Lady (hlæfdige), Richard's daughter (daughter of Richard I, count of Rouen 942-6), came to England. Emma of Normandy was given the English name Ælfgifu (which is, confusingly, also the name of Æthelred's first wife); she was witnessing the king's charters already by the second half of 1002.
S. Keynes, "Introduction to the 1998 Reprint" of Alistair Campbell (ed.), Encomium Emmae Reginae (Cambridge: 1998)
November 13, 1002. St Brice's Day Massacre: Æthelred decrees death of all Danes in England
1003. Sveinn and his army take Exeter, harry Wessex to Wilton and Salisbury, then return to sea
1004. Sveinn lands with fleet in East Anglia, sacks Norwich, Thetford
English under Ulfcytel Snilling attack; lose, but hard fight
1005. Great famine in England
Sveinn and his fleet return to Denmark
1006. Danish fleet returns, takes Sandwich, Isle of Wight
Much devastation (Hampshire, Berkshire, Reading, Wiltshire)
1007. Tribute payment to the Vikings: ?36,000
1007. Eadric Streona appointed ealdorman of the Mercians
1008. Æthelred orders concentrated ship-building
1009. English fleet stationed off Sandwich
After internal conflicts, remnants of fleet stationed at London
August, 1009. Thorkell's army arrives at Sandwich
Canterbury and East Kent buy off the Vikings for ?3,000
Vikings move on to Isle of Wight, ravage Sussex, Hampshire, Berkshire
November, 1009. Vikings take winter quarters on the Thames, in Kent, often attack London
January (?), 1010. Vikings burn Oxford
May, 1010. Vikings storm Ipswich, defeat Ulfcytel
Vikings burn Thetford and Cambridge, Bedford and Tempsford, Northampton, etc.
1011. Danish raids all over;
Ælfheah, archbishop of Canterbury, captured; later martyred
April, 1012. Tribute payment to Vikings: ?48,000
Thorkell swears allegiance to Æthelred
1012. Eadric ravages Dyfed
The Annales Cambriae record that Eadric and Ubis (?), the Saxons, ravaged Menevia (Dyfed).
1013. Danish Sveinn returns with his fleet
Sveinn accepted as king by most of England
Sveinn besieges London
Christmas 1013. Æthelred escapes to Normandy
February 3, 1014. Death of Sveinn
Crews of Danish ships elect Cnut
English approach Æthelred in Normandy
April 1014. Æthelred returns, puts Cnut to flight
1015. Eadric betrays and kills Sigeferth and Morcar of the Seven Boroughs
Edmund Ironside, Æthelred's son, marries Aldgyth, Sigeferth's widow, against his father's wishes
Edmund takes submission of the Seven Boroughs
August 1015. Cnut's fleet returns to England
Edmund and Eadric raise armies against the Danes
Eadric turns coat to follow Cnut
West Saxons submit to Cnut
1016. Edmund joins forces with the Northumbrian Uhtred
Edmund and Cnut ravage
Cnut's army closes on York, and Uhtred and the Northumbrians submit to Cnut
April 23, 1016. Æthelred dies
Edmund Ironside chosen as king by London, and besieged there
Cnut chosen as king by the rest of England at Southampton (?)
Edmund retakes Wessex
Battles of Penselwood, Sherston, Brentford -- Eadric switches sides
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that Æthelred died on St George's day (April 23), and that after that Edmund was chosen as king by all the counsellors who were in London. The allegiance of the rest of the country is not discussed in the Chronicle, but John of Worcester in the 12th century explains that the chief nobles of the rest of the country renounced the line of Æthelred and concluded a peace with Cnut at Southampton. The facts that in the Chronicle's account the Vikings could besiege Edmund in London with impunity, and that Edmund had to re-take possession of Wessex, tend to support John of Worcester's statement.
Edmund did break out of London and take back Wessex, and receive the submission of the West Saxons. Shortly afterwards he fought Cnut's army at Penselwood near Gillingham, and then again after midsummer at Sherston -- the Chronicle notes that in the battle of Sherston Eadric Streona and Ælfmær Darling were supporting the Danes. Edmund then gathered the West Saxon army and took them to London and relieved the siege and sent the Danes back to their ships. Two days later, Edmund fought the Danes at Brentford and put them to flight, and then he returned to Wessex and collected his army.
Once Edmund had left the Danes besieged London again, but they were successfully repulsed, and went instead into Mercia, and ravaged there, and gathered again in the Medway. Edmund brought his army to Kent, and fought the Danes at Otford according to John of Worcester, and the Danes fled to Sheppey. Eadric switched back to Edmund's side at Aylesford, and the Chronicle records Edmund's acceptance with the doleful comment, "no greater folly was ever agreed to than that was". The Danes meanwhile went back inland into Essex. Edmund overtook them in Essex at the hill called Ashingdon, and fought them there on October 18.
The fate of the other members of Æthelred's family after his death in April 1016 is less certain. A contemporary German observer, Thietmar of Merseburg, records that Emma and her two sons were in besieged London, and that the Danes offered Emma peace if she would give up her sons and pay an appropriate ransome. Thietmar adds that after long deliberation Emma agreed to this, but in the confusion the two brothers slipped away. Later Norse sources credit Edward (the future Confessor) with fighting alongside Edmund Ironside in the battles of 1016, though his presence was probably only symbolic (he can have been no more than 13 years old, since his parents were married in 1002). Edward makes no impression on the contemporary English sources, and a charter he witnesses at Ghent at Christmas 1016 suggests that he was in Flanders by the end of 1016, perhaps on his way back to Normandy after Edmund's death and Cnut's triumph in November 1016. It is uncertain where the other children of Æthelred and Emma (Alfred and Godgifu) were in the course of 1016, but all three of them were in Normandy after 1016 (see further entry on 1033/4).
F. Barlow, Edward the Confessor, 2nd edn (London: 1997)
S. Keynes, "The Æthelings in Normandy", Anglo-Norman Studies 13 (1991), pp.173-205
October 18, 1016. Battle of Ashingdon: Cnut defeats Edmund
Terms at Alney: Edmund keeps Wessex, Cnut takes everything else
On October 18, Edmund's army overtook Cnut's at Ashingdon in Essex and they fought there. Eadric betrayed the English by starting a rout with the Magonsæte (the people of Herefordshire), and the Chronicle notes that he thereby "betrayed his liege lord and all the people of England". Cnut won the victory and casualties on the English side were heavy -- the Chronicle names a bishop, an abbot, three ealdorman (Ælfric of Hampshire, Godwine of Lindsey, Ulfcytel of East Anglia), and continues "all the nobility of England were there destroyed".
Edmund survived, and Cnut followed him with his army to Gloucester. Eadric and other counsellors advised that the kings should be reconciled, so hostages were exchanged and a meeting took place at Alney, at which the kings established their friendship with an oath, fixed the payment for the Danish army, and divided the kingdom so that Edmund would succeed to Wessex and Cnut to Mercia (and presumably the rest of England).
Then the Danish army went to their ships, and the Londoners came to terms with them and bought peace from them, and the Danish army took up winter quarters in London.
In 1020, Cnut and Archbishop Wulfstan and Earl Thorkell and many bishops returned to witness the consecration of a minster at Ashingdon, commemorating the site of the victory much as William would later establish the abbey at Battle.
November 30, 1016. Edmund dies
Cnut becomes king of all England
The Chronicle records Edmund's death on St Andrew's day (November 30), and adds that he was buried at Glastonbury. Cnut then succeeded to the whole of England.