As you'll see, never has a more appropriate nickname been coined for a monarch than King Æthelred the Unready.
In the High Middle Ages, people could more or less say what they thought of you, your government, and even your personal attributes, and there wasn’t anything you could do to stop them. Worse, if you were King Æthelred the Unready, your subjects could coin a derisive nickname and send it down with you through a thousand years of history.
As it happens, “Unready” is a clumsy translation of Æthelred’s Old English moniker: “unraed.” A better translation might be “unwise,” or “ill-advised.” If Æthelred’s subjects meant the latter, never has a more appropriate nickname been coined for a monarch.
The Early Life Of Æthelred
Æthelred was born the son of King Edgar, in around 968, and was the younger brother of Edward the Martyr. When your brother’s nickname is “the Martyr,” you know you’re in for a rough childhood. Edward died in 978, when his brother (and next in line for the throne) was only 10 years old.
Nobody seems to have blamed Æthelred (who was 10, remember) for the murder, though it was done in his house, by his advisors, and the body was left in his yard, so a few noble eyebrows did arch when Æthelred was crowned king (at 10, please remember) shortly after the gruesome homicide.
Making things worse, England under the adolescent king was going through an awkward phase of its own. Fractious nobles spent most of their time shoving each other around and building fortified houses to stage raids out of.
Meanwhile, the Danes were attacking from the sea. 10th-century Denmark wasn’t the cheese-and-social-democracy society we know today; it was a Viking kingdom. Word that the Danes were raiding the coast back then was like a modern leader having to deal with an invasion by Klingons.
Paying the Danegeld
To his credit, Æthelred really tried to get a grip on things. Realizing that the kingdom must put up a united front to have any chance at all against the Danes, the king tried to make peace between the various lords of his realm.
One especially valuable alliance was with Byrthnoth, the Earldorman of Essex, who commanded a (relatively) huge army of retainers, and whose land was a special target for Danish attacks. Æthelred made an awful lot of compromises to bring Byrthnoth onto his side, which is why the battle of Maldon, fought in 991 when Æthelred was 24 years old, was such a huge disaster.
The battle of Maldon, in its way, sums up everything that was wrong with England at the time.
It began when the Danish pirates made a horrible blunder: they landed on a small spit of land that was connected to the mainland by such a narrow causeway that they could be held off by only three men standing abreast. In fact, the whole causeway was submerged at high tide, so Byrthnoth knew the time and the place of the fight, and he showed up with virtually his whole force.
At first, things went swimmingly. The Danes didn’t have a hope in hell of forcing the causeway, and they had to quit the field altogether when the tide rolled in.
Realizing their awful position, the Danish raiders shouted across the water that it would be more honorable to fight on open land, and that all the cool earldormen were doing it. Byrthnoth, showing a shocking gullibility, agreed to let the Danes pass unhindered to fight on the nearby plain, fair and square. The Danes rewarded such chivalry by slaughtering the whole force and cutting off Byrthnoth’s head.
With friends like Byrthnoth, Æthelred decided it might be a good idea to start paying tribute, or “Danegeld” to the raiders who were cutting through his kingdom like honey badgers in a chicken coop. With the help of the pope, England and Denmark signed a treaty in 991. In 992, the Danes started attacking again because, treaty or no treaty, there was still a lot to steal in England.