The Uninspiring Story Of Æthelred The Unready

Published November 6, 2015
Updated January 11, 2018
Published November 6, 2015
Updated January 11, 2018

Ill-Advised

Æthelred And The Viking Army

Source: Google

The 10 years following the battle of Maldon were very bad for the English. Æthelred agreed to pay a ransom of 10,000 pounds to keep the Danes off his back. Then, when the Danes took the money and went right back to raiding, Æthelred paid more. In 1000, the coast was heavily raided by a nice combination of Danish pirates and Danish soldiers, after which Æthelred agreed to a tribute of 24,000 pounds. In 1001, the raids started up again.

Runestone

How much was 24,000 pounds? Hint: this is the receipt. Source: Wikipedia

In 1002, Æthelred decided enough was enough, and did possibly the stupidest thing he could have done; he ordered the slaughter of Danish settlers in England. On the morning of St. Brice’s day, Æthelred’s men fanned out to kill Danes across about one-third of England. It was only about one-third, because by this point the Danes had already taken effective control of the other two-thirds.

Note to future mass murderers: if you decide to wipe out an enemy population, kill them all, not just “enough to piss them off.” Also, if you must leave large numbers of the enemy alive, try not to kill the enemy king’s sister, especially if the enemy king is Sweyn Forkbeard, leader of the force that’s been eating your country alive for a decade.

The war that followed is probably best left to the imagination, but after around five years of genocide and famine, Æthelred managed to buy a little peace for 36,000 pounds in 1007. In 1009, the war started up again under Thorkell the Tall, who was bought off in 1012 for 48,000 pounds. In 1013, Sweyn Forkbeard attacked again, this time declaring himself king. By the end of the year, Æthelred was living in exile in Normandy.

The Social Contract

Danelaw

Source: Type Pad

Æthelred’s fortunes took a drastic turn in February 1014, when King Forkbeard died unexpectedly. The official succession passed to Sweyn’s son, Canute the Great, but a little backroom maneuvering saw Æthelred return to England.

By this point, just about everybody was fed up with the chaos and war, including the Danes and Æthelred’s own nobles. Many of the people had willingly sworn fealty to Canute, possibly because of his much better nickname, but also because Æthelred didn’t command a great deal of loyalty by this point.

Instead of hacking everybody to death, for once, the two sides actually came to something like an agreement. Æthelred could return to the throne but as a vassal of Canute – who, you’ll remember, was actually in charge of England at this point. Æthelred had to forgive all the bad things the Danes had done during his reign and agree to reform the law to more closely resemble the Danish code.

This system, the Danelaw, has gone down in history as the first known contract between a sovereign and his subjects as well as the first recorded instance of the consent of the governed being taken seriously.

Having done his bit for history, Æthelred died in April 1016. He was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral, which burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1666.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.