Æthelred the Unready became king of England in 978, following the assassination of his brother, King Edward the Martyr. Æthelred was reportedly only ten years old when he ascended to the throne, and his epithet, Unready (Unraed), actually meant “bad counsel,” as the young king’s regent, advisors and vassals gave him little sound support during his life. Yet, the modern definition of unready also fits King Æthelred, for when a relentless wave of Viking activity began plaguing England in 980, the king and the kingdom were caught totally unprepared.
King Æthelred and his poor advisors may have tried to imitate the success of their famed ancestor, King Alfred the Great (r. 871-899). Alfred had paid the Vikings for peace in his first year as king, but it was only a temporary truce and the Vikings came back to force Alfred into the marshes of Somerset by 978. Yet, Alfred mobilized his forces, wrested back control of Wessex, and, by the end of his reign had implemented a network of military garrisons in the burghs of his kingdom that were strong enough to defeat Viking raiders even when Alfred was not present on the battlefield. The success of Alfred’s defense system was showcased in the Battle of Lea (c. 895), where Anglo-Saxon garrisons worked together to defeat a Viking encampment while Alfred was elsewhere in the kingdom building river defenses. Around a century later, Æthelred the Unready apparently attempted a similar scheme of paying the invaders to buy time and letting his regional garrisons deal with the Viking problem. Unfortunately, the burghs of Æthelred’s day no longer had the individual power to effectively fight off the Vikings, and, unlike Alfred the Great, Æthelred seemed totally incapable of adapting to the new situation. Consequently, while Alfred is remembered as one of Britain’s greatest kings, Æthelred is regarded as one of its worst.
In 991, after over a decade of Viking activity, King Æthelred took one of his first executive actions against the Viking threat. To set the scene, a powerful Viking force had just sacked the city of Ipswich and killed the regional noble, Aldorman Brihtnoth, in a battle at Maldon. One of the leaders of the Viking force was apparently Olaf Tryggvason, who would go on to become the king of Norway in 995. Instead of mustering his forces against this Viking threat, King Ætheltred instead pulled together England’s finances and paid off the invaders with a tribute of 10,000 Anglo-Saxon pounds. Æthelred did, however, later make an effort to gather together a fleet of ships in 992, but the man he put in charge of the armada unfortunately defected to the side of the Vikings.
The tribute payment (and the poorly-led fleet) did not bring Æthelred peace, as Vikings continued to wreak havoc on England in 992 and 993. By 994, Olaf Tryggvason had returned, this time with King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark. With a large fleet at their disposal, Olaf and Sweyn raided all over England, attacking Essex, Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. Once again, Æthelred apparently left the defense of the kingdom to his regional nobles, and no known military action was taken by the king, himself. As the Vikings continued to sow destruction, Æthelred decided to offer a second payment of tribute—this time reportedly around 16,000 Anglo-Saxon pounds. The wealth did buy off Olaf Tryggvason, who went to Norway to seize the throne and never returned to Britain. Yet, the money did not stop other Vikings from raiding English soil.
After a brief period of peace, Vikings returned to cause mayhem in Æthelred’s kingdom. Widespread annual raids resumed in 997. By 999, Æthelred finally decided to raise his land and sea power against the invaders, but by this point, the kingdom’s military was in a neglected and pitiful state. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle did not pull any punches when assessing Æthelred’s attempt to take a more personal control over the kingdom’s defense in 999: “in the end neither the naval force nor the land force was productive of anything but the people’s distress, and a waste of money, and the emboldening of their foes” (ASC, 999). By 1002, Æthelred decided to pay a third tribute to the Vikings, giving them a reported 24,000 pounds. Yet, that very year, the Anglo-Saxons idiotically massacred Danish settlers in England, ensuring further confrontation with King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark.
As could be expected, when King Sweyn heard that his countrymen had been ruthlessly purged in England, he set sail for Britain and embarked on a relentless war against Æthelred as early as 1003. By this point, King Æthelred decided to let his regional nobles once again the take lead in the war. Sweyn Forkbeard apparently faced only regional garrisons until 1006, when Æthelred decided to muster another army. Yet, as before, Æthelred’s military was still in poor shape and was woefully inadequate to halt Sweyn Forkbeard’s campaign. As the Danes plundered region after region, Æthelred the Unready pulled together a fourth tribute payment of 36,000 pounds.
King Sweyn accepted the payment and England was at relative peace for several years. In that brief respite, Æthelred tried to build up England’s navy, but his progress was undermined by unruly noblemen, such as Brihtric and Wulfnoth Cild, who reportedly put around 100 of Æthelred’s new ships out of action during a personal feud. Ironically, it was right after the Englishmen destroyed their own ships that Sweyn Forkbeard returned to England in 1009. From 1009-1012, King Sweyn’s forces acted as an unstoppable steamroller, flattening all resistance in their path. King Æthelred’s distress can be glimpsed at the enormous tribute—the largest of his reign—that he sent to the Danes. In 1012, Æthelred sent as his fifth tribute a whopping 48,000 Anglo-Saxon pounds. This time, however, Sweyn Forkbeard showed no mercy and continued his campaign despite the money. In 1013, King Sweyn conquered England and Æthelred fled to Normandy.
Sweyn Forkbeard, however, did not have a long reign as the king of England—he died in 1014. Sweyn’s son and heir, Canute, was reportedly in the north of England at the time and eager to return to Denmark to secure his hold on the Danish homeland. In the uncertainty of succession, the people of England invited Æthelred to return to Britain to retake the throne, an offer he gladly accepted. When Æthelred returned to England in 1014, he continued his life-long foreign policy of paying tribute. In an effort to appease King Canute, Æthelred sent a payment of 21,000 pounds to the Danes. It would be his sixth and final tribute. Nevertheless, Canute returned to England in 1015, determined to retake the English throne. Æthelred died in London in 1016, shortly before King Canute’s fleet arrived to besiege the city. In all, Æthelred’s six tribute payments to the Vikings totaled around 155,000 Anglo-Saxon pounds. In his book, The Pound: A Biography, author David Sinclair estimated that a single Anglo-Saxon pound from the day of Æthelred the Unready could purchase 15 cows. If that calculation is correct, then the Vikings would have been able to purchase a massive cattle herd numbering 2,325,000 animals with all of the money given to them by Æthelred the Unready.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Miniature of Æthelred the Unready from MS Royal 14 B VI, placed in front of a image of bags of money from pixabay.com, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources translated, introduced and denoted by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.