The reaction of King Æthelred the Unready (r. 978-1016) to Danish invasions of England perfectly matched his lackluster name. In his reign, a new wave of Scandinavian raids and invasions hit the British Isles with a ferocity that had not been seen since the days of King Alfred the Great a century earlier. Unfortunately for England, King Æthelred the Unready was no Alfred the Great, and his reign would be a long, painful story of disappointment and incompetence.
By the year 980, various Viking crews were rampaging in Britain. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that in England, alone, the regions of Thanet, Cheshire, Padstow, Devonshire, Dorsetshire (and Portland), London, Hampshire (especially Southampton) and Sussex were all ravaged by Vikings between the years 980 and 982. For around a decade, Viking activity seemed more like widespread solitary raids instead of a coordinated invasion by multiple groups, but by 991 the scale of Viking attacks increased dramatically. That year, Æthelred the Unready had the misfortune of facing Olaf Tryggvason of Norway and King Svein Forkbeard of Denmark, who had launched a joint raid of England with over ninety ships. Up to this point, King Æthelred the Unready had apparently taken no personal action against the Vikings, instead deferring the defense of England to the noble ealdormen who administered the regions that were under attack. Therefore, Olaf and Sweyn received fairly light resistance as they raided in Staines, Ipswitch and Maldon.
Ealdorman Brihtnoth attempted to defend Maldon from the Vikings, but he was slain in the ensuing battle. Not long after the ealdorman was defeated, Æthelred the Unready organized his first national response to the Vikings. Yet, it was not a military campaign—instead, Æthelred decided to pay the Vikings monetary tribute. The payment did, however, seem to buy Æthelred a little time, and he spent this period gathering the sea power of England.
With his English navy, King Æthelred the Unready hoped to be able to fight back against the ships mustered by Sweyn Forkbeard and Olaf Tryggvason, or at least to hunt down and deter smaller crews of Viking raiders. At the head of the English fleet, Æthelred placed a trusted ealdorman named Ælfric. Unfortunately, Ælfric would turn out not to be worth Æthelred’s trust.
According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the English fleet was able to track down one of the large Viking fleets, and the Englishmen planned to attack the next day. Yet, Ealdorman Ælfric was apparently not confident in the strength of the English navy and doubted that King Æthelred could overcome the Vikings. Instead of leading the English fleet into battle, Ealdorman Ælfric reportedly deserted during the night and defected to the side of the Vikings.
With Ælfric’s help, the Viking fleet was able to evade the English navy and escape. Frustrated both figuratively and literally, the English fleet evidently disbanded and the different ships began sailing back to their home regions. Adding insult to injury, before the year 992 ended, the Vikings ambushed the isolated branch of the English navy that had been mustered from the regions of East Anglia and London, inflicting a great slaughter on the Englishmen.
The naval defeat in 992, combined with more horrific raids in 993 (in Lindsey and Northumbria), as well as the reappearance of Svein Forkbeard and Olaf Tryggvason in 994, compelled King Æthelred the Unready to revert to his previous tactic—monetary tribute. The payment sated Olaf Tryggvason, who went on to become king of Norway in 995 and reportedly never returned to England. Yet, the money was not a long-term solution to King Sweyn of Denmark. In fact, by 1013, Sweyn would force Æthelred to flee to Normandy, leaving England to be overrun by the Danes.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Ethelred the Unready Embarking for Normandy, Illustration By Ernest Prater, c. 1920, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.