Æthelred the Unready (r. 978-1016) ruled England during one of its darkest ages. As early as 980, he was faced with an influx of Viking activity the likes of which had not been seen since the days of Alfred the Great (r. 871-899). Yet, unlike Alfred, who was eventually able to adapt his forces to effectively combat the Scandinavian threat to his kingdom, Æthelred the Unready seemed hopelessly incapable of utilizing his resources in a way that could defeat his enemies. As portrayed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Æthelred’s style of defense was evidently to let his regional ealdormen defend their own domains against the Vikings, and if the ealdormen failed, Æthelred would pay the Vikings money in hopes that they would leave. The king apparently mobilized his army on very few occasions, and when he did personally go on the march, it was often a punitive mission against his own people. Æthelred did, however, raise fleets against the Viking threat, yet something always seemed to go wrong when the English ships were gathered together.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it was as late as 992 when Æthelred the Unready decided to make a concerted effort to mobilize his navy against the Vikings. That fiasco ended with the admiral in charge of the English fleet defecting to the Vikings (read about this in more detail HERE). After that incident, Æthelred the Unready apparently reverted to his previous strategy of paying money to the Vikings, especially when too many of his ealdormen began to die in battle. Yet, in 1007, after numerous ealdormen had been slain in Viking raids and after four payments of tribute had been made to the invaders, Æthelred the Unready finally announced a kingdom-wide edict commanding that new ships and armor be built across England.
By 1009, enough ships had been constructed to make some of the Englishmen feel hopeful of their future. Yet, as had happened the last time Æthelred raised his fleet against the Vikings, something bizarre occurred to thwart the unlucky king’s plans. Unfortunately for Æthelred, two of his powerful vassals decided to start quarreling in 1009. The two people in question were Ealdorman Brihtric and a certain powerful lord of Sussex called Wulfnoth Cild. Æthelred failed to reconcile the two noblemen, and, even worse, the king openly gave his support to Brihtric. Infuriated, Wutlfnoth Cild commandeered twenty English ships that were docked in his domain and used them to raid southern England.
When news of the raids spread, Ealdorman Brihtric quickly offered to hunt down his rogue rival and the king agreed to the plan. In addition to his vocal support, King Æthelred the Unready also put Brihtric in command of eighty newly-built ships. Now at the helm of a large armada, Brihtric sailed off to capture or kill his enemy. Yet, the battle between the foes never occurred—in a tragic twist of fate, Brihtric’s fleet was ravaged by a massive tempest that left all eighty of his ships damaged or sunk. When Wulfnoth heard of his rival’s distress, he reportedly sailed to the shipwrecks and set fire to all of the vessels that happened to still be afloat.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the naval disaster between Brihtric and Wulfnoth was a breaking point in the reign of Æthelred the Unready. With the destruction of Brihtric’s eighty ships and the other twenty ships of Wulfnoth still on the loose, Æthelred the Unready apparently abandoned his shipbuilding project and England fell into a state of overwhelming depression. The chronicler in charge of recording the events of 1009 wrote, “When this was thus known to the other ships where the king was, how the others had fared, it was as if all counsel was at an end, and the king, and the ealdormen, and the high ‘witan’ went home, and thus lightly left the ships” (ASC, 1009).
The English ships lost that year were sorely missed. Before 1009 had ended, the general regions of Kent, Hampshire, Berkshire, Sussex and Essex faced Viking activity, while the more specific locations of Sandwich, Canterbury, Chiltern, Oxford, Staines and London were also mentioned as having been targeted by raiders. With such a combination of bad luck and ineffective defense, it is unsurprising that the Danes overran England by 1013 and forced Æthelred the Unready to flee to Normandy.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Bayeux Tapestry. Scene 39, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.