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Defending Ethelred



Other material in the History section:

The Lessons on Reflection

The Medieval History section:

Richard III
Medieval resources

The Modern History section:

Harold's War


There is a tendency among historians to blame reverses on incompetent leaders, rather than face up to the realities of the weaknesses in their society. It is tendency satirised in 1066 and All That by reference to "bad kings" and other bad things. It is a tendency reflected in the contemporary demonisation of some leaders by their political foes. And the more competent the leader, the more violent the demonisation. Hence, the "vast right-wing conspiracy" to dethrone Bill Clinton, no matter the cost to US society; hence, in Australia, the angst and vituperation directed at Gough Whitlam in the 70s and Paul Keating in the 90s.

Ethelred, called the "Unready", was king of England from 979 to 1016. In the list of "bad" English kings his name is always pretty highly placed. After all, he (eventually) lost to the Vikings, who conquered England half a century before William the Bastard. And, since it could not be that the English were in any way inferior to the Vikings, bad leadership must be to blame: Ethelred's bad leadership.

cnut's coin
A coin believed
to show King Knut


But is that the way it was? Or was Ethelred the victim of a bad press, largely written during the reigns of his successors? It seems to me that too much weight is given to Ethelred's short-comings, while his successes are ignored and the problems he faced minimised. Among those short-comings are defects in his personality, including his rages and intermittent acts of violence, his military ineffectiveness and his poor judgment, especially his use of the tactic of paying tribute to, rather than confronting, the Vikings. (Rudyard Kipling is frequently quoted by modern historians on this point: "If once you have paid him the Danegeld/You never get rid of the Dane.")

Before discussing these reasons, it is necessary to consider the sources for the allegations and how they were developed by later historians.

The chief contemporary source of information about Ethelred's reign is The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. There are two main versions that cover the reign. The Parker ('A') Chronicle has some brief entries from 975 to 1001 that vary from the other extant versions but very little for the rest of the reign. The remaining Chronicles that have entries for Ethelred's reign ('C', 'D', 'E', and 'F') derive from a single source, written at one time and covering the years 983 to 1016. It appears that their author (whom I'll call "the chronicler") wrote them after the death of Ethelred. The fact that the account was written in "the bitterness of defeat", means that they are coloured by the failure of the later years of Ethelred's reign and, for that reason, may not be an accurate reflection of the events of the first 25 years.

There is also some doubt about the accuracy of the chronicler's narrative. The two versions give detailed accounts of the raids for one year only, 1001. There are inconsistencies between the two accounts. In particular, they disagree as to whether the English at Pinhoe were "vast levies" or "such levies as could be mobilized". Such a discrepancy between the chronicler's account and a contemporary annal for the only year where it is possible to test the chronicler must cast some doubt on the accuracy of his other annals.

The chronicler gives the historian a wealth of information about the reign but his bias has to be considered when using the Chronicle as a source. While not being quite a "full and contemporary narrative", as Stenton calls it, the chronicler cannot be ignored as a source.

Nor can the sermons of Archbishop Wulfstan, particularly his sermon, Lupi ad Anglos, probably written around 1014, which gave reasons for England's contemporary troubles. Wulfstan composed his homily very late in the reign of Ethelred and, as an analysis of the whole reign, cannot be used too confidently. Moreover, allowance has to be made for what 'a great French historian' cited by Finberg calls "the natural pessimism of sacred oratory".

Although neither the chronicler nor Wulfstan specifically criticise Ethelred, their work was used as the basis for such criticism. The Norman historians, William of Malmesbury, Florence of Worcester and Henry of Huntingdon, derived their narratives partly from the earlier sources and it was their work that laid the foundation of the general condemnation of Ethelred. Despite his condemnation of Ethelred, William refers to another extant tradition:

To me indeed, after deep reflection, it seems extraordinary how a man who, as we have learnt from our elders, was neither very foolish nor excessively cowardly, should have passed his life in such wretched terror of so many calamities.

Successive generations of historians, taking their lead from the Norman writers, cast Ethelred in the role of the weakling and as the "villain". The most serious allegation against him is of military incompetence. The record in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is one of successive defeats, usually of forces led by a local ealdorman or thegns. Until his attack on Lindsey "with levies at full strength" in 1014, Ethelred is not said to have led his people in an attack on the raiders. The chronicler's version, with its emphasis on the invincibility and destructiveness of the Vikings, has been generally adopted. But it may not be the full story.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records at least four major battles between the English and the raiders, Maldon in 991, Thetford (1004), Ringmere (1010) and Ashingdon (1016). In each case, the invaders were victorious. Given the frequency of the raids, there were long periods between such battles and it may be that the Vikings spent as much time avoiding English armies as the English did avoiding them. That the invaders themselves were avoiding a battle may partly explain the chronicler's entry for 1010 when he laments that the English levies were always where the Vikings were not.

However, the major difficulty Ethelred faced was that the Vikings he had to deal with were different from those who had opposed Alfred a century earlier. The major motivation was now the acquisition of wealth, not land. The armies were larger, more professional and better organised than ever before. They were led by Svein Haraldsson (aka "Svein Forkbeard"), king of a united Demark, and his son Knut (whom the historians anglicise as "Canute"), or by Vikings of great reputation, such as Olaf Tryggvason or Thorkell the Tall. The latter is linked, in Norse tradition, to the legendary Jomsvikings, a group of highly motivated and professionally trained mercenaries.


The Vikings of Ethelred's time, a product of two centuries of Norse experience in raiding, would have been a different proposition to the farmer/fighters who formed the basis of the ninth century armies. The archaeological evidence confirms how well organised the incursions were: the Trelleborg forts, presumably built by Harald Gormsson, were probably used as staging posts. This professionalism and organisation is compounded by the fact that the Vikings' attention was concentrated almost completely on England (both because of its wealth and the lack of other suitable targets). So the difficulties Ethelred faced were formidable.

Ethelred did try to overcome the Viking menace. On at least two occasions he took Vikings into his service to assist in the defence of England, Pallig in 991 and Thorkell in 1012. On another he neutralised one of the leaders by giving such terms to Olaf Tryggvason that the latter agreed never to return to England. On at least one occasion noted by the chronicler, he planned the defence on a national scale: providing for the construction of a fleet and the armouring of its crews (c. 1008). There is evidence that he rebuilt or fortified burhs in South Cadbury and Somerset in the early eleventh century. These efforts were, for various reasons, unsuccessful but demonstrate that the image of Ethelred as uninvolved in the defence of his realm (or as Sellar and Yeatman see him: "He was called the Unready because he was never ready when the Danes were") is not the complete picture.

viking ship
A Viking ship
of the sort used
by Svein and Knut
in their raids


Another tactic Ethelred used was the payment of tribute. The English of the Ethelred's time were not the first to pay such tributes. It was a tactic that had worked in minimising the damage done by the Viking to Francia a century earlier and had been used by Alfred the Great in 871, 876 and 877, buying him time to prepare his defences. Later, William the Bastard paid such a tribute to Svein Estridsson in 1069 for reasons similar to Alfred.

There are other reasons to suggest that Ethelred should not be condemned just for paying tribute. His contemporaries do not condemn him for the tactic. The chronicler says, in the entry for 1011, that one of the reasons why "misfortune befell" the English was that "tribute was not offered them in time" (emphasis added). He does not condemn the payment of tribute but its timing.

Tribute might also be paid because fighting was not necessarily the best policy as an insufficient force could be gathered to meet a superior Viking force. At Maldon in 991, after Byrhtnoth rejected the idea of tribute, he and many of his followers were killed in the battle and tribute was paid to the Vikings anyway In 1016, when Edmund Ironside fought the Vikings, rather then buy them off, his confrontation of them proved no more successful than Ethelred's alternate tactics.

While the tactic of paying tribute worked for some time, keeping England from total collapse for thirty years, it was a long-term failure, because Ethelred did not use the time it bought to prepare his defences inadequately. It also had the consequence of inspiring further raids for more tribute.

There is also evidence to suggest that the military situation was not as bleak as portrayed by the chronicler. In 1000, Ethelred felt himself free enough of the Viking menace to launch attacks on Strathclyde and Man, two areas which had long aided the Irish Vikings, a source for some of the raiders in the 980s and 990s. These raids show Ethelred capable of forceful action.

Because Ethelred was unable to find the right tactics to overcome the Vikings, the military evidence provides some basis for his condemnation, but a more equivocal condemnation than is traditional.

Moreover, it is linked to his supposed poor judgment of men. The command for local levies was largely in the hands of the ealdormen, thegns and reeves. It was in the appointment of these men, and their failure, that part of Ethelred's fault is said to lie.

Some reasons can be found for his supposed failure in this area. The unity of England was a recent phenomenon and the loyalty of some areas to the Wessex dynasty was questionable. In this situation the king relied on his ealdormen and thegns. Stafford argues that there were fundamental limitations on power of the tenth and eleventh century kings and that those limitations were exacerbated by the length of Ethelred's reign.

These difficulties were further exacerbated by the high mortality rate among the nobility in a period which was troubled by intermittent but persistent invasions and the dissensions that would lead to lack of co-operation among the leadership. Additionally, the thegns were at best semi-professional soldiers facing seasoned professionals. Most of them were more concerned with running their estates than with military prowess.

Ethelred, though, tried to overcome the problems with the nobility. He married three of his daughters to leading thegns in an attempt to bind the nobility closer to the throne. This was an innovation: kings had tended to marry their daughters to foreign princes not local nobles. The king also appointed thegns such at Eadric and Uhtred to oversee very large areas, primarily for defensive reasons. Eadric's reputation, deriving largely from the events of 1015-16, cast some doubts about the efficacy of his appointment. Undoubtedly, he was responsible for some of the problems that occurred in the last year of Ethelred's reign and other appointees, by their ineffectiveness, contributed to the English downfall but the fault lies as much in the limits on the king's power endemic to the time, as in any poor judgment of the king.

Ethelred's poor judgment was supposedly complemented by personality defects. For example, there are references to the "stunted weakness of his character". In particular, these personality defects are exemplified by sudden acts of violence, such as the blinding of Elfgar in 993 and the punishments meted out to thegns in 1006, as well as the St Brice's Day massacre in 1002. The punishments of his nobles for acts that are not specified have to be seen in the context of Anglo-Saxon law and it is unlikely that his contemporaries would have seen Ethelred as particularly violent as a result.

The massacre of "all the Danish people who were in England" in 1002 is not only seen as evidence of Ethelred's violent rage but as a major cause of Svein's harassment and eventual conquest of England. But the evidence for the 'massacre' rests on an interpolated charter and a patently absurd entry in the Chronicle. It does not appear to have been within Ethelred's power to kill "all the Danish people" in England and, given that in 1013, there were Danes north of Watling Street capable of supporting Svein's invasion, any 'massacre' only appears to have taken place in the south where there were far fewer Danes. In any case, after 20 years of Danish attacks on England, some measure of action against the Danes in England would have been both justified and popular. Even if Svein's sister were one of the victims - and that contention is based on legend rather than evidence - it seems harsh to blame Ethelred's loss of England on that cause, if only for the fact that Svein had raided England before the 'massacre' and did not change his aims until 1013.

Finally, it should be noted that the image of Ethelred as the incompetent leader subject to outbursts of violence does not accord with other evidence. The administration of the realm during Ethelred's reign was efficient, the king issued a series of laws which were important in the general development of English law (in a paper on Ethelred's law-making, Wormald concludes that "No government which participated in this remarkable process can be easily dismissed as inept") and Ethelred's fiscal system, including the minting of coins, was as efficient as any of the Saxon or Danish kings of England. His marriage to Emma, sister of the Duke of Normandy, showed some sense of statecraft.


Other material in the Medieval History section:

The 1381
Peasants' Revolt

Richard III

medieval resources


Faced with a persistent and powerful foe, one better trained and more highly motivated than that faced by his ancestor Alfred, Ethelred retained the throne and administrative control of England for thirty-four years from the start of the raids. The causes for his defeat lie partly in the political system he inherited, partly in the strength of the opposition he faced and to some extent in the character of the king. His failure was that, in the end, he lost the throne.

Ethelred is too readily blamed for that loss and the strength of the Vikings is not sufficiently emphasised by most historians. It is as if the loss of England couldn't possibly be the result of the better side winning. There has to be some fault in the leadership to explain the loss to an inferior, even barbaric, people.

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illustrated letter

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A. Books        
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Finberg, H.P.R. The Formation of England 550-1042, Paladin, St Albans, 1974.
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Kirby, D.P. The Making of Early England, B.T. Batsford, London, 1967.
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Lawson, M.K. Cnut: The Danes in England in the Early Eleventh Century, Longman, London, 1993.
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  Campbell, J.   'Observations on English Government from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century', in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, Vol. 25, 1975, pp 39-54
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Lund, N. 'The Armies of Swein Forkbeard and Cnut: leding or lid?' in Anglo-Saxon England, P. Clemoes et al (eds),Vol. 15, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986, pp 105-118.
Mack, K. 'Changing Thegns: Cnut's Conquest and the English Aristocracy', in Albion, Vol. 16, No. 4, Winter 1984, pp 375-387.
Morris, C.D. 'The Vikings in the British Isles: Some Aspects of their Settlement and Economy', in The Vikings, R.T. Farrell (ed), Phillimore and Co. Ltd., London, 1982, pp 70-94.
Sawyer, P.H. 'Danegeld and Cnut', in The Vikings in England and in their Danish Homelands, Anglo-Danish Viking Project, London, 1981, pp 157-160.
Sawyer, P.H. 'The Wealth of England in the Eleventh Century', in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, Vol. 15, 1961, pp 145-164.
Stafford, P.A. 'The Reign of Ethelred II, a Study in the Limitations on Royal Policy and Action', in Ethelred the Unready: Papers from the Millenary Conference, D. Hill (ed), London, 1978, pp 15-46.
Stenton, F.M. 'The Scandinavian Colonies in England and Normandy', in Preparatory to Anglo-Saxon England, D.M. Stenton (ed), Oxford 1970, pp 335-45.
Wormald, P. 'Ethelred the Lawmaker', in Ethelred the Unready: Papers from the Millenary Conference, D. Hill (ed), London, 1978, pp 47-80.

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