Aethelred was the great-great grandson of Alfred the Great and born c. 968. His father was Edgar the Peaceable, King of England and his mother was Aelfthryth. Edgar died in 975 leaving a young Aethelred and an elder son by a previous marriage named Edward who was thirteen at the time. Immediately, squabbles broke out over who should become King. Edward’s party argued he was the elder and better candidate. Aethelred’s party had serious doubts about Edward’s character. Edward was precocious, ungovernable and subject to temper tantrums. King Edgar and Aelfthryth had been anointed by Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 973 so Aelfthryth and her party argued Aethelred was better qualified to be King because he was the child of an anointed King and Queen.
Edward was elected King and was crowned on July 8, 975. Immediately there was opposition in Edward’s council. A comet had appeared shortly before his election and then followed bad harvests, famine and disorders. Aethelred’s followers would not accept Edward as King and lawlessness ensued. On March 18, 978, Edward was invited to visit his step-mother Aelfthryth and half-brother Aethelred at Corfe Castle. As he arrived on his horse, he was promptly stabbed to death in the courtyard by retainers. We will never know exactly who was behind the attack but Aelfthryth and Aethelred benefited from Edward’s death and Aethelred’s reign began under a cloud of treachery and murder. He was crowned on April 4, 978.
From 978-984, while Aethelred was a teenager, his reign was controlled by his mother, Alfhere, ealdorman of Mercia and Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester. Alfhere dominated the government and started an anti-monastic movement, believing the church had become too rich and powerful. He also helped fend off Viking attacks. A year after the death of King Edward, Alfhere dug up Edward’s body and found it to be uncorrupted, the sign of a saint. Miracles began to be declared near his new tomb in Shaftesbury and it was believed his bones were now holy relics. Aethelred himself acknowledged the holiness of his step-brother and Edward was to be called “The Martyr”.
After the deaths of Alfhere and Aethelwold, Aelfthryth no longer witnessed charters. Aethelred tried ruling in his own name. He began building new monasteries, updated the laws of the country and reorganized local government. One of his greatest achievements may have been the Wantage Code of 997. The Code initiated a precursor to trial by jury. It authorized twelve thanes be chosen to decide a case. They were to self-inform, investigate the issues and render a ruling. The Code was flexible in allowing for local custom, especially in the area of the Danes. He maintained the reforms in coinage started under his father and half-brother. He began a form of annual taxation called the heregeld to fund fighting the Vikings. He married a woman named Aelfgifu and had six sons and five daughters.
During the years of 984-993, Aethelred was at the mercy of treacherous and greedy thanes who revolted from time to time. As an example, in 993, Aelfric of Hampshire turned traitor. In an effort to curb Aelfric’s activities, Aethelred had his son blinded. But Aelfric managed to return and rebel again in 1003. Aethelred was weak and lacked resolve, facing desertion and deceit from his nobles but unable to punish them with any potency. He also began seizing church lands and allocating them to the thanes. In 993, Aelfthryth returned to help and some stability ensued, even while Viking attacks persisted. It was during this time the arts flourished. Works of literature, manuscripts and art are found dating from this period. During the time from 1006-1016, there was great instability in the Witan (kings council). And then there were the unrelenting Viking attacks.
Serious Viking raids began in 980 and lasted until 982 and even London was attacked. There was a respite that lasted until 987 but then they began in earnest. In the summer of 991, Olaf Tryggvason met Aethelred’s forces at the Battle of Maldon and slaughtered the Saxons. Olaf kept up the plundering and then asked for payment to stop. At the bidding of Sigeric, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Aethelred agreed to pay what became known as Danegeld. Olaf returned again in 994, attacking London. Aethelred paid more Danegeld but this time he forced Olaf to accept Christianity, much like his ancestor Alfred the Great had done when he defeated the Dane, Guthrum. He also made Olaf promise to never again attack England. Olaf actually kept his promise, using the money to rebuild his fleet and make a bid for the kingship of Norway. But other Vikings continued assaulting the kingdom. The repeated payment of Danegeld began to impoverish the country. With men conscripted to fight the invaders, the crops were left un-harvested. Monasteries were plundered and devastated.
By 1001, Aethelred’s was widowed and his mother had died. In the hope of stopping the Vikings from using Normandy as a base of attack on the south of England, he married Emma of Normandy, the sister of Duke Richard II in 1002. He also needed the money from her dowry. He was to have two sons by Emma, Edward and Alfred. Aethelred was to also make one of his worst decisions as King when he ordered the complete massacre of every Dane living in England on St. Brice’s Day, November 13, 1002. The slaughter was appalling in southern England but the Anglo-Danes in the northern Danelaw were spared. Aethelred’s character suffered a long lasting disgrace from this incident. Any Dane who supported Aethelred or at the very least left him alone, now turned against him. King Swein of Denmark decided to attack, possibly in revenge for the death of his sister in the massacre. He attacked England from 1003-1007 when a peace treaty was signed and tens of thousands of pounds in Danegeld was paid. Swein left England but others continued the assaults. Thorkell the Tall came in August 1009 causing complete devastation across southern England. In 1009, Aethelred completely rebuilt the naval fleet but couldn’t find commanders for the ships. The ships lay in harbor and when they did fight, they were destroyed.
During this campaign in 1012, the Archbishop of Canterbury was killed. Thorkell didn’t condone the murder and eventually offered his services to help protect England. Aethelred paid more Danegeld and Thorkell and the mercenaries created a modicum of stability but the country was in disarray. Swein was to return in 1013 and the Northumbrians gave up followed by the surrender of the Danelaw. Swein continued ravaging on to Bath and the Mercians as well as the West Saxons surrendered immediately. Finally, London collapsed in December and Aethelred fled to Normandy where Emma and the children were safe in the care of her brother.
Swein was to die three months later, and his son Cnut withdrew to Denmark. The Witan recalled Aethelred extracting a promise from him that he would rule more justly. There was more fighting and no one was satisfied. Aethelred’s eldest son Aethelstan was killed and in 1015, Aethelred killed two of the leading Danish nobles from the north. Aethelred’s son Edmund garnered the support of the Danelaw. Cnut returned to England and the English army refuse to fight unless Aethelred commanded them but by now he was dying and worn out with fighting. Aethelred was to die on April 23, 1016 at the age of forty eight. He was buried in Old St. Pauls Cathedral in London. After internal strife between Edmund and the Danes, Cnut emerged as the leader and ruled as King from 1016 to 1035. He was to marry Aethelred’s queen, Emma.
Aethelred could never count on the obedience of his followers and his own personality made him indecisive and ineffective. A medieval king relied on fear and admiration to flourish. While the people remained loyal to him, he seemed to have none of the needed attributes to achieve success. He was unlucky to have become king under a pall of gloom with the murder of his step-brother, to have treacherous men around him and to be at the mercy of the well trained and armed Vikings. He may have been able to fight off the Danish attacks if he was a good general and had many troops but it would have been difficult even in the best of circumstances. He only led his troops personally three times during his reign so he was never really battle tested. Nonetheless, by buying off the Danes and fighting them, he managed to keep his government from total collapse for thirty eight years, an achievement in itself.
Further reading: “The Saxon and Norman Kings” by Christopher Brooke, “British Kings and Queens” by Mike Ashley, “Saxon Kings” by Richard Humble