Æthelred (England)

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Æthelred of England,
miniature in the Chronicle of Abingdon

Æthelred (* after 966 / before 969; † April 23, 1016 in London ), also Æthelred the Unready ("Æthelred the unadvised" or "Æthelred the unfinished"), was King of England from the Anglo-Saxon house of Wessex from 978 to 1013 as well as from 1014 until his death. In between he lost his power to the Danish King Sven Gabelbart , who conquered England as a consequence of constant conflicts until December 1013, but died in February 1014.



Æthelred was a son of Edgar with his second wife Ælfthryth (Elfrida, ⚭ since 964/965), daughter of Ealdorman Ordgar of Devonshire and widow of Ealdorman Elfwold of East Anglia. Based on the sources, he cannot have been born before 966, but must have already lived in 969.

His older brother Eadmund died in 971. Edgar's illegitimate daughter Eagitha, his half-sister, became a nun. Eduard the Martyr , his half-brother from his father's first marriage to Aethelflaed, was his predecessor as King of England from 975 to 978.

In his first marriage he was married to Ælfgifu, daughter of Earl Thored of Northumbria, since 985. The following children emerged from this connection:

  • Æthelstan Ætheling (* around 987; † 1012)
  • Edmund II. Iron side (* around 989, † 1016)
  • Ecgberht Ætheling († around 1005)
  • Eadred Ætheling († around / after 1012)
  • Edith, Egitha, Eadgyth ⚭ 1. Eadric Streone (possibly ⚭ 2. Thorkell the Great)
  • Ælfgifu ⚭ (1014) Uhtred , Earl of Northumbria

In his second marriage he was married to Emma (also Imma, Anglo-Saxon Elgiva) from 1002 . He had at least three children with her:

The mother (or mothers) of his other children

  • Eadwig Ætheling, Eadwy († 1017)
  • Eadgar Ætheling the Elder († 1008)
  • Daughter ⚭ Æthelstan († May 5, 1010)
  • Daughter, Abbess of Wherwell

is not known.

Other possible children are:

  • Wulfhild (⚭ Ulfcytel Snillingr)

Succession to the throne

When King Edgar suddenly died on July 8, 975 without having arranged his succession, two heirs to the throne applied for the rule, both of whom were still young people.

A group of nobles who wanted to give the crown to Æthelred, who was only seven years old, contradicted the claims of 13-year-old Eduard . In addition to Æthelred's ambitious mother Ælfthryth, this group also included Ealdorman undlfhere and Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester. Eduard, however, was supported by Archbishops Dunstan of Canterbury and Oswald of York , as well as other nobles such as wielfwine and Byrhtnoth. It was mainly through Dunstan's support that Eduard was recognized and crowned by the Witan , the council of the great.

After Eduard the Martyr was murdered on March 18, 978 in Corfe Castle by Æthelred's mother Ælfthryth, Æthelred ascended the throne. On April 14, 978, the approximately 10-year-old was crowned king in Kingston by Archbishops Dunstan of Canterbury and Oswald of York and ten other bishops.


Gold- Mancus Æthelreds, around 1003–1006
The coat of arms of appenthelred

The young king struggled with great difficulties right from the start of his reign: when the meeting room of the Witan collapsed in Calne in 977 or 978, many of the oldest and most experienced royal advisors had been killed and the others seriously injured.

In 980 new Viking raids began . Southampton (980, 981), St. Petroc Monastery in Cornwall (981), Portland (992) were looted. The Vikings found food in Devonshire, Cornwall and Dorset.

In his first marriage he married Ælfgifu around 985. Domestically, the situation around 986 was difficult. So Æthelred felt compelled to besiege Rochester and devastate the surrounding area. Ealdorman Ælfric of Mercia was banished from England by Æthelred. In addition, much of the cattle died as a result of an epidemic.

When Danish pirates sacked Wecedport (Watchet), they were defeated in 988 by Goda, the thane of Devonshire.

Æthelred attacked the Cotentin peninsula in 991. The war was ended by a treaty with Richard II , Duke of Normandy (996-1026).

So far, the Viking raids had only been carried out by small fleets, but “this year (991) Olaf came to Folkestone with 93 ships and plundered the area. Then he went from there to Sandwich, from there to Ipswich, and overran everything as far as Maldon. The Ealdorman Byrhtnoth went there to meet them with his army and fought against them. And they killed the Ealdorman and claimed the battlefield. ”The Battle of Maldon on 10/11. August 991 was a crucial turning point in the history of the Viking raids on England. Archbishop Sigeric the Serious of Canterbury negotiated, together with Ealdorman Æthelweard, a peace treaty with the victorious Danes in return for the payment of 10,000 pounds of silver as Danegeld . The bought peace was short-lived, and English payments rose steadily until 1015.

In 993 the Vikings stormed and pillaged Bambrough before pillaging Lindsey and Northumbria. After the unsuccessful siege of London in 994, Olaf Tryggvason and Sven Gabelbart looted Essex, Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. Æthelred sent Bishop Alfheah II (984-1006) of Winchester and his relatives Æthelweard to King Olav I Tryggvason to make peace with him. Olaf Tryggvason received 16,000 pounds of silver, vowed never to enter England as an enemy again, and was baptized by the Bishop of Winchester.

In the years 997 to 1002, Æthelred was unable to counter the annual looting by the Danes. In the year 1002, 24,000 pounds of silver in Danegeld restored peace. Æthelred married - in expectation of Norman support against the Vikings - the Norman duke's daughter Emma (Anglo-Saxon called Elgiva), the sister of Richard II. This marriage formed the basis for the claims later made by the Normans to the English throne. On November 13, 1002, the St. Brice's Day massacre occurred when Æthelred, for fear of an assassination attempt against himself, ordered all Danes to be killed in his domain. The order could not be carried out in all areas, but an indescribably cruel bloodbath ensued. Among those killed was the hostage Gunhilde, a sister of Sven Gabelbart, the King of Denmark, who then swore vengeance.

Document of King Æthelred II. From 1003 to his follower Æthelred

Sven Gabelbart landed in England in 1003, but had to break off his campaign because of a famine in 1005. In 1006 he landed again, occupied Sandwich and sacked Kent and Sussex. Æthelred raised an army in Mercia and Wessex, but the Danes avoided battle and withdrew to the Isle of Wight in late autumn. In the winter, Sven set fire to Reading, Wallingford, Cholsey, and other towns before retreating on his ships with large booty. After paying 36,000 pounds of silver Danegeld, Sven withdrew 1007.

In 1009 a great fleet under Thorkell the Great waged war on England. Æthelred ordered extensive religious rituals in order to receive God's assistance. The south of England was sacked and devastated by the Danes. In Canterbury the population was massacred. After paying 48,000 pounds of silver Danegeld, the Danes withdrew in 1012.


Sven Gabelbart landed in England in 1013 with his son Canute the Great and a huge force. In the same year he was recognized as ruler of the Danelag. Uhtred, Earl of Northumbria, had to submit to Canute. Æthelred and Earl Thurcetel successfully defended London against Canute; but when Ethelmar, Earl of Devonshire, had to submit to Knut and also asked London for peace, the situation for Æthelred had become untenable.

Æthelred fled in 1013 with his wife Emma and their sons Edward and Alfred from Sven Gabelbart to his brother-in-law Richard II the Good in Normandy . After the death of Sven Gabelbart on February 3, 1014, the English did not recognize his son Knut as king, but called Æthelred back from exile.

Return and death

Æthelred enlisted an army, which Olaf Haraldsson , later King of Norway and saint, also joined. Æthelred drove out Knut the Great, who mutilated his hostages and fled to Denmark. Eadric of Mercia insidiously murdered Siferth and Morcar, two nobles from northern Danelag, in Oxford in 1015. Æthelred confiscated their property and had Siferth's widow Ealdgyth imprisoned in Malmesbury, but his son Edmund II Iron Side married Ealdgyth against his father's will and claimed her property.

Canute the Great invaded England again in 1015, quickly found allies in Wessex and Northumbria and besieged Æthelred in London. During this siege Æthelred died on April 23, 1016. He was buried in St. Paul's Church. His eldest son Edmund II Ironside took over his claim to the throne. His widow Emma married Canute the Great.

Etymology of Æþelræd Unræd

The old English name Æþelræd Unræd is a play on words made up of the following terms:

  • Æþel = noble, distinguished, wonderful
  • ræd =
    • fast, lively, skillful (as an adjective)
    • Advice, advice, decision, plan, decision, command, wisdom, reason, sense, profit, benefit, benefit, luck, help, power (as a noun)
    • prepare, prepare, advise, consider (as a verb)

as well as the nickname

  • Unræd = crazy plan, crime, betrayal
    • However, un was also used as a negating prefix, as is still the case in today's German: Undecided, unwilling, at a loss, without advice, etc.

The epithet does not necessarily say anything about the king himself, but can also be related to the royal adviser, the Witan , on whom the then ten-year-old was dependent at the beginning of his rule. It is doubtful whether this epithet corresponds to the judgment of contemporaries about the king, since it was only passed down from 1180, a good 150 years after Æthelred's death.



  • Ann Williams: Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counseled King . Hambledon Press, London 2003, ISBN 1-85285-382-4 .
  • Levi Roach: Aethelred the Unready (Yale English Monarchs). Yale University Press, New Haven 2016, ISBN 978-0300196290 .

Web links

Commons : Æthelred (England)  - Collection of images


  1. ^ Levi Roach: Aethelred the Unready. New Haven 2016, p. 20.
  2. a b c d e f g h i j Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
  3. a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Symeon von Durham, Historia regum Anglorum et Dacorum
  4. Liber Vitae, folio 14v, New Minster
  5. ^ William E Chapel: The Norman Conquest of the North . 1979, ISBN 0-7099-0040-6 , pp. 15f.
  6. ^ Adam von Bremen, Hamburg Church History II, Chapter 51
  7. Jomsvikinga Saga chap. 13
  8. Heimskringla, Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar chap. 39
  9. Ólafs saga helga
  10. ^ Köbler, Gerhard, Old English Dictionary, (2nd edition) 2003
predecessor Office successor
Edward the Martyr King of England
Sven I.
Sven I. King of England
Edmund II