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Who was Aethelred the Unready? A Brief Historical Guide.

Updated: Jun 18

King Aethelred was Unready to rule. In a list of fairly rubbish English kings, he’s up there rubbing noses with King John (not literally I hasten to add, that would be weird).

So, when was Aethelred doing his Kinging?

That would be in the 10th Century. Aethelred ruled from 978 AD until 1016 AD. He had quite a time of it, as it was around then that the Vikings got down to a lot more Vikinging. These Danes from Scandinavia - led by the King of Denmark and Norway, Sweyn Forkbeard – were causing trouble, raiding, invading, and loitering with intent.

Aethelred the Unready
Aethelred as seen in the Abingdon Chronicle (13th Century)

What did Aethelred do about it?

He went with the tried, tested, and totally useless technique of paying them off. Aethelred gave bucket loads of coins with his face minted on the side to the Vikings to make them go away. Thing is, it only briefly worked, as the Vikings kept on re-raiding, re-invading, and re-loitering to get given even more money. Aethelred was stuck, he had to keep on paying the Danes off. A bit like a bully in the playground. Once you’ve given them your Pringle tube (other crisp brands are available), they are going to keep on threatening to thump you every day to get themselves more crisps. After all, once you pop, you just can’t stop.

That didn’t work so well, then,

Not really, no. Aethelred had a plan though. He decided to team up with another big burly bully, the Normans. Hailing from the North of France, the Normans used to be Vikings and were formidable fighters. To get the Normans to tag-team with him, Aethelred married the Duke of Normandy’s sister, Emma.

Now, with a powerful queen at his side, Aethelred was feeling more confident. He decided to stand up to the Danes. Though he did this in the most spectacularly awful way imaginable. Rather than take the Danish armies on, he decided instead to massacre, to have killed, all of the Danes who were peacefully living in his kingdom.

Say what?

Yep, in November 1002, Aethelred ordered every single Danish man living in England to be killed. This, of course, became a horrific blood-soaked mega-mess. In the ensuing death, Sweyn’s – remember him, fork for a beard, King of Denmark and Norway – daughter was killed. Uh-oh. Silly Aethelred face palm.

Silver penny of Aethelred the Unready
A coin from the reign of Aethelred, perhaps used to pay off Sweyn and his army.

Did Sweyn and his army invade?

You betcha’. Aethelred didn’t hang around to face the fury of the Vikings. Instead, he and his royal pals fled to hide in France. This left Sweyn as King of England. Sweyn was so happy about this that he promptly died five weeks later.

Oh, that came right out of nowhere.

Yep, a surprise twist! If this was a film it would make no sense whatsoever. But then history isn’t a film. It also often makes little sense.

Who became King next?

Well, Sweyn had a son, Cnut, but the English nobleman decided to give Aethelred another go, and invited him to be King again. Provided he do a better job.

Aethelred agreed (though he didn’t make any promises about doing a better job, because spoilers he didn’t), but, rather than do any fighting, he hired another Viking army (led by a fella named King Olaf) to chase off Cnut’s forces. Unusually for Aethelred’s plans, this one worked. Cnut and his war band returned to Denmark, leaving Aethelred in charge.

Did Aethelred celebrate?

Yes, he marked the special occasion of becoming King again by promptly dying in 1016 AD.


Just in the nick of time too, as Cnut had returned with a massive army and was smashing through English defences like an angry bull locked in a portaloo.

Now, Aethelred had a son, Edmund Ironside, but he died too. Which left Cnut as King of England (and Denmark, and Norway) by default.

Aethelred’s name means ‘nobly advised’, shame he was so unready.


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