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Ethelred II Unraed to Cnut: 978-1035
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Ethelred II Unraed to Cnut: 978-1035‘This year [991 ] was Ipswich ravaged, and after that was Byrhtnoth the Ealdorman slain at Maldon ... and it was decreed that tribute should be given to the Danes, on account of the great terror which they cause.’

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Ethelred II Unraed (978-1016) Ethelred’s first name combines two Old English words meaning ‘noble counsel’, but the ‘Unraed’ either means ‘evil advice’ or ‘treacherous plot’, a nickname that may refer to Ethelred gaining the throne through the murder of his half-brother Edward. Later failures merely reinforced his unhappy reputation, so ‘Unraed’ became ‘Unready’ - a jibe at the king’s inability to defend England against fresh Viking onslaughts. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the ‘yearbook’ of its day, seethes with fury at the incompetence, cowardice and treachery of Ethelred’s advisors.

Sensing weakness, the Vikings began a new series of raids, one of which is retold in the heroic poem The Battle of Maldon (991). Ethelred reacted by buying off the marauders with money (Danegeld) and grants of land. When this policy failed, the king ordered a massacre in the Danelaw, enraging the Danish king Sweyn. In 1013 a huge Viking army landed, seeking vengeance, and Ethelred fled to Normandy. He came back after Sweyn’s death in 1014, only to face renewed invasion from Sweyn’s son Cnut (Canute). Ethelred died early in 1016, leaving his son Edmund Ironside to take on Cnut’s army.


In this extract from The Battle of Maldon, the leader of the English warriors utters his defiant challenge to the invaders before battle in 991.
‘Byrhtnoth gave a speech; he grasped the shield; he brandished the slender ash spear ... here stands a noble earl with his army, who will fight for this country, home of Ethelred my prince, its people and land ... ’

Byrhtnoth agreed to let the Vikings leave the tidal island on which they were camped, so the two sides could fight a setpiece battle. The poet emphasizes the importance of the encounter.

‘Then was battle near; glory to be grasped. The time was come when doomed men had to fall. Uproar was raised there, ravens circled, the eagle craving carrion. There was tumult on earth.’

Defeat for the English was to prove expensive.

Edmund II Ironside (1016)A firebrand of 22 in 1016, Edmund seems to have despised his ineffectual father. He started a whirlwind campaign against the Danes, and succeeded until the fifth and final battle at Ashingdon, near Rochford in Essex. There the English revival ended with great slaughter - ‘all the nobility of the English race was there destroyed’ says the Chronicle- principally through the treachery of Ethelred’s advisor, Eadric, whom Edmund had not removed. The English and Danish kings agreed a truce, but Edmund died shortly afterwards, at Oxford. The way was open for a Dane to rule England.

Cnut (1016-35)
None of Edmund’s family could offer a challenge to the Danish king Cnut, who - at the age of 21 - moved onto the vacant throne. People in England wanted leadership and peace, and Cnut proved equal to the job. He removed ‘unreliable elements’, including not only some worthy nobles but also the treach-erous Eadric, who got his just deserts. Taxes were gathered efficiently, the Danish army was paid off, and Cnut took care to show himself to be a pious son of the Church. He also married Ethelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy - a shrewd move.

Cnut governed well for 19 years. Ruler of England, Denmark and Norway, and overlord of Scotland, the mighty King Cnut famously rebuked his oily courtiers by demonstrating that the ocean tide was deaf to the commands of even the greatest of kings - or so the story goes.

Coin of Ethelred
Ethelred proved a weak king, with the knack of picking the wrong people as counsellors. He also had a vicious streak - an unattractive combination.

Ethelred II Unraed to Cnut: 978-1035

Cnut and his queen
Cnut’s marriage to Emma of Normandy, Ethelred’s widow, was a diplomatic union. Here king and queen place a gold cross on the high altar of the New Minster at Winchester.

Ethelred II Unraed to Cnut: 978-1035

Harvest time
The Anglo-Saxons were basically farmers, and the agricultural wealth of England made it a tempting prize for foreign adventurers and plunderers - Danes, Norwegians and Normans.

Ethelred II Unraed to Cnut: 978-1035

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