Ethelred the Unready


The Retirement of Dunstan—Character of Ethelred—Sweyn in Denmark—Character of the Invasions and the Resistance—The Danegeld—The Arrival of Sweyn—Ethelred's Expedition—The Massacre of St. Brice's Day—Return of Sweyn—Defeats of the English—Edric Streona—Failure of the English Fleet—Treacheries of Edric—Death of St. Alphege—Sweyn's Conquest of England and his Death—Return of Ethelred and Departure of Canute—Misgovernment of the King—Canute's Return and the Death of Ethelred.

On the death of Edward, his half-brother Ethelred was elected by the Witena-gemot, much to the dislike of Dunstan, who, it is said, foretold how disastrous the new reign would be. And now the great prelate's active career came to an end. His enemies had of late years been rapidly growing in strength, and it only needed the accession of a king who was unfriendly towards him to cause him to retire to his diocese. There he spent the remainder of his life (he died in 988), occupying his time in administering its affairs, and in cultivating literature and art. Faults he may have had of disposition and temper; but a careful investigation of the facts of his life would appear to prove that, although he made mistakes more than once, his career as a whole was eminent for statesmanship, and resulted in benefit to his country.

Bereft of his guiding hand, the kingdom was soon in a miserable plight. Even Dunstan would have found it difficult to keep the ship from sinking, and Ethelred was utterly unfit for such a task. His character shows no redeeming features; he was weak, cowardly, and revengeful; whenever he made an effort it was too late or in the wrong direction. He surrounded himself with foreign favourites on whose advice he trusted, and sought to oppose the Danish invaders, not by organising armies, but by marriage alliances and diplomacy.

The third period of the Danish invasions begins in this reign; when the Danes proceed to conquer England for their own. The reason why the old enemy now became particularly formidable is to be sought in the changes which were taking place in the north of Europe. There Denmark had become a formidable monarchy in close alliance with Norway and Sweden. For the first ten years of Ethelred's reign, however, it was not in a position to become aggressive, owing to the struggle that was going on between Harold Bluetooth and his son Sweyn. This terminated in the triumph of the latter, who drove out his father and re-established idolatry throughout the land. Having made himself supreme in Denmark, Sweyn determined to add England to his dominions.

It was owing to the fact that Denmark was divided by a struggle for the throne, that for the first ten years of the reign the descents upon England were of an intermittent character; nevertheless, they were extremely harassing, seeing that the English had not only an enormous extent of coast to guard, but never knew the exact spot at which their enemies would land.

Frequently when their army was in one part of the kingdom the invaders would debark at another, and before it could march to the place threatened, the barbarians would collect their booty and retire to their ships. The only efficient remedy for these misfortunes would have been to equip a powerful fleet, so as to have encountered the Danes at sea; but the youth and inexperience of the king prevented such a step, and the island was exposed, in consequence, to outrage, murder, and pillage.

Ethelred's efforts to stop these raids seem to have been inadequate, and he made matters worse by quarrelling with his great men. He had some dispute with the Bishop of Rochester, and proceeded to ravage his lands, oblivious of the fact that a disunited realm would fall an easy prey to a determined invader. All the English, however, were not equally unpatriotic; for when, in 991, the Danes, headed by two brothers, Justin and Guthmund, with whom was Olaf, the king of the Norwegians, invaded the country and plundered Ipswich, and then went into Essex, they were met at Maldon by Byrhtnoth, the alderman of the East Saxons. In the battle which followed, the alderman was slain, after a very brave resistance, and a fine old-English song was written about the fight, the greater part of which is still extant.

In spite of this bold, spirited conduct on the part of the English hosts, which showed that the nation had plenty of valour left in it, Ethelred began in this year the craven and short-sighted practice of buying off the Danes. For this purpose a tax, called the Danegeld, was levied, probably on cultivated lands, and was continued on one pretext or another long after the occasion for it had passed away. The first bribe paid to the Danes amounted to ten thousand pounds, and it obviously acted only as a further incentive to the rapacious hordes.

Gradually the hopes of the English grew very faint indeed, and we begin to hear of treachery and of battles converted into defeats by desertions to the enemy. At last, in 994, Sweyn himself appeared, accompanied by Olaf of Norway. The two kings, with a powerful fleet, sailed up the Thames, with the intention of making themselves masters of London. The courageous resistance of the inhabitants, however, obliged them to retire without obtaining possession of the city.

Determined not to be disappointed in the chief object of their expedition, which was plunder, the two Danish kings directed their troops into the interior of the island, levying contributions in Kent, Sussex, and Hampshire. The sufferings of the inhabitants became intolerable.

Ethelred once more had recourse to money, and promised the enemy a large sum, on condition that they ceased their cruelties and quitted the kingdom: the offer was accepted. The weak, cowardly monarch afterwards received the King of Norway as a friend and ally. Olaf quitted the country after taking an oath, which he kept, never to come back any more.

His colleague, Sweyn, had formed far different projects. When he returned home, he left his fleet at Southampton to keep the English in awe; and also to receive the payment of the money promised. No sooner had he taken his departure than his admiral became impatient for the tribute.

So matters went on until the year 1000, the Danes making descents upon all parts of the coast, and defeating such bodies of Englishmen as ventured in the field against them. Ethelred meanwhile did nothing to help his unfortunate subjects. He even allowed his forces to harry and oppress them. And as if the Danes were not enough to occupy him, he actually made an abortive expedition against the King of Cumberland, because he refused to pay the Danegeld, and even sent a fleet to harry the lands of Richard the Good of Normandy because he received Danish ships in his ports. The English were driven away ignominiously, and Ethelred shortly afterwards made peace with Richard, and in 1002 married his sister Emma, called the Pearl of Normandy on account of her beauty.

In 1001 the Danes invaded Devonshire, but were driven off from Exeter, and defeated at Pinhoe; nevertheless, they gained much booty, and ravaged the southern coast until they were bought off once more with a large sum of money. Suddenly Ethelred bethought himself of a device by which he might, at one blow, rid himself of a great portion of his opponents. As might be expected of a weak prince, his project was a cruel one, being neither more nor less than the massacre of all the Danes who had remained behind in England. To carry out this barbarous as well as useless policy, a vast conspiracy was entered into; and on the 13th of November, St. Brice's day, 1002, all the invaders were put to death, with circumstances of the most shocking barbarity.

The sister of Sweyn was not spared. Her name was Gunilda, and she is said to have been married to a noble Dane settled in England, named Pallig. Being a Christian, she had exerted all her influence with her brother to bring about the peace. Her children were first murdered in her presence, and their unhappy mother was afterwards slain.

Sweyn received the news of this massacre from some Danes, who succeeded in getting on board a vessel ready to sail for Denmark. Their relation of the cruelties of the English to those of his nation would have been sufficient to arouse him; but when informed of his sister's barbarous murder, he was seized with all the rage that such a crime was likely to excite in a vindictive nature. He solemnly swore he would never rest till he had revenged the atrocious outrage. It was not, therefore, with intent to plunder that he made a second expedition into England, but to destroy the whole country with fire and sword. However, as he did not doubt that Ethelred would take precautions to oppose his entrance, he would not sail without securing a place where he might safely land his troops. Exeter was then governed by a Norman, Hugh, placed in that important trust by the influence of the queen, in full confidence that, as her countryman, her husband might rely on his devotion and fidelity.

To this man Sweyn secretly despatched an emissary, with the offer of a great reward, provided he would assist him in his enterprise. The traitor yielded to the temptation, and allowed not only the fleet of the invader to enter his ports, but the Danes to land without offering the least opposition.

After debarking his forces, Sweyn marched them to Exeter, and as the first-fruits of his vengeance not only massacred the inhabitants, but after plundering the city broke down its wall. Wherever the furious monarch led his army the same cruelties were repeated; submission was useless, for he knew not the meaning of the word "mercy."

He then appeared in Wiltshire, where the people were prepared to meet him. But they had a traitor in command, who pretended to be ill, and so the English levies dispersed. Sweyn, therefore, burnt some of the chief towns, and then sailed homewards for the winter.

Early the next year, however, he returned, landing, it is supposed, at Yarmouth, and took the city of Norwich, which he burned to the ground. Ulfcytel, the alderman of the East Angles, gave him an immense sum of money to induce him to spare that part of the country from any further ravages. Regardless of his promises, the invader had no sooner received the tribute than he attacked Thetford, and destroyed it; which breach of faith so incensed Ulfcytel, that he collected as many troops as possible, and posted himself between the invaders and the fleet, in the hope of cutting them off. The Danish king marched back to give him battle, and the English were beaten, after a severe contest. The Danes were afterwards driven from England by famine.

At the termination of the scarcity, another expedition of the enemy landed at Sandwich, in Kent, and Ethelred levied an army to oppose them; on hearing which, the Danes retreated to the Isle of Thanet, well knowing that the English, who served at their own expense, would soon disperse. The event proved that their calculation was a just one; tired of waiting for an enemy who refused to come from their stronghold, the soldiers of Ethelred quickly melted away, and the unlucky king procured a peace only upon the payment of £36,000.

Ethelred, on their departure, gave one of his daughters in marriage to Edric, surnamed Streona (the gainer), the instigator of the massacre of St. Brice's Day, whom he had lately created Alderman of Mercia; but his new son-in-law, instead of assisting him, as he had a right to expect, leagued with the Danes, and betrayed the kingdom on every occasion. The year after the treaty, the Danish king demanded a similar sum of £36,000, pretending that it was a yearly tribute which the English had agreed to pay. Ethelred, by the advice of his council, employed the money in fitting out a powerful fleet, the command of which was given to Brihric, the brother of the new Alderman of Mercia. This measure obliged the enemy to retire.

Brihric was no sooner in command than he used his authority to ruin Wulfnoth, a noble who was his enemy, and began to accuse him of crimes to the king, who lent but too willing an ear to his rival. Finding his ruin determined upon, Wulfnoth persuaded nine of the captains of the fleet to put to sea with him, which they did, plundering the English coasts and committing fearful ravages. The admiral, incensed at his escape, set out with eighty ships to give him chase; but a terrible storm arising, he lost a great part of them, and the rest fell into the hands of Wulfnoth. Thus was the fleet which should have been the safeguard of the kingdom lost and destroyed.

Taking advantage of this state of affairs, the Danes, who had their spies both in the court and country of England, prepared another expedition. Two fleets arrived in the kingdom—one in East Anglia, under Thurkill; and the second in the Isle of Thanet, commanded by two leaders, Heming and Eglaf. They attacked the city of Canterbury, and would, doubtless, have destroyed it, had not the inhabitants ransomed it at an enormous sum.

Whilst the Danes were pillaging Kent, Ethelred drew an army together to oppose their ravages; and as soon as he was ready, he posted himself between them and their ships to prevent them from embarking and carrying off their booty. Probably he might have executed his project, and gained much advantage, considering the superiority of his forces, if Edric had not found means to relieve the Danes. The traitor, perceiving their danger, represented to the king, his father-in-law, that it would be more prudent to let them retire, than hazard a battle, which might prove fatal to him; and this pernicious advice made such impression on the weak-minded monarch, that he suffered the Danes to depart with all their plunder, unmolested. But instead of sailing for Denmark, as it was expected, they threw themselves into the Isle of Thanet; from which, during the whole winter, they made incursions into the neighbouring counties, and even made several attempts upon London; in which, however, they were always repulsed. During this period, Ulfcytel of East Anglia, willing once more to try the fortune of a battle in the defence of his territory, had the misfortune to be overthrown.

Hitherto the Danes had wanted cavalry, on account of the difficulty of transporting horses from Denmark; but as soon as they were in possession of East Anglia, which abounded with horses, they mounted part of their troops, and by that means extended their conquests. Shortly after, they subdued Essex, Middlesex, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Northamptonshire, Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Hampshire, Wiltshire, and Devonshire, whilst Ethelred, who had scarce anything left, kept himself shut up in London, not daring to take the field and stop their progress. In all the above-named counties, London and Canterbury were the only places in the king's power. But at length the last was attacked so vigorously that it was captured, plundered, and reduced to ashes; and Alphege, the archbishop, being taken prisoner, was afterwards murdered by these barbarians at Greenwich, to which place, the station of their ships, they had brought him.

In the old church of Greenwich, on the top of the partition wall between the nave and the chancel, was formerly the following inscription: "This church was erected and dedicated to the glory of God, and the memory of St. Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury, here slain by the Danes, because he would not ransom his life by an unreasonable sum of money, An. 1012." He was first buried at St. Paul's in London, and afterwards removed to Canterbury. He was honoured as a martyr, and stands in the Roman Martyrology on the 19th of April. The money, £8,000, being paid, the greater part of the Danish fleet dispersed.

In 1013, however, Sweyn returned, and proceeded to conquer the whole of England. He began from the north-east, and soon the Danish settlements had submitted to him, and their example was followed by all the English to the north of Watling Street. Mercia was forced to yield after it had been cruelly ravaged, and then the Danish warrior took Oxford and Winchester, the chief towns of the old kingdom of Wessex. Leaving his son Canute with the fleet, he on a sudden laid siege to London, where Ethelred was shut up. Though he was but ill provided with necessaries to besiege in form a place of such importance, he imagined the citizens would be terrified at his menaces; but finding they were not moved by them he desisted from his enterprise, and passed on and ravaged the western parts of Wessex, where he found no opposition to his arms. However, as he could not be satisfied whilst London was out of his power, he resolved to besiege it once more; but whilst he was preparing for the siege with greater precaution than before, he had information of Ethelred's departure from thence. This worthless prince, ever dreading to fall into the hands of an enemy he had so cruelly injured, and perceiving himself unsafe in England, retired into Normandy with all his family, upon which the Londoners resolved to submit to the King of Denmark, to whom all the rest of the kingdom was now subject; and now Sweyn was looked upon as King of England without any opposition, no one in the kingdom daring to dispute his title.

It does not appear that Sweyn was ever crowned. His first act of sovereignty was to levy a heavy tax to pay his Danish troops, by whose assistance he had conquered England. But at any rate his reign was exceedingly brief, for he died in 1014. Some writers say that he was poisoned, others that he died of a cold, while a third set declare that he was killed by the apparition of St. Edmund, formerly King of East Anglia, armed with a lance, in order to save the town and monastery in which his canonised bones lay from being plundered by the invaders. This is only a legendary version of what was probably a fact, that shortly before his death Sweyn had contemplated an attack on the town of Bury St. Edmunds.

See p. 60


On the death of Sweyn, Canute, his son, was proclaimed king; but their common danger had given something like energy and combination to the councils of the English. They recalled Ethelred from his exile in Normandy, and pledged themselves to support him on the throne against the Danes, whose government was arbitrary, cruel, and oppressive.

Ethelred at first was unwilling to trust to their promises, being apprehensive of a design to deliver him into the hands of his enemies; but being encouraged by the reception met with by his son, whom he had sent before to sound the people's inclinations, he returned to England, and was welcomed with every demonstration of joy; and his subjects swore allegiance to him again, as if he had begun a new reign, his flight being considered as a sort of abdication of the crown. He, on his part, promised to reform whatever was amiss; and the eagerness of the English to throw off a foreign yoke, made them flock to the king with such zeal and haste that he soon found himself at the head of a powerful army. His first expedition plainly showed his misfortunes had made no alteration in him; for instead of marching against the Danes, he employed his forces to be revenged on the men of Lindsey—one of the three divisions of Lincolnshire; the other two being named Holland and Kesteven. The inhabitants of the first-named division, it appeared, had provided the Danes with horses, and had also offered to join them. After Ethelred had punished these traitors, he prepared to march and fight the enemy, who little expected so sudden a revolution. Although Canute was undoubtedly a great prince, and had the same forces his father Sweyn had conquered England with, he did not think fit to hazard a battle; but, on the contrary, before Ethelred was advanced near enough to oblige him to fight, he led his troops to the sea-side, and embarking them, set sail for Denmark. Before his departure, he ordered the hands, noses, and ears of the hostages he had in his power to be cut off, leaving them thus mangled on the shore.

As soon as Ethelred found himself freed from the Danes, he took no heed of his promise to his subjects, but on the contrary resumed his old maxims, and imposed, on various pretences, excessive taxes, which raised much murmuring among the nobles and people. To these causes for public discontent he added others of a more private nature, which destroyed all the hopes entertained of his amendment. Morkar and Sifforth, the chief men of the five Danish boroughs, were sacrificed to his avarice. To draw these two earls into his power, the king convened the Witena-gemot at Oxford, where he caused them to be murdered, and then seized their estates, as if they had been condemned by the common forms of justice. Algitha, widow of Sifforth, was shut up in a monastery, to which circumstance she was indebted for her later good fortune; for Edmund, the king's eldest son, passing that way some time after, was desirous to see one so renowned for her beauty, and fell so desperately in love with her, that he married her even against his father's consent.

The calm enjoyed by England lasted only a year, for in 1015 Canute came again. Edward being sick, his brave son Edmund, called Ironside for his deeds of valour, and Edric Streona were sent against the enemy with two armies gathered from the north and south of England. Edric, however, true to his previous villainies, first attempted to murder the gallant youth, and then went over to Canute with a considerable body of troops and forty ships of war. Edmund retired northward, leaving Canute in possession of Wessex.

The next year was the last of this disastrous reign. There was much resultless fighting in which Ethelred refused to support his son, because there were traitors in the English camp. Gradually the area of war moved northwards, and Canute entered York, placing his own earl, Eric the Dane, over the Northumbrians. (We find that the Danish title of earl now begins to supplant that of alderman, which had been used by the English for the military governor of a shire.) Edmund thereupon gave up the useless struggle, and joined his father in London. He had not long been there when the king died, in 1016, at the early age of forty-eight, having done all that a false and incapable man could, during the reign, to bring the nation to ruin.