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Æthelred II

Æthelred II (d. 1016), king of England (978–1016). Æthelred Unræd, the ‘Unready’, or more accurately the ‘ill-advised’, lost his kingship 1013–14, when the Danish king, Sweyn Forkbeard, forced him into exile in Normandy, the home of his second wife Emma, whom Æthelred had married in 1002. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicler who composed a full account late in Æthelred's reign was heavily biased against the king, painting a grim picture of impotence, vacillation, and treachery. Modern approaches have been kinder, noting solid evidence for effective government in the legal and financial spheres and pointing to the cultural and religious elements of strength in a period which produced in Ælfric the most polished master of Old English prose and in Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, one of the most competent statesmen and framers of secular and ecclesiastical law. No one denies the periods of political incompetence notably later in the reign, after 1006, when Æthelred relied too much on the advice of the treacherous ealdorman Eadric Streona. It was indeed the king's deep misfortune that, no military leader himself, he had to face renewed Viking onslaught which reached a peak after the defeat and death of the ealdorman Byrhtnoth at the battle of Maldon in 991. This was followed by attempts to buy off the Danes by the payment of immense sums as Danegeld, a course of action suggested by Archbishop Sigeric. £10,000 was paid to them in 993, and further immense sums were levied sporadically throughout the reign, a wry tribute to the efficiency of Æthelred's tax collectors. Sporadic violent reaction also occurred as when on the morrow of St Brice's day, 13 November 1002, Æthelred ordered ‘all the Danish men in England’ to be slain. In the later stages of the reign things got completely out of hand, in spite of the bravery of individual leaders such as Ulfketel, ealdorman of East Anglia, and Edmund Ironside, Æthelred's son and successor. Ælfheah, archbishop of Canterbury, was martyred by the Danes in 1012, and Sweyn's success the following year may be attributed in part to English war-weariness and disenchantment with their natural leaders. After Sweyn's death, Æthelred was recalled on promise to rule justly and institute reforms but died on 23 April 1016 in London which was itself under immediate threat from Cnut's invading and ultimately victorious army.

Henry Loyn

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