Aethelred II, King of England

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Reigned from March 978 to December 1013 and March/April 1014 to April 23, 1016. Born to Edgar the Peaceable and to Edgar's second wife, Aelfthryth, in or near 968, Aethelred became the center of factional strife along with his older half brother, Edward, when their father died in 975. Edward and his supporters were successful in securing the crown, but his reign was brief, less than three years. At Corfe Passage in March of 1078, Edward was murdered. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles do not identify his murderers, but instead state that Aethelred came to the throne very soon thereafter and was consecrated king. Although the chroniclers condemned the murder of Edward and reported disapprovingly that it was not avenged, they attached no blame to the young Aethelred.

The monastic reform, begun in earnest under his father, Edgar, continued under Aethelred. The idea that the disputed succession between Edward and Aethelred grew out of a party that opposed reform seems unlikely since the movement went forward under both men with the exception of some disputed lands that specific magnates attempted to recover during the confusion following Edward's murder. Aelfthryth had supported the reform under Edgar, and she founded two nunneries, Amesbury in Wilshire and Wherwell in Hampshire, during Aethelred's reign. Aelfhere, a magnate often suspected of complicity in the murder, was a notable benefactor of Glastonbury. There was a brief period that Aethelred was visibly at odds with particular members of the clergy, demonstrated particularly in his abuse of the diocese of Rochester in 986, which was ostensibly caused by a dispute with the bishop. However, he attempted to correct any indiscretions or illegal appropriations of church lands as he reached maturity and recognized that some of the lay leaders at court had misled him. By 995 Aethelred was supporting the replacement of all secular clergy with regular clergy. The church leaders, though critical of Aethelred's ineptness at prosecuting the war against the Danes, supported him tirelessly as their true Christian king, since his defeat spelled an unknown but dreaded fate at the hands of a heathen Viking king.

Had the pacific times of his father, Edgar, continued, Aethelred may have had a very unremarkable career. However, the opportunistic Vikings, recognizing the potential for weakness in a young king, returned to England within two years of Aethelred's coronation after a hiatus of nearly 50 years. The renewed attacks, which developed into a serious design to conquer the whole island under the leadership of the Danish king, Swegn Fork-beard, eventually brought an element of treachery to Athelred's court that went beyond the normal intriguing for power and place. Many at court died of natural causes throughout the long and conflicted reign, but others fell violently if not in the many battles that decimated the nobles regularly, then in political murders that were often sanctioned by the king. These murders occurred within the context of relationships between the south of England and the House of Wessex, out of which Aethelred came, and the north of England, which was still a very recent and vulnerable part of the realm. Not only was Aethelred's father the first to establish a peaceful hegemony over the north, the north had a very large population of Norwegian and Danish descent. He and Aethelred both promoted accord among the disparate parts of the realm by integrating northern leadership into the king's court.

The harmony between north and south was often accomplished through marriage, a practice Aethelred was following when he married Aelfgifu, traditionally identified as the daughter of Thored, earl of Northumbria, whom Aethelred then made an important member of the court. The date of this marriage is not recorded, but it occurred early in the reign since Aethelred had sons and daughters approaching marriageable ages by the time he made a second political marriage in 1002 to Emma, sister of the Duke of Normandy. Three of the daughters married earls appointed to northern areas, and a fourth married a nobleman presumably of the north, since he died at the Battle of Ringmere in 1010. Such marriages were intended to signal a sharing of power between the king from the south and his northern magnates. However, the Vikings easily exploited any weaknesses that appeared between the king and local leaders; local leaders, on the other hand, had difficulty putting their resources together in the interests of a realm that still consisted of diverse and differing parts.

Aethelred departed England after Christmas in 1013, following his wife, Emma, and their two sons into exile at the Norman court of her brother. Defections to Swegn had begun in the north in 1012 and by December 1013, even Wessex and finally London had submitted to him. Aethelred returned to England after Swegn died in February 1014, at the behest of the English magnates. The struggle for the crown continued when Swegn's son, Cnut, chose to press his own claim as Swegn's heir. The realm suffered as previously from the same lack of cohesive determination to fight the Danes and ineffective leadership from the king. Aethelred died at Cosham April 23, 1016, leaving an unresolved conflict and a kingdom divided in its loyalty between his son by Aelfgifu, Edmund Ironside, and Swegn's son, Cnut.

Bibliography: g. n. garmonsway, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Rutland, Vermont 1992) 118149. e. john, Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England (Manchester 1996) 139150. s. keynes, The Diplomas of King Aethelred 'the Unready' 9781016 (Cambridge 1980) 176186. p. stafford, Unification and Conquest: A Political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh centuries (London 1989) 4568.

[p. torpis]