Who was Aethelred the Unready?

Overwhelmed by Viking invaders, Aethelred (979-1016) was named 'the Unready' because of his failure to defend England. Find out more about the much maligned king.



The title 'the Unready' was given to Aethelred by later chroniclers. 'Unready' is a corrupted version of the Old English word 'unraed' meaning 'no counsel'. It probably means that the king was renowned for taking bad advice.


Aethelred's reign began in suspicious circumstances. After his father, King Edgar, died in 975, his elder half brother Edward became king. Edward was murdered in 978, probably by supporters of Aethelred. At the age of 12, Aethelred became king.

Fatal attraction

At the beginning of Aethelred's reign, England was prosperous and this wealth attracted Danish Vikings who invaded the kingdom. Led by men such as Svein Forkbeard, they won many victories over the English.


Aethelred lost hope of defeating the Vikings in battle and instead paid them not to attack. He raised the money by imposing an unpopular tax known as 'danegeld' on his subjects. Aethelred's greatest achievement was his efficient system for collecting danegeld.


Although he had children from his first marriage, Aethelred married Emma, sister of the duke of Normandy, in 1002, to make an alliance to stem the Viking threat. Their son would become the future Edward the Confessor.

St Brice's Day

According to the chronicles, on 13 November 1002, the feast day of St Brice, Aethelred ordered the killing of all Danish settlers in England. Research suggests that the massacre was probably limited to Danish merchants in Oxford and later exaggerated to blacken Aethelred's name.

Svein Forkbeard

King of Denmark, Svein was keen to add England to his empire and invaded in 1013. Aethelred fled to Normandy and Svein was proclaimed king. However, Svein's death in 1014 enabled Aethelred to drive out Svein's son Cnut and rule until his own death in 1016.

Tangled succession

Aethelred was succeeded in 1016 by his son from his first marriage, Edmund Ironside. But Edmund died the same year and so Cnut, son of Svein, seized the crown and married Aethelred's widow Emma. Cnut died in 1035 and was succeeded by his sons Harold Harfoot (1035-40) and Harthacnut (1040-42). Cnut's sons left no heirs, however, and so another of Aethelred's sons, Edward, became king.