Ethelred the Unready Biography

(King of England from 978 to 1013)

Born: 968

Born In: Wessex

Ethelred the Unready was the King of England from 978 to 1013 and again from 1014 until his death in 1016. His epithet derives from the Old English word “unræd” meaning "poorly advised", and is a pun on his name, which means "well advised". The youngest son of his father, King Edgar the Peaceful, he became the center of court intrigue after his father’s death and inherited the throne at the age of 12 following the assassination of his older half-brother, King Edward the Martyr. His reign was marked by constant conflict with the Danes, but England's population, trade and wealth witnessed expansion nevertheless. In contrast to his father’s extensive grants of land to monasteries, he launched policies involved in encroachment on church privileges which he later regretted.

Quick Facts

Died At Age: 48


Spouse/Ex-: Emma of Normandy (m. 1002)

father: Edgar, King of the English

mother: Ælfthryth, Edgar el Pacífic

children: Abbess of Wherwell Abbey, Ælfgifu, Æthelstan Ætheling, Alfred Aetheling, Eadgar Ætheling the Elder, Eadgyth, Eadred Ætheling, Eadwig Ætheling, Ecgberht Ætheling, Edgar, Edmund Ironside, Edward the Confessor, Godgifu, Wulfhild, Wulfhilda

Born Country: England

Emperors & Kings British Men

Died on: April 23, 1016

place of death: London, United Kingdom

Childhood & Early Life

Ethelred the Unready was born on 966 in England to King Edgar the Peaceful and Queen Ælfthryth, the daughter of Ordgar, ealdorman of Devon.

He was the youngest child of Edgar, who also had son Edward from his first consort Æthelflæd Eneda, daughter Edith from second consort Wulfthryth of Wilton, and another son, Edmund Atheling, from Ælfthryth.

When Edgar suddenly died on July 8, 975, he was survived by Edward, who was not yet an adult, and Ethelred, who was no more than ten, as Edmund had already died as a child. While Edward was natural heir to the throne, many in the court was dissatisfied with his frequent violent outbursts and due to rumors of illegitimacy as Edgar may not have ever married his first consort.

English nobles were split into two groups depending on which of King Edgar’s two sons they supported as the next king. While Ethelred’s claim was supported by his mother, Ælfhere, Ealdorman of Mercia and Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester, Edward was eventually crowned with support from Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Oswald, the Archbishop of York.

Edward’s reign, which was marked by political turmoil, famine and an ominous comet sighting, ended with his murder by members of his brother's household at Corfe Castle in Dorset in March 978. Next month, Ethelred was crowned King of England at Kingston upon Thames but began his “reign in an atmosphere of suspicion which destroyed the prestige of the crown”, according to monastic writers sympathetic to Edward.

Continue Reading Below

Ethelred the Unready was only 12 at the time of his ascension, because of which his state affairs were managed by councilors such as Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, Queen Ælfthryth and Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury. After the death of his most influential councilor Æthelwold in 984, the young king abandoned his early councilors, following which his mother Ælfthryth and her brother Ordulf became his leading advisors.

He was just 14 when small Danish companies began to launch raids on the English coastline, attacking Hampshire, Thanet and Cheshire in 980, Devon and Cornwall in 981, and Dorset in 982.

Another coastal attack in 988 brought England into diplomatic contact with Normandy, and later into conflict after the Normans offered shelter to Danes returning from raids on England.

As hostilities between the countries increased, Pope John XV intervened to broker peace between England and Normandy by sending a letter to Ethelred. The Treaty of Rouen, which was ratified in Rouen in March 991, was one of the earliest arbitration treaties in European history.

In August 991, a larger Danish fleet arrived off Folkestone, in Kent, and began a sustained campaign in the south-east of England by occupying Northey Island. Byrhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex, who was stationed with a company of thegns in nearby Maldon, made a heroic but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to defend the coast.

Ethelred was advised by Archbishop Sigeric and other council members to pay a tribute of £10,000, but the Danish fleet continued to ravage the English coast in the next couple years and grew in ranks. A fleet led by Olaf Tryggvason of Norway and Sweyn of Denmark reached London in 994 and the ensuing battle was inconclusive, prompting Ethelred to pay the raiders £22,000 for peace.

New Danish raids occurred in Cornwall, Devon, western Somerset and south Wales in 997, even though it is not clear if it was a new army or the remaining mercenary forces of the previous fleet. It raided Dorset, Hampshire and Sussex in 998, Kent in 999, and left England for Normandy in 1000, presumably because the English had refused to pay the tribute, known as “Danegeld” or “Dane-payment”.

A Danish fleet, possibly the same as the previous one, returned in 1001 and ravaged west Sussex before settling its base in the Isle of Wight. While the English were able to successfully defend an attack in the south of Devon, Ethelred still felt the need for buying a truce for £24,000.

On November 13, 1002, St. Brice's Day, Ethelred ordered the massacre of all Danish men in England after hearing about a possible plan by them to overthrow him. While the Danes were too strong in more than one third of England, the massacre still claimed numerous victims, including Gunhilda, the sister of the Viking leader Sweyn Forkbeard.

Avenging his sister is believed to be a primary motivation for Sweyn’s invasion of western England the following year, before reaching East Anglia in 1004 and sacking Norwich. However, the invading army sustained serious losses in the hands of Ulfcytel Snillingr, a nobleman of East Anglia, who was ultimately defeated, but the Danes also decided to return in 1005.

While the English bought off an expedition in 1007 for £36,000, Ethelred faced the most formidable opponent during his reign when a Danish army led by Thorkell the Tall invaded England in 2009. The English bought peace for £48,000 in April 1012, only to face a greater invasion in 1013, led by Sweyn, who wanted the English crown and successfully conquered England by end of the year.

Ethelred was forced to go into exile in Normandy, but Sweyn suddenly died in February 1014, following which his army swore allegiance to his son Cnut the Great. Prominent English noblemen sent a deputation to Ethelred to restore him to the throne on condition that he agreed to satisfy their grievances, following which he recaptured London with the help of Norwegian Olaf Haraldsson.

As Ethelred started punishing people who sided with the Danes, his son Edmund Ironside revolted against him and declared himself Earl of the East Midlands, but later rejoined his father after Cnut returned in 1015. When Ethelred died on 23 April 1016, Edmund fought Cnut but agreed to divide England after losing to him at the Battle of Assandun, although Cnut became the sole ruler after Edmund’s death in 1016.

Personal Life & Legacy

In about 985, Ethelred the Unready married Ælfgifu, daughter of Thored, earl of Northumbria, who gave him six sons – Æthelstan, Egbert, Edmund, Eadred, Eadwig and Edgar – and four daughters: Eadgyth, Ælfgifu, Wulfhilda, and Abbess. After her death in around 1000, he married Emma of Normandy, who gave him two sons, Edward the Confessor and Alfred, and a daughter Goda.


Ethelred the Unready is a recurring character in the 2022 Netflix docufiction series Vikings: Valhalla, played by Irish actor Bosco Hogan.

See the events in life of Ethelred The Unready in Chronological Order

How To Cite

Article Title
- Ethelred the Unready Biography
- Editors,

People Also Viewed

Edmund Ironside Biography
Edmund Ironside
King Charles III Biography
King Charles III
Harold Godwinson Biography
Harold Godwinson
Olav V of Norway Biography
Olav V of Norway
(British, Norwegian)