King Aethelred II of England

Aethelred II, to put it mildly, gets a bad press, the writer’s of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle have nothing good to say about him, blaming him for the ills that befall the country at the hands of the Scandinavian raiders, and there is an inevitability about the events that unfold from 1009 onwards that culminate in Swein of Denmark claiming the English throne, and following his untimely death, the actions of his younger son, Cnut, to achieve the same honour a few years later.
And, don’t get me wrong, the list of places attacked by the Vikings is long, their demands for payment appear huge and their willingness to kill even those who should have been protected, for instance the Archbishop of Canterbury, callously presented.
Yet, his by-name, Unready is a misinterpretation and also a play on words, his name meaning wise-counsel, and Unraed meaning no-counsel and being changed to ‘the Unready’ a word nothing like no-counsel.
So if we accept that his by-name should be no-counsel and not ‘the unready’ does that make it any more appropriate?
Most assuredly not. Aethelred had his fair share of ealdormen (later the title was changed to earls from jarls under the Scandinavian kings) and the detailed work done by historians has attempted to uncover who they were and what they did. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle appears to have hidden much from today’s reader, so intent in its desire to paint Aethelred in as unflattering colours as possible, and mentions only some of the Ealdormen. My particular favourite, Ealdorman Leofwine of the Hwicce is not mentioned once and yet charter evidence shows that he held his post for many years from 994-c1023, quite a long time to be ignored by the main source for the period.
Other details show just how powerful the King was; he recalled his coinage about every seven years and reissued it with new images, he collected the gelds used to pay the raiders, he built and provisioned a vast ship army and he had laws proclaimed in his name. And all of this he must have done with the consent of the Witan, for England although ruled by a King was also ruled through the consensus of the greatest men in the land. England, not long united, was just too big for one man to rule alone, and it was broken down almost into its constituent pre-united kingdoms, Mercia, Northumbria, the East Angles, Kent, Wessex and the Western provinces, sometimes each area having an ealdorman and at other times, ruled by the King’s High Reeve. He was surely King over a well organised and rich country, and no matter what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle implies, the men of the land were prepared to fight for their King, and they didn’t attempt to dislodge him from his kingship although by about 1000 onwards he had a host of sons old enough and probably strong enough, to govern in his stead.
I think even his usual by-name of Unraed is unwarranted, and certainly his unreadiness is unwarranted. History plays tricks on how our past King’s are viewed, and more often than not, they’re too harsh, too conciliatory, or in the case of many, they’re totally forgotten about. Perhaps being a King was not all it was cracked up to be!

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