'Æthelred II had one of the longest reigns in English history, 37 years (979-1016), a reign of almost unremitting disaster that has impressed itself on the folk-memory of the English.'Click for footnote

He is known until today as Æthelred the Unred, which does not mean 'the Unready', but rather is a pun on his own name: Good advice the ill-advised.
But he did not always have such a bad reputation. In fact he started off quite well, even though the crises
began almost right after his ascension to the throne. First of all one should take a closer look at the Vikings. Their losses in the course of this century had made them think. They realised that times had changed, and their earlier 'spontaneous' tactics

were no longer efficient. The Vikings that came back to England in Æthelred's time were of a different kind. These armies, which were usually led by the Danish king, were well trained and disciplined. They were supported by equally well trained raiding bands under independent warlords. 'The power of kings and warlords was such as to ensure that the new Viking invasions confronted the English under Æthelred with the most formidable enemy they had yet encountered.'Click for footnotes Still, it took some time before they were really successful.

The first inroads of this new period began around 980-2Click for footnote - and found an English king well prepared. 'Æthelred seems to have shown both energy and ability.'Click for footnote The 988 Viking campaign also ended with defeat. The final victory of this campaign belonged to Ealdorman Byrthnoth and was decided at Maldon, on the Blackwater, in Essex. Another of Æthelred's successes was a treaty with the Duke of Normandy in March 991. The land of the Normans, who also were originally Vikings, had been a place of shelter for the invading Vikings. In this treaty, the Duke of Normandy assured that there would be no further support for the roaming Viking armies from his side.

But the same year also brought a major defeat for the English, and through this the wheel of fortune turned once more. It was the year of the Battle of Maldon, which shortly thereafter became the subject of a poem with the same name. Byrthnoth, once more leader of the English, surprised the Vikings under Olaf Tryggvason, 'before they had the chance to come off the tidal island on which they were encamped. Byrthnoth agreed to let them do so, so that they could fight a pitched battle, and this cost him his life and the English a major defeat.'Click for footnote A question often asked is why he did let them out of this trap. The answer is that he did not have much of a choice. Of course, the Vikings had come with ships, and Byrthnoth was in no position to cut them off from an easy retreat. His only decision was whether he would fight them on equal grounds or let them sail away and go on raiding for some time before he would be able to catch up with them again.

Æthelred paid a tribute of 10,000 pounds of silverClick for footnote to the Vikings, following the advice of Sigeric, the archbishop of Canterbury and the ealdorman of the south-western provinces.Click for footnote The money for this and further tributes was raised as wergeld from the English people and it became known as Danegeld.

Once again, sides were not so clear in this conflict as they are described here. More or less direct indications of treachery can be found on both sides. The Mercians, for example, were largely spared by the Vikings until the return of Cnut. But there are also clearer incidents:'The Ealdorman of Hampshire',for example,' betrayed English plans to the Vikings in 992, and in revenge Æthelred had his son blinded the next year.'Click for footnote But the Vikings had similar problems. A famous example would be Olaf Tryggvason, who had accompanied King Sweyn of Denmark on his first campaign in England in 994. Olaf 'made a treaty with Æthelred by which he accepted Christianity and never fought for the Danes again, though he fought against them.'Click for footnote During the inroad of 994, Sweyn and Olaf sailed up the Thames and besieged London. Tribute was paid once more. 'It also seems that the amount of tribute they could extract impressed the Danes with the advantages of taking over rather than simply plundering England. ...[On this occasion, Sweyn]... was to conceive the ambition of making himself King of England.'Click for footnote Further payments to the Vikings occurred in 1002, 1007 and 1012.

In 1011, 'some Vikings seized the archbishop of Canterbury and held him to ransom. The archbishop, St. Alphege, refused to allow the men of Kent to ransom him because they had been soaked enough to pay the tribute. He was foully murdered (April 1012). The Vikings were Christian by this time; Sweyn had been brought up a Christian since his birth and was even pious in his own way. Allegedly disgusted by this murder, Thorkell [the Tall, who had been the principal Viking leader after Sweyn since about 1010] and some 40 shipfuls of warriors changed sides and took service, very well-paid service, under Æthelred.'Click for footnote

English Re-Conquest
Viking Tour
A Danish king on the throne of England
The Early Raids Danish Armies King Alfred and the Vikings I
King Alfred and the Vikings II English Re-Conquest King Æthelred
  A Danish king on the
throne of England