In 978, ten-year-old Æthelred acceded to the English throne, following the murder (by Æthelred’s supporters) of his half-brother, Edward (Edward the Martyr). He ruled for the best part of four, tumultuous, decades, and is remembered, disparagingly, as Æthelred the Unready. The word ‘unready’, however, does not convey the original meaning of his epithet. The name Æthelred is a compound of æthel and ræd, meaning ‘noble counsel’. ‘Unready’ is actually a corruption of unræd, meaning, literally, ‘no counsel’. This pun on his name evidently mocks Æthelred, and, indeed, his witan (councillors), for pursuing, what, in retrospect, were seen to have been ill-conceived courses of action.[*]
… was seen oftentimes a bloody cloud, in likeness of fire; and that was most apparent at midnight; and was coloured in various rays. Then when it was about to dawn, it glided away.
This was clearly a bad omen. The early 980s saw a spate of Viking attacks. Manuscript C:
… Southampton was ravaged by a ship-army, and most of the townspeople slain or captured. —
— And in the same year Thanet-land was ravaged. And in the same year Cheshire was ravaged by a northern ship-army.
In this year was St Petroc’s-stow [Padstow] ravaged; and in the same year great harm was done everywhere by the sea-coast, both in Devonshire and in Wales [i.e. in Devonshire and in Cornwall].
In this year arrived in Dorsetshire 3 ships of Vikings, and ravaged in Portland.
In 983, Ælfhere, ealdorman of Mercia, died.[*] His successor, Ælfric, was, for an unspecified treason, sent into exile in 985.
Ælfric was a very common name. This one was evidently distinguished by the epithet Cild, i.e. ‘Child’.[*]Florence of Worcester (s.a. 983 and 986) identifies Ælfric as Ælfhere’s son, but this may be just an assumption on Florence’s part. It seems more likely that Ælfric was Ælfhere’s brother-in-law.[*]
In an undated charter (S937), perhaps of 999, Æthelred makes a grant of land to the monastery at Abingdon:
These portions of land Ælfric, surnamed ‘Child’ [Puer], forcibly withdrew from a certain widow called Eadflæd, but later, when in his office of ealdorman he was convicted of crime against me and against all my people, these portions which I have mentioned and also all the landed possessions which he owned, were assigned to my control, when all my leading men assembled together to a synodal council at Cirencester, and expelled the same Ælfric, guilty of high treason, as a fugitive from this country; and all with unanimous consent decreed that I ought by right to possess all things possessed by him. Then with merciful kindness I allowed the aforesaid widow to possess her inheritance, for the love of my leading men who were her advocates to me, and she finally in her last words when dying left back to me the possession of the same lands, with kind and willing heart, as a perpetual inheritance.
Translation: Dorothy Whitelock English Historical Documents
An Abingdon chronicle of the later-12th century (Historia Ecclesie Abbendonensis) has it that the son of Ealdorman Ælfhere, whom it calls Eadric, not Ælfric, returned from exile in Denmark, with a Viking band, and proceeded to “ravage his homeland for a long time”.
Manuscripts C, D and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 986, state:
In this year the king laid waste the bishopric of Rochester. In this year[*] first came the great murrain among the cattle into England.[*]
In 988, reported by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
In this year Watchet was ravaged [by Vikings], and Goda, the Devonshire thegn, slain, and a great slaughter with him.[*]
It seems possible that the Vikings were being allowed to use Norman harbours as bases from which to launch raids on England.[*] Certainly, relations between England and Normandy had become sufficiently hostile in 990 to prompt an intervention by Pope (985–996) John XV. As a result of the pope’s mediation, Æthelred and Richard the Fearless, duke of Normandy, agreed terms, and oaths were sworn by their representatives, in Rouen, on 1st March 991.[*] In the same year, however, Viking activity stepped up a gear. Manuscripts C, D and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.a. 991:
In this year Ipswich was sacked; and very speedily after that Ealdorman Byrhtnoth was slain at Maldon. —
— And in that same year it was first decreed that tribute [gafol] should be paid to the Danish men, on account of the great terror which they caused by the sea-coast. That was at first 10 thousand pounds. That counsel [ræd] was first advised by Archbishop Sigeric.
Paying this large tribute set a precedent, but evidently failed to provide much of a respite. The next year, i.e. 992:
… the king and all his councillors [witan] decreed that all the ships that were of any worth should be gathered at London-town [Lundenbyrig]. And the king then committed the leading of the force to Ealdorman Ælfric and to Earl Thored, to Bishop Ælfstan, and to Bishop Æscwig;[*] and they were to try whether they might anywhere abroad [i.e. away from land] entrap the army. —
— Then sent Ealdorman Ælfric, and directed the army be warned; and then in the night when they should have joined battle in the day, he departed by night from the force, to his great disgrace; and the army then escaped, except one ship, the crew of which was there slain. And then the army met the ships from East Anglia and from London, and they [the Vikings, surely?] there made a great slaughter, and took the ship, all armed and equipped, in which the ealdorman was [i.e. had been].
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscripts C, D and E
In 993, “the army” sacked Bamburgh and then, entering the Humber, raided Lindsey, to the south, and Northumbria, to the north. A large English force was gathered, but:
… when they should have engaged [in battle], then the leaders first took to flight: they were Fræna, and Godwine, and Frythegyst.[*]
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscripts C, D and E
The entry s.a. 994 in Manuscripts C, D and E begins:
In this year came Olaf [Anlaf ] and Swein [Swegen] to London-town, on the Nativity of St Mary [i.e. 8th September], with 4-and-ninety ships …
Olaf is Olaf Tryggvason – purportedly great-grandson of Harald Fairhair, whom saga tradition credits with becoming, round-about 890, the first king of Norway. Swein is Swein Forkbeard, king of Denmark. Swein’s father, Harald Bluetooth, in a runic inscription on a monument to his parents (at Jelling, on the Jutland peninsula), declares that he, Harald: “won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.” Swein overthrew his father in about 987.[*] Returning to the events of 994; in early September Olaf and Swein showed-up at London:
… and then they were obstinately fighting against the town [burh], and would also have set it on fire. But they sustained more harm and evil than they ever supposed that any townspeople could do to them. For the holy Mother of God, on that day, manifested her mercy to the townspeople, and delivered them from their foes. And they then went thence, and wrought the greatest evil that ever any army could do, in burning, and harrying, and in man-slayings, as well by the sea-coast, as in Essex, and in Kent, and in Sussex, and in Hampshire. And at last they took them horses, and rode as far as they would, and were doing unspeakable evil. Then the king and his councillors resolved that they should be sent to, and promised tribute and food, provided that they would cease from ravaging; and they then accepted that. And all the army then came to Southampton, and there took winter-quarters; and there they were fed from all the realm of the West Saxons, and they were paid 16 thousand pounds of money.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscripts C, D and E
At this point, Swein (for the time being) disappears from the scene – perhaps he is the Swein son of Harald recorded by Welsh annals, who ravaged the Isle of Man in 995 – but Æthelred’s dealings with Olaf were not yet complete. He despatched Ælfheah, bishop of Winchester, and Æthelweard, ealdorman of the Western Shires (and chronicler), to Olaf’s ships. They left hostages to guarantee Olaf’s safety:
… and they then led Olaf with great ceremony to the king at Andover. And King Æthelred received him at the bishop’s hand [i.e. as his godfather], and royally gifted him. And Olaf then promised him, as he also fulfilled, that he would never again come with hostility to England.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscripts C, D and E
Olaf headed for Norway and established himself as king.[*] No doubt he had been encouraged by Æthelred – the venture neatly pitted Olaf against Swein Forkbeard. Swein and his allies defeated Olaf at the naval battle of Svolder in 999 or 1000. Olaf died in the battle, and Swein recovered the overlordship of Norway.
Meanwhile, England evidently enjoyed a peaceful couple of years. In 997, however, ‘the army’ resumed its work.[*] Manuscripts C, D and E:
In this year the army went about Devonshire into the mouth of the Severn, and there harried, as well in Cornwall as in North-Wales and in Devon; and then landed at Watchet, and there wrought great evil in burning and in man-slayings; and after that returned round Land’s End, to the south side, and wended into the mouth of the Tamar, and then went up until they came to Lydford, and burnt and slew everything they found; and burned Ordwulf’s monastery at Tavistock, and brought indescribable booty with them to their ships.
In this year the army again wended eastward, into the mouth of the Frome, and everywhere there went up as far as they would into Dorset. And a great force was often gathered against them; but as soon as they should come together [in battle], then was there ever, through something, flight determined on; and in the end they [the Vikings] ever had the victory. And then another time they quartered themselves in the Isle of Wight, and provisioned themselves the while from Hampshire and from Sussex.
In this year the army again came about into the Thames, and then went up along the Medway, and to Rochester. And then the Kentish force came against them, and they stoutly engaged together, but alas! that they too quickly gave way and fled[^]. And the Danish had possession of the place of carnage; and then took horses and rode whithersoever they themselves would, and ruined and plundered almost all the West Kentish. Then the king with his councillors resolved that they should be opposed with a ship-force and also with a land-force. But when the ships were ready, then they delayed from day to day, and harassed the wretched people who lay in the ships; and ever as it should be forwarder, so was it later from one time to another; and ever they let their foes' army increase, and ever they [the English] retreated from the sea, and ever they [the Vikings] went forth after. And then in the end it effected nothing – the ship-force nor the land-force – except the people’s distress, and a waste of money, and the emboldening of their foes.[*]
Perhaps English resistance was not quite as inept as the jaundiced reporting of the Chronicler suggests – no large payments of tribute seem to have been made, and in the entry s.a. 1000 is the simple statement:
… the hostile fleet was this summer gone to Richard’s dominions.
“Richard’s dominions” means Normandy, now ruled by Richard the Good, son of Richard the Fearless. It seems reasonable to suppose that – in breach of the terms agreed by Æthelred and Richard the Fearless in 991 – the “hostile fleet” had retired to friendly harbours in Normandy, where the Vikings could safely prepare for a fresh assault, because, the next year, 1001, a Viking “ship-army” arrived in southern England.[*] Its progress is documented by Manuscript A of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (providing more information and less spin than Manuscripts C, D and E):
… everywhere they harried and burned, so that in one journey they went forward until they came to Æthelinga dene; and then came there against them the men of Hampshire, and fought against them. And there was Æthelweard the king’s high-reeve slain, and Leofric of Whitchurch, and Leofwine the king’s high-reeve, and Wulfhere the bishop’s thegn, and Godwine of Worthy, Bishop Ælfsige’s son,[*] and of all the men one-and-eighty; and of the Danish many more were slain, though they had possession of the place of carnage. And then they went thence west until they came to Devon, and there came Pallig to meet them with the ships that he could gather, because he had deserted King Æthelred, against all the assurances which he had given him; and the king had also well gifted him with manors, and with gold and silver. —
— And they burned Teignton, and also many other manors which we cannot name; and peace was afterwards there made with them. And then they went thence to the mouth of the Exe, so that they went up, in one journey, until they came to Pinhoe; and there were Kola the king’s high-reeve and Eadsige the king’s reeve opposed to them with the force which they could gather; and they [the English] were there put to flight, and many were there slain, and the Danish had possession of the place of carnage. And in the morning they burned the manor at Pinhoe and at Clyst, and also many good manors which we cannot name; and then went again eastward, until they came to the Isle of Wight; and the morning after, they burned the manor at Waltham, and many other villages.[*]
Manuscripts C, D and E s.a. 1002:
In this year the king and his councillors resolved that tribute should be paid to the fleet, and peace made with them, on condition that they should cease from their evil. Then the king sent Ealdorman Leofsige [of Essex] to the fleet, and he, according to the word of the king and his councillors, settled a peace with them, and that they should receive food and tribute. And that they then accepted, and were paid 24 thousand pounds. Then in the meanwhile Ealdorman Leofsige slew Æfic the king’s high-reeve, and the king banished him from the country. —
— And then in the same spring came the lady, Richard’s daughter, hither to land.
Presumably to cement a new Anglo-Norman accord, Æthelred married Emma, sister of Richard the Good, duke of Normandy – a union that would prove to have far reaching consequences for England.
Still s.a. 1002, Manuscripts C, D and E:
And in that year the king commanded all the Danish men who were in England to be slain – this was done on St Brice’s mass-day [13th November] – because it had been made known to the king that they would plot against his life, and afterwards all his councillors; and have his kingdom afterwards.[*]
Concerning this crime, in my childhood I heard very old men say that the king had sent secret letters to every city, according to which the English either maimed all the unsuspecting Danes on the same day and hour with their swords, or, suddenly, at the same moment, captured them and destroyed them by fire.
William of Jumièges (V, 6) describes terrible atrocities (women buried up to their waist so that their breasts could be savaged by dogs; young children brained against door-posts), and says that some youths escaped down the Thames and journeyed to Denmark, informing Swein Forkbeard of what had occurred. Though William is clearly referring to the St Brice’s Day Massacre, as it has come to be known, he telescopes a whole decade and makes it the prelude to Swein Forkbeard’s decisive invasion of England in 1013.
William of Malmesbury (GR II §177) says that Swein Forkbeard had a sister called Gunnhild: “This woman, who possessed considerable beauty, had come over to England with her husband Palling, a powerful earl [comes], and embracing Christianity had made herself a pledge of the Danish peace. In his ill-fated fury, Eadric had commanded her to be beheaded with the other Danes, though she declared that the shedding of her blood would bring great evils on the whole kingdom. She bore her death with fortitude, neither turning pale at the time of execution, nor, when dead and her blood exhausted, did she lose her beauty; her husband was murdered before her face, and her son, a youth of amiable disposition, was transfixed with four spears.” William, like his namesake from Jumièges, links this story (presumably it refers to the St Brice’s Day Massacre) with the invasion of 1013. William of Malmesbury is the sole authority for Gunnhild’s existence. Presumably, the name of her purported husband, Palling, equates to Pallig, the name given by Manuscript A of the Chronicle to the Viking mercenary who betrayed Æthelred in 1001, which seems rather convenient. Eadric, the supposed agent of Gunnhild’s death, is, the infamous, Eadric Streona, who, in 1002, the actual date of the Massacre, was not a significant figure. In short, William’s story, apparently relocated chronologically for the sake of dramatic effect (crime and punishment), is somewhat suspect.
Roger of Wendover incorporates elements from the stories of both Williams in his account of the St Brice’s Day Massacre – indeed, he takes on-board their implied dating and places it s.a. 1012 instead of 1002. Roger also introduces a new character to the story – one Huna, Æthelred’s “chief military commander, an undaunted and warlike man”. This Huna: “beholding the insolence of the Danes, who after the establishment of peace had grown strong throughout the whole of England, presuming to violate and insult the wives and daughters of the nobles of the kingdom, came in much distress to the king and made his doleful complaint before him. Greatly moved thereat, the king, by the advice of the same Huna, sent letters into all parts of the kingdom, commanding all the people, that on the day of the feast of St Brice the bishop [of Tours, d.444], they should rise and put to death all the Danes settled in England, leaving none surviving, so that the whole English nation might once and for ever be freed from Danish oppression.”
St Brice’s Day, 13th November, would have been a Friday in 1002. In an anonymous St Albans chronicle (erroneously attributed to John of Wallingford), compiled in the second quarter of the 13th century, the killing is said to have taken place on a Saturday – a day when it was known the Danes would be otherwise occupied: “they were wont, after the fashion of their country, to comb their hair every day, to bathe every Saturday, to change their garments often, and set off their persons by many such frivolous devices. In this manner they laid siege to the virtue of the married women, and persuaded the daughters even of the nobles to be their concubines.”
In a charter of 1004 (S909), for St Frideswide’s Abbey, Oxford, Æthelred himself refers to the slaughter:
… it will be well known that, since a decree was sent out by me with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death, those Danes who dwelt in the afore-mentioned town [i.e. Oxford], striving to escape death, entered this sanctuary of Christ, having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make refuge and defence for themselves therein against the people of the town and the suburbs; but when all the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the planks and burnt, as it seems, this church with its ornaments and its books. Afterwards, with God’s aid, it was renewed by me and my subjects …
It is not credible that Æthelred’s intent was to exterminate all the folk of Danish descent settled, for more than a century, in the areas of eastern and northern England known as the ‘Danelaw’ (comprising, broadly, East Anglia, the eastern Midlands and Yorkshire). Much more likely, his targets were the recent arrivals, such as those Vikings who had entered into the king’s service as mercenaries, whose loyalty, as demonstrated by the recent treachery of Pallig and his followers, was suspect.
Manuscripts C, D and E:
In this year Exeter was taken by storm, through the French ceorl Hugh, whom the lady [i.e. Emma] had appointed her reeve;[*] and the army then totally ruined the town [burh], and took great booty there. —
— And in the same year the army went up into Wiltshire.[*] Then was gathered a very large force from Wiltshire and from Hampshire, and very unanimously marched towards the army. Then should Ealdorman Ælfric [of Hampshire] have led the force; but he drew forth his old tricks; as soon as they were so near that one army could look on the other, he feigned himself sick, and began retching to vomit, and said that he was taken ill, and so betrayed the people that he should have led; as it is said: “When the leader is faint-hearted, there will all the army be greatly hindered.”[*] When Swein saw that they were not unanimous, and that they all dispersed themselves, he led his army to Wilton, and they plundered and burned the town; and he went thence to Salisbury [Searbyrig], and thence again went to the sea, where he knew his wave-horses [i.e. ships] were.
In this year Swein came with his fleet to Norwich, and plundered and burned all that town. Then Ulfcytel with the councillors in East Anglia resolved that it were better that peace should be purchased of the army before they did over-much harm in the country; because they had come unawares, and he had not had time that he might gather his force. Then during the peace which should have been between them, the army stole up from their ships, and wended their way to Thetford. When Ulfcytel perceived that, he sent to have the ships hewn in pieces; but they whom he trusted in failed him, and then he secretly gathered his force as he best might. And the army then came to Thetford within 3 weeks from the time of their having before plundered Norwich, and were 1 night there within, and plundered and burned the town. And then in the morning, when they would go to their ships, came Ulfcytel with his troop, that they might there engage together; and they there together stoutly engaged, and a great slaughter was made on each side.[*] There were the chief of the East Angles’ folk slain; but if the full power had been there, they [the Vikings] would never again have gone to their ships; as they themselves said, that they never met with a worse hand-play in England than Ulfcytel had brought them.[*]
The following year, 1005, Nature intervened:
In this year was the great famine throughout England, such that no man ever before remembered one so destructive.
The Vikings were compelled to retire to Denmark. With the benefit of hindsight, the Chronicler notes that the Viking fleet:
The following story is taken from the, late-11th century, Passio et Miracula Sancti Eadwardi Regis et Martyris (Passion and Miracles of St Edward King and Martyr).
Even during Æthelred’s reign it was thought that the Viking scourge was a punishment from God for the sins of the English people. “For many years now the Devil has led this nation too far astray”, says Archbishop Wulfstan of York in a sermon of 1014.[*] Wulfstan particularly mentions Edward’s murder: “there are here in the land great disloyalties towards God and towards the state, and there are also many here in the country who are betrayers of their lords in various ways.… They plotted against Edward and then killed, and afterwards burnt him.” The lament interpolated into Annal 979 (=978) of Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscripts D and E (see No Worse Deed) states: “Him [i.e. Edward] his earthly kinsmen would not avenge, but his heavenly Father has amply avenged him.” No contemporary source, however, points the finger at Ælfthryth.
Bosworth-Toller (dictionary of Old English) defines unræd: “evil counsel, ill-advised course, bad plan, folly”.
The main source for Æthelred’s reign is in annals, covering the years from 983 until his death in 1016, preserved in Manuscripts C, D and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. These annals were evidently written-up after 1016 and before 1023. At first they follow the usual terse Chronicle style, but then, as Cecily Clark eloquently puts it: “from about 991, the annalist, enlarging the borders of his garments, begins to offer offer explanations of the events he records, and also comments on them.” By the time the anonymous author was writing, England had been conquered by the Danes, and this knowledge colours his reporting. He is very critical of the English leadership, and, s.a. 1011, declares: “All these calamities befell us through unrædas [i.e. bad policies]”.
Æthelred coupled with the epithet unræd is not apparent in the record until the late-12th century,[*] but as Michael Wood suggests: “there seems no reason to doubt that the pun was thought up by some wit at the time.… The nickname is quite in keeping with the irony displayed by the chronicler.”
Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialium (Courtiers' Trifles) – an entertaining collection of gossip and anecdotes – was written, piecemeal, between about 1181 and 1192. Walter translates unræd, i.e. ‘no counsel’ into Latin: nullum consilium – well it is assumed that is what he wrote but in the single surviving manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 851, late-14th century) the word nullum is absent, but it clearly has to be there to make sense: “Æthelred, whom the English called consilium, because he never acted.” In an early-13th century compilation of English laws, Leges Anglorum, Æthelred features as Ethelredus Unrad.
The entries for the years 977, 978, 979 and 980 are evidently dated one year later than true date in Manuscripts D and E, so the raid on Southampton is placed s.a. 981.
Earlier that year, according to Welsh annals, Ælfhere had helped the king of Gwynedd, Hywel ab Ieuaf, to mount an attack on his southern neighbours.
See Dynastic Disputes.
“Ælfric Cild, meaning puer [‘child’, Latin]”, in company with Ealdorman Ælfhere, features in the, late-12th century, Liber Eliensis (Book of Ely) II, 7.
The Old English cild equates to ‘child’ in modern English, but it is also used as an epithet that apparently denotes high status.
Florence places Ælfric’s expulsion s.a. 986, whilst Manuscripts C, D and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle have it s.a. 985.
Ælfwine son of Ælfric, a Mercian nobleman, features in the poem The Battle of Maldon. This Ælfwine is believed to be the Ælfwine to whom a bequest is made by Ælfhere’s brother, Ælfheah (Ælfheah’s will, S1485), and who is referred to as Ælfheah’s “sister’s son”. By which tokens, Ælfric was Ælfhere’s brother-in-law.
Catherine Cubitt suggests that: “the juxtaposition [by the anonymous Chronicler] of Æthelred’s attack on the see and the arrival of the cattle plague is not an artless conjunction but signals an implicitly causal relationship: divine punishment for the king’s wrong-doing.”
Actually, Florence of Worcester places the two events in consecutive years – the cattle plague, and more, being placed s.a. 987: “In this year two diseases unknown to the English in former ages, to wit, a fever among men, and a murrain among beasts, called in the English tongue scitta, which in Latin may be said to signify a flux of the bowels, grievously troubled all England, and raged in every part of it beyond expression, causing great mortality among the inhabitants and the wholesale destruction of cattle.”
William of Malmesbury (GR II §165) follows Osbern’s account closely.
Florence of Worcester’s brief entry s.a. 986 also seems to be dependant on Osbern: “Æthelred, king of the English, on account of some quarrel, laid siege to the city of Rochester; but seeing that it would be difficult to reduce it, retired in wrath, and laid waste the lands of St Andrew the apostle.” (Rochester’s church being dedicated to St Andrew.)
S876, of 993, is the earliest in a group of four charters wherein Æthelred expresses regret for actions he took in his youth (S893, of 998, is the latest). Simon Keynes has dubbed the time between Bishop Æthelwold’s death in 984, and c.993, when Æthelred “had decided to mend his ways”, ‘The Period of Youthful Indiscretions’.
The entry appears in this form, s.a. 988, in Manuscript C.
In Manuscript E, however, the first statement is placed s.a. 987. (This statement is also in Manuscript F, Manuscript E’s abridged relative, s.a. 987.) The second statement is placed s.a. 988: “In this year Goda, the Devonshire thegn, was slain, and a great slaughter with him.” (This statement is not in Manuscript F.)
In Manuscript D, both statements are s.a. 988, but instead of being linked by “and”, as in Manuscript C, they are rendered separately as in Manuscript E.
Florence of Worcester, s.a. 988, combines elements of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle report and Byrhtferth’s story: “Watchet was pillaged by the Danish pirates, who slew the thegn [satrapa] of Devonshire named Goda, Strenwold, a very brave soldier, and several others. However, the loss was greatest on the side of the Danes, and the English remained masters of the field of carnage.” It is possible that Florence simply borrowed from Byrhtferth, but since the latter, as is his style, gives only the vaguest indication of where and when the “savage battle” took place, it may well be that, as suggested by Michael Lapidge, both writers drew independently on the same, now lost, chronicle.[*]
The terms Dane and Danish should not be thought of in the modern sense, i.e. meaning people specifically from the state of Denmark. At this time, to the English, anyone of Scandinavian descent was a Dane. The Danes who ravaged Watchet in 988 (and, indeed, the pirates who raided the northern coasts of Devon and Cornwall in 981) may well have been Hiberno-Norse Vikings.
In 911, Charles the Simple, king of West Francia (predecessor of modern-day France), had concluded a treaty with the Viking leader Rollo. In return for Rollo’s allegiance and adoption of Christianity, Charles ceded the territory which became the nucleus of Normandy. Duke of Normandy from 942 to 996 was Rollo’s grandson, Richard the Fearless.
The parties agreed that suitable reparation should be made for any offence committed by them, or their subjects, on the other, and that peace between them should remain “forever unshaken”. They also agreed not to receive the enemies of the other (nor even their subjects who couldn’t produce a sealed commendation), which, perhaps, suggests that it was the Vikings’ use of Norman ports that had caused the dispute. The treaty itself does not exist, but it was the subject of a letter – written “to all the faithful”, on the pope’s behalf, at Rouen – the text of which is preserved in an early-11th century manuscript (British Library MS Cotton Tiberius A xv), and is also quoted by William of Malmesbury (GR II §166).
‘Cumberland’ (or, Latinized, ‘Cumbria’) was synonymous with ‘the kingdom of Strathclyde’, which, at this time, would appear to have stretched down the west of, what is now, Scotland, from Glasgow to the Solway, and beyond, to include the part of England that retained the name Cumberland.
Whilst the name Strathclyde, i.e. ‘Valley of the Clyde’, is geographically derived, the name Cumberland is derived from the ethnicity of its people. It comes from the Britons' own name for themselves – in modern Welsh, Wales is Cymru (pronounced: Cum-ri), and the Welsh are Cymry (also pronounced: Cum-ri) – and simply means ‘Land of the Britons’.
Byrhtnoth’s death is recorded, in an early-11th century, Winchester, calendar (British Library MS Cotton Titus D xxvii), as 11th August, whereas, in a late-12th century, Ely, calendar (Trinity College Cambridge MS O.2.1), it is recorded as 10th August.
Florence uses the Latin term dux (from which the English ‘duke’) in lieu of the vernacular title ‘ealdorman’.
Ælfric ealdorman of Hampshire
Thored probably governed southern Northumbria, centred on York, and was possibly Æthelred’s father-in-law. He is titled ‘earl’ (Old English eorl, equates to Old Norse jarl), the Scandinavian equivalent of the English title ‘ealdorman’. York had been the ‘capital’ of a Scandinavian kingdom from 876 to 954.
Ælfstan could be bishop of London or of Rochester – the bishops of both places were called Ælfstan at this time.
Æscwig, bishop of Dorchester (on Thames).
The northern part of modern Lincolnshire.
Florence of Worcester says (s.a. 993) that the three English leaders: “being Danes on the father’s side, betrayed their men and were the first to flee.”
According to Adam of Bremen, who says his informant was Swein’s grandson, Swein, at some stage after he had deposed his father in a pagan backlash to his Christian rule, was driven into exile by Eric the Victorious of Sweden. (Adam portrays Swein as fiercely anti-Christian at this time in his life, and puts his defeat by Eric down to his abandonment of God.) Swein sought refuge in England, but Æthelred, mindful of “the outrages which the Danes had of old inflicted on the English”, turned Swein away: “At length the king of the Scots, taking pity on him for his misfortunes, received him kindly, and Swein stayed in exile there twice seven years until Eric died.” (II, 32). Eric, however, died c.995, and it is clearly not possible to fit an exile of fourteen years (which is nowhere else recorded) into the period 987–995. Indeed, according to the anonymous author of the Encomium Emmae Reginae, a work commissioned by Emma, who married Swein’s son, Cnut, in 1017: “Swein, king of the Danes, was, I declare, as I have ascertained from truthful report, practically the most fortunate of all the kings of his time, so that, as seldom occurs, his happy beginning was followed by an end much happier from both the spiritual and the worldly point of view.” (I, 1). In this version of events, the motive for Swein’s revolt against his father is that Harald, jealous of his son’s popularity, decreed that he should not be his successor. After Harald had been overthrown (incidentally, he escaped the battle but later died of his wounds): “Swein held his throne undisturbed.”
II Æthelred begins: “Firstly, that a general peace stand between King Æthelred and all his people, and all the army to which the king gave the money, according to the terms which Archbishop Sigeric, Ealdorman Æthelweard and Ealdorman Ælfric made, when they obtained of the king that they might buy peace for those districts which they, under the king’s hand, ruled over. And if any ship-army commit ravages in England, that we shall have the aid of them all; and that we shall find food for them while they shall be with us. And that any land which keeps the peace with any of those who ravage England, be outlaw to us and to the whole army.” Scholars who prefer to place the treaty in 991 point to its reference to Sigeric – the point being that he would have been dead (the likeliest date for his death is 28th October 994) when Æthelred agreed terms with Olaf. However, as E.V. Gordon argues: “The most natural interpretation of the statement is that each of the three, Sigeric, Æthelweard and Ælfric had bought off the vikings from their own districts by payments of money or by promises and that cognizance of these local agreements is taken later in arranging the general treaty, which will contain similar terms.… the statement that local truces had been purchased by Sigeric, Æthelweard and Ælfric is strong evidence that the treaty belongs to 994 and not to 991, since the districts governed by them were all ravaged in 994, but only that of Sigeric (and Byrhtnoth) in 991.… the treaty states only that Sigeric had purchased an earlier truce for his own district, and this he might have done in September 994.”
II Æthelred survives, in the original Old English, in a manuscript of round-about 1100 (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 383), and, in Latin translation, in the early-12th century legal compilation Quadripartitus.
In fact, II Æthelred states that twenty-two thousand pounds, in gold and silver, were given to the Vikings to buy the peace, a sum which is greater than the tribute reported, by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, to have been paid in 991 or in 994. Apparently, though, there were payments made other than those reported by the Chronicle. For instance, a charter (S882) shows that Archbishop Sigeric was compelled to sell an estate at Monks Risborough (in Buckinghamshire), for “ninety pounds of refined silver and two hundred mancuses of the purest gold”, to pay-off Vikings threatening to burn-down Canterbury Cathedral. The charter says this occurred when “the pagan race, raging with its slaughters, was devastating Kent”, so presumably after 8th September 994.
(1 pound = 240 silver pennies. 1 mancus of gold = 30 silver pennies.)
The Old English Norðwealum does not mean North-Wales, in the modern sense, but simply Wales, as distinct from Cornwealum, i.e. Cornwall.
, because they had not the support which they should have had
Manuscript E adds the highlighted phrase at this point.
The highlighted phrase is in Manuscript C only.
In Manuscript D it is missing entirely.
In Manuscript E the ‘ship-force’ is mentioned, but not the ‘land-force’.
East Dean or West Dean, Sussex – close to the Hampshire border.
Ælfsige, bishop of Winchester, was selected to be archbishop of Canterbury following the death of Archbishop Oda in June 958. Sadly, however, Ælfsige froze to death in the Alps whilst travelling to Rome to collect his pallium.
(The pallium or pall: a white, scarf-like, vestment worn by the pope, and bestowed by him on archbishops as a symbol of delegated papal authority.)
Manuscript A continues: “And soon after this a treaty was arranged with them, and they made peace.” This comment is actually a later addition. It was copied into Manuscript G, so it was made at Winchester. As will become apparent, “soon after” is in the next year, 1002, which indicates that the rest of the annal is truly a contemporary report, i.e. it had been written before the treaty was arranged. Annal 1001 is the last Winchester entry in Manuscript A. The few remaining annals are Canterbury additions.
Florence of Worcester equates the fleet that arrived in England in 1001 with the one that left for Normandy the previous year. This could be an assumption on his part, but he is probably correct.
Highlighted phrase as in Manuscripts C and D.
In Manuscript E: “determinedly withstood, and stoutly”.
Highlighted phrase as in Manuscript C.
Manuscripts D and E: “the English force”.
The treaty II Æthelred indicates that Vikings entered English service in 994. Simon Keynes believes that these mercenaries were stationed on the Isle of Wight, and that it was they who: “turned against their paymasters in 997, and reverted to their former ways.”
For instance, Alistair Campbell writes: “it would appear probable that the clash referred to by William of Jumièges, a writer whose chronology is notoriously vague, is to be placed before, rather than after, Emma’s marriage, and that the latter event was a sign of a clearing of the air between England and Normandy, even if it were not a part of a formal settlement. This chronological re-arrangement has two further points in its favour. It places the English attack on Normandy in a period when Æthelred was possessed by a fit of restless energy (his Cumbrian expedition belongs to 1000), and when it is known that the Scandinavian invaders of England were making use of Norman harbours (see Old English Chronicle, 1000), a practice which would sufficiently explain Æthelred’s action in sending forces against the Normans. Accordingly, while certainty cannot be reached in this matter, it is not too much to say that it is highly probable that the marriage of Emma inaugurated a period of good relationships between the governments of two countries which had not long previously been at open war.”
In fact, the titles ‘ealdorman’ and ‘earl’ are not used. Ailred wrote in Latin and the Worcester material is in Latin, and both use the term comes. Comes, source of the title ‘count’, is one of a number of terms (notably dux, source of the title ‘duke’) used by Latin-writers to represent both the English title ‘ealdorman’ and its Scandinavian equivalent ‘earl’.
… at the command of the glorious King Edgar, a law of great severity was promulgated throughout England to serve as a deterrent against all sorts of crime by means of a dreadful punishment: that, if any thief or robber were found anywhere in the country, he would be tortured at length by having his eyes put out, his hands cut off, his ears torn off, his nostrils carved open and his feet removed; and finally, with the skin and hair of his head flayed off, he would be abandoned in the open fields, dead in respect of nearly all his limbs, to be devoured by wild beasts and birds and hounds of the night.
Lantfred Translatio et Miracula Sancti Swithuni §26[*]
The severe punishment described by Lantfred is not to be found in any surviving law-code of Edgar (Æthelred’s father). However, a similar range of tortures is found in the laws of King Cnut (II Cnut 30), which are largely culled from the laws of previous kings, and this could well have been taken from the decree that Lantfred is talking about. Presumably these types of punishment also applied during Æthelred’s reign.
… if he is then convicted, on the first occasion, let him pay twofold compensation to the accuser, and his wergild to the lord who is entitled to his fine; and let him appoint trustworthy sureties, that he will hereafter abstain from every evil. On the second occasion, let there be no other compensation, if he is convicted, than that his hands be cut off, or his feet, or both, according as the deed may be. And if he then have wrought yet greater wrong, then let his eyes be put out, and his nose and his ears, and the upper lip be cut off; or let him be scalped: whatever of these then, those shall counsel whose duty it is to counsel thereupon; so that punishment be inflicted, and also the soul preserved.…
The monetary value, based on rank, of a person’s life.
Simon Keynes has, based on charter evidence, argued a case for Ælfgar having, during the period 985–990, persuaded Æthelred to grant him land seized from Abingdon Abbey and Old Minster Winchester.
Highlighted phrase in Manuscript C only.
S926 translation from The Latin Charters of the Anglo-Saxon Period, Chapter 3, by Frank Stenton (1955).
Highlighted sentence omitted in Manuscript E.
Manuscripts C and D: “betrayed” (becyrde).
Manuscript E: “deceived” (beswac).
Florence of Worcester titles Ulfcytel “ealdorman [dux] of the East Angles”, but he features in the witness-lists of charters as only a thegn (minister).
Highlighted phrase in Manuscript C only.
Highlighted phrase omitted in Manuscript E.
The highlighted phrase as in Manuscripts C and D.
In Manuscript E: “And in this year”.
If Florence derived his information from II Æthelred, why did he not mention Olaf?Donald Scragg suggests: “the treaty is in English and represents Olaf as Anlaf, a form of the name that a Latin chronicler working 150 years later may not have understood. Justin and Guthmund are more obviously names, while both an and laf are Old English words and hence susceptible to misconstruction.” Whilst E.V. Gordon writes: “Though it is generally agreed that Florence of Worcester had access to a copy of Æthelred’s treaty, and thought that it belonged to 991, in his annal 991 he gives Justin and Guthmund as the viking leaders, and leaves out the third name given in the treaty, Anlaf. Unless this is merely accidental, Florence must have had information from some other source which made it clear to him that Olaf had no part in the battle.” In a footnote, Professor Gordon comments: “That source may even have been the well-known poem on the battle of Maldon.”
In Manuscripts C, D and E, written after the event, Olaf is anachronistically titled ‘king’ s.a. 994: “Then the king sent Bishop Ælfheah and Ealdorman Æthelweard after King Olaf; and the while hostages were given to the ships; and they then led Olaf with great ceremony to the king at Andover.…” (Rest of Annal 994 already quoted above.)
It, in fact, seems likely that Florence took these names from the text of a treaty (known as ‘II Æthelred’, of which more later) that he surmised related to 991, but probably actually relates to 994.
There are a few places along the river Clyst – flowing north-south, just to the east of Pinhoe (on the north-eastern outskirts of modern Exeter) – that have Clyst as an element of their name. This is probably Broadclyst.
Bishops Waltham, at the head of the river Hamble, Hampshire.
Kingsteignton, at the head of the Teign estuary.
A ceorl (modern spelling: churl) is an Anglo-Saxon freeman of the lowest rank. It is possible that the Chronicler is here using the term as an insult – in effect, calling the evidently inept foreign interloper, Hugh, a peasant. Florence of Worcester, however, in his entry s.a. 1003, accords Hugh the Latin title comes, so it is possible that Hugh was actually titled eorl (earl) in an ancestor of Manuscripts C, D and E.
Henry uses the Latin term consul in lieu of the vernacular title ‘ealdorman’.
Actually: burhwaru – inhabitants of a burh.
A burh (dative: byrig) is a fortified site; often, as in this case, a town (it is the source of the modern word ‘borough’, and the …borough, …burgh and …bury endings of place-names), but not necessarily so.
s.a. = sub anno = ‘under the year’.
Gesta Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of England).
Wulfstan wrote this sermon under his Latin pseudonym Lupus (Wolf) – though the work itself is written in Old English. Wulfstan was bishop of London from 996 to 1002, then archbishop of York from 1002 until his death in 1023. (The bishopric of Worcester was held, simultaneously, by the archbishop of York between 971 and 1016.)
‘The Narrative Mode of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Before the Conquest’, in Words, Names, and History: Selected Writings of Cecily Clark (1995, but paper first published in 1971).
The Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’ 978–1016 (1980) Chapter 4.
‘Byrhtferth and Oswald’, in St Oswald of Worcester: Life and Influence (1996).
St Oswald became bishop of Worcester in 961 and Archbishop of York in 971. When he became archbishop of York, however, he also retained the bishopric of Worcester. Byrhtferth was a monk at Ramsey Abbey (north of Huntingdon), which was founded c.966, by Oswald and Æthelwine, ealdorman of East Anglia. Both Oswald and Æthelwine died in 992.
The Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum (Deeds of Bishops of the Hamburg Church) was written between 1072 and 1076, though Adam continued to revise it until his death c.1081.
‘The Date of Æthelred’s Treaty with the Vikings: Olaf Tryggvason and the Battle of Maldon’, in The Modern Language Review Vol. 32 No. 1 (1937).
‘An Abbot, an Archbishop, and the Viking Raids of 1006–7 and 1009–12’, in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 36 (2007).
In the Gesta Normannorum Ducum (Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans), completed c.1070–1, William of Jumièges adapted an earlier work, by Dudo of St Quentin, for the reigns of Rollo (the first duke), William Longsword and Richard the Fearless: “The rest is my own, derived partly from the true relation of many men, given credence equally by their years and their experience of affairs, and partly by the certain witness of my own eyes.” (Dedicatory Letter, to William the Conqueror).
On 15th July 971, Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, had the remains of a previous bishop, Swithun (d.863), moved from a tomb outside the Old Minster into the church itself. The story of the translation and miracles of St Swithun (Translatio et Miracula Sancti Swithuni) was written soon afterwards (c.975), by Lantfred, a monk of Frankish origins, at the Old Minster.
Henry, archdeacon of Huntingdon, first produced his Historia Anglorum (History of the English) about 1130. He later revisited the work – revising and extending – several times. The final version concludes with the accession of Henry II in 1154.
‘Archbishop Dunstan: a Prophet in Politics?’, in Myth, Rulership, Church and Charters: Essays in Honour of Nicholas Brooks (2008).
The Return of the Vikings: the Battle of Maldon 991 (2006) Chapter 3.