Next on our countdown of the greatest royals of all-time is the monarch that ruled England into the eleventh century, Æthelred II, or "Æthelred the Unready." Now in this case, "unready" was a mistranslation, which was meant to mean "ill-advised." However, with Æthelred taking over the crown at age 13, it should also refer to his unreadiness in taking the crown at such a young age. Æthelred struggled for legitimacy his entire reign, and was often mocked with apocryphal tales, such as the untrue story of his defecation in his baptismal font as a child.
"He is the only ruler of the male line of Ecbert whom we can unhesitatingly set down as a bad man and a bad king."
-Edward Freeman, The History of the Norman Conquest of England, 1867;
Born in the House of Wessex, Æthelred descended from Alfred the Great. Æthelred's ascension to the crown is marked by turbulence and intrigue. Æthelred's father, King Edward, died suddenly in the year 975 with two young sons not mature enough to take his place. Nonetheless, the older brother, Edward, took over despite still being in adolescence. Edward was known for his violent outbursts and was perceived by many as being an illegitimate son. It was not long before plots were formed to oust him from power. A group of noblemen conspired to murder Edward and thrust young Æthelred into power, most likely without Æthelred's knowledge. After just three years in power, Edwards was stabbed to death while visiting his brother. Æthelred's supporters were never punished for their crime, and the conspiracy stained Æthelred's reign.
The early portion of Æthelred's reign is marked by battles with the Danes and tensions with the Normans. The Danes raided many coastal towns in England, leading Æthelred to offer a tribute of 10,000 pounds to keep the peace. Nonetheless, the Danish fleet continued ravaging English towns, making their way up the Thames towards London. After a fierce battle that led to a stalemate, Æthelred signed an accord with Danish forces to keep them out of England. Rather than keep the peace, the attacks kept mounting over several years.
Æthelred married Ælfgifu, daughter of Thored, earl of Northumbria, in about 985, and they bore ten children. In In 1002 Æthelred married Emma of Normandy, sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy, and they had three more children. As a ruler, Æthelred was known for implementing legislation based on ecclesiastical concerns. He is also credited by some with the invention of the jury of peers, although there is dispute on that fact.
"His life is said to have been cruel at the outset, pitiable in mid-course, and disgraceful in its ending."
-William of Malmesbury, History of the English Kings, 12th century;
Æthelred had enough of the Danish attacks by 1002, when he ordered a massacre of all Danish men residing in England on St. Brice's Day. That left England war-free for a few more years, but in 1013, the King of Denmark, Sweyn Forkbeard, invaded England with the hopes of taking over the crown. The viking king succeeded, causing Æthelred to flee to Normandy in exile. Sweyn died in 1014, causing Æthelred to return to England to challenge his successor, Cnut the Great. Unprepared for war, Cnut fled back to Denmark, leaving Æthelred to reign England once again.
However, Æthelred returned to a tumultuous situation in England, as his son Edmund Ironside held ground in Danelaw and led a group of uprisers in revolt against his own father. However the two sides would join forces to fight off another attack from Cnut the Great, this time leading to Cnut's conquest of England, and Æthelred's death in 1016.
Æthelred was buried at old St. Paul's Cathedral in London, but the tomb was destroyed in the great fire of 1666.