Republication from Heritagedaily

Battle of Assandun, showing Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Great. (Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS. 26, fol. 80v)


Æthelred II, also dubbed the Unready was King of Saxon England during 978–1013 and 1014–1016.

Under his father Kind Edgar, England had experienced a period of peace after the reconquest of the Danelaw in the mid-10th century. However, beginning in 980, small bands of Danish invaders carried out coastline raids testing defences across England that included Hampshire, Thanet, Cornwall, Dorset and Cheshire.

After several successful Danish raids such as the Battle of Maldon, where a sizable Danish fleet defeated Byrhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex, Æthelred turned to paying tributes to hold off the invaders and keep the peace in his realm.

This policy was to change when Æthelred ordered the massacre of all Danish men in England to take place on 13 November 1002, St Brice’s Day, otherwise called the “St. Brice’s Day Massacre.” It is thought that Gunhilde, sister of Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, was said to have been among the victims.

Historians have generally viewed the massacre as a political act which helped to provoke Sweyn’s invasion of 1003. In 1004, after the Danish sacking of Norwich, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports a bloody battle between the East Anglians led by Ulfcytel Snillingr and an army led by Swein Forkbeard.

The Chronicle states that Ulfcytel and the “councillors in East Anglia” attempted to buy a truce with Swein, but that the Danes broke the truce and marched to Thetford where a part of the East Anglian fyrd engaged them.

The battle seems to have been a draw as the Danes managed to escape. Two of the Chronicle manuscripts state that the Danes later “admitted that they had never met with harder hand-play [fighting] in England than Ulfcytel gave them”. The Danish army left England for Denmark in 1005, perhaps because of their injuries sustained in East Anglia, or perhaps from the very severe famine which afflicted the continent and the British Isles in that year.

Sweyn later returned to England in 1013 with an invading force intent on crowning him King of England. By the end of 1013, English resistance had collapsed and Sweyn had conquered the country, King Æthelred sent his sons Edward (Ironside) and Alfred to Normandy, and retreated to the Isle of Wight, where he fled overseas in exile to seek support from his ally, the Norwegian king Olaf.

In 1014, Sweyn suddenly died, leaving his son Cnut the Great as King, but secretly a deputation was sent to Æthelred to restore him to the throne. Æthelred then launched an expedition against Cnut and his allies, the men of the Kingdom of Lindsey. Cnut’s army had not completed its preparations and, in April 1014, he decided to withdraw from England without a fight leaving his Lindsey allies to suffer Æthelred’s revenge.

A Norse saga tells of a battle when King Æthelred returned to attack Danish-occupied London.


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