Your RDA of Irony

The Unready

November 13, 1002:  A Memorable Way to Celebrate St. Brice’s Day

If you are not fluent in medieval English puns, the name of Aethelred the Unready sounds rather endearing. The Angle-Saxon English king might seem a vacillating, knee-knocking fumbler.   In fact, Aethelred was an assertive, bold catastrophe. Whatever his royal ancestors had built and achieved over 150 years, Aethelred sabotaged and destroyed. Had he anticipated his great-great grandson, Alfred the Great would have had a vasectomy. Alfred had saved a ravaged England from the Vikings, and created the foundation of a prosperous kingdom; Aethelred did exactly the opposite.

Names do have meaning; no one thought of Aethelred for its lilting sound. In Olde Anglische, Aethelred means “well-counselled” , prudent or wise. So, as any medieval Englishman could tell you, “unready” means uncounselled or reckless. Adding the epithet of Unready to Athelred was an editorial pun. (It also demonstrates why English humor is best left to the Irish.)

Aethelred ascended the English throne in 978 at the age of ten, over the body of his half-brother. Aethelred’s mother had arranged that assassination; after all, he was only a stepson. (In posthumous compensation, the late king received a complimentary sainthood; the evil queen mother was also a generous benefactor to the Church, so presumably everyone benefited from the regicide.)

At the time, England was a prosperous country. The same could not be said of Denmark. Its King, Sweyn Forkbeard, had to pay tribute to the Holy Roman Emperor. Sweyn’s father, Harald Bluetooth, was unique among Viking raiders in that he actually lost battles. After some disastrous campaigns in Germany, Bluetooth could save his skin only by converting to Christianity and coughing up annual compensation to the Kaiser. Sweyn may have inherited better teeth but he was stuck with his father’s debts. So to pay the German tribute, Sweyn decided to extort tribute from England.

Beginning in 980 what would become an annual tradition, the Danish fleet would arrive in England, brushing aside the always inadequate defense, and rampaging until a satisfactory ransom was paid. Young Aethelred was no military prodigy; his attempts at battles were invariably defeats. He found it easier to amass tax collectors than an army. Gouging England to pay the Vikings’ tribute did not endear Aethelred to his subjects. So he took the precaution of hiring Danish bodyguards. (Of course, that required even more taxes.)

In 1002, however, Aethelred finally decided to free his kingdom from this Danish subjugation. On November 13th–St. Brice’s Day—he undertook this liberation by ordering the massacre of every Dane in England. The Vikings fleet had already returned home, so the Danes remaining in England were just merchants, artisans and tourists. At least Aethelred found Danes whom he could defeat. Hundreds were slaughtered. This certainly was Aethelred’s greatest victory, but was it really that decisive?

To put it in a modern context, imagine if the United States decided to solve our trade imbalance with China by ordering an attack on every P.F. Chang’s. Would the prospect of hundreds of dead waiters really force China to capitulate? Aethelred’s strategy actually did make an impression on Sweyn Forkbeard. One of the massacred Danes happened to be his sister. Sweyn now was determined to overthrow Aethelred.

It took 11 years but the next king of England was named Knut, a nice Danish name. Knut–alias Canute–was Sweyn’s son. As for Aethelred, he was spending his exile with in-laws in Normandy, a family connection that would assert itself in 1066. Any English resistance was left to his son, Edmund Ironside. Aethelred died of natural causes in 1016; his son managed to regain the English throne for a few months while Knut was busy in Denmark seizing that throne. Of course, upon Knut’s return, so did the English habit of losing. Edmund soon died; and very few think that it was from a natural cause. (One prurient theory postures that he was killed in a privy; apparently, his ironside did not extend all the way down.)

And for the happy ending, Canute proved an excellent king.

  1. Tony Coll says:

    Always nice to hear about the cultural diversity of the English. But who was St Brice?

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Dear Tony,

      St. Brice of Tours was a fifth century Gallo-Roman patrician (the aristocracy was a prerequisite for being a bishop at the time). Most of those patricians found that a position in the Church offered them and their estates some protection from the barbarians. The Goths and Franks tended to be either tolerant or superstitious; in either case, they did not want to unnecessarily offend any deities.


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