Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Return of the Danes, 984.

Æthelred, now a boy of ten, became king in 979. The epithet the Unready, which is usually assigned to him, is a mistranslation of a word which properly means the Rede-less, or the man without counsel. He was entirely without the qualities which befit a king. Eadmund had kept the great chieftains in subordination to himself because he was a successful leader. Eadgar had kept them in subordination because he treated them with respect. Æthelred could neither lead nor show respect. He was always picking quarrels when he ought to have been making peace, and always making peace when he ought to have been fighting. What he tried to do was to lessen the power of the great ealdormen, and bring the whole country more directly under his own authority.

In 985 he drove out Ælfric, the Ealdorman of the Mercians. In 988 Dunstan died, and Æthelred had no longer a wise adviser by his side.

It would have been difficult for Æthelred to overpower the ealdormen even if he had had no other enemies to deal with. Unluckily for him, new swarms of Danes and Norwegians had already appeared in England. They began by plundering the country, without attempting to settle in it. In 991 Brihtnoth, Ealdorman of the East Saxons, was defeated and slain by them at Maldon. Æthelred could think of no better counsel than to pay them 10,000l., a sum of money which was then of much greater value than it is now, to abstain from plundering. It was not necessarily a bad thing to do.

One of the greatest of the kings of the Germans, Henry the Fowler, had paid money for a truce to barbarians whom he was not strong enough to fight. But when the truce had been bought Henry took care to make himself strong enough to destroy them when they came again. Æthelred was never ready to fight the Danes and Norwegians at any time. In 994 Olaf Trygvasson, who had been driven from the kingship of Norway, and Svend, who had been driven from the kingship of Denmark, joined forces to attack London. The London citizens fought better than the English king, and the two chieftains failed to take the town. 'They went thence, and wrought the greatest evil that ever any army could do, in burning, and harrying, and in man-slaying, as in Essex, and in Kent, and in Sussex, and in Hampshire. And at last they took their horses and rode as far as they could, and did unspeakable evil.'

The plunderers were now known as 'the army,' moving about where they would. Æthelred this time gave them 16,000. He got rid of Olaf, who sailed away and was slain by his enemies, but he could not permanently get rid of Svend. Svend, about the year 1000, recovered his kingship in Denmark, and was more formidable than he had been before. Plunderings went on as usual, and Æthelred had no resource but to pay money to the plunderers to buy a short respite. He then looked across the sea for an ally, and hoped to find one by connecting himself with the Duke of the Normans.

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