15 Aethelred, Svein Forkbeard and years of misery


The Danish threat is notched up a few levels, and Aethelred the Unready and the English state is brought to it knees. The Vikings are too fast, skillful and mobile, and are much better led


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The years between 1002 and 1014 were a relentless and at times monotonous series of English defeats and Danish triumph.

Svein Forkbeard was to prove himself a superb warleader, and more than capable of dealing with anything Aethelred could throw against him. In 1003, he descended on the South West, captured and sacked Exeter, and saw of the army of the Earldorman Aelfric.

In 1004 it was East Anglia, and they sacked Norwich. But then, for the first and only time until Edmund Ironside, the Vikings met more than they could handle. The English hero was a man called Ulfkell, and for once the Vikings had to run for home.

1006 was the worst yet – the Danes wandered all over Wessex, marching boldly past the English capital on Winchester goading the English with their impotence. So in 1007, Aethelred and his court come up with an innovative strategy – they pay the Danes off with a massive tribute of £36,000.

This gaves Aethelred some respite – during which we see the arrival of the arch English traitor, Edric ‘the Grasper’ Streona. But Edric was basically loyal to Aethelred, and works with him to create a new fleet, ready for the next invasion in 1009. But chaos again ensues. The fleet fought amongst itself, part of it instead raided the English coast – and when the Danes arrive it is nowhere to be seen.

This time, Svein came for conquest. In 1010 he took England’s spiritual centre, Canterbury, and the Archbishop was killed – beaten to dead by cow bones. This time, even Ulfkell was defeated. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle summed it up:

 ‘when the force was in the east the troops were kept west, and when they were in the south then our troops were in the North. Then the counsellors were all summoned and it was discussed how this land should be defended; but whatever was counselled then it did not last longer than a month. There was no head man who would gather the troops, but each fled as best he might; furthermore no shire would help the other next to it.’

By 1013, Svein controlled all of England except London, and was acclaimed King everywhere with that one exception. Aethelred fled to Richard of Normandy. The game was up.

But Svein’s only official act as King was to raise a tax – and then he unexpectedly died (everyone who had paid the tax got their money back, by the way). The net result would be 2 more years of war before his son finished what he had started.

Aethelred has had some rehabilitation over the years; he maintained a very efficient administration, we see the start of a modern chancery, he maintained coinage and issued law codes. But he was ultimately a dreadful failure. He was incapable of creating a coherent response the invasions, was capricious and untrustworthy with his leading men, and hired the wrong men too often.

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