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Lesson 23c - Vikings in England, Part 3: The Danelaw and King Æthelred the Unready.

Note: [Best viewed in browser. If you have not done so already, check out last week’s lesson. Visit ‘Viking History’ on Wordpress to view all of the lessons. I also highly encourage reading the footnotes.]

Komiði sæl og blessuð, vinir,

Despite King Alfred’s best attempts, he did not rid England of the Vikings permanently. Although he gave them a fight, pushing their ‘Great Army’ away from England, there were still many Danes who settled northeast England, primarily in the kingdom of Northumbria. The story after King Alfred then unfolds as king after king addresses this problem, until the reign of King Æthelred the Unready, who allows England to once again fall into the engulfing flames of rekindled Viking raids.

I. The Danelaw
II. Rotating Leadership
III. King Æthelred’s Disastrous Reign


“The history of the English Danelaw, doubtful as it is at many points, is illustrated by a considerable amount of ancient material. …The social order of the early Danelaw can in great part be recovered from Domesday Book, supplemented by charter evidence of the Norman age. The intensity, and to some extent the nature of the settlement, are shown by the Scandinavian place-names of that country. There is much that will never be known about the condition of eastern England in the century before the Norman Conquest, but the main outlines of its Anglo-Danish society can be drawn with reasonable assurance.”1

The Danelaw, pictured above (the red, yellow, blue, and brown regions mainly), was the area in England that was heavily settled by the Danes as the Great Army stormed across the country. It is likely that this area was considered ‘Danish’ because of Danish political dominance in the area, particularly in York.2 After all, most of these Danes integrated within English cultural and social norms. Still, this could have been due to a large amount of Danish settlers. Nonetheless, place-names and linguistic patterns show traces of this Danish influx. For example:3

Place-names ending in -by indicate a possible farmstead or a village, perhaps relating to the Old Norse word , which is a variation of , meaning home, house, household; farm; estate.4

  • Utterby
  • Shelby
  • Linby

Place-names ending with -thorpe indicate a possible hamlet, perhaps relating to the Old Norse word þorp, meaning an isolated farm; a thorp or village.5

  • Newthorpe
  • Bishopthorpe

It is discussed in footnote three, but I will include it here for those who overlook those footnotes. It take much more linguistic information than the examples above to confirm actual Old Norse influence, especially since Old Norse and Old English were related languages. Please see the footnote for more on this, especially before refuting. The wider picture, linguistically, is that many words were exchanged and borrowed between both groups.

In the end, this region quickly assimilated into English culture, which also occurred in Normandy, for example. There is little evidence of many pagan graves in this area, and there is coinage that follows the English style.6 Still, this region was a powerful place for Danish rulers to exert their authority, giving them some degree of ‘ownership’ over England. Using this region as a starting point, many Danish rulers do extend their power into the English political landscape.


I will be somewhat brief in recounting these kings, unless there is something important attached to their rule. This is simply to give an idea of the somewhat unstable leadership that followed King Alfred, as well as leading up to King Æthelred the Unready’s disastrous reign.

King Edward the Elder

He succeeded King Alfred and successfully extends his rule into Danish lands in 899. In 920, even Northumbria, the Scots, and the Welsh recognize him as their ruling lord. Yet, this is only overlordship and not direct rule - there is a big difference.7

King Æthelstan (r. 924-939)

By 927 he was considered “King of the English” or, “King of the Whole of Britain.”8 We know that “Danish earls attended meetings and witnessed
Athelstan’s charters,” but we are not sure as to how Athelstan acquired this authority.9

The major event associated with King Æthelstan is the Battle of Brunanburh in 937, which was his victory over an alliance of Scots and Vikings from Dublin. There is a poem written about this battle, which is written very heroically, giving great glory to the king and country of England. Here is the beginning of this poem:

In this year King Æthelstan, 
Lord of warriors, ring-giver to men, 
and his brother also, Prince Edmund, 
won eternal glory in battle 
with sword edges around Brunanburh. 
They split the shield-wall, 
they hewed battle shields 
with the remnants of hammers.

King Edmund (r. 939-946)

His rule was during the beginning of a very convoluted time (between 939 and 959). In 944 he retook York and Northumbria from Danish rule, yet this was only temporary. By 947, one year after Edmund’s death, Erik Bloodaxe of Norway was accepted as king of York and Northumbria. This goes back and forth quiet a bit.

(King Eadred)11

King Edgar

He successfully unites England once again. His legal codes demonstrate the complexity and diversity of his kingdom. He successfully obtains political unity, but also recognized the limitations that he faced by addressing the Danes and English separately on occasion.

(King Edward the Martyr)12

King Æthelred the Unready (r. 978-1016)

When he rose to power, he was only seventeen years old. He was considered ‘unready’ because he was unwise in regards to governing such a diverse kingdom. Yet, even less helpful was the renewal of Viking raids in England in 980.


The reign of King Æthelred is best summarized as the fall of England into complete Danish rule. This terrible kingship, as well as powerful leaders from both Norway and Denmark, paves the way for Knut, who will eventually forge a North Sea Empire that includes England.

The two major aggressors during Æthelred’s unfortunate kingship were Olaf Tryggvason of Norway and Svein Forkbeard of Denmark, which attacked as a united force. In 991, the English were defeated by their forces during the Battle of Madon. Like Brunanburh, there is a poem pertaining to this event. Yet, the tone in this poem is much different. Instead of highlighting English prowess, it focuses on English courage, despite defeat. The Viking forces were paid 10,000 pounds of silver, which, as we should know by now, was not going to keep the Vikings away. Here is part of this poem:

And so they stood their ground, 
stouthearted young men at war, 
eagerly worked to see 
who might be the first to win
the life of a doomed man with his spear,
soldiers with weapons; 
slaughter fell on earth.
They stood steadfast; 
Byrhtnoth encouraged them, 
ordered each young warrior 
to give thought to war
if he hoped to earn fame 
from the Danes in the fight.13

Before we begin to assume that the Vikings, as some unified entity, sought conquest over England, let us take a step back. Olaf and Svein worked together to raid England, yet, in 994, Vikings were hired by English rulers as mercenaries against other Vikings.14 This is important to keep in mind, given the popular tendency to think of the Vikings as a ‘unified’ people of sorts. They all had their own goals and often fought against one another.

In 1002, King Æthelred marries into a Norman family, which, when considering the lineage of the Normans, is somewhat ironic. Nonetheless, he orders the killing of all Danish men in England. This went how you might expect - badly. SVein Forkbeard returns to England in 1003 and, by 1013, takes England, thus becoming its king.


During this period of English history, one could not do justice without considering the role of both Danish settlers and foreign Danish, and even Norwegian, powers and ambitions.15 The Danelaw became a pool of mixing culture, yet also a place of interest for the Danes as they, along with the Norwegians, began to raid the coasts of England once again. As England’s king grew weak, the kings of Scandinavia grew strong.

Æthelred’s rule is very summarized here, because a lot more does happen during these years. Yet, most of this is a similar pattern: Viking attack, English do not fare too well, English pay off Vikings with silver, momentary peace, Viking return wanting more money, repeat. Throughout Æthelred’s rule, he paid the Vikings between 10,000 and 42,000 pounds of silver. He also used Vikings as mercenaries, who were not the most loyal of troops. He even attempted to raise a large fleet to counter the Vikings. This huge fleet was then lost in a storm. 

Truly nothing good came out of Æthelred’s reign, at least for the English. For the Danes, however, this marked opportunity. After 1013, the Danes rule over England until 1035. It is not long after this that the Normans conquer England for themselves. This, however, will be our next discussion.

Next week:
Lesson 23d – Vikings in England, Part 4: Conquering England – Knútr and Hastings.

Skál og ferð vel.


Gen. Dr. Jennifer Dukes-Knight, “Vikings in England,” Lecture, Viking History, University of South Florida, 2015. I used her lecture a lot for this lesson, which means that I unfortunately do not necessarily have direct resources to cite. The ‘eBook/PDF’ edition of this lesson will have updated citations, yet, until I resist this under a ‘revised edition,’ it will have to remain insufficient. That being said, however, you can always send me an ask about a specific concern and I will immediately find sources to support it.

1. F. M. Stenton, “Presidential Address: The Scandinavian Colonies in England and Normandy,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society,
Vol. 27 (1945): 1-2. Accessed on the 2nd of December, 2016.

Fig 1. John Haywood, The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 69.

2. York was, between 866 and 954, “the center of a Viking kingdom including most of the old kingdom of Northumbria south of the Tees” (see Haywood, 70). I did not properly fit this into the sequence of lessons involving England, although I may address this at a future date. For now, however, it is good to know that York played a major role for Viking activities in England. It was the seat of Viking power in the Danelaw, but more specifically for the Kingdom of York in its own right.

3. I am personally not familiar with Old English, so I cannot say how concrete these examples are in terms of proving Old Norse influence on England (I focus on Old Irish instead, when it comes to non-Scandindinavian languages, that is). After all, Old Norse and Old English shared Germanic roots, and so such similarities are not entirely out of place. These examples come from the lecture cited in footnote one, though, and so I do feel that there is some credibility to the evidence and examples provided.

4. Geir T. Zoëga, A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic. (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004), 76-77 and Jesse L. Byock, Viking Language 1: Learn Old Norse, Runes, and Icelandic Sagas. (Pacific Palisades, CA: Jules William Press, 2013), 342.

5. Zoëga, 514.

6. Vikings typically used coins from other places rather than minting their own. Yet, in the Kingdom of York, for example, they began to mint coins with pagan motifs (see Haywood, 70). This is something worthy of noting, because it shows that Viking rulers, such as Olaf Guthfrithsson, began to ‘imitate’ the English rulers. So, when I say that coinage marks a transition into English culture, this is what I mean.

7. Direct rule would be making all the decisions, of course, whereas overlordship may only involve taxes or even merely symbolic rule.

8. From lecture in cited footnote one. 

9. Ibid.

10. This translation is from the lecture, but here is another that may be more useful to you all from Stockton University. (link)

11. Kept in the ‘list’ for chronological purposes.

12. Ibid., but also because his reign was short. He was ill-mannered and ill-tempered, which, of course, leads to enemies who tend to kill you.

13. R.M. Liuzza trans., “The Battle of Madon,” lines 122-129. From a seventeenth-century transcript of a manuscript destroyed in 1731. (link)

14. This actually happens a lot in Ireland as well.

15. Richard Collins, Early Medieval Europe 300-1000, 3rd ed. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 367. The Norwegian kingdom unwillingly became subordinates to the Danes on an on-and-off basis, particularly between 970 and 975 and again in 1030 and 1035. So, although I have mentioned them as having separate ambitions, which there definitely was, they were also often ‘joined’ under the Danish ‘banner’ of sorts.