Ethelred “the Unready’s” obtainment of the crown did not require much elaboration to turn into a dramatic short story; it was simply a matter of putting together various facts and versions of the event together from old texts. When looking at the ancient writings, one is mostly bound to wonder how many of the details were true (such as the method of Edward’s murder) and how many were added by later chroniclers simply to spice up the story (such as Dunstan’s disturbingly accurate prophecies). Either way, they make a powerful tale.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and the Chronicles of Florence of Worcester provide a brief summary of what happened:
“Eadward, king of the English, was wickedly slain at Corfes-Gate, by his own servants, acting under the commands of his step-mother, queen Alfryth, and was buried at Wareham, without any royal pomp. His brother, Aethelred, the noble aetheling, a youth of fascinating manners, handsome countenance, and graceful appearance, was, after Easter, in the sixth indiction, to wit, on Sunday, the 18th of the kalends of May, crowned king at Kingston …”
–The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, Entry Year 978
Most interesting to me in this account, however, is the positive description of Ethelred as having “fascinating manners” and a “handsome countenance.” You are not likely to find such a nice description of Ethelred anywhere else. For instance, William of Malmesbury introduces Ethelred with the following details: “The career of his life is said to have been cruel in the beginning, wretched in the middle, and disgraceful in the end. Thus, in the murder to which he gave his concurrence, he was cruel; base in his flight, and effeminacy; miserable in his death” (Chap X). But even in Florence’s gentler representation of Ethelred, an ominous detail is added after King Edward is buried.
“At midnight, there was seen throughout all England a cloud, which was sometimes of a bloodcolour, and sometimes fiery; it afterwards broke out into rays of different colours, and disappeared about day-break.”
–The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, Entry Year 978
So why was King Edward murdered? There is the obvious possibility, which is that Alfryth arranged it all simply because she wanted her own son on the throne. But she still had the support of various nobles and clergymen—otherwise there would have been an even greater uproar over Ethelred’s takeover. Here is a bit more political background surrounding the differences between Ethelred and Edward, and why an ealdorman might have supported one over the other.
“As soon as King Edgar was dead, and before another King was chosen, there was a great movement against the monks. AElfhere, Alderman of the Mercians, and others of the chief men, began to turn the monks out of several churches and to bring the secular canons with their wives back again. But AEthelwine, Alderman of the East-Angles, whom men called ‘the Friend of God,’ gathered a meeting of the Wise Men of his own Earldom, and they determined to keep the monks, and they joined with Brihtnoth, Alderman of the East-Saxons, and they even got together an army to defend the monasteries. Meanwhile there was a great question who should be King.”
–Freeman, Edward. Old English History for Children, pg 184
Naturally various nobles had their own agendas, and men like Alfhere probably believed that they could get their way by getting a king permanently on their side. What better way to make a king indebted to you than to help him rise to the throne?
In any case, here is the version of Edward’s death told in greater detail by William of Malmesbury and the later historian, Edward Freeman.
“Now one day King Edward was hunting in the land of the Dorssetas, hard by the Gate of Corfe, where AElfthryth and AEthelred her son dwelt. And the King was weary and thirsty, so he turned away alone from his hunting, and said, ‘Now will I go and rest myself at Corfe with my step-mother AElfthryth and AEthelred my brother.’ So King Edward rode to the gate of the house, and AElfthryth his step-mother came out to meet him, and kissed him. And he said, ‘Give me to drink, for I am thirsty.’ And AElfthryth commanded, and they brought him a cup, and he drank eagerly. But while he drank, AElfthryth made a sign to her servant, and he stabbed the King with a dagger; and when the King felt the wound, he set spurs to his horse and tried to join his comrades who were hunting. But he slipped from his horse, and his leg caught in the stirrup, so he was dragged along till he died, and the track of his blood showed whither he had gone.”
–Freeman, Edward. Old English History for Children, pg. 185
King Edward would become known as “Edward the Martyr,” even though he did not willingly die for any particular cause. It is likely that the monks who supported him wanted to make his death as tragic as possible, and make it seem as if God had been on Edward’s side, resulting in the terrible comet that was seen after his death and the miracles performed at his grave in Shaftesbury afterwards.
For the same reason, it’s possible that Dunstan’s prophecies were added to the chronicles of history by later monks, making it seem as if everyone should have known better than to side with Ethelred. Who can say for certain? When I wrote the scene in which Ethelred was crowned, I took most of the words directly from a preserved script written specifically for Ethelred’s coronation. It is preserved in Thomas Silver’s compiled book: The Coronation service or Consecration of the Anglosaxon Kings as it Illustrates the Origins of the Constitution. You will not find Dunstan’s prophecy anywhere in that script.
Whatever the case, if Dunstan truly did foresee the events of Ethelred’s reign, then his words are all the more chilling.
“But, when placing the crown on his head, he could not refrain from giving vent with a loud voice, to that prophetic spirit which he had so deeply imbibed. ‘Since,’ said he, ‘thou hast aspired to the kingdom by the death of thy brother, hear the word of God. Thus saith the Lord God: the sin of thy abandoned mother, and of the accomplices of her base design, shall not be washed out but by much blood of the wretched inhabitants; and such evils shall come upon the English nation as they have never suffered from the time they came to England until then.’ ”
–William of Malmesbury, Chronicles of the Kings of England, Chap. X
In the year 1002, Ethelred ordered all the Danes in England to be murdered, an event called the Saint Brice’s Day Massacre. Not all of them could have possibly been killed, for there were far too many living in England. But it was a gruesome day in which peaceful Danish citizens were rounded up in churches and burned to death, women and men were stabbed or buried alive, and children were crushed. To me, the events of that day carry a haunting resemblance to Dunstan’s prophecy. I wonder which one truly came first?
Florence of Worcester, The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester
Freeman, Edward A. Old English History for Children. London: MacMillan and Co., 1869.
Silver, Thomas. The Coronation service or Consecration of the Anglosaxon Kings as it Illustrates the Origins of the Constitution. Baxter, Printer, Oxford. 1831
William of Malmesbury, William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England