Ethelred II,surnamed the Unready, king of the Anglo-Saxons, son of Edgar and successor of Edward the Martyr, born in 968, ascended the throne April 14, 978, and died in London, April 23, 1016. His reign was long, and the most unfortunate in Anglo-Saxon history. The son of that Elfrida whose criminal ambition had caused the tragic death of the late king, he never possessed the affections of his subjects, and was acknowledged only because there was no other prince of the royal blood. The Danes made several invasions, appeared with a formidable armament in 991 off the coast of Essex, took Ipswich, and advanced into the country. They were met at Maldon by Brithnoth, ealdorman of that country, who, after having foiled their efforts for 14 days, was defeated and slain. The king, listening to the advice of Siric, archbishop of Canterbury, and many of the nobility, purchased the departure of the enemy by paying them 10,000 pounds of silver, collected by an oppressive tax on landed property, which from this time was permanently established under the name of Daneg'elt. A fleet fitted out against them was rendered useless by the treachery of Alfric, its commander, who afterward deserted to the enemy.

In 993 the Danes, joined by three chieftains who were sent to oppose them, captured the castle of Bamborough and ravaged both sides of the Humber. In 994 the Northmen, under the command of Sweyn, king of Denmark, and Olaf, king of Norway, attacked the centre of the kingdom, sailed up the Thames, and laid siege to London, from which being repulsed, they plundered Essex, Sussex, and Hampshire, and having obtained horses were spreading devastation far into the inland counties. The forbearance of the invaders was now purchased by the payment of 16,000 pounds, and in 1001 of 24,000 pounds of silver. Ethelred and his advisers then determined to rid themselves of the Danes by a general massacre. Secret orders were sent to every town and county, and on Nov. 13, 1002, the festival of St. Brice, multitudes of every age and sex were butchered. Next year Sweyn reappeared on the south coast, and from this time left the kingdom no rest, devastating the country from Exeter to the heart of Wiltshire, burning cities and villages. He consented to a peace in 1007 on payment of 36,000 pounds. Soon the war began again, and was again momentarily ended in 1012 by the payment of 48,000 pounds.

In 1013 Sweyn openly declared his purpose of conquering England, landed at Gainsborough, and marched triumphantly to the walls of London. Repulsed from the capital, he marched to Bath, where he was proclaimed king of England, and recognized by the thanes of Wessex, Mercia, and Northumbria. Ethelred fled in haste to Normandy, and found an asylum with his brother-in-law Richard, the Norman duke. The death of Sweyn two or three weeks later recalled the fugitive monarch, who, restored to power by the renewed allegiance of those tributary rulers who had deserted him, is said to have inflicted new cruelties upon the Danish population. Canute, the Danish successor, was roused by these atrocities to renewed efforts to subdue England. In 1015 he once more reduced a great part of it to submission, and had advanced on London when Ethelred died, just as preparations were making to attack the city.