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Ethelred

History has a funny way of repeating itself. Take the following quote about this sceptred isle: “At this time nothing went right for this nation, neither in the south nor in the north.”

You could be excused for thinking that this has been lifted straight from a recent broadsheet, a pithy editorial on how we really are All In This Together ™. It is not, of course, as that would make for a rather short and unimaginative blog post. But then, I’m not a professional historian, so what do you expect?

The quote comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and provides a fitting eulogy to the first disastrous instalment of the badly counselled Aethelred II’s kingship,[1]  which ended with his flight to Normandy in 1013. Unlike David Cameron, who faces popular criticism for his administration’s failure to gather taxes effectively, a thousand years ago the king had the opposite problem: he was far too effective at collecting taxes.

The tenth century was the Saxon kingdom of Wessex’s X-Factor moment. After a difficult first 400 years vying for dominance with its Saxon-kingdom siblings, the Wessex monarchy found itself the only survivor of the Viking invasion of the late-ninth century. Armed with this suitably sorrowful back-story, it took to the national stage and resoundingly defeated the competition; by 937 the Danish settlers and the Scottish and Welsh kings had been subjugated. At the behest of image and strategy consultants the House of Wessex underwent a dramatic makeover, emerging as the unity-loving monarchs of all England.[2] International celebrity and its inevitable wealth ensued; love matches were sought with other European monarchies, and merchandise was successfully exported to the Continent. Amid the hype and media frenzy, the kings of the English did not forget to Give Something Back™, supporting the restoration of the Benedictine Rule to English shores through the foundation of numerous monasteries.

Now, you can’t wander around the yard with a milkshake as creamy as the English crown without attracting the attention of bigger boys who want to take it off you. And unfortunately for Aethelred, those boys were none other than the Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know™ Vikings of a Danish persuasion. From 980 they raided England in search of fame and fortune.

Aethelred’s ‘Christmas album’ moment (seriously Bob, why?) came in 991 when, following the slaying of the great and the good Saxon nobles at Maldon, he acted on the advice of Archbishop Sigeric to pay a tribute to the rampaging Danes of 10,000 pounds of silver. This would secure the immediate end of hostilities, and give the English time to regroup.

Whilst Anglo-Saxon kings had made such payments before, they had always been one-offs. Unfortunately for Aethelred, the Danes developed a sweet tooth for such treats, and came back to get their fill on at least four more occasions during his reign, each time taking a larger bite. In 1012 they gorged themselves on a rich buffet of 48,000 pounds of silver. This tribute was financed by an annual land tax which later became known as Danegeld. At a time when public taxation systems were rare, this new English system was both efficient and effective, forming the basis of English taxation for around 170 years. The tax was unpopular,[3] but it filled the royal coffers, and at a time of political instability it made the Danes salivate all the more.

So how did Aethelred manage to collect such sizeable taxes so quickly? He led an effective organisation with a motivated management team. The Anglo-Saxon state was a remarkable feat of administrative engineering, in which personal prosperity became intrinsically linked to royal service. From the ashes of the ninth-century Viking invasions rose the phoenix of the ealdorman. Appointed by the king, the ealdormen raised his armies, delivered his justice and collected his taxes in their respective regions, known as shires. These important roles increasingly ceased to be hereditary, and offered an enticing opportunity for advancement. So Aethelred was not short of men waiting to efficiently execute his commands, however misguided they may be. His nobles even tried to follow the king’s order to slay all Danish men in England on St Brice’s Day 1002AD.

In 2013, the media would have us believe that tax revenues are squeezed from UK residents like blood from a stone. In the late-tenth and early eleventh centuries, taxes pumped into Aethelred’s coffers as though from a severed artery.[4] For the Danes, the occasional tantalising taste of English bounty was no longer enough. In 1013 they returned to take the Anglo-Saxon crown in a different direction, replacing its front-man with one of their own, the beserk King Sweyn ‘Sworld’ Forkbeard. But by the end of 1013 the king found himself in exile in Normandy, and a brief comeback in 1014 quickly turned into a farewell tour as Aethelred Left The Building™ in 1016AD.

Was tax really the root cause of Aethelred’s problems? As with the present Coalition government, the answer is probably not. It was, however, symptomatic of the issues that he was grappling with at the time: a troublesome succession, a prosperous nation, a determined enemy, inadequate advisors, misguided policies, and disloyal earls. In the face of external aggression, Anglo-Saxon nobles lacked the will to fight shoulder to shoulder with a monarchy that was still in its infancy, forcing Aethelred to take the more certain option. We can expect today that George Osborne’s Budget will look to make a statement to foreign investors that UK is a place where they can do business and prosper; a thousand years ago, Aethelred would rather have encouraged them to stay away.[5]

If there was an official soundtrack to Aethelred’s troubled reign, it would be a twelve bar blues. That and the jingling of Anglo-Saxon silver pennies as they left English shores in the pockets of the Vikings.

Sheffield-based James Pennock is a history graduate, tax consultant, and popular culture despot. In 2006, James worked with members of Oxford University Centre for Business Taxation to publish a report on ‘Interest Deductibility for UK Corporation Tax’.


[1] Aethelred reigned 978-1013AD and 1014-1016AD. The famously ‘Unready’ Aethelred, was actually ‘Unraed’, which means ‘bad [or no] counsel’ in Old English;  Aethelred means ‘noble counsel’, so his name is a satirical comment on his reign. Aethelred Unraed was known as ‘Noble Counsel, Bad Counsel’ because he was so badly advised.

[2] Grander claims followed: having been persuaded that he wasn’t more popular than Jesus, King Aethelstan (924-939AD) settled on appearing on coins as Rex totius Britanniae, or ‘King of the Whole of Britain’.

[3] A chronicler, commenting on the year 1051 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, noted that “This tax vexed the English nation for so long a time as is here written above; and it always had priority over the other taxes which were paid in various ways, and was the most generally oppressive.”

[4] Aethelred introduced further taxes to try and respond to the Viking threat. In 1012, ‘Heregeld’ was levied to fund mercenaries to fight in his armies.

[5] I leave it to others more qualified to make comparisons between Aethelred and the Coalition parties’ respective policies concerning Europe and immigration!

Tags : Aethelred the UnreadyAethelred UnraedAnglo-SaxonAnglo-Saxon administrationBudgetdanegeldtaxtaxationVikings
James Pennock

The author James Pennock

2 Comments

  1. Very interesting piece – I learnt a lot. Not so sure about the aspersions cast on Bob Dylan’s artistic integrity though… (that is heresy).

    1. Having grappled with the challenges that the thin seam of written sources provides to an Early Medievalist, it’s interesting to consider how Dylan might be viewed by cultural historians in a thousand years’ time if the Christmas Album were the only piece of his rich body of work to survive…

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