How did King Ethelred II of England get his nickname “Ethelred the Unready”?

Ethelred II, a little-known king of England, reigned from 978 to 1013 and again from 1014 to 1016.

He had ascended the throne under suspicion after his half brother, King Edward the Martyr, was mysteriously assassinated. The difference in nicknames says it all: The murder of the beloved king created a cloud of distrust and disloyalty around Ethelred’s rule.

The distrust was so pervasive that he and his shadowy council of advisors were unable to organize a unified defense when the Danes invaded and took control over parts of England.

Warfare calmed down as the Danes got busy setting up their own villages on the edges of England. Ethelred decided that this was an intolerable situation and sent armies to massacre the Danish settlers.

The Danish king Sweyn I (known as “Forkbeard”) reacted badly to this and invaded London. Ethelred fled to Normandy. When Sweyn died the next year, Ethelred’s council of advisors convinced him to return and claim the crown. This provoked Sweyn’s son Canute to ravage England all over again.

So, you can see why “the Unready” was a fitting nickname, except we’d be wrong to leave it at that.

It turns out that his nickname in the 11th century was really Ethelred Unraed, which at the time meant “Ethelred the Badly Counseled.”