The Reign of Ethelred the Unready: Appeasement, Holocaust and Treason in Medieval England
Readers might be familiar with the reign of Ethelred the Unready from the popular computer game Civilization IV, where he is reviled as the least capable leader a player can be adjudged after completing the game, if they had not chanced to read about the tenth century English king in history books. Ethelred’s reign is interesting because it shows the futility of appeasement, the precedence of cold-blooded ethnic cleansing, and the damage that can be done to a state through treason.
Prominent among conclusions of his reign is the practice of appeasement, and specifically, the giving of tribute. One is quick to recall the Churchill quote, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” Certainly, Ethelred forestalled the Danish invaders’ worst by giving tribute in the sums of ten thousand pounds, sixteen thousand pounds, twenty four thousand pounds, and thirty thousand pounds, but instead of preparing his defenses to turn back a future Danish onslaught, he apparently believed money alone could bribe the marauders and persuade them to pursue a policy of peace. Such is one case of the pleasant self-delusion of appeasers that peace can be so easily won, and reason can be talked into savages.
When modern scholars speak of the Jewish holocaust or the ethnic cleansing of the Armenians by the Turks, or the Bosnians by the Serbs, they tend to speak as if these events are reflections of our industrial age, where capitalistic greed and mechanistic logic have led to the inuring of men to compassion. But the barbarity and ethnic clashes of the Middle Ages rival the relative scale of atrocity and depth of cruelty of the twentieth century, if not its technological sophistication and systematic rigor.
The reign of Ethelred the Unready, the epithet for Bad Counsel, is also stained by a decreed extermination of the Danish inhabitants under his territorial control, in approximately one-third of modern England proper. Although it is de rigeur for scholars to downplay the bloodshed rent in the St. Brice’s Day massacre, as common course for revisionists who seek to frame the events of the industrial era as abnormal and unnatural within the fuller context of human history, the event cannot be so dismissively downplayed, as if only a few dozen Danes were executed. Historical accounts, primary texts, and archaeological evidence suggest that many more Danes were killed than is generally acknowledged.
This is not to say that the Viking victims should be looked upon with weepy eyes. They were fierce and brutal adversaries who had invaded and ravaged England for over a century. But let us turn to an account of David Hume in A History of England, compiled from other historians:
The animosity, between the inhabitants of English and Danish race, had, from…repeated injuries, risen to a great height; when Ethelred, from a policy incident to weak princes, embraced the cruel resolution of massacring the latter throughout all his dominions. [Ed.] Secret orders were dispatched to commence the execution every where on the same day;Nov. 13. and the festival of St. Brice, which fell on a Sunday, the day on which the Danes usually bathed themselves, was chosen for that purpose. It is needless to repeat the accounts transmitted concerning the barbarity of this massacre: The rage of the populace, excited by so many injuries, sanctified by authority, and stimulated by example, distinguished not between innocence and guilt, spared neither sex nor age, and was not satiated without the tortures, as well as death, of the unhappy victims.
Historical sensationalism? The decree of Ethelred was clear in its intents:
For it is fully agreed that to all dwelling in this country it will be well known that, since a decree was sent out by me with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and thus this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death, those Danes who dwelt in the afore-mentioned town, striving to escape death, entered this sanctuary of Christ, having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make refuge and defence for themselves therein against the people of the town and the suburbs; but when all the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the planks and burnt, as it seems, this church with its ornaments and its books. Afterwards, with God’s aid, it was renewed by me.
Archaeological evidence taken from one site show nearly three dozen apparent Danes killed during this massacre. It is implausible that the scale of killings was as modest as modern scholars tend to suggest. As one site put it, “Whole settler villages were wiped out. Oxford saw the burning of St Frideswide’s church where fleeing Danes had sought sanctuary. Those attempting to escape were cut down outside, the rest burned in the church.” Such slaughter would likely lead to a death toll in the hundreds, perhaps well over a thousand.
In any event, Ethelred’s decision to eradicate the Danes provoked the invasion of the Viking king Sweyn, controller of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, who avenged the victims’ deaths manifold. The crocodile at last got its opportunity to eat, reminding one of the Aesop’s fable The Wolf and the Lamb, whose moral reads, “The tyrant will always find a pretext for his tyranny, and it is useless for the innocent to try by reasoning to get justice, when the oppressor intends to be unjust.”
Lastly, we find widespread treason and perfidy in the kingdom of Ethelred. Again, Hume relates the case of the English attempting to defend themselves at sea, having self-organized in the absence of the king’s leadership:
The Danes next year appeared off the eastern coast, in hopes of subduing a people, who defended themselves by their money, which invited assailants, instead of their arms, which repelled them. But the English, sensible of their folly, had, in the interval, assembled in a great council, and had determined to collect at London a fleet able to give battle to the enemy though that judicious measure failed of success, from the treachery of Alfric, duke of Mercia, whose name is infamous in the annals of that age, by the calamities which his repeated perfidy brought upon his country. […] As the English had formed the plan of surrounding and destroying the Danish fleet in harbour, [Aldric] privately informed the enemy of their danger; and when they put to sea, in consequence of this intelligence, he deserted to them, with the squadron under his command, the night before the engagement, and thereby disappointed all the efforts of his countrymen. Ethelred, enraged at his perfidy, seized his son, Alfgar, and ordered his eyes to be put out. But such was the power of Alfric, that he again forced himself into authority; and though he had given this specimen of his character, and received this grievous provocation, it was found necessary to entrust him anew with the government of Mercia. This conduct of the court, which, in all its circumstances, is so barbarous, weak, and imprudent, both merited and prognosticated the most grievous calamities.
It is interesting to note that the reason Aldric betrayed his people was so that he could more easily retain them in servitude. And as Aldric would prove to be a continual thorn in the side of the English for years, as he refused to lead his Mercian troops into battle against Sweyn, and for good measure, after he was finally executed by Ethelred and thrown into the Thames, he was replaced by the even :greater traitor” Edric. The lesson is that traitors should not be idly tolerated by a people, lest they seek utter ruin. The evaluation of Cicero is justified:
A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear. The traitor is the plague.
Note: A reasoned and considered survey of history leads one to conclude that modern leftism is the ideological justification and rationalization of treason, defined as the betrayal of self-interest – from the individual all the way to the state.