With the accession of Aethelred, the Redeless, as he was afterwards called from his inability to discern good counsel from evil, and the consistent incapacity of his policy, an evil time began. The retirement from public life of Edgar's old minister Dunstan was the first event of the new reign, and no man of capacity came forward to take his place. The factions which had prevailed during the reign of Edward the Martyr seem to have continued to rage during his brother's minority, yet Aethelred's earliest years were his least disastrous. It was hoped that when he came to roans estate things would improve, but the reverse was the case. The first personal action recorded of him is an unjust harrying of the goods of his own subjects, when he besieged Rochester because he had quarrelled with its bishop over certain lands, and was bribed to depart with 100 pounds of silver. Yet from 978 to 991 no irreparable harm came to England; the machinery for government and defence which his ancestors had establshed seemed fairly competent to defend the realm even under a wayward and incapable king. Two or three small descents of vikings are recorded, but the ravaging was purely local, and the invader soon departed. No trouble occurred in the Danelagh, where the old tendency of the inhabitants to take sides with their pagan kinsmen from over the sea appears to have completely vanished. But the vikings had apparently learnt by small experiments that England was no longer guarded as she had been in the days of Alfred or Athelstan, and in 991 the first serious invasion of Aethelred's reign took place. A large fleet came ashore in Essex, and, after a hard fight with the ealdorman Brihtnoth at Maldon, slew him and began to ravage the district north of the Thames.
Instead of making a desperate attempt to drive them off, the king bribed them to depart with 10,000 pounds of silver, accepting it is said this cowardly advice from archbishop Sigeric. The fatal precedent soon bore fruit: the invaders came back in larger numbers, headed by Olaf Tryggveson, the celebrated adventurer who afterwards made himself king of Norway, and who was already a pretender to its throne. He was helped by Sweyn, king of Denmark, and the two together laid siege to London in 994, but were beaten off by the citizens. Nevertheless Aethelred for a second time stooped to pay tribute, and bought the departure of Dane and Norwegian with 16,000 pounds of silver.
There was a precarious interval of peace for three years after, but in 997 began a series of invasions led by Sweyn which lasted for seventeen years, and at last ended in the complete subjection of England and the flight of Aethelred to Normandy. It should be noted that the invader during this period was no mere adventurer, but king of all Denmark, and, after Olaf Tryggveson's death in 1000, king of Norway also. His power was something far greater than that of the Guthrums and Anlafs of an earlier generation, and in the end of his life at least he was aiming at political conquest, and not either at mere plunder or at finding new settlements for his followers.
But if the strength of the invader was greater than that of his predecessors, Aethelred also was far better equipped for war than his ancestors of the 9th century. He owned, and he sometimes used but always to little profit a large fleet, while all England instead of the mere realm of Wessex was at his back. Any one of the great princes of the house of Ecgbert who had reigned from 871 to 975, would have fought a winning fight with such resources, and it took nearly twenty years of Aethelred's tried incapacity to lose the game. He did, however, succeed in undoing all the work of his ancestors partly by his own slackness and sloth, partly by his choice of corrupt and treacherous ministers. For the two ealdormen whom he delighted to honor and placed at the head of his armies, Aelfric and Eadric Streona, are accused, the one of persistent cowardice, the other of underhand intrigue with the Danes. Some of the local magnates made a desperate defence of their own regions, especially Ulfkytel of East Anglia, a Dane by descent; but the central government was at fault. Aethelred's army was always at the wrong place if the enemy were east then was the fyrd held west, and if they were north then was our force held south, When Aethelred did appear it was more often to pay a bribe to the invaders than to fight. Indeed the Danegeld, the tax which he raised to furnish tribute to the invaders, became a regular institution: on six occasions at least Aethelred bought a few months of peace by sums ranging from 10,000 to 48,000 pounds of silver.
At last in the winter of 1013-1014, more as it would seem from sheer disgust at their kings cowardice and incompetence than Canute because further resistance was impossible, the English gave up the struggle and acknowledged Sweyn as king. First Northumbria, then Wessex, then London yielded, and Aethelred was forced to fly over seas to Richard, duke of Normandy, whose sister he had married as his second wife. But Sweyn survived his triumph little over a month; he died suddenly at Gainsborough on the 3rd of February 1014. The Danes hailed his son Canute, a lad of eighteen, as king, but many of the English, though they had submitted to a hard-handed conqueror like Sweyn, were not prepared to be handed over like slaves to his untried successor. There was a general rising, the old king was brought over from Normandy, and Canute was driven out for a moment by force of arms. He returned next year with a greater army to hear soon after of Aethelred's death (1016). The witan chose Edmund Ironside, the late king's eldest son, to succeed him, and as he was a hard-fighting prince of that normal type of his house to which his father had been such a disgraceful exception, it seemed probable that the Danes might be beaten off. But Aethelred's favourite Eadric Streona adhered to Canute, fearing to lose the office and power that he had enjoyed for so long under Ethelred, and prevailed on the magnates of part of Wessex and Mercia to follow his example. For a moment the curious phenomenon was seen of Canute reigning in Wessex, while Edmund was making head against him with the aid of the Anglo-Danes of the Five Boroughs and Northumbria. There followed a year of desperate struggle: the two young kings fought five pitched battles, fortune seemed to favour Edmund, and the traitor Eadric submitted to him with all Wessex. But the last engagement, at Assandun (Ashingdon) in Essex went against the English, mainly because Eadric again betrayed the national cause and deserted to the enemy.
Edmund was so hard hit by this last disaster that he offered to divide the realm with Canute; they met on the Isle of Alney near Gloucester, and agreed that the son of Aethelred should keep Wessex and all the South, London and East Anglia, while the Dane should have Northumbria, the five boroughs and Eadric's Mercian earldom. But ere the year was out Edmund died: secretly murdered, according to some authorities, by the infamous Eadric. The witan of Wessex made no attempt to set on the throne either one of the younger sons of Aethelred by his Norman wife, or the infant heir of Edmund, but chose Canute as king, preferring to reunite England by submission to the stranger rather than to continue the disastrous war, They were wise in so doing, though their motive may have been despair rather than long-sighted policy.
Canute became more of an Englishman than a Dane: he spent more of his time in his island realm than in his native Denmark. He paid off and sent home the great army with whose aid he had won the English crown, retaining only a small bodyguard of house-carls and trusting to the loyalty of his new subjects. There was no confiscation of lands for the benefit of intrusive Danish settlers. On the contrary Canute had more English than Danish courtiers and ministers about his person, and sent many Englishmen as bishops and some even as royal officers to Denmark. It is strange to find that whether from policy or from affectionhe married King Ethelred's young widow Emma of Normandy, though she was somewhat older than himself so that his son King Harthacnut and that sons successor Edward the Confessor, the heir of the line of Wessex, were half-brothers. It might have been thought likely that the son of the pagan Sweyn would have turned out a mere hard-fighting viking. But Canute developed into a great administrator and a friend of learning and culture. Occasionally he committed a harsh and tyrannical act. Though he need not be blamed for making a prompt end of the traitor Eadric Streona and of Uhtred, the turbulent earl of Northumbria, at the commencement of his reign, there are other and less justifiable deeds of blood to be laid to his account. But they were but few; for the most part his administration was just and wise as well as strong and intelligent.
As long as he lived England was the centre of a great Northern empire, for Canute reconquered Norway, which had lapsed into independence after his fathers death, and extended his power into the Baltic. Moreover, all the so-called Scandinavian colonists in the Northern Isles and Ireland owned him as overlord. So did the Scottish king Malcolm, and the princes of Wales and Strathclyde. The one weak point in his policy that can be detected is that he left in the hands of Malcolm the Bernician district of Lothian, which the Scot had conquered during the anarchy that followed the death of Ethelred. The battle of Carham (1018) had given this land to the Scots, and Canute consented to draw the border line of England at the Tweed instead of at the Firth of Forth, when Malcolm did him homage. Strangely enough it was this cession of a Northumbrian earldom to the Northern king that ultimately made Scotland an English speaking country. For the Scottish kings, deserting their native Highlands, took to dwelling at Edinburgh among their new subjects, and first the court and afterwards the whole of their Lowland subjects were gradually assimilated to the Northumbrian nucleus which formed both the most fertile and the most civilized portion of their enlarged realm.
The fact that England recovered with marvellous rapidity from the evil effects of Aethelred's disastrous reign, and achieved great wealth and prosperity under Canute, would seem to show that the ravages of Sweyn, widespread and ruthless though they had been, had yet fallen short of the devastating completeness of those of the earlier vikings. He had been more set on exacting tribute than on perpetrating wanton massacres. A few years of peace and wise administration seem to have restored the realm to a satisfactory condition. A considerable mass of his legislation has survived to show Canute's care for law and order.
Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.