Esential Wessex: Æthelred Unræd

Æthelred Unræd (966-1016) was a king of all the English, descended from the royal house of Wessex. He ascended to the throne as a boy, when his older brother, Edward the Martyr, was murdered at Corfe Castle. As he was so young, he relied on his counsellors, particularly Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, after whom the famous benedictional which provides the finest example of the Winchester school of manuscript illumination is named.

Since the facts of Æthelred's life are so well-documented elsewhere, this article will concentrate on his Wessex connections. In particular, one of his most notorious acts was the genocide of the Danish population of Oxford on St Brice's Day (13 November) 1002. An excavation at St John's College in 2008 identified the remains of over three dozen people, mostly young men.

More positively, a law code promulgated at Wantage in 997, which formed a body of twelve thegns charged with upholding the law, has been portrayed as the origin of the grand jury. Historians have been challenging this view since the 19th century, however. In 1872, Heinrich Brunner argued that the jury system was Frankish in origin, and only appeared in England during the reign of Henry II.

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