Edgar Aetheling
The last prince of the House of Wessex
Born: on or before 1056, Died: sometime after 1121

Who was Edgar Aetheling?

To understand who Edgar was, we need to go back to the year 1016 when Cnut, king of Denmark invaded England. The defending king of England Aethelred, died before he could put up much of a fight but his son Edmund Ironsides did put up a fight, sufficient so that it was agreed that England should be partitioned between himself and Cnut.

However Edmund Ironsides' reign as king was very brief and he was dead by the end of 1016, leaving the whole of England under the control of Cnut of Denmark. Edmund's wife Aelgifu decided that England was no longer safe for her or her two young boys so she fled to the safety of Sweden, and whilst England remained in the hands of the Danish kings Cnut and his successor kings, Aelgifu and her children wandered around Europe and eventually ended up in Hungary. Along the way one of her boys died, leaving Edward, known for obvious reasons as Edward the Exile as the only surviving son of Edmund Ironsides.

Edward was brought up in Hungary and married a princess by the name of Agatha known as 'Agatha the German' and described as the king's eldest daughter, (although exactly which king seems uncertain 1) and later assisted in the struggle to secure the crown of Hungary for Andrew who became king in 1046.2

It was therefore in Hungary that our Edgar was born, probably around the year 1053 but possibly as late as the year 1056, the son of an exiled English noble whose father was in turn once king of England.

Meanwhile Back in England

Cnut died in 1035, neither of his sons Harald or Harthacnut lasted very long and in 1042 another Edward, Edward the Confessor, son of Aethelred returned from exile in Normandy to become king.

Around the year 1053 or so Edward the Confessor began displaying an interest in his exiled relations and sent representatives across to Europe to establish their precise whereabouts. Edward seems to have previously learnt of their existence sometime in the 1040s as a result of diplomatic contacts with Kiev and the Holy Roman Empire 3 but did not act on the information for a number of years.

We have no record as to why, Edward decided to suddenly seek contact with his long lost relatives and we can only assume that it arose out of a concern to secure the succession, given that it was apparent by that time that Edward was not going to produce his own heir.

In the year 1054 Ealdred, the Bishop of Worcester was sent on a diplomatic mission to Cologne to seek the assistance of German Emperor Henry III in contacting king Andrew of Hungary. This mission was unsuccessful, probably because Germany and Hungary were at war at the time. In any event the emperor Henry III died on the 5th October 1056. The regency council that was subsequently established for the minority of Henry IV brought the conflict with Hungary to an end soon afterwards.

A certain Harold Godwinson was therefore sent across on a new mission and began negotiations with the Hungarian king Andrew I. Edward the Exile was persuaded to return and arrived back in England in the early part of the year 1057. Edward unfortunately died on the 19th April before he even met his namesake Edward the Confessor (there are of course suggestions that Harold had a hand in his death) and was buried at St Pauls next to Aethelred.

Edward and Edgar

Edgar was now about four years old, without a father and under the care and protection of Edward the Confessor and was raised within the royal court. It was Edward who named his great nephew as "Aetheling" as his name was entered for him in the formal witness lists of the time as "Edgar Clito" (Clito being the Latin for aetheling.)

Although Edgar was certainly accorded a certain prominence within the royal court at the time, it remains an open question as to the exact nature of Edward’s intentions. His designation as 'aetheling' merely meant that he was worthy of being king, as to whether Edgar was actually being groomed as an heir or whether he was simply intended as a counterweight to the power of Harold Godwinson is uncertain.

When Edward the Confessor died on the 5th January 1066 Edgar would have been between 10 and 13 years old. He would not have been considered 'of age', but it would not have been impossible for him to have succeeded as king with a suitable regency council appointed to guide him. But it was an open secret at the time that both Harold Hadrada of Norway and William the Bastard of Normandy had ambitions to take the crown of England for their own; an invasion from either or both of these ambitious rulers was expected. In the circumstances no one complained too loudly when a certain Harold Godwinson took the crown for himself.

1066 and all that

Of course on the 14th October 1066 the English army was defeated on the battlefield at Hastings at Harold was dead.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Aldred, the Archbishop of York, encouraged Edgar to step forward and claim the throne for himself and that the earls Edwin and Morcar were prepared to support him. But nothing came of the idea and they all went and submitted to William.

Orderic Vitalis gives a different spin to the tale and states;

After that Harold was slain, Stigand, archbishop of Canterbury, and the great earls Edwin and Morcar, with the other English nobles, who were not engaged in the battle of Senlac, declared Edgar Etheling, son of Edward king of Hungary, son of Edmund Ironside, king, and gave out that they were resolved to fight bravely under that prince, for their country and their nation against foreign enemies 4

(And for which reason Edgar is sometimes listed as a king of England that ruled between the two dates of 14th October and the 25th December 1066.)

Whatever the exact truth of the situation it became apparent that William was not to be denied his prize, and Edgar and his supporters clearly abandoned any ideas of opposing William, who was duly crowned as king on the 25th December 1066.

After William's coronation at Westminster, Edgar was one of the many who went with William to Normandy as hostages for the good behaviour of the English. On William's return to England, Edgar was treated rather well, his estates and other privileges were restored and he was considered "one of William’s dearest companions" as the Anglo Saxon Chronicle puts it.

Edgar in revolt

In 1068 the earls Edwin and Morcar, who had earlier seemed to have accepted William as king now led a revolt in Northumbria. Why they did so is not entirely clear, but probably had a great deal to do with the unpopular and heavy taxation that William sought to impose. William reacted to the news of this revolt with his customary vigour and it was soon suppressed with the various participants all either making their peace with William or fleeing to Scotland.

It is unclear what involvement Edgar had in this particular affair but he appears to have decided to make himself scarce as a result, and fled north with his mother and sisters to seek sanctuary with Malcolm, king of Scots 5. Malcolm, naturally welcomed him as he did with all the English exiles that had fled north, particularly as he viewed the change of regime in the south as providing an opportunity for possible ventures of his own.

The revolt having put paid to William’s original idea of relying on native aristocracy to govern the north, and so William next appointed one Robert of Comines as Earl of Northumbria. However in the January of 1069 Robert took a force of 700 men and raided the city of Durham, but during the night the entire army was surrounded and slaughtered by the natives.

Taking this as his cue Edgar, together with Gospatric and Maerleswein came south, entered York and laid siege to the castle that William had only just built. But this second rebellion collapsed as quickly as the first as William came to meet them with an army, and retook York, sending Edgar and company scurrying back to the king of Scots.

Edgar was soon back down south again as in the autumn of 1069 Sweyn of Denmark came with a fleet and an army to promote his own claims to the English throne. With the support of Maerleswein and Waltheof Siwardson the Normans were defeated and Edgar entered York once more.

Swein was eventually brought off, and resistance evaporated in the face of the usual Norman brutality; a few rebels hid out in the Cleveland hills and in the fenlands around Ely, but after the isle of Ely was stormed in 1071 it was clearly all over and time to accept the new Norman dynasty in England.

Edgar and Scotland

Edgar now found himself back in Scotland; with any idea of a political role in England now clearly out of the question. It was then, according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle that "the king Malcolm began to yearn for Edgar’s sister Margaret as his wife".

Malcolm, whose first wife had recently died and was on the look out for a replacement, and who better than a great grand-daughter of Edmund Ironside. Margaret herself was very much opposed to the idea, but Edgar prevailed on her to accept. (Which of course, he may have done for selfish reasons, or in the belief that marriage to the king of Scots would guarantee the safety of his sister and family in turbulent times.)

Naturally the eventual marriage of Malcolm and Margaret was an act of extreme provocation as far as William was concerned, given that Edgar represented a potential rival claim on the English throne. It was no surprise therefore when in the year 1072 William came north with an army to put paid to any ideas that Malcolm may have had.

Malcolm rapidly capitulated and under the Treaty of Abernethy, to give his oldest son Duncan as a hostage and also agreed inter alia, to desist from harbouring William's enemies. Edgar was therefore forced to leave Scotland and take up residence in Flanders.

Edgar goes on his travels

Edgar was not that happy in Flanders and by the year 1074 he was back in Scotland where Malcolm and Margaret 'received him with great honour'. Edgar also received a letter from Philip I, king of France, offering him the castle of Montreul-sur-mer. Of course, this was not an entirely altruistic offer by Philip, who was hoping that Edgar would thereby prove a useful ally in his quarrels with Normandy.

Edgar therefore left for the continent laden with gifts from his brother-in-law, but most were lost in a storm in the North Sea and Edgar and his retinue barely made landfall safely at which point, to make matters worse, some of his men were taken into custody by the French. So Edgar returned once more to Scotland, at which time Malcolm advised him to make his peace with William.

William, who may well have recognised Edgar's potential as a rallying point for his enemies decided to revoke the outlawry on him and Edgar's reward for his submission was to the grant of estates in England and Normandy and a pension of one pound a day.

Having made his peace with William, Edgar settled down for the quiet life for a number of years and it is most likely during this period of his life that he developed his friendship with William's eldest son Robert. But by 1086 he appears to have become dissatisfied with his position.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle simply says that Edgar "turned from him because he had no great honour from him" (him being of course William) and leaves it at that; it is Florence of Worcester that adds the information that he took 200 knights and went to Apulia in Italy, but there is sadly no record of why Edgar chose to go there or what he did during his time in Italy.

In the year following year things changed; William I died and whilst his son William Rufus took over in England, Normandy fell under the control of Robert Curthose. So that when Edgar returned from Italy he naturally went to Normandy where his friend Robert Curthose was in charge, but only until 1091, at which point he 'became deprived of lands' as a result of the agreement reached between Robert and brother William Rufus. (William it seems, did not trust Edgar)

Once more Edgar returned to the safe haven of Scotland where Malcolm was getting up to his old tricks again and raiding across the north of England (William was still in Normandy). When William returned he did so with brother Robert in tow and together they marched north with an army intending no doubt to teach the king of Scots a lesson or two.

In the event, Robert and Edgar between them interceded with the two warring kings and brought the dispute to an amicable conclusion. In the process of which, Edgar became reconciled with William who "promised him, in land and all things, that which he had formerly had under his father". But before the end of the year he and Robert became disillusioned with life in England and left for Normandy.

Edgar conquers Scotland

Events moved on in the north of Britain.

Despite his previous acquiescence in 1091, (and before that in 1072) Malcolm king of Scots still harboured ambitions regarding the north of England, and in the year 1093 he rode south with an army, only to find himself ambushed just outside Alnwick. Both Malcolm and his son Edward were killed and Malcolm's wife Margaret (and Edgar's sister) died of grief within a few days.

The kingdom of Scotland was thrown into turmoil and one Donald Bane seized control, reversing the 'anglicising' policies of his predecessor and promising a return to the traditional style of Scottish kingship. Duncan, the son of Malcolm who had been living in England since the days of the Treaty of Abernathy briefly ousted Donald, only to be killed himself within a year. He was replaced by the rejuvenated Donald, acting this time in alliance with Edmund (another of Malcolm's many sons.)

It was as a result of these events that in 1097 Edgar approached William Rufus with the plan to lead a military expedition to Scotland to place his nephew and namesake Edgar on the throne of Scotland. To this William Rufus readily agreed, as he was eager to see an end to the regime of Donald Bane and its replacement with one more amenable to himself and willingly provided the necessary military resources.

The invasion proved a success; as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported Edgar "won that land with a fierce fight and drove out the king Donald". (Thereby ensuring the continued hold of the House of Canmore on the throne of Scotland.)

Edgar goes on Crusade

Perhaps it was his success in conquering Scotland that gave Edgar a taste for military adventures, as after his Scottish adventure we next find him in the Holy Land and linked to the adventure known as the First Crusade.( No doubt encouraged by the example of his friend Robert Curthose.)

According to Orderic Vitalis, Edgar was part of the expedition that captured Antioch in June 1098 and;

took the city under his protection and preserving his loyalty to Duke Robert transferred it to him after his victory over the Pagans

But this seems rather unlikely, as Edgar was busy in Scotland in 1097 and given the state of public transport at the time he would have been hard pressed to have reached Palestine by the summer of the following year. Other sources have Edgar in the Holy Land at various times in the period 1099 to 1102; William of Malmesbury states that Edgar was there in 1102 and mentions that he was accompanied by a certain Robert son of Godwine, who was eventually captured and killed at Ramleh after refusing to renounce his faith.

Edgar fights his last battle

From the Holy Land Edgar returned to his estates in England and Normandy, and by the time he returned there had been further political changes back home in Britain. William Rufus had died in 1100 and was succeeded by his brother Henry. Duke Robert quarrelled with brother Henry in the same way as he had with brother William, and as before the quarrelling soon escalated to the stage of open warfare.

Edgar naturally sided with his old friend Robert and fought at his side against Henry I at the battle of Tinchebrai in 1106. Henry won this battle and both Robert Curthose and Edgar were captured. Although Robert was to spend the rest of his life in prison Edgar was "afterwards let go unmolested" and returned to his estates in Hertfordshire.

Thereafter the life of Edgar dwindles away into obscurity. Despite the fact that his niece, Margaret had married Henry I in 1100, Edgar remained an outsider and denied any political rule within England.

It is believed that he died sometime after the year 1121

So who was Edgar Aetheling?

Edgar Aetheling; born in Hungary, brought up in England; resident (at various times) in Scotland, Flanders, Normandy Italy and the Holy Land.

He was the great-grandson of Aethelred, grandson of Edmund Ironside, the last direct male descendant of the royal house of Wessex, and the man with the best claim to the throne of England. (Unlike that half-Danish upstart Harold Godwinson who, of course, had no particular claim at all.)

However Edgar never appears to have made much of an effort to promote himself as king; even during his participation in the northern revolts the topic does not seem to have cropped up.

Edgar's great talent appears to have been to survive relatively unmolested and unharmed through turbulent times. It is worth remembering that William I locked up his half brother Odo of Bayeux when he became a threat and Henry I similarly incarcerated his brother Robert for 28 years - these Norman kings of England were never shy about acting ruthlessly when the need arose, but for some reason they never seemed to have concerned themselves that much with Edgar. Despite the fact that he took up arms against both of these kings; they shrugged their shoulders and forgave him.

Orderic Vitalis described him as being "of a mild and ingenuous disposition", and although it is said that he was well educated and intelligent it appears as if he was rather lazy, with a passion for horses and a good fight and not much else. Perhaps that is the reason why he was allowed to remain at liberty; he was in himself a serious threat.

He obviously possessed a certain military ability as his successful invasion of Scotland shows, but what he lacked was the ambition and the will to use it for his own ends. Qualities that wore admirable in themselves but made him ill-suited to wield power in an age where the ruthless application of violence was commonplace.

He never married, and as far as we know never had any children and therefore the line of Wessex ends with Edgar.


NOTES

1Some sources name her as 'Agatha Arpad' a daughter of Stephen I of Hungary (Arpad being the family name of the Magyar dynasty that ruled Hungary at the time)

2King Stephen (and uncle to Andrew) had died in 1038 without any legitimate male issue

3 Between the years 1040 and 1043, a Kievian diplomatic mission contacted both Henry III of Germany and the new English ruler, Edward the Confessor, proposing an alliance directed against any new Scandinavian attempts at expansion.

4 Of course it was likely Aldred not Stigand and Edward the Exile was never king of Hungary.

5 His sisters being Margaret (who later married Malcolm III Canmore of Scotland) and Christine who became an abbess at Romsey in England.


SOURCES

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swanton (Phoenix Press, 2000)
The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis translated by Thomas Forester (George Bell and Sons, 1854)
Betty Hale The Last Æþeling at http://www.britannia.com/history/articles/edgar.html
Edgar the Atheling at http://www.clansinclairusa.org/clansinclairold/per_William_edgar.htm

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