Edgar – The Boy Who Wouldn’t Be King

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Edgar the Aetheling

Edgar the Ætheling was the only son of Edward the Exile and his wife, Agatha. His father was the son of Edmund II Ironside, king of England in 1016; Edward’s grandfather was, therefore, Ӕthelred II (the Unready) and his uncle was Edward the Confessor, England’s king from 1042 until 1066. When his father was murdered in 1016 Edward and his younger brother, Edmund, were sent into exile of the continent by England’s new king, Cnut.

It is thought that Cnut intended that they would be killed, but the boys were protected by the king of Sweden and sent on to safety in Kiev, at the court of its prince, Jaroslav. Around 1043 Edward married Agatha, probably the daughter Liudolf, margrave of West Friesland and a relative of Emperor Heinrich III. Margaret, the oldest of three children, was born in either 1045 or 1046; her sister, Christina was born around 1050 and her brother Edgar, the Ӕtheling was born sometime between 1052 and 1056.

The family may have spent their whole lives in European exile, were it not for Edward the Confessor lacking an heir to the English throne; although Edward was married to Edith Godwinson, the couple remained childless. Sometime in 1054 Edward sent an embassy to Edward the Exile, to bring him back to England as ӕtheling, heir to the throne. The family could not travel immediately, possibly because Agatha was pregnant with Edgar, and only arrived in England in 1057, having journeyed by ship, provided by Emperor Heinrich III.

Just days after their return Edward the Exile was dead, whether by nefarious means or simply a twist of fate is uncertain. The suspicion has been raised that Edward’s rival for the throne, Harold Godwinson – the future Harold II – may have taken the opportunity to remove his rival; although it was Harold who brought Edward back to England, so surely, had he intended murder, he would have done it sooner?

Whatever the circumstances, the death of Edward the Exile was a blow for Edward the Confessor’s dynastic hopes. Little Edgar, now the ӕtheling was much too young to assume a political role. He and his sisters, along with their mother, were now in the protection of King Edward. They continued to live at court and by January 1066, when Edward the Confessor died, Margaret was approaching her twentieth birthday, while Edgar could have been as young as ten and was probably no older than fourteen. Due to his tender years, and lack of powerful allies, Edgar was passed over as a candidate for the throne in preference for the older and more experienced Harold Godwinson; who was crowned as Harold II.

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Edward the Exile. Edgar’s father

Following Harold’s death at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066, Edgar was proclaimed king in London by some of his supporters, led by Archbishop Ealdred of York, ‘as was his proper due by birth’¹; he was also promised backing by the earls Edwin and Morcar, brothers-in-law of Harold II but their support did not materialise, and without it Edgar’s cause was hopeless.  He submitted to William of Normandy, at Berkamsted, in early December. William treated Edgar honourably, allowing him his life and freedom, and giving him land.

However, by 1068 Edgar the Ӕtheling had become involved in the opposition to Norman rule, which had been festering in northern England. When events turned against him he fled to Scotland taking his mother and sisters along with him. The family was warmly received at Dunfermline by Scotland’s king, Malcolm III Canmore. At the time, Malcolm was married to Ingebiorg and the father of two sons, Duncan and Donald. Whether Ingebiorg died or was put aside, seems uncertain; her sons were exiled from court, although Duncan would eventually reign as Duncan II he was killed at the Battle of Monthechin in 1094.

Although we do not know Ingebiorg’s fate, we do know that in 1069 Malcolm asked Edgar and his mother for Margaret’s hand in marriage. Margaret was reluctant to agree to the marriage, she was more inclined to a religious life and had hoped to become a nun. Nonetheless, with pressure from Malcolm and, possibly, her own sense of obligation to the king who was sheltering her family, she eventually accepted his proposal. They were married at Dunfermline sometime in 1069 or 1070 and, by all accounts, it seems to have been a happy and successful marriage.

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St Margaret, queen of Scotland

In 1069, Edgar was back in northern England, at the head of the Northumbrian rebels who entered York. After defeat at York, he fled again to Scotland, but returned to lead the Northumbrian army when a Danish fleet arrived in the Humber. The army captured the Norman castle at York and killed its garrison. During the winter, Edgar narrowly evaded capture when he raided into Lincolnshire with a ship from the Danish fleet. Although he was part of the rebellion, there does not appear to have been any specific plans to make Edgar king and in 1070 William brought the full force of his wrath down on the north, systematically and brutally crushing the rebellion.

Edgar fled again to Scotland, and played no part in the 1071-2 rebellion at Ely. By 1074 he was in exile in Flanders. He was shipwrecked in the same year, while on the way to take control of the castle of Montreuil, offered to him by the French as a base from which he could torment King William. Having returned to Scotland, and on the advice of his brother-in-law, Malcolm III, Edgar submitted to William I and was established at his court. According to William of Malmesbury he remained ‘at court for many years, silently sunk into contempt through his indolence, or more mildly speaking, his simplicity’².

According to the Domesday Book, Edgar held 2 estates in Hertfordshire in 1086; Barkway and Hormead. He became close friends with 2 of the Conqueror’s sons; Robert Curthose and William Rufus. In 1086, he was sent to Apulia, another land under Norman rule, with a force of 200 knights, although the nature of his mission is unknown, the mission itself is testament to the high regard the Normans held him in. Edgar then joined Robert Curthose, duke since his father’s death in 1087, in Normandy, but was expelled from there in 1091, following a treaty between Robert and his brother, William II of England.

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Robert Curthose, duke of Normandy

As a result, Edgar went to Scotland and encouraged Malcolm III to invade England. Peace was eventually restored and in 1093 Edgar was employed by William to escort King Malcolm to the English court. Both Malcolm and Margaret died within a few days of each other, in November 1093. In 1095 Edgar campaigned with William against the rebellious earl of Northumbria, Robert de Mowbray and by 1097 as guardian for his nephew, Edgar, in Scotland, he ‘went with an army, with the king’s support, into Scotland, and conquered the country in a severe battle’³ making his nephew and namesake king of Scotland.

According to Orderic Vitalis, in 1098 Edgar joined the First Crusade, arriving at Latakia in the Levant in June; having taken the area under his protection he then transferred it to Robert Curthose, also a Crusader. However, Orderic is the only source for Edgar’s participation and another possibility is that his journey to the Holy Land was later, in 1102 – or maybe he made 2 journeys?

Edgar returned to England in the early 1100s and fought his last action, for Robert Curthose, at the Battle of Tinchebrai in 1106. Robert was defeated by his younger brother, Henry I of England, and was imprisoned until his death in 1134. Edgar, however, was incarcerated for only a short while and was soon released;his Anglo-Saxon royal descent was no longer an issue of contention, since Henry had married Edgar’s niece, Matilda, soon after taking the crown in 1100.

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Matilda, Edgar’s niece and queen of England

Edgar seems to have been only a minor player in the politics and upheaval following the Norman Conquest. His political isolation meant that few took his claim to the English crown seriously. While his participation in military actions, and in relations with Scotland are mentioned in various documents, his death passed without notice – or remark. William of Malmesbury wrote of him in 1125, that ‘he now grows old in the country in privacy and quiet’². Nothing is mentioned of him thereafter; neither is it ever remarked that he had a wife of children.

If he had only been a few years older in that crucial year of 1066, his story could have been very different. instead, he simply slips from the pages of history, remembered only as England’s lost king.

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Footnotes: ¹Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1066, Text D; ² William of Malmesbury, De gestis regum; ³Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1097, Text E.

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Sources: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; William of Malmesbury, De gestis regum; Oxforddnb.com; The History Today Companion to British History, Edited by juliet Gardner and Neil Wenborn; The Battle of Hastings, 1066 by m.K. Lawson; The Oxford Companion to British History edited by John Cannon; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Edward the Confessor, King of England by Peter Rex; The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; The Norman Conquest by Teresa Cole

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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LMy book, Heroines of the Medieval World, looking into the lives of some of the most fascinating women from medieval history, will be published by Amberley on 15th September, 2017. It is now available for pre-order in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2016

England’s First Queen, the Original Wicked Stepmother?

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Queen Ælfthryth and King Edward at Corfe

After writing an article about Edward the Martyr the other week, I thought it only fair to take a look at the other side of the story and write about Ælfthryth, England’s first ever crowned queen and Edward’s stepmother – and possible murderer.

Author Annie Whitehead researched Ælfthryth for her book Alvar the Kingmaker and rather likes her. So she can’t be all bad – can she?

Ælfthryth was probably born around 945; the daughter of Ealdorman Ordgar of Devon, her mother an unknown woman who is said to have been descended from the royal family. As you can imagine, after the passage of 1,000 years, nothing is known of her childhood; although she had a least one sibling, a brother, Ordulf, who was founder of Tavistock Abbey. She was married around the age of 11 to Æthelwold, the son of Æthelstan Half-King (I have to do a post about him! What a name!) and ealdorman of East Anglia.

Æthelwold died in 962, probably in a hunting accident, although there were rumours of murder on the orders of his wife’s supposed lover, King Edgar. Edgar and Æthelwold would have known each other very well. After being orphaned as a baby, Edgar was raised in Æthelstan’s household alongside his own sons; of whom Æthelwold was one of the youngest.  Some stories have Edgar wielding the dagger himself, while others don’t even mention murder. Whether the suspicion arose at the time of the event, or following Ælfthryth’s marriage to Edgar 2 years later, is also unclear.

Edgar’s marital history was already chequered. Ælfthryth could be Edgar’s 2nd or 3rd wife; she was certainly the 3rd relationship by which children were born. Edgar’s 1st wife, Æthelfled “the Fair”, was the mother of his eldest son, Edward (the Martyr). Following Æthelfled’s death, Edgar had a relationship with Wulfryth from which a daughter, Edith, was born around 963/964. The sources are uncertain as to whether or not Edgar and Wulfryth married, and some even suggest that she was a nun Edgar had seduced; although this may be confusion due to the fact that Wulfryth entered a nunnery shortly after Edith was born. Edith joined her mother in the abbey at Wilton, where Wulfryth eventually became abbess; in time both mother and daughter would be venerated locally as saints.

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King Edgar the Peaceable

Ælfthryth and Edgar were married in 964 and were soon the parents of 2 sons; Edmund and Æthelred. Despite having an older half-brother, Edward, it is Edmund who appears as Edgar’s acknowledged heir; his name being above that of Edward’s in a charter of 966, witnessed by both boys, which founded the New Minster at Winchester. Poor Ælfthryth must have been distraught when, in 971 and still only a child of about 7, young Edmund died.

The grandson of Edward the Elder, and great-grandson of Alfred the Great, Edgar had been king since 959; however on 11 May 973 he had a coronation, at Bath Abbey. Whether this was his 1st coronation, or a 2nd ceremony seems to be still debated by historians. Edgar was about 30 and the venerated Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury officiated. It is the 1st known coronation of a queen of England, Ælfthryth.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography there is a near contemporary account of the coronation, which depicts her feasting with many abbots and abbesses, wearing a silken gown sewn with pearls and precious stones. The coronation was an important display for Edgar and Ælfthryth, as a way to emphasise the legitimacy of their union, especially given Edgar’s marital history, and the claims of their children as Edgar’s heirs.

Ælfthryth’s security was destroyed just 3 years later, when Edgar died at the young age of 32. With their eldest son dead and the youngest, only 7 years old, the crown went to Edgar’s eldest son, the 12/13-year-old Edward. Edward faced opposition when Ælfthryth pressed Æthelred’s claim, supported by several leading figures, including Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester and her 1st husband’s brother, Æthelwine, ealdorman of East Anglia.

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Corfe Castle, Dorset

However, with the backing of the revered, future saint, Dunstan it was Edward who was crowned. Following his coronation Edward honoured his father’s promises, confirming the gift of jurisdiction over the whole of Dorset as Ælfthryth’s dower. As a consequence, Ælfthryth and her son, Æthelred, settled at Corfe, in the Purbeck Hills; it was a large estate surrounding a defensive mound, which would later become the Norman stronghold of Corfe Castle.

And it was at Corfe on 18th March 978 that Ælfthryth’s reputation was irrevocably damaged, following a visit from 16-year-old King Edward. Whether Edward had been out hunting, or was in the area to specifically visit his stepmother and half-brother seems to be uncertain. However, he did send a message that he would be calling on them and Ælfthryth’s retainers were awaiting the young king at the gate, when he arrived with a small retinue. Still sitting in the saddle he was handed a drink; and stabbed. It must have been a horrific sight, as the king’s horse panicked and bolted, racing off with Edward’s foot stuck in the stirrup and the dying king being dragged along behind.

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Æthelred II the Unready

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded:

No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain. Men murdered him, but God hath magnified him. He was in life an earthly king. He is now after death a heavenly saint.¹

Although Edward’s brother, Æthelred, only around 10 years old but now king of England, was above suspicion due to his age, Ælfthryth had no such protection. Some traditions go so far as to accuse Ælfthryth of wielding the dagger herself. However, while most believe she was complicit in the murder, it is by no means certain and it is entirely possible that court malcontents, who had migrated to Æthelred’s corner, were responsible for the murder.

Ælfthryth rode out the ensuing furore and with her son as the new king, Ælfthryth was exonerated of any complicity; amid the necessity of stabilising the country, establishing the new reign and rescuing England’s reputation. Æthelred was crowned at Kingston, Surrey, on 4th May 979, a year after his brother’s death and just a few months after the reburial of Edward’s remains, with great ceremony, at Shaftesbury. A council was established to assist the young king in ruling the country, probably involving Queen Ælfthryth, who may have acted as regent during Æthelred’s minority; it also included the aging Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, and Ælfhere, ealdorman of Mercia.

As Dowager Queen Ælfthryth’s dower lands in Rutland and east Suffolk help to extend West Saxon rule over East Anglia as a whole.

Even when Æthelred was old enough to rule alone, Ælfthryth didn’t retire entirely. Following her son’s marriage to Ælfgifu of Northumbria, it was Ælfthryth who had the responsibility of raising their first-born son and ætheling, Æthelstan. Æthelstan died aged about 20 in 1014, 2 years before his father. Æthelred and Ælfgifu had over 10 children together, including Æthelred’s eventual successor in 1016, Edmund Ironside, before Ælfgifu died; Æthelred then married Emma of Normandy, mother of England’s future kings, Harthacnut by her 2nd husband, King Cnut, and Edward the Confessor by Æthelred.

As queen Ælfthryth had substantial influence over the nunneries of England; she ousted the abbess of Barking, a cousin of Edgar’s 2nd wife, Wulfthryth.  she endowed convents at Amesbury and Wherwell,; her granddaughter would eventually become abbess of the latter.

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Peterborough

And it was to Wherwell that the queen did eventually retire from the limelight, sometime before the year 1000, dying there on 17 November in either 999, 1000 or 1001.

Over a thousand years later Ælfthryth actions and reputation are still being debated by historians. While it is not inconceivable that she played a part in Edward the Martyr’s death, we also have to be aware that women of power and influence were much vilified in Medieval times; a strong, independent woman would be blamed for many crimes, simply because she dared to know her own mind….

While I am not entirely convinced of her innocence, neither am I certain of her guilt.

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Footnotes: ¹ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle quoted by Martin Wall in The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World, looking into the lives of some of the most fascinating women from medieval history, will be published by Amberley on 15th September, 2017. It is now available for pre-order in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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Be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; oxforddnb.com.

©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Book Corner: Paula Lofting’s The Wolf Banner

51BZa0o3x+L._SY346_My latest book review, of Paula Lofting’s amazing pre-Conquest novel, The Wolf Banner has gone live over at The Review today!

WAR AND BLOODFEUD
1056…England lurches towards war as the rebellious Lord Alfgar plots against the indolent King Edward. Sussex thegn, Wulfhere, must defy both his lord, Harold Godwinson, and his bitter enemy, Helghi, to protect his beloved daughter.
As the shadow of war stretches across the land, a more personal battle rages at home, and when it follows him into battle, he knows he must keep his wits about him more than ever, and COURAGE AND FEAR MUST BECOME HIS ARMOUR…

The Wolf Banner is the second book in Paula Lofting’s marvellous Sons of the Wolf series which tells the story of Saxon England in the years preceding the Norman Conquest. It follows the trials and tribulations of one family; Wulfhere, his wife and children. A thegn sworn to Harold Godwinson, Wulfhere has responsibilities to his king, his lord and his family, while trying to overcome his own fears, temptations and one big problem; his neighbour and sworn enemy, Helghi.
The Wolf Banner builds on the first book, to draw the reader further into Wulfhere’s life, the highs and lows, into battles with swords and words. It is a fabulous adventure, full of family heartache, compromise and love, while never losing sight of the bigger picture; of England and the struggles of Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, both against his enemies and his king….
To read the full review of this fantastic novel – and to enter the prize draw and be in with a chance of winning one of two e-books in the giveaway, plus a copy of the first book in the series, Sons of the Wolf, simply visit The Review and leave a comment. Good luck!
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©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2016