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