Edgar the Ætheling-  The Boy Who Wasn’t King

Edgar, from an illuminated tree of the family of Edmund Ironside

England in the 11th century was not always a great place to be if you were royalty. Young Edgar was the grandson of Edmund Ironside, king of England, and great grandson of the infamous Æthelred the Unready, also king of England.  So you would think Edgar would be next in line?  Well, not exactly.  There was a little problem named Cnut the Great. Cnut was the son of Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark.  In the summer of 1015, Cnut mounted an invasion of England and fought with Edmund for the throne of England.  It was a year or so of battles, and ultimately Edmund lost and ceded all of England north of the Thames to Cnut.  Then Edmund mysteriously died, some say murdered, but there is no truth.  Cnut then took the throne and married Edmund’s step mother, Emma.  Edmund’s sons, Edward the Exile and Edmund Ætheling fled abroad.  There Edward married a German princess and had three children- Margaret, Christina and the longed for male heir Edgar sometime around 1051.

Meanwhile back in England, things weren’t going swimmingly.  Cnut had been considered a wise and just king, but he also died November 12, 1035.  There was chaos with Cnut’s sons trying to consolidate England with their Danish possessions and fight a war in Scandinavia against Norway.  Eventually, the throne passed to Edward the Confessor, the son of Æthelred the Unready and Emma, the same Emma who married Cnut years before.  Edward had spent his time in exile in Normandy, his mother’s homeland.  England was a foreign place.  Plus he was coerced into marrying the daughter of his most powerful noble, Godwin of Wessex.  Godwin was accused of murdering Edward’s brother Alfred, so they weren’t exactly on good terms.  Whether it was due to Edward’s extreme piety or his desire to not allow a descendent of Godwin near the throne, Edward and his wife had no heirs.  Some legends say their marriage was never consummated.  So in 1054, Edward invited Edward the Exile home to take his place as heir to the throne.  However, things didn’t go as planned.

The little family arrived in England some time in 1057, but Edward the Exile was dead soon after.  No one is quite sure whether this was through natural causes or more sinister means.  However, King Edward’s plans were null and void.  He could not use Edward the Exile as a foil against the Godwins and his son Edgar was too young to use.  However, Edgar and his mother and sisters lived at court under King Edward’s protection.  Then the fateful year 1066 came.  In January, Edward the Confessor died and there was quite the quandary over who should succeed him.  The candidates and their reasonings were numerous and complicated.  The usual suspects were:

  1. Harold Godwinson- Sister of Queen Edith and most powerful noble as the Earl of Wessex.  He claimed Edward the Confessor left him England on his deathbed.
  2. Harald Hardrada- This one is complicated.  Back when Edward the Confessor took the throne, he made an agreement with his half brother Harthacnut that if he died without an heir he would pass the throne to him.  Harthacnut had ruled England after his father Cnut died briefly and was the son of Cnut and Emma.  Harthacnut then fought a war with Magnus I of Norway and promised the throne of England to him as spoils of war.  Magnus was too old to claim it for himself, so he ceded his claim to his son Harold Hardrada.
  3. Duke William the Bastard of Normandy- Distant cousin of Edward the Confessor and claimed Edward promised the throne to him.  Also claimed Harold Godwinson swore a sacred oath to support his right to the throne.
  4. Edgar the Ætheling- Direct blood relation to Alfred the Great, but was only ten years old.

Got it?  Phew.  The witan crowned Harold Godwinson, and we all know what happened from there.  1066 was another year of battles, and to make a long story short William the Bastard won the Battle of Hastings and became William the Conqueror.  But what happened to Edgar?  In the aftermath of the battle, the witan initially proclaimed Edgar king, but it didn’t stick.  In December 1066, he submitted to William.  He was taken to live at court and treated well, but was essentially a hostage.

However, the land was smoldering with rebellion and Edgar was their natural figurehead.  He and his family escaped to Scotland, where his sister Margaret married Malcolm III Canmore. In 1069, Edgar marched into northern England at the head of an army.  They attacked York several times, eventually taking it and killing the garrison stationed there.  They also captured ships from an aborted Danish invasion and used them to raid Lincolnshire.  However, once William arrived in the winter of 1069 playtime was over.  The winter campaign called the Harrying of the North has been described by some historians as nothing less than genocide.  Edgar fled back to Scotland leaving his unfortunate countrymen to bear the brunt of William’s anger.

The Treaty of Abernethy was signed between William and Malcolm in 1072, and ended Edgar’s Scottish stay.  He was fleeing to Philip I of France, but shipwreck forced him back to Scotland, where Malcolm handed him over to William.  Surprisingly, William was relatively kind to Edgar.  He set him up with a pension and Edgar eventually became close friends with William’s sons, Robert Curthose and William Rufus (For more on William Rufus, please see this post:  http://www.historynaked.com/homosexuality-throne-england/ )  These two brothers became embroiled in a conflict after William died and Edgar got right in the middle of it.  Robert was exiled from England after William Rufus became William II.  On behalf of his friend, Edgar went to his brother in law Malcolm Canmore and got him to invade from the north.  Peace was restored and Edgar’s nephew and namesake became king of Scotland.  

Further south after William II met with the unfortunate unpleasantness in the New Forest (For more on that, please see this post:  http://www.historynaked.com/murder-king-rufus-william-ii-england/ ), little brother Henry became Henry I.  Big brother Robert wasn’t so pleased, and Edgar stood with Robert.  Unfortunately, Robert lost the Battle of Tinchebray in 1106 and was imprisoned for life.  Edgar made his peace with Henry, probably aided by the fact he had just married Edgar’s Scottish niece, Edith.  Edgar seemed to retire from court life at this point as he had probably had enough excitement for a lifetime.  Chronicler William of Malmesbury wrote of him in 1125 that ‘he now grows old in the country in privacy and quiet’.  That is the last mention we have of him.  Hopefully the end of his life was as peaceful as the beginning was tumultuous.


The Battle of Maldon

Statue of Brythnoth at Maldon. Photo Credit- Oxyman

“Here in this year Olaf came with ninety-three ships to Folkestone, and raided round about it, and then went from there to Sandwich, and so from there to Ipswich, and overran all that, and so to Maldon. And Ealdorman Byrhtnoth came against them there with his army and fought with them; and they killed the ealdorman there and had possession of the place of slaughter.” — Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Once again, Merry Old England was in a right old mess. In 978, King Edward was murdered to clear the way for his ten year old brother Æthelred. This was described in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle as such:
“No worse deed for the English race was done than this was, since they first sought out the land of Britain. Men murdered him, but God exalted him. In life he was an earthly king; after death he is now a heavenly saint. His earthly relatives would not avenge him, but his Heavenly Father has much avenged him.”

Edward went down in history as Edward the Martyr. Æthelred’s nickname was less flattering. He was known to history as Æthelred the Unready, which was the wrong translation of the Old English word unræd, which mean “ill advised”. Æthelred meant “noble counseled”, so calling him unræd was a pun as well as true.

The Vikings, as their want, took advantage of the transition and stepped up their raids. At first it was a series of smaller coastal raids, but in 991 a large Viking fleet led by Olaf Tryggvason began raiding towns on the Thames. In August of that year the fleet, 2,000 to 4,000 men strong, went to the river Blackwater, then called the Panta, and beached their ships on Northey Island protected by salt marshes and mudflats. They were separated from the mainland by a causeway, which was only passable at low tide. On the other side, stood Byrhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex, and the fyrd, ready to defend their homes. It was an going to be epic clash. A battle for the ages.

Olaf addressed the English, and offered to leave if the English offered a danegeld. Danegeld was essentially a tribute or a bribe to make the Vikings leave without battle. Byrhtnoth scoffed at such an offer. In the poem The Battle of Maldon, he is reported as saying,

“Sea raider, can you hear what this army is saying? They intend to give all of you spears as tribute, deadly points and tried swords, payment in war-gear which will be of no benefit to you in battle…. here stands with his company an earl of unstained reputation, who intends to defend this homeland, the kingdom of Æthelred, my lord’s people and his country. They shall fall, the heathens in battle. It appears to me too shameful that you should return to your ships with our money unopposed, now that you thus far in this direction have penetrated into our territory. You will not gain treasure so easily: spear and sword must first arbitrate between us, the grim game of battle, before we pay tribute.”

Even though he probably was not that poetic, the sentiment was the same. There was to be no danegeld, and the battle was on. The battle raged and at first the English had the better of it. They were able to hold the Vikings on the island by defending the narrow causeway. Then something happened that is mind boggling. Olaf asked Byrhtnoth if his warriors may cross the causeway to fight the English more fairly. Instead of answering with a hail of arrows, which, dear reader, is what your author would have done, he agreed. The Vikings got safe passage and crossed the causeway to fight the English on the mainland. This was the beginning of the end for the English. After giving up their strategic advantage, the Vikings slaughtered the English. Byrhtnoth was hacked to death with his housecarls by his side. An Englishman named Godric fled on Byrhtnoth’s horse, and the shield wall broke thinking their lord had deserted them. Many men fled, but the loyal ones stayed with Byrhtnoth’s body and fought to avenge their ealdorman. The English forces were decimated and Byrhtnoth’s body was found headless still holding his gold hilted sword.

Photo of the causeway at low tide. Photo Credit- Chris Richards-Scully

In the epic poem written about that the battle later, Byrhtnoth’s safe passage across the causeway is explained by ofermōd, which can be translated as “over heart” or “too much courage”. It is akin to hubris, or an excess of pride, from the Greek tradition. Whatever it was, it was the beginning of a long tradition of tribute to be paid to the Vikings. The Archbishop of Canterbury advised Æthelred to pay off the Vikings with 10,000 Roman pounds of silver. This kept them safe…for a time.

It was considered a great shame to have had an ancestor who survived the Battle of Maldon as all the loyal men had stayed with Byrhtnoth and fought to the bitter end. This demonstration of loyalty is what lifts this story from a bitter failure to a tale of victory. In the meantime, dear reader, don’t give up the high ground or let the vikings over the causeway!


The Search for Alfred the Great’s Tomb

Alfred the Great's statue at Winchester. Hamo Thornycroft's bronze statue erected in 1899. Photo Credit- Wikipedia
Alfred the Great’s statue at Winchester. Hamo Thornycroft’s bronze statue erected in 1899. Photo Credit- Wikipedia

The only monarch in English history to bestowed the title “the Great” was Alfred of Wessex. Born to King Aethelwulf and his wife Osburh at Wantage in 849 CE, Alfred as the fifth and youngest son, was never intended to be king. His intelligence and love of learning was well documented. There is story in Bishop Asser’s biography of Alfred of his mother offering a book of Saxon poetry to the first of her children to memorize it. Despite being the youngest, Alfred won. He placed much importance on education, setting up schools and promoting literacy despite more pressing concerns.

However, Alfred was born into tumultuous times. Viking raids were common and frequent. The Great Heathen Army, the name given to the invading army of Danes by the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, landed in 865 CE intent on conquest. Aethelwulf made his sons promise to all succeed each other instead of leaving the kingdom in the hands of an under aged child. Ultimately, the kingship was decided by the Witan, a council of ealdormen, thegns and clergy, abided by Aethelwulf’s wishes.

Subsequent battles and illness claimed his brothers in turn, leaving Alfred to guide the country through the Viking attacks and dark times. By 878 CE, Wessex was the only Anglo Saxon kingdom in England standing. The lowest point was Gundrum the Dane’s attack on Alfred’s estate at Chippenham over Christmas forcing his house thegns and family to flee. They retreated to the Somerset marshes at Athelney and began a systematic guerrilla campaign against the Danes. This culminated in a victory at Eddington against the Great Heathen Army forcing their leader Gundrum to become a Christian. The skirmishes with Danes were far from over, but Alfred had saved Wessex.

The Alfred jewel made of gold and enamel, bears the Anglo - Saxon inscription 'Aelfred mec heht gewyrgan' (Alfred had me made). Thought to be the crown of a writing implement. Photo Credit- http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/saxon_6.htm
The Alfred jewel made of gold and enamel, bears the Anglo – Saxon inscription ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrgan’ (Alfred had me made). Thought to be the crown of a writing implement. Photo Credit- http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/saxon_6.htm

When Alfred died in 899 CE, William of Malmesbury recorded that he was buried in the Old Minster in Winchester. Then later was moved to the New Minster to rest with his wife Lady Ealhswith and son King Edward the Elder. William records this unprecedented move was allowed because “his spirit resumed its body and walked.” The royal family was moved in 1110 CE to the abbey at Hyde, a suburb of Winchester. They were reburied at the High Altar of the abbey church.

There they stayed peacefully until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Hyde Abbey was dissolved and given to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Salisbury, who leased it to Richard Bethel. Bethel promptly tore down the church and swept away “any bones on the altar used as relics”. Some experts believe the tombs were destroyed at this point, but it is not known for sure.

This plaque and the arch next to it are all that remain of Hyde Abbey. Photo Credit- http://royalrestingplaces.com/
This plaque and the arch next to it are all that remain of Hyde Abbey. Photo Credit- http://royalrestingplaces.com/

In 1788, part of the abbey grounds were dug to build the New Gaol, the County Bridewell. At this time, many artifacts were found and anything of value was stolen. Mr Page, the prison warden, said, “the prisoners threw the bones about, broke up the coffins and sold the lead.” Those bones were then reburied at St. Bartholomew’s Church in an unmarked grave.

Modern projects to excavate the grave at St. Bartholomew’s Church and Hyde Abbey turned up skeletons that were from later period than the one Alfred lived. It seemed his remains were lost to the mists of history. Then a cardboard box containing bones were found in the basement of a local museum from an excavation of where the high altar of Hyde Abbey would have been. They were previously dismissed as animal bones by the amateur team. A bone expert reexamined them and found the pelvis of a man. Further tests showed this to be a pelvis from a man aged 26-45, who died in 895-1017 CE. This means the remains could be from Alfred or his son Edward the Elder.

More study is needed, but this could be as significant a find as Richard III’s remains in a parking lot. I am hopeful that the man who saved England will be buried with his family and given the honor he deserves.



Trial by Ordeal-Drowning
Trial by Ordeal-Drowning

We still hold a lot of the same laws that existed in Anglo-Saxon times, however, the punishments have thankfully moved on. Here are a few facts about the punishments you would have expected had you committed a crime back then.

If you committed a crime it would almost certainly be dealt with within your village by your fellow villages in a court called a moot. It would have been overseen by the ‘Thane’ of that village. A Thane was the main man of the village, he lived in a big house and made sure everyone obeyed the law and paid their taxes to him. He would also be involved in helping the King to make new laws and gather the villagers should there be a battle to be fought.

Back to the crime…..should you be accused of stealing, for example, you would be taken to court where you would go before a judge and witnesses. If you failed to turn up at court you would immediately be found guilty, however, if you did turn up and could find enough people to testify to your innocence you would automatically be found innocent. Unless, of course, you had been caught red-handed!

If you were found guilty there was always the option of trial by ordeal. Examples of ‘Ordeals’ were
• Walking at least nine feet on hot coals
• Putting your hand in boiling water to retrieve a stone
• Picking up a red hot iron
• Tied up and thrown into a river

If you survived these ordeals then you were innocent in god’s eyes.
If you actually injured someone then the punishment would defer to their family, depending on their importance, fines could range from 1200 shillings to 200 shillings. If you could not afford to pay then a part of your body would be cut off in comparison to the fine amount. Noses, feet, hands, fingers and big toes could be cut off depending on the severity of your crime.
Finally if you actually murdered someone or you were a traitor, witch or outlaw then of course there was good old execution.

Anglo-Saxom moot court
Anglo-Saxon moot court

Methods for execution ranged from the basic hanging and beheading to stoning, drowning, burning and my personal worst, being boiled alive. Hanging was mostly used to make an example of someone and as a deterrent. Drowning of course was for suspected witches. Stoning was for crowd participation but they also like to see a good old fashioned beheading.

Can you imagine the amount of fingers noses and big toes hanging around if we had still had Anglo-Saxon justice at the time of the London riots!



King Canute the Great, The warrior King
King Canute the Great, The warrior King

King Canute was an accidental king. If it wasn’t for another of our infamous kings he probably would never have even come to our shores. That King was Aethelred or Ethelred the Unready. Of course his name is not exactly what it seems, Unready meaning more ill-advised than unprepared and ill-advised he certainly was. For many Saxon kings before Ethelred, Vikings had been a constant threat and so when Ethelred married Emma, the sister of the Duke of Normandy, he felt more secure on the throne having the Normans as allies. Shortly after his marriage, however, Ethelred made a huge mistake. He had ALL the Danish men left in England massacred, thinking this would make his position even stronger.

Unfortunately for Ethelred amongst the dead was Svein Forkbeard’s, (King of Norway) sister and brother-in-law. Wanting to avenge their deaths, Svein immediately made his way to England, which of course was bad news for Ethelred. Initially he came over and raided the south coast repeatedly until Ethelred tried to get rid of him by paying a ransom tax called ‘Danegeld’.
In 1013 he returned to England with his son Canute with one purpose only, to conquer England for himself. It wasn’t long before he was accepted as King with Ethelred fleeing to Normandy. Unfortunately Svein died only a year later and Ethelred returned briefly as King. In 1016 Canute came back to England and won the Battle of Ashingdon against Edmund, Ethelred’s eldest son and after a brief treaty became the first Viking king over the whole of England.

Canute married Emma, Ethelred’s widow who bore him two sons, Harthacnut and Gunhild. Emma had her other two sons from Ethelred remain in Normandy which would lead to future consequences for England and the Viking monarchy. In 1018 Canute’s brother the King of Denmark died leaving the throne to Canute and paving the way for him to make a claim for Norway. Canute put his son Svein and Mistress Aelgifu (an English lady) in charge of Norway and returned to England and before long Scotland also fell to him. Now Canute was King of all England, Denmark, Norway and part of Sweden.

Due to his hold over these realms Canute’s reign was largely peaceful and he was known as a humble and pious King but when he had to do battle he was renowned as a warrior king.

Today when people mention the name Canute they think of a proud man who tried to halt the tide, however, as the story goes his account was more of a testimony to God’s greatness other than his own.
Kings were inclined to believe in their own greatness and it sometimes went to their heads. Canute was told so often by his courtiers that he was King above all others that he took action against it. Canute was a Christian King and by way of proving Gods magnificence above all others he ordered his throne to be taken to the sea shore. When he could not command the tide to turn and had sea under his feet he pronounced

“All the inhabitants of the world should know that the power of a king is vain and trivial and that none is worthy of the name king but he whose command the heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws”

It is said that he never again placed a crown upon his head.

King Canute reigned for 20 years and died at Shaftsbury. He was buried in the ancient monastery at Winchester. Canute was the first ever King to hold such a wide ranging authority. He also upheld many English laws with a great sense of Justice and rights for the individual.

With Canute’s passing loomed the end of Viking rule, for neither of his sons came to much and with the return of Emma’s first son, Edward (later to be known as Edward the Confessor), came the return of the Anglo-Saxons.