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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.