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Edgar Ætheling

Edgar Ætheling, the disputed last Saxon King of England, might have been one of the most interesting people who ever lived.

Bit of backstory: In 1013, Æthelred the Unready was ousted from his throne by Sweyn, King of Denmark. Sweyn died the next year, and Æthelred returned, briefly ruling England before himself dying in 1016, being replaced by his son Edmund.

Edmund also died within a few months of coming to power, no doubt quickened by the fact that Sweyn's son, Cnut the Great, had come from Denmark with a mighty fleet to conquer England again, and did so. Cnut had Edmund's sons sent to his half-brother's court in Sweden to be killed

His sons Edmund and Edward (who was born just a few months prior) were spared, however, as Cnut's half-brother Olof was an old ally of Æthelred. Instead he had the boys sent to Hungary, a newly-Christian kingdom where he felt they would be safe from Cnut.

There they lived their lives, with Edmund dying childless, but Edward having three children: Margaret, Christina, and the hero of our story, Edgar.

Decades had passed, and the throne of England had fallen out of the hands of the Danes back into Saxon hands. In 1042, Æthelred's last surviving son Edward the Confessor had become King. He remained childless, but in 1057 he learned he had relatives in Hungary and sent for them

Edgar, his father, and sisters all arrived in England. His poor father, known as “Edward the Exile” (there are lots of Edwards, Edmunds, and Edgars, I'm sorry) died shortly after returning to the land of his birth. The others lived in England, groomed for rule.

Edward the Confessor died in 1066. As Edgar was just a 14 year boy at the time, the Witenagemot (kingsmoot, basically) elected Harold Godwinson as their King.

It would not be for long.

As most of us know, 1066 was a pivotal year for England. Harold's brother convinced Harald Hardrada of Norway to stake his claim on the English throne while William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, also prepared an invasion.

Harold died at the Battle of Hastings, taking an arrow to the eye. William was now the de facto King of England, but the Witenagemot declared the young Edgar to be their King. For 2 months, he remained uncrowned before he (and the rest of England's lords) swore fealty to William.

William took Edgar as a hostage back with him to Normandy. It's suspected he planned on helping Edwin and Morcar (Earls of Mercia and Northumbria) in their rebellion against Norman rule, but one way or another he and his sisters found themselves in Scotland.

The King of Scotland, Malcolm III, took a liking to Edgar. He pledged that in return for his sister Margaret's hand in marriage he would help Edgar try and reclaim his rightful throne.

With the Harrying of the North in full swing, Edgar went to England to try and set himself up as a unifying figure for the rebellion. He was defeated by William at York, but a Danish invasion the next year was ample opportunity for him to try and rebel again.

And rebel he did. Edgar, alongside the Northumbrian and Danish armies, overwhelmed the Norman forces in York and Edgar found himself in full control of Northumbria. Unfortunately, he dug too deep, and after sailing past the Humber into Lindsey he was thoroughly defeated and fled.

William paid off the Danes and reoccupied York, burning the rebellious lands to the ground. Edgar stayed in Scotland for the next few years, until the Normans invaded it as well. Malcolm acknowledged William as his overlord, the terms of which required Edgar to be expelled.

So exiled he was again, this time in Flanders. The Saxon prince found allies alongside the North Sea coast, all of them hating the Normans almost as much as he did. He sailed to Scotland just two years later, but just before he arrived, the French King Phillip made him an offer.

Phillip would give Edgar lands in northern France, just south of Normady, for the sole purpose of having a convenient location with which to strike at William. I cannot express how much every single non-Normans hated the Normans at this time. Edgar jumped at the chance.

South he sailed, with his men. Disaster struck, however, and he was shipwrecked on the English coast. Most of his soldiers were hunted and killed by the Normans, allowing Malcolm to convince Edgar to put his ambitions aside and return to England as William's subject.

Edgar returned to England, expecting a certain level of respect from his rival William. He was disappointed by how little regard the King showed him, and after 12 years he left England for Norman Apulia with a retinue of men. He wasn't gone for very long.

He returned to find William was dead, his realm split between his sons Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, and William Rufus, King of England. Edgar supported Robert Curthose's claim on England, and became one of his three closest advisors.

Robert lost his war against William II, and the terms of their treaty saw Edgar deprived of the lands given to him by Robert. In what was a familiar act for Edgar, he once again went to his brother-in-law Malcolm's court in Scotland, who was preparing to invade England.

The Scottish and English armies met at the border, Malcolm sending Edgar as his liaison and William II sending Robert (who he had reconciled with) as his. They negotiated a settlement between England and Scotland, including William agreeing to reconcile things with Edgar.

William reneged on many of the agreements he made with Scotland, and a disgruntled Robert left for Normandy once again. Malcolm too was annoyed that William failed to implement the measures of their treaty, and invaded England. He and his heir were both killed in battle.

Malcolm's brother and successor, Donald III, was annoyed by England and France's influence on Scotland, and had all foreign retainers expelled from the country. This annoyed the Normans, who weren't content with conquering only one half of Britain.

They supported Duncan, one of Malcolm's sons who spent much of his childhood in the court of William the Conqueror, as their puppet King. They were briefly successful, but Donald had Duncan killed and reclaimed the throne.

Edgar didn't like Donald. He had other plans for Scotland, which at this point had become a second home to him. He returned to the country once again, but this time with an invading army from England.

Edgar had his namesake, Malcolm and his sister's son Edgar, placed on the Scottish throne. He would then leave Britain for a few years.

It's said that Edgar Ætheling then commanded an English fleet during the First Crusade, off the coast of Syria. It's also said that his fleet participated in the land advance to conquer Jerusalem, but his actual involvement is unknown.

Historians have theorized that during his self-imposed exile from Britain he also served in the Varangian Guard, which was not an unusual career path for Anglo-Saxon men at the time. If true, he served as one of the Byzantine Emperor's personal bodyguards before returning home.

He sailed back to Normandy to once again support his friend Robert Curthose's bid for the English throne, against Robert's youngest brother Henry I. In 1106 their war failed, and Robert Curthose was imprisoned for the rest of his life.

Edgar was luckier, however, as Henry I had married Edgar's niece Matilda (daughter of Malcolm III and Edgar's sister Margaret) a few years prior. He had Edgar pardoned, who seems to have finally settled down and stayed in England.

Edgar lived to see Henry I's son William Adelin die at sea, leaving Henry heirless and the future of England's succession unknown—this would lead to the 18 year civil war called “The Anarchy.”

It's unknown if Edgar fought in that war or indeed if he even lived that long. His last written record in history dates from 1125, when he was 73 years old. The historian William of Malmesbury at the time stated that “[Edgar] now grows old in the country in privacy and quiet.”

As far as we know, Edgar was the last of the House of Wessex. That ancient dynasty that had conquered the southern lands of sub-Roman Britain and united the disparate realms of Anglo-Saxon England under a single crown.

From Cerdic, to Alfred, to Edward, to Edgar, the line of Wessex is now a mostly forgotten vestige of the past, the first real casualty of the High Middle Ages. It's unknown if he sired any children, but it seems pretty unlikely given what we do know about his later years.

But maybe he did. Maybe that wasn't a 100 year old Saxon farmer and truly was his son. Maybe somewhere in England there now sits a man who is his direct paternal descendant, completely unaware of his lineage.

I think Edgar's story is incredible and better than any TV show or movie in recent years. The story of a man robbed of his birthright and spending the next 4 decades fighting like a madman, avoiding certain death at every turn, and being allowed to retire into obscurity.

Edgar Ætheling, son of Edward, son of Edmund, was the last native King of England, and with his death came the end of an era.

threads/chris/edgar_atheling.txt · Last modified: 2021/02/26 01:04 by deluge