The Last Æþeling
Reproduced with permission from the member's handbook of Þa Engliscan Gesiðas
"...and thus, the last male descendant of the House of Cerdic dragged on a sluggish and contented and life as the friend and pensioner of Norman patrons"
(The Sons of Edmund Ironside, Anglo-Saxon King at the Court of St Stephen, Sander Fest, Budapest 1938. Fest quotes Freeman, The Norman Conquest of England, its causes and its results).
The above is Sander Fest's erroneous verdict on Edgar, grandson of Edmund Ironside and last male heir directly descended from Alfred. It is, I know, difficult to form a clear picture of Edgar whereas other heroic losers, such as the dubiously motivated Arthur and the great but vainglorious Harold, get sympathetic coverage, or at least, full attention in history, Edgar is usually dismissed as irrelevant or entirely forgotten.
The boy Edgar dared to face up to William at London Bridge, with his loyal supporters, the people of London. He was forced to submit, warrior leaders and Stigand having defected and run away, but he did try. He was later instrumental in aiding his nephew, another Edgar, to regain the Scottish throne. By 1106 he has retired 'into obscurity'.
Obscure to whom? The nobles, the Church, the kings and politicians? But not I think, to his loyal friends among the English landfolc. Is it a sad reflection on human attitudes that historians take so little interest in a man who retires from rebellion and crusading to run his own lands and be a good lord to his people? I think it is.
We begin in 1016. Edmund Ironside and Cnut signed an agreement over the division of the kingdom. Edmund may well have been reluctant, but the duty of kings of that time was to protect the folc, not involve them in perpetual war Not long after the treaty, Edmund died, leaving Cnut in sole possession. If there is anything suspicious in the circumstances of Edmund's death, I'm afraid it must be discussed elsewhere. It was a dangerous time for Edmund's queen and two tiny sons, and they were all taken to Sweden. There is an unproven story that Cnut requested the king of Sweden to kill the boys, but it is unlikely that the Swedish king would have complied even had such a request been made. Another story has Emma, the children's stepmother, as the villain - a little more unlikely considering her reputation, but there is no proof of her making such a request either.
From Sweden, possibly via Russia, the boys arrived at the court of the Hungarian king. Here they were warmly welcomed and they seem to have lived full and happy lives. According to known records, the elder boy, Edmund, died quite young, leaving Edward the exile as the solitary heir of Ironside.
The Hungarian embassy kindly sent me what details they had. Amongst their notes was an interesting discrepancy. In the Hungarian account, Edward is the elder son. Now King Edmund married his queen in 1015. She had been married before and recently widowed. There is a slight possibility that the elder æþeling was the son of her first husband, for there were two babies by 1016. They could, of course, have been twins. If Edward, the father of Margaret, Edgar and Christina, were the elder child and the son of the queen's first husband, then nobody is descended from Alfred, are they? I know this is a very odd point to make, but I found it interesting. Edward married Princess Agatha. From the embassy account she is described as the king's eldest daughter. But which king? In the Genealogia Regum Angliæ of Alencon, her father is the king of the Huns. The Sander Pest article discusses at length the different traditions of Agatha's parentage: Nicholas Hooper in Edgar the Atheling Anglo-Saxon Prince, Rebel and Crusader; maintains that it is still uncertain as to which noble family Agatha belonged. However, she was certainly royal, important, and the mother of Margaret of Scotland, The Abbess Christina and Edgar the Æþeling.
In 1051 the supposedly weak and pious Edward the Confessor managed to exile the whole of the powerful Godwine family. His wife, Godwine's daughter, was confined in a nunnery. Edward had always blamed Godwine for the death of his elder brother, Alfred, in the 1040's, but Godwine ignored repeated requests that he should go to trial and clear himself. There was a fracas at Dover when a Norman lord inflamed the townsfolk who attacked his men and had the impertinence to win. The lord complained and Edward, Christian that he was, ordered Godwine to destroy the town. Godwine refused and he and his family were exiled. However, they were back less than two years later, for Edward could not manage without them. It may have been his uneasiness with the powerful earl that made Edward decide to ask Edward the Exile to return to his country. It was not until 1057 that the Hungarian Edward came. His lord was keen to have him as his own heir and the family was well thought of in Hungary. But at last they came, and poor Edward the Exile died on April 19th before meeting his uncle. There was retrospective suspicion over this death but it is uncertain who would have gained by killing him. Godwine was dead by now and Harold was Earl. No angel, certainly, but hardly a sneaking assassin. Perhaps it was the rigours of the journey.
Harold was the most able and trusted man in England by the time Edward died in January 1066. In the years since his father died, there is no sign that Edgar had been groomed as heir, which leads me to wonder just what his uncle had been doing. Was he perhaps still hoping to place his Norman cousin on the throne? Surely a proper uncle would have made sure that his vulnerable young kinsman had a proper education in the arts of kingship and war, and an English following. All those who had come with the family were Hungarian, strangers with no power in a foreign land. English kings were elected from the royal æþelings by the Witan. Harold was not 'royal' in the sense of modem understanding, but his mother was a Danish princess and his sister was wife of the king. Edgar was still very young - his exact age is unknown. He was born by 1056, but how long before I cannot discover. The Witan chose Harold.
Did he coerce Edward into so advising them? It is possible but not so likely that he could bribe and bully the whole Witan. I believe Harold to have been legally king.
When Harold was killed at Hastings, the people of London wanted Edgar for their king. When William reached the outskirts of the city he was faced with the young æþeling and his supporters. Earls Edwin and Morcar had melted away after promising support and Stigand was a broken reed. From Christine Jordan, a Hertfordshire historian, I have this account:
"Edgar the Atheling's men offered William no resistance between Hastings and the southern approach to London; but they held London Bridge against him. William recognised that he could not storm, the bridge, so he encircled London, laying waste a great belt of land across Surrey, North Hampshire and Berkshire as he progressed to Wallingford His speed surprised the English and Archbishop Stigand, the leading member of Edgar's forces, defected and swore fealty to William at Wallingford. William proceeded along the line of the Icknield Way to Berkhampstead in Hertfordshire when the English position collapsed He then attached Edgar to his train of followers to keep a close watch on him."
After Hastings and before William reached London, bishop Leofric died. People asked Edgar to consecrate Brand as his successor as Bishop of Peterborough, and Edgar did so. William felt slighted by this and imposed heavy taxes on Peterborough in revenge. Brand remained, however, and William must have marked the popular support for Edgar.
Despite rumours that Edgar was showered with honours, the only records in Domesday are two small estates at Barkway and Hermead in Hertfordshire. Perhaps Edgar lost lands after his first rebellion, or perhaps he rebelled because he wasn't given them at all.
By 1068 Edgar had left William's court and accompanied his mother and sisters to Scotland. There were rumours of a northern revolt but it is not known if Edgar was involved. Malcolm, king of Scots, was preparing to lead an army into England, probably for his own benefit rather than Edgar's. Edgar was certainly involved in the revolt of 1069-70.
In January 1069 the people of Durham killed Robert De Comminees and many of his men. Edgar drove the Normans out of York, with the help of the Northumbrians. However William won back the city in a bloodbath and Edgar was forced to withdraw to Scotland. It was later that year that a Danish fleet arrived in the Humber with Swein Estrithson, but William was now alert and acted swiftly to prevent an Anglo-Danish coalition. Edgar remained in Scotland now, unable to return, once having rebelled.
In 1072 William once more laid waste the North and most of the Midlands with brutal and unwarranted ferocity. Considering that his conquest had a blessing from the Pope, it was an act that Christ would have wept at. William then marched his army back North to Scotland, where Malcolm was now married to Margaret, the Æþeling's sister. It would appear that neither Margaret nor her brother had wanted this match, but they were vulnerable, homeless exiles who had to pay the price of Malcolm's kindness. William came to Scotland to obtain submission and recognition from Malcolm in 1074. He took hostages and forced Malcolm to send his young brother-in-law into exile. Edgar fled to Flanders where he had friends, but returned later that year when he knew that William had returned to Normandy.
Philip of France sent word to Edgar, offering him the castle of Monteuil, where he could help defend the king against his enemies. But fortune did not smile on the lad. When he set off by ship, he fell foul of bad weather and was shipwrecked. He nearly drowned and had to struggle back to Scotland. Malcolm persuaded him that he should make peace with William. Peace would suit Malcolm nicely, with such a powerful and ruthless neighbour.
Edgar was still a boy. He had fought for his rights for six of his most formative years. It must have been with heartfelt despair that he went to William to submit and ask forgiveness. William received him with warmth and joy. He now had a probable focus of English resistance under his control (Me, a cynic? You bet).
It is a pity that Edgar could not get near Hereward for a united rebellion, they might have changed history. But the æþeling would have had to find a safe route and there were traitors everywhere. Edgar was at court for more than ten years. It would be romanticising to imagine that he had freedom of movement and association. If later Norman writers found him indolent or too fond of horses, it was probably because praising Edgar would have been an indirect criticism of the Norman kingship of England. It would have been during these years at court that Edgar formed his friendship with Robert Curthose. This may not seem a wise friendship, but Robert seems to have been the only member of the court to treat Edgar with respect and the lonely æþeling needed someone. Robert had a name for winning people to him and he may have had more charm than his brothers.
It was 1086 before Edgar left the court, saying that he had not received much honour there. He then took a retinue of guards and went to fight in Apulia. The fact that he seems to have needed a fight suggests that he had been restless and frustrated at court, rather than lazy and content. It is a pity that we don't know mote about the events at Apulia.
In 1091 Edgar was in England. He may have sought to settle down with his people in Hertfordshire, but events were to prevent his doing so. He never did have time to marry and start a family, and any son of his would have been in danger. William II and Robert of Normandy had been having a brotherly bash at one another but in 1091 they made peace. The price of peace fell heaviest on Edgar, for William clearly found him a threat. All Edgar's Norman holdings were taken from him and he was forced into exile away from his English and Norman friends. The early 1090's produced a confusion of kings and treaties. Edgar managed to get to Scotland and, soon after his arrival, Malcolm launched an attack on the North and was almost as much of a pest to us as William). Rufus and his army North to answer the threat but, before the war could break out properly, Edgar and Robert had managed to coax the kings into making peace. Edgar signed a peace document with the three sons of William I before he returned to Normandy with Robert.
In 1093, William Rufus and Malcolm were at war again. Whilst fighting in Northumberland, Malcolm and his eldest son by Margaret were killed. Donald Bane, Malcolm's half brother, seized the throne. Margaret died suddenly and her next eldest son, Edgar, had great trouble ensuring that her body did not fall into the wrong hands and also getting his young siblings to safety in England. He could not have been an adult himself at the time.
Duncan, a son of Malcolm and. his first wife, managed to get himself onto the throne with the aid of an English army, but Donald Bane had him killed. Malcolm's other children were with the æþeling - the girls may have been with the abbess Christina - and Rufus formally recognised that Edgar the younger was the heir to the Scottish throne. (Elected kings disappeared from Scotland as they disappeared from England.) It was not until 1097 that Edgar the Æþeling led the army that was to restore his nephew to the Scottish throne.
Edgar of Scotland was succeeded first by his brother Alexander and then his brother David. David's grandson became Earl of Huntingdon, via a descendant of that other tragic English hero of the period, Waltheof. Huntingdon's daughters gave Scotland Robert the Bruce and the Stewart kings of England, and the complications of the succession after James II.
Whilst Rufus, Malcolm, et al had been bloodying noses, Christendom had been embarking on its holy wars: the Crusades. There is some confusion as to when Edgar took part, although there is no doubt that he did take part, and bravely. Nicholas Hooper gives this quote from Orderic (OV v 270)
"about ten thousand pilgrims journeying from England and the other islands of the ocean to the Lord's Sepulchre, had landed (at the port of Lattakia) at the time that the infidels were besieging Antioch and blockading the Christians in the city … amongst them the most distinguished was Edgar Æþeling ... and he immediately took the city under his protection and preserving his loyalty to Duke Robert (Curthose) transferred it to him after his victory over the Pagans"
It is possible that Orderic may have confused times and dates, for we know that Edgar was busy in Scotland in 1097, and would have been hard-pressed to reach Antioch at the appropriate time - June 1098. There is a more likely account of Edgar's adventures in the Holy Land in 1102 by William of Malmesbury. Edgar was accompanied by his good friend and companion, Robert (the name Robert may indicate a fashion in names rather than prove Norman parentage) son of Godwine was brutally killed at Ramleh for refusing to renounce his faith and Edgar returned home - with a possibly bitter view of holy wars. The Dictionary of National Biography has Edgar crusading in 1099.
William of Malmesbury reports that Edgar was offered places at the courts of other nobles but declined. He is said to have preferred to return to his home England. If this was so, it cannot have been the nobility that he missed, not now He maybe missed the peace of his land and the people in Hertfordshire. There may have been other members of the Godwine family there, also.
It is interesting that a Godwine figures in the crusading adventures of the æþeling, Edgar also had a Godwine as heroic companion in Scotland and they may have been the same person. Maybe he was the son of the Godwine of Winchester mentioned in the apocryphal story of the trial by combat. The story is this: An ambitious young knight, Ordgar, accuses Edgar of treason and plotting to kill Rufus (I expect a lot of people, including Edgar, had something like that in mind). Ordgar demanded trial by combat. The æþeling was no longer in his prime as a warrior and Ordgar probably thought that he had a chance. Then a champion appeared to fight for Edgar - the mysterious Godwine of Winchester. The champion defeated and killed Ordgar. The æþeling gladly took Godwine into his household. The Norman law of trial by combat was never really successful in England, but sometimes fact is stranger than fiction and perhaps this trial really did take place. In the records of Domesday, there is a Godwine mentioned as Steward of the æþeling's land in Hertfordshire.
Edgar's adventuring and fighting were not quite over after his crusade. Robert fell out with his younger brother, Henry I. Henry invaded Normandy (think about that) and captured both Robert and Edgar at Tinchebrai. Robert was imprisoned for the rest of his life by his brother. Henry was less vicious to Edgar: he was now married to Edith/Maude, Margaret's daughter, and the Alfredian descent was secure. And Edgar was a tired warrior in his fifties now. Edgar was allowed to return to his English lands unmolested.
We do not know when Edgar died. I hope he did retire peacefully to Hormead. He may have been disillusioned but he had done his best, despite being shamefully treated from the beginning. The pope who gave William his blessing never even considered the rights of the child. Edwin and Morcar scuttled away cowardly after promising support, one after another the Norman kings kept him closeted at court, confiscated his lands and/or drove him into exile, so preventing him from settling down sooner. He did not have time to be sluggish.
Accounts of his personality at court are not complimentary, but they do not come from anyone who knew him personally. He was also described as attractive in person, well educated, intelligent and chatting. Indolence may have been imposed by circumstance, and a love of horses beyond money is a pleasant eccentricity if it is true. The Norman historian who described him would hardly praise the legal heir to the throne their master sat on.
For nearly a thousand years debate about the Baffle of Hastings has centred on the rights and wrongs of William and Harold's claims. The fact that William could have had no legal claim is sometimes ignored, and I personally doubt the fairy story of Harold's promise. Some important characters in the drama are not properly examined.
* Wulfnoth Godwinesson, Harold's brother, was William's prisoner from the age of eight. If Harold did make any promises, they were under duress. Wulfnoth remained in captivity for thirty years, was released briefly on William's death then imprisoned again by Rufus; he died in prison.
* Edward the Confessor does not seem to be the religious weakling of historical tradition. I think his actions deserve closer attention. Why did he not ensure that his grandnephew was groomed as a likely king? Did he make a promise to William in spite of Edgar?
* The Pope at the time: why did he hear one side and not the other? We know that it was never true that England was falling away from faith. Why did the pope not consider the rights of the child? Especially when it was a child whose mother was a princess of the Holly Roman Empire. Were the papal motives questionable?
Edgar, was the last æþeling.
How can anyone discuss Hastings without Edgar? That Norman writers would dismiss him is natural and understandable. But what, then, of later historians?
I believe Edgar deserves a better place in our history than he has. He seems to be a man who never really gave up. When others would have done and, when he retired to Hormead, it may well have been because he preferred the company of landfolc and minstrels to nobles and prelates - a wise man, obviously. Not a back number after all.