1066 EDGAR ÆTHELING IS PROCLAIMED KING
The tale of a Saxon teen, used as a pawn in the post-1066 power vacuum – England’s treacherous game of thrones
“Chronicler Orderic Vitalis described Edgar as ‘Handsome… eloquent, generous and nobly born – but indolent, too’”
England was in disarray after the dramatic Battle of Hastings. The Norman invaders, led by William the Conqueror, were ploughing their way through the country, using brute force to establish their power. The Anglo-Saxon King, Harold Godwinson, had been slain on the battlefield. In a lastditch attempt to maintain English power, a teenager named Edgar Ætheling was elected as king.
The grandson of legendary Wessex ruler Edmund Ironside, Edgar Ætheling (literally meaning ‘prince’) spent his early years in exile in Hungary. His father had fled there after Cnut’s takeover of England, but in 1057, Edward the Confessor – the ruler of the Anglo-Saxon dynasty, whose prospects in the male line were dwindling – invited the family to come back and for six-year-old Edgar to take his place as the rightful heir.
As the Confessor lay dying, the Witanagemot (early Parliament) selected Harold Godwinson as his successor, since Edgar was just a child. However, the new ruler was killed just ten months after his coronation. While William was consolidating his power, England was left
without a king.
It seemed that Edgar was the last hope for the Anglo-Saxon rulers. Despite being only around 14 years old, the Witan and supportive Londoners elected the Ætheling as king, in a futile effort to maintain the status quo. But not everyone was a fan. His age meant many were doubtful of his political credentials, which were essential if he was to represent resistance to the Norman Duke. One of his contemporaries, chronicler Orderic Vitalis, described him as “handsome… eloquent, generous and nobly born – but indolent too”. Despite having the support of the Archbishop of York and Londoners, he failed to convince regional powerholders.
Soon, the unwitting young man would find himself a figurehead of the national rebellion against William the Conqueror, but not for long. When the bastard Duke reached London in December 1066, having laid waste to much of the country and forced its support, Edgar and the Witan met him and wilfully submitted to the invader.
William took pity on Edgar and not only spared his life, but granted him land, according to the Domesday Book. The teenage pretender was even part of William’s coronation procession. However, William didn’t fully trust Edgar, and kept a close eye on him. When the Conqueror returned home to Normandy in 1067, he took Edgar along with him, primarily as a show of power and dominance. The following year, however, the Ætheling and his family fled William’s grasp and found refuge with Malcolm, the King of Scotland, who was pleased to have any excuse to get under the Conqueror’s skin.
The family and the Scottish king soon became fast friends. They were afforded a high place in his court, and Malcolm even married Edgar’s sister, Margaret. However, this tranquil existence was disrupted when a large-scale revolt against William in the north of England began. Edgar, keen on glory, swiftly returned to act as the rebellion’s figurehead. It even achieved some early successes, such as in Durham, where they captured the town and burned
its Norman overlord alive inside the Bishop’s house. However, William’s wrath eventually won out. While Edgar fled back to Scotland, the Conqueror initiated his brutal Harrying of the North.
A PRINCE SPURNED
In 1072, the unlucky young man was forced to find a new home again. William, realising that Scotland would continue to be a thorn in his side, marched into the country and demanded Malcolm’s complete submission. The Scottish ruler, intimidated by the size of his army, agreed. They declared the Treaty of Abernethy, in which Malcolm became William’s client king. Edgar the Ætheling was forced out of Malcolm’s court, as a token gesture of goodwill to William.
Seeing nowhere else to turn, Edgar befriended the Count of Flanders, a sympathetic ruler who was equally hostile to the Normans. According to Vitalis, the two bonded as they had similar, youthful personalities. He lived here for a while, before returning to Scotland briefly. Though William the Conqueror had quashed most of his enemies, Ætheling still attracted support from those few bearing a grudge. Philip I of France was one such person, who in 1074 offered the Ætheling a pleasant castle near Montreuil, which he could use as a base for reclaiming England. Alas, the Prince never got there, and instead was persuaded by his old friend Malcolm to stop resisting the inevitable dominance of William the Conqueror. A disgruntled Edgar went to Italy, where he stayed for a few years.
However, once William’s son William Rufus ascended, Edgar was once again a political pawn. To settle the score between Rufus and his brother Robert Curthose, Ætheling’s land in Hertfordshire was taken away from him in 1091. Thinking Malcolm could help, he returned to Scotland, where he ended up actually negotiating peace between him and Rufus (but not before encouraging Malcolm to rebel first). The Normans were here to stay.
Edgar settled in Scotland, where he acted as a diplomat on William Rufus’s behalf. The later details of his life are a little hazy, but historians believe that Edgar travelled to the Mediterranean in the first decades of the 12th century – either as part of the First Crusade or a pious pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The teenage prince lived a long life, dying in his 70s. His death marked the end of an era – and the beginning of a new one.
ELUSIVE YOUTH One of the only surviving images of Edgar comes from a medieval manuscript, depicting his family tree
SAINTLY LADY later Edgar’s sister Margaret of became Saint Margaret in 1250 Scotland, canonised
ARROW TO THE EYE Edgar took the reign as an emergency measure after Harold Godwinson was killed violently in the Battle of Hastings. Debate rages over whether he was really killed by an arrow to the eye, or if this story was apocryphal.
SURREND ER Edgar gives the the crown to William Conquero r following Anglo-Saxon the defeat at Hastings