The tale of a Saxon teen, used as a pawn in the post-1066 power vac­uum – Eng­land’s treach­er­ous game of thrones

History Revealed - - TIME CAPSULE OCTOBER -

“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.


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

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