The Man who should be King: Part One

Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Little Hormead

James Lloyd tells the exciting, surprising and tragic story of Edgar the Ætheling, the king we barely had.

In the County of Hertford are two villages which can make a claim to be among the most important burial places in England. One is the graveyard of Barkway, overlooked by the flint-built church of Saint Mary Magdalene. The other is the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin at Little Hormead, parts of which date back to the eleventh century. To understand the significance of these churchyards, it is necessary to return to that same century and to the harrowing events that changed for ever the history of England, of Britain and therefore of the world.

As has been laboured before on this column, the Norman Conquest actually dated from 1016, when the succession crisis that would end with the violent usurpation of the English throne by William of Normandy was set in motion. In that year, King Æthelred II, who had briefly lost his throne two years earlier to the happily short-lived Swein Forkbeard of Denmark, died. His successor should have been his eldest surviving son Edmund Ironside but Swein’s son Cnut, who was still in England with the Danish army, wanted to revive his father’s glory. Edmund won every battle except the last and the two agreed to partition England between them but Edmund died (probably assassinated) later the same year, his half-brothers Alfred and Edward fled to Normandy and a war-weary country accepted Cnut as King.

Edmund had, however, left Cnut a time-bomb in the form of two young sons, named Edward and Edmund (there are going to a lot of Eds in this, so you may want to take notes). They were only babies (Edmund may even have been born after his father’s death) but Cnut recognized them as a long-term threat to his own dynasty and had them packed off to his step-brother, the King of Sweden, with secret orders that they should be murdered upon arrival.

The Swedish king, however, took pity on the boys and instead sent them to the court of King Stephen of Hungary, where they remained until 1028, when Cnut’s assassins tracked them down. Aged no more than twelve, they had to flee again, this time to Kiev, where they joined the convention of royal refugees to whom Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of the Rus, gave asylum. One of their fellow exiles was Andrew, a second cousin of King Stephen, whom they accompanied back to Hungary in 1046 and helped to capture that country’s throne.

By this time Cnut was dead and so was his progeny: Swein, his eldest son, had died the same year as his father; his second, Harold Harefoot, had died of gangrene in 1040; and his third, Harthacnut, died of a stroke at what was presumably an amazing dinner in 1042. Although there is slim evidence that Harold may have had a son, he became a monk and Cnut’s attempt to found a dynasty had failed. At this point, Edward and Edmund should have been invited back to England but unfortunately the plan to hide them among the confusing and unpronounceable nations of Eastern Europe had worked too well. As far as England was aware, Edmund Ironside’s sons were missing, presumed dead and the throne went to another Edward, Æthelred II’s last surviving son, whose own failure to beget an heir was politely attributed to his piety and caused him to go down in history as Saint Edward the Confessor.

Safe but forgotten, the sons of Edmund settled into their new life in Hungary. They were given a Hungarian castle as a home (Réka, of which only rubble remains) and Hungarian princesses as wives (though according to some sources, Agatha, Edward’s wife, was a relative of the Holy Roman Emperor). Sadly, Edmund died young and is not known to have had children but Edward fathered two daughters, Margaret and Christina and a son, Edgar.

Meanwhile, his uncle and namesake the King of England was forced to turn his attention away from re-building Westminster Abbey and towards the succession. The monarchy was not strictly hereditary at this time. A new king was chosen at an assembly of the bishops, abbots, ealdormen and thegns of the realm and subsequently anointed and crowned to consummate his accession. It was this process that had allowed for the usurpation of Cnut in 1016 but any idea that this was quasi-republicanism goes too far: Under ordinary circumstances, it was conventional to elect a son of the previous incumbent and most elections, except in times of foreign conquest (such as Cnut’s), were a formality.

For as long as the queen’s oven remained bunless, however, the country remained nervous. If Edward died without a designated heir, only chaos would reign. King Swein II of Denmark had a theoretical claim to the English throne through his uncle Cnut. Duke William of Normandy, Edward’s cousin, claimed that he had been promised the throne. Even King Harald Hardada of Norway fancied his chances. None of these candidates was acceptable to the English but, in the absence an heir to the established royal house, it would have to be one of them and they were likely to fight it out between them.

Then, in 1054, news reached England that Edward the Exile, son of Edmund Ironside, was alive and fertile. Here at last was an obvious and natural successor, one who, if Edmund had defeated Cnut back in 1016, would have been king by now anyway. Ambassadors were dispatched to Hungary. Understandably, given his tempestuous upbringing, Edward took some coaxing to return to a country he could not even remember but, after three years of negotiation, he and his family finally arrived in London.

Three days later, he was dead.

No one knows if it was natural or murder. Those who believe that Edward the Exile was assassinated usually blame Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, who would become the first, temporary, beneficiary of the succession crisis. There is, however, no evidence that Harold harboured such ambitions at this stage, whereas William of Normandy definitely did. Alternatively, premature death for no apparent reason was common in an age of limited medical knowledge and plenty of Edward’s kingly ancestors had died unannounced much younger than he was without the whiff of murder. It is only the timing that makes Edward’s death suspicious.

Whatever the cause, the result was that England was almost back to where it was, ruled by a chaste and childless king with at least three foreign potentates looking hungrily upon his throne. Of Edward the Exile’s children, Margaret and Christina were disqualified by their sex. That left Edgar. Edward the Confessor gave him the title “Ætheling”, Old English for “little noble” and carrying roughly the same implication as “Prince of the Blood”. This implicitly recognized him as heir but the boy was no older than six and, although Edward continued to live for another eight years, he kept his wishes for the succession ambiguous and failed to build a consensus around Edgar, the last representative of the ancient royal line of England.

When he finally died, on the sixth of January 1066, the boy who should have become King Edgar II was only thirteen years old. Kings had been elected at that age or even younger before then but never in such dangerous times. England needed someone to defend it from the anticipated Norwegian, Danish and Norman invasions and a regent would not do. It needed a warrior-king and Earl Harold, whose success in the Welsh wars ticked at least that box, became one of the few men not of English royal blood to ascend the throne of England.

Could things have turned out differently? If Harold had stepped aside in favour of Edgar and fought at Stamford Bridge and Hastings as his lieutenant, would the Norman Conquest have been averted? Most pressing of all, why did I start this blog with two churches in Hertfordshire and then never mention them again?

You will find out in the next instalment.

Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, Barkway

Photo credits: Saint Mary, Little Hormead, Hertfordshire (John Salmon) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Saint Mary Magdalene, Barkway, Hertfordshire (John Salmon) / CC BY-SA 2.0