The Man who should be King: Part Three

Previously, on The Rural Voice

Edgar the Ætheling, grandson of King Edmund II, was born in exile in Hungary around 1052. Summoned to England at the age of six and raised at the court of Edward the Confessor, he should have been elected king when his adoptive father died but Harold Godwinson, with his winning military C.V., got the gig instead. Edgar was belatedly elected king after Harold’s death in the Battle of Hastings but the capitulation of Edgar’s own supporters after the ravaging of the Home Counties by the Normans saw him reduced, once again, to a refugee.

Despite some initial successes fighting against the Normans in York and Lincolnshire, Edgar was eventually forced to take asylum with King Malcolm III of Scotland, whom his sister Margaret married. A peace treaty between Malcolm and William in 1072 saw Edgar transferred to William’s court. He was given estates in Hertfordshire and formed a friendship with William’s oldest son Robert Curthose. In 1086, however, Edgar left England to seek his fortune abroad and it is here that we re-join him.

Edgar went with two hundred knights to seek service with Duke Roger of Apulia in southern Italy. Nothing is known of his adventures there and they would have been brief, for his career as a knight errant was cut short by the news of William I’s death in 1087. William had been burning monks in Mantes, when his horse trod on some cinders and bucked. William, by now obese, impaled himself on the pommel of his saddle and died a deservedly agonizing death. His parting instructions to his three sons, Robert, William and Henry, were that Robert was to inherit Normandy, William England and Henry the money. Edgar hastened back from Apulia not to England but to Normandy to join his bosom chum (and, perhaps, newfound patron) Duke Robert.

He was unwise in his choice of friends. The sons of William I got along famously badly and a war between Robert and William II in 1091 ended with Robert being defeated and Edgar being expelled from Normandy. He took his revenge by returning to his brother-in-law in Scotland* and persuading him to invade England. Although a truce was soon negotiated, disputes over the sovereignty of Cumbria led to a renewal of the war and Malcolm and his eldest son by Margaret were killed near Alnwick in 1093. Margaret died of grief three days later.

Margaret had left another five sons, one of whom was named after her brother and Edgar now focused his energy onto securing the Scottish throne for his nephew and namesake against Malcolm’s brother and successor Donald III, who was supported by Margaret’s second oldest son Edmund. In 1097 Edgar and Edgar invaded Scotland with an English army. They deposed Donald, imprisoned Edmund and made Edgar the younger King of Scotland.

At last an Edgar sat on a throne. It was not the English Edgar and it was not the English throne but it was the first time in Edgar the Ætheling’s unfairly frustrated life that he had been on the winning side. He did not stop there. According to twelfth-century historian Orderic Vitalis’s somewhat confused account, Edgar joined the first Crusade, in which case he must have left Scotland in a hurry and ridden overland to join the English fleet in time for its arrival at Latakia on the Syrian coast in March 1098. He is said to have taken the city under his protection and then given it to Robert Curthose. If this is true, then he may also have joined in the relief of Antioch and then the capture of Jerusalem in 1099.

If Orderic is correct, then this was Edgar’s second successful venture but he may have confused the first Crusade with Edgar’s better authenticated journey to the Holy Land in 1102, when he was accompanied by one Robert, whose father had been tenant of Edgar’s Hertfordshire estates and his champion in a trial-by-combat. In the apparent safety of the crusader-town of Ramla, they were attacked by Saracens. Edgar escaped but Robert was martyred. On his way home, he was offered gifts and positions by the emperors of Constantinople and Germany but he declined, preferring the company of his own people.

Meanwhile, William II had been succeeded as King of England by his brother Henry, who married Edgar’s niece Edith. The marriage both encouraged peace with Scotland and salved English pride, since it would mean the return of the English royal bloodline to the throne. Their son, William Adeling, took his cognomen from his great uncle but this did not prevent Edgar from siding with Robert Curthose in yet another rebellion that was quelled in 1106. Henry imprisoned Robert for the rest of his life but Edgar was released.

It is remarkable that, despite his superior claim to the English throne and his numerous attempts to cause trouble for the Normans, William I, William II and Henry I all spared Edgar’s life. Perhaps this proves that he was never a real threat and yet he did successfully capture Scotland for his nephew and he would live to see two more of Margaret’s sons, Alexander and David, also rule that kingdom. Sadly William Adeling drowned at sea in 1120 and Henry’s attempts to secure the succession for his daughter Matilda would lead to an infamous civil war.

It is doubtful that Edgar saw it. The last contemporary reference to him was written by William of Malmesbury around 1125. William’s appraisal of Edgar’s character, as a horse-loving slugabed living out his life in quiet indolence, was clearly unfair. Now into his seventies, he had earnt his rest. For such an active and dangerous life, it had been a surprisingly long one.

Also surprising are several records in the twelfth century of debts in Northumberland paid by one Edgar Ætheling. The last such record is from 1167. Northumberland would have been a natural place for Edgar to settle after his nephews had secured Scotland but he would have been well over a hundred years old by 1167. It is equally improbable that Ætheling should have been someone’s surname. That leaves only one explanation: Edgar is not recorded as ever having married but this can only have been his son.

Edgar the Ætheling was King, or at least King-Elect, of England from late October to early December 1066. Such brief reigns are not usually considered successes, especially if they are terminated by deposition and foreign conquest. William of Malmesbury’s unflattering assessment of him as a failure is therefore understandable but it is also superficial. The odds had been stacked against Edgar from the beginning: Born in exile in Hungary, losing his father at the age of six, disinherited by more powerful men at the age of thirteen and finally coming to the throne when it was already too late, he nonetheless acquitted himself respectably, proving that he did have the military skill and bravery the presumed lack of which had cost him the election when Edward the Confessor died.

In the end, though he did not secure England for himself, he did secure the unexpected consolation prize of Scotland for his nephews. If the Northumberland Edgar Ætheling really is the same man, then he would have lived to see the old royal house return to the English throne in the person of Matilda’s son and his own great-great nephew Henry II.

No one knows where Edgar was buried. Perhaps his bones lie in the churchyard at Barkway or Little Hormead, perhaps somewhere in Northumberland. What is known is that the man who should have been – and so nearly was – King Edgar II outlived the men who took the throne from him and the men whose lack of support prevented him from taking it back and ultimately his relatives did rule between them nearly the whole of Britain. After all his journeys, after all his pains, after all his defeats, Edgar had, in the end, won a kind of victory.

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

Saint Mary, Little Hormead (Bikeboy) / CC BY-SA 2.0