The Man who should be King: Part Two

Saint Mary's Church, Little Hormead

Previously on The Rural Voice

It is the seventh of January 1066. Edward the Confessor is dead. The bishops, abbots, ealdormen and thegns assembled in London for the consecration of his brand new abbey at Westminster are instead burying him and then choosing his replacement. The natural successor is his great nephew, Edgar the Ætheling but he is only thirteen years old. Under ordinary circumstances this would not have been a problem – but these are not ordinary circumstances.

In Normandy, Duke William the Bastard (actual contemporary title) claims that his cousin Edward had promised him the throne. In Denmark, King Swein II argues that he has inherited the throne of England from his uncle Cnut. In Norway, King Harald Hardrada cites an earlier treaty with Denmark to argue that Cnut’s inheritance has passed to him. At Westminster, Harold, Earl of Wessex and the late king’s brother-in-law, presents himself as a seasoned warrior capable of defending the country from all three potential invaders. The nobles agree. Although Harold could have been appointed regent for Edgar, the convention of the time dictated that the King should lead his army in person and the army was likely to be led a lot in the coming year. Edgar is passed over and Harold is the first King of England to be crowned in Westminster Abbey.

Most of the events that followed are already generally familiar. What is not so familiar is what happened in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Hastings. The death of Harold at dusk on the fourteenth of October 1066 did not in itself make William king. The two archbishops and all of the nobility who had not been present at the battle were still in London, as was Edgar the Ætheling. They were soon joined by survivors from Hastings, led by the brothers Edwin and Morcar, the Earls of Mercia and Northumbria respectively. These nobles, being what remained of the aristocratic assembly with which lay the choice of monarch, now elected not William but Edgar as king.

The process of accession in this period was somewhat convoluted. The election (not really an election in the modern sense but more an acknowledgement by everyone whose opinion mattered that so-and-so should be king) was usually followed by the coronation. At which of these two points a monarch’s reign should be deemed to have begun is unclear to historians and was probably unclear at the time but, once crowned, the office was full against all comers. Edgar should have been taken to Westminster Abbey and crowned with the same indecent haste as Harold had been but his supporters, perhaps still uncertain of the wisdom of their decision, apparently wanted to make sure that the Normans were gone first.

Nonetheless, despite the ambiguous circumstances in which his reign had begun, Edgar II (as he should be numbered) did manage to exercise at least one of his official functions. Coincidentally, the Abbot of Peterborough had died shortly after the battle. The monks elected his successor, Brand, who had to be confirmed in office by the King. Brand travelled to London, where he presented himself to King Edgar, who duly confirmed him.

It was not constitutional procedure that dethroned Edgar but events. When the English leaders failed to present themselves to him on bended knee, William decided to hammer home the point. Pace Kent’s proud legend, he captured Dover Castle and had its captain publicly beheaded. He then marched on London but the town remained loyal to Edgar and William was repulsed at London Bridge. He resorted instead to a scorched-earth policy, ravaging around London in a semi-circle northwestwards. Edgar’s supporters began to flake away. The first to defect was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand, who met William at Wallingford in Berkshire. By the time William had reached Berkhamsted, twenty-five miles northwest of London, Edgar’s party had decided that he was a lost cause. The remaining archbishop, the earls and Edgar himself met him and surrendered. It is unclear precisely on what dates these events occurred but William was not crowned until Christmas Day, so Edgar may have remained King of London all through November.

Berkhamsted Castle

One might have expected William to snuff out his little rival but in fact the Bastard was canny enough a politician to keep him close instead. In 1067, in William’s victory tour of Normandy, Edgar was one of the English prisoners paraded through the duchy, after which he was given land in England. Perhaps William, noticing how rapidly support for Edgar had disintegrated, did not take him seriously as a threat but, when Edwin and Morcar rebelled in 1068, Edgar, his mother and his two sisters fled the country. It is unknown if they were involved in the revolt and they may have been attempting to return to Hungary in order to avoid being blamed but their ship was blown off course and they landed in Scotland, where they sought refuge from Malcolm III Canmore (the one who becomes king at the end of Macbeth).

In 1069, Edgar became one of the leaders of a second revolt against William. He captured York Castle and slaughtered its Norman garrison. It is important to note that he was now aged around seventeen and an adult by contemporary reckoning. This was his first recorded military experience. That it was a success makes the nobles’ failure to elect him king after Edward’s death all the more galling. He spent the winter ravaging Lincolnshire but he was let down by a lack of coordination amongst the English. Swein of Denmark, who had revived his own claim to the throne, landed in England in 1070 and it is unclear which claimant the English rebels were actually supporting. When William and Swein made peace, enthusiasm for the revolt evaporated and Edgar retreated to Scotland.

Malcolm proposed marriage to Edgar’s sister Margaret. She had hoped to become a nun and viewed the union with distaste but she was in no position to refuse. She bore him six sons and two daughters and their four eldest sons were given the English names Edward, Edmund, Æthelred and Edgar. Malcolm, who already had children by a previous marriage, probably hoped that, through Margaret, his descendants would have a claim to the English throne and his frequent raiding forays into Northumberland persuaded William that he was a threat. In 1072, he overawed the Scots by bringing his army and navy to the Firth of Tay and Malcolm came to terms.

As part of the submission, Edgar made peace with his usurper and joined his court. Edgar seems to have reconciled himself to his situation. He did not participate in Hereward the Wake’s rebellion in 1075 and even developed a friendship with William’s eldest son, Robert Curthose, who was around the same age as Edgar. The Domesday Book, compiled in 1086, says that Edgar held two estates, at Barkway and Hormead in Hertfordshire. The parish church at the latter location contains some eleventh-century material and one would like to believe that it was Edgar himself who had ordered its construction.

Yet even when this entry was written, Edgar had actually left England. Feeling that he was not receiving the respect to which he was entitled in the country of which he had nearly been the sovereign, the King of November had gone abroad to find his fortune in another land.

We shall re-rejoin him on his continuing adventures next week.

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

The North West Corner of Berkhamsted Castle (Chris Reynolds) / CC BY-SA 2.0