Edgar the Atheling

Edgar_the_ÆthelingEdgar is Edward the Exile’s son born in 1050 or 1051.  On his father’s death in February 1057, probably by poisoning, he and his great-uncle King Edward (the Confessor) became the last remaining male descendants of Cerdic (essentially the founder of the royal house of Wessex) – hence the Atheling title meaning of ‘noble  or royal blood.’ As such Edgar was an appropriate candidate for the English crown.  King Edward took Edward the Exile’s family into the English court and cared for them.  Had Edward lived a little while longer Edgar might have been the natural heir to the crown just as his father had once been viewed in a similar way.

On King Edward’s death in January 1066 Edgar was a contender for the throne. Initially he was supported by the Earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria at the Witan (council) which met to select the king.  However, across the Channel, Duke William of Normandy was making his own claim to the crown based on his relationship with Edward, promises made and a certain well-known oath made by Harold. In reality a youth without experience either leading men nor of war was not an ideal choice for a country about to be invaded.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings the Witan selected Edgar to replace King Harold who famously died during the battle. Technically Edgar rather than King Harold was the last pre-conquest king of England but he was never crowned and besides which spent most of the nominal two months he was king on the run from Duke William.  Eventually he submitted to William in Berkhamstead in December 1066.

Edgar lived in William’s court where he was well treated but was, understandably,  kept by William as a hostage to his new subjects good behaviour.  He went to Normandy with the duke in 1067 but when he returned in 1068 he became involved with the earls Edwin and Morcar once more and soon found himself up to his neck in insurrection.  He fled to Scotland very soon afterwards – unlike the folk of York who had to live with the consequences of William’s irritation.

However, Edgar did have a secret weapon that kept him firmly on the political map – his sister Margaret, blogged about in an earlier post, who’d won the heart of King Malcolm (Canmore) of Scotland when the Atheling’s family fled to Scotland in 1067.  Malcolm agreed to support Edgar in his bid for the English throne.  They didn’t have long to wait.  In 1069 the people of the north rose against William once more – history repeated itself.  Edgar fled once more into Scotland.  This process was repeated once more by which time everyone must have been heartily fed up – there wasn’t much left in some parts of the North either.  The Domesday Book shows a marked drop in the value of rents from pre-conquest to post-conquest revenues in many parts of Yorkshire.  Though as with everything there are two sides to every story. One of William’s sidekicks – a chap called Alan the Red- who’d acquired rather a lot of real estate probably ensured his own lands weren’t terribly badly ‘harrowed’.  Not withstanding this salient point it is always worth mentioning that William the Conqueror was allegedly troubled on his deathbed by his unfriendly actions in the north (its a good story anyway though not necessarily fair to William.)

Eventually King Malcolm III signed the Treaty of Abernethy (1072) and that was the end of Edgar’s Scottish sojourn. The Atheling was forced to seek protection from King Philip I in France – Edgar was not a lucky lad.  En route to his new host he was shipwrecked and had to flee back to Scotland.  Malcolm sat his brother-in-law down and had a long chat with him then waved Edgar over the border into England into William’s hands.

The Conqueror treated the troublesome atheling well. He received a pension of £1 a day from 1074 onwards.  Clearly the relationship between Duke William and Edgar must have eased further over time because Edgar went to South Wales campaigning on William’s behalf. He was present at William Rufus’s coronation, went on diplomatic missions for William II and became embroiled in the unseemly squabble over the English crown that raged between William and his elder brother Robert.

In the end Edgar sided with Robert once too often after having spent most of his adult life steering difficult political waters to remain on good terms with everyone.  William Rufus is the king who had the unfortunate accident with an arrow in the New Forest. The English crown should have gone to his brother Robert (known as Curthose) but, hey, little brother Henry was right there while Robert was abroad.  Having got his hands on the crown and the royal treasury he did what anyone would do in the circumstances…became King  Henry I.

Edgar, who had been on a crusade with Robert was at the Battle of Tinchebray in 1106 – it didn’t do Robert much good- he was captured and imprisoned for the rest of his life.  On the other hand Edgar was welcomed back to court by Henry I who had handily married Edgar’s Scottish niece Edith.  Edith – who clearly wanted to win friends and influence people dropped the Saxon Edith and became the Norman Matilda.

Edgar died in 1125 having spent his latter years away from court. He was probably due a few quiet years!

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Filed under Eleventh Century, Kings of England, Norman Conquest

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