4/5th January 1066
King Edward the Confessor dies at the Palace of Westminster, according to the Bayeaux Tapestry with his wife Edith the sister of Harold Godwinson at his side. Although he had promised to support William, Duke of Normandy’s claim to the English throne, Harold allowed himself to be elected King as soon as Edward is dead. However these two weren’t the only claimants to the English throne. There were also:
- Edgar the Atheling
- Tostig, Harold Godwinson’s brother
- Harold Hardrada, King of Norway.
Edgar the Atheling’s claim to the throne came from his bloodline. King Ethelred the Unready or ‘the Redeless’ who died 23rd April 1016 was his great grandfather. He was the chap who paid the Vikings huge sums of Danegeld to go away but they never did.
Edgar’s grandfather was Edmund Ironside who briefly succeeded his father but who died in November that year, probably assassinated, and than replaced by the Scandanavian King Cnut or Canute. Canute went on to marry Ethelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy (who just to confuse matters nicely was also the mother of Edward the Confessor – so Edmund Ironside was Edward the Confessor’s half-brother. There’s nothing like keeping it all in the family- makes me glad I’m descended from a long line of peasants.)
But back to Edgar and his family tree. Edmund Ironside, assassinated and quietly buried in Glastonbury Abbey, left two sons -Edward and Edmund (Obviously history was going through the letter E at the time). Florence of Worcester writes that the brothers were twins. They went first to Sweden on the orders of King Canute who sent with them a nice letter suggesting that it would be perfectly acceptable for the royal orphans to have a nasty accident – according to Florence of Worcester again. Apparently Canute’s half-brother who was king of Sweden drew the line at murdering small children and sent them on their way to Kiev. They eventually ended up in Hungary where the queen was an aunt of some description on their mother’s side and where they lived in relative obscurity but as handy pawns in a hugely complicated game of early medieval politics. Edmund died but Edward married Agatha, a niece of Henry III, Emperor of Germany, by whom he had three children. There was one son – Edgar born in 1050 who made a claim to the English throne on the death of Edward the Confessor and then again after the Battle of Hastings. There were also two daughters, Margaret and Christina.
From here the plot thickens somewhat- if it hasn’t been convoluted enough already. England went through a series of kings with lively Norse attitudes to life – from Canute via Harold Harefoot to Harthacnut. Both the later were Canute’s sons and seemed to have retained an essential Viking approach to life. For instance Harthacnut had Harold Harefoot excavated from his grave and his corpse thrown into a nearby fen. Harthacnut who had a wider reputation for being a rather nasty piece of work aside from his approach to family was Edward the Confessor’s half-brother. Eventually the Scandinavian types expired without issue – Harthacnut choked at a wedding feast.
Edward the Confessor was then invited back to be king. He’d spent most of his life in Normandy by this time. His dress was Norman and his chosen advisors were Norman but Earl Godwin of Wessex soon put paid to that sort of behaviour until he was briefly exiled in 1051. Edward (the Confessor) took the opportunity to invite his half-nephew Edward (that’s Edmund’s son – the one married to Agatha) to come back to England with his family, delighted not only that Edward was alive but also that he was a solution to problem forming around the pro-Norman and pro-Saxon factions at court.
Edward the Atheling also known as Edward the Exile for pretty obvious reasons returned to England in 1057. He was the solution to Edward the Confessor’s lack of children and the fact that the Normans under Duke William and the Godwinssons (Earl Godwin’s disgrace didn’t last long) were all set to fight over the kingdom. Edward the Exile was of noble blood and was the son of Edmund Ironside so had he lived might have been able to hold the English crown. The Witan (Edward’s council) seconded the invitation as they also recognised the need for an heir that would avoid bloodshed. In addition to which coming from Hungary, Edward the Exile had no links to Normandy.
When Edward finally did arrive in England, Florence of Worcester says “We do not know for whatever reason that was done that the atheling was not allowed to see his relation, Edward King.” It’s a shame that chroniclers can sometimes be so tight lipped. Why was Edward not allowed to meet Edward? It’s all a matter of supposition.
And sadly it didn’t get any better, two days after his boat docked Edward the Exile was dead. His death is shrouded in mystery but generally speaking most historians seem to agree that it was murder. None of the chroniclers mention that Edward the Exile was in ill health. A man with such a good claim to the throne was inevitably going to make enemies and it is highly likely that someone somewhere decided to remove Edward before he became a problem. In all good murder mysteries the advice is to look in the direction of the person who benefits – so that’ll be William of Normandy or Harold Godwinson assuming that Edward got on well with his wife and hadn’t left anyone feeling particularly aggrieved in Hungary.
The Bury Psalter, an eleventh century text, contains a family tree showing some of the descendants of Edward the Exile. One daughter, Christina became a nun but the other one – Margaret- became St Margaret of Scotland having fled to Scotland in 1067 where she eventually married King Malcolm. As for Edward’s son, Edgar the Atheling his was a life of rebellion, captivity and ultimately death on crusade.