by Martin LakeIf you were to ask someone the name of the last Anglo-Saxon king of England you would probably be told it was King Harold, the man who lost his eye, the Battle of Hastings and his throne.
But if you were to ask someone the question in the autumn of 1066 they would have given a different answer. They would tell you that the last English King was Edgar Ætheling.
Since that time, Edgar has been almost forgotten. At best he has become a footnote of history and often referred to in dismissive terms. It is as if his story has been deliberately erased from history. As George Orwell said, ‘History is written by the winners.’
Yet Edgar was proclaimed King of England and was a key figure in the resistance to the Norman Conquest. After his eventual submission to William the Conqueror he continued to shape the events of his day.
When Edward the Confessor died early in 1066 the Witan deemed the times too perilous for a man of Edgar’s youth to take the throne. Two of the greatest warriors in Europe were preparing to invade and Edgar was an untried youth of thirteen or fourteen. The Witan gave the throne instead to the experienced Harold Godwinson. Ten months later, Harold was dead and the Witan needed to choose a new king to replace him. This time they chose Edgar.
There were a number of requirements to become King of the English in the eleventh century. One was to be a member of the ruling dynasty of England, the dynasty which had once ruled the Kingdom of Wessex. The second was to be crowned. The third, and arguably most important, was to be proclaimed King by the Witan, the council of the great men of the kingdom.
There were other people who could have been proclaimed King, Edwin, Earl of Mercia, the most obvious. So why did the Witan ignore him and other experienced leaders and put their faith in a young boy?
Edgar Ætheling was the grand-son of Edmund Ironside and the direct heir of Edward the Confessor. The Witan decided that only a man with the blood of Alfred the Great in his veins could unite the Kingdom against the invader. He was proclaimed King. There was no time for a coronation and soon after the defeat at Hastings Edgar and the English leaders led a second English army to fight the Normans. But his advisers were overawed by the power and destructiveness of the Norman army and advised him to surrender.
Edgar was now firmly in William’s power and that may well have seemed like the end of the story. In fact there are very few details regarding the rest of Edgar’s life. It seems as if the conquerors were determined to erase all memory of him. Some details persist across the centuries, however.
Edgar spent a few years in William’s hands. In 1068 he fled, probably with his family, to the court of Malcolm, King of the Scots. Malcolm fell in love with Edgar’s sister, Margaret. At first sister and brother rebuffed his advances but eventually they gave in to the inevitable. Margaret set out to humanise Malcolm and Edgar set out to win his support invade England. Malcolm agreed and Edgar led a small force over the border to join with an army already being gathered by Earl Gospatric of Northumbria.
The English army defeated the Normans in Durham, inflicting a greater Norman death toll upon them than they had suffered at Hastings. This was too great a risk for William. Buoyed by their success they marched south but William moved more swiftly. William’s generalship proved too much for the poorly equipped English army and Edgar was forced to flee back to Scotland.
Later that year he crossed Hadrian’s Wall a second time and raised another army.
The Danish King, Swein Estrifthson, felt he had a good claim to the throne of England and sent a huge fleet under his brother and sons to contest the Kingdom with the Normans. Edgar and his supporters now faced two potential threats. They solved it by doing something remarkable. They allied themselves to their ancient enemies, the Danes, and prepared to do battle with the Normans. Nobody knows what deal they negotiated. Detractors of Edgar say that he fought on the side of the Danes but this seems to me to be highly unlikely. Some division of the kingdom seems a much more likely scenario.
The joint English and Danish force captured the city of York, the most important city in the north, destroying two castles and slaying all but a handful of the Norman defenders. Then they moved south in order to bring William to battle. But the Danes seemed reluctant to engage and Edgar decided to lead a small force on his own to capture Lincoln. This attempt was over ambitious ended in defeat.
Later that winter Esbjorn, the Danish leader was bought off by the Normans. The joint strategy was in tatters. The English army drifted away and the earls who had fought alongside Edgar submitted to William.
Edgar refused to submit, however, and was pursued across northern England by the Normans, who wreaked mass destruction and near genocide upon the north. Edgar and his men escaped and made their way back to Scotland once again. He had been successful against the Norman armies but not when they were led by William.
Two years later, in 1072, William attacked the Scots in a devastating campaign and Malcolm was forced to sue for peace. The peace treaty required him to expel his young brother-in-law from his kingdom.
Edgar sailed to the court of one of William’s most determined enemies, Count Robert of Flanders. He returned to Scotland two years later but he did not stay with Malcolm for long. Philip, the young King of the Franks was determined to break the power of the Normans and offered Edgar lands close to Normandy so that he could attack William in his own homeland. Edgar was quick to accept the offer and sailed for the south. Fate was against him yet again and his ships were shipwrecked with great loss of life. Edgar and a handful of followers were hunted by the Normans but finally made their way once more to Malcolm’s court.
Edgar had been fighting against the Normans for six years and was still a young man of only twenty one years or so. This time the pressure from Malcolm and his sister persuaded him to offer William his submission.
He was treated with great pomp by William and given lands and a pension of one pound of silver a day. This was an immense amount and made him one of the wealthiest men in the Kingdom. He did not take part in the botched revolt of the Earls the following year. He was wise not to have done so.
We hear little of Edgar during the next ten years. The few Norman accounts describe him as childish and lazy although a good horseman and a fluent talker. An example of his stupidity is illustrated by the fact that he is supposed to have given William his pension in exchange for a horse. The horse must have been exceptionally fine to be worth such a stupendous amount. Presumably it was Pegasus complete with wings and the gift of speech.
Easily worth a pound of silver.
Either that or this story is indicative of the Norman campaign to discredit Edgar in the eyes of Normans, the English and posterity.
In 1085, complaining that he received little honour and respect, he secured William’s agreement to leave England with two hundred followers. He went to Apulia, which was part of the Norman territories in Italy. We do not know what he did there although he may have taken part in the dispute between Roger Borsa and Bohemond for the Dukedom of Apulia and Calabria.
A few years later 5,000 Englishmen left England for Constantinople under the leadership of one of Edgar’s oldest friends. Given later events in Edgar’s life it is plausible that Edgar joined them.
Within a few years, however, he had returned to Normandy where he became one of the principal advisers to William’s successor as Duke of Normandy, Robert Curthose. He appears to have given up any hope of regaining his lost throne. But ahead of him were years of warfare in England, Normandy and Scotland, the making and unmaking of kings and an important role in the First Crusade.
What I found most remarkable is that although Edgar spent much of his life leading the resistance to William the Conqueror and his successors he was never punished in the way that others were. Many were imprisoned for life, a few lost their lives. Not so, Edgar. He seems to have been the great survivor of these dangerous years.
Nobody knows the reason for this. Was it that the Norman kings feared to do him any harm, that they felt guilty because they knew he was the legitimate king of England? Was it that he was just incredibly lucky? Or was it that he was a highly intelligent man who learnt how to survive in a world which had turned upside down?
Martin Lake has written two novels about Edgar: The Lost King: Resistance and The Lost King: Wasteland. The third: Mercenary, will be published this summer.
The books are available here:
WH Smith (UK Kobo)
Follow me on Twitter: @martinlake14