Edgar the Aetheling: Failure or Survivor?


You could argue that Edgar was set up to fail from the start. As the last male heir of the ancient royal House of Cerdic of Wessex; Edgar had the bloodline but little else to support his claim to the English throne when his great uncle, Edward the Confessor, died in January 1066.



Edgar’s father, Edward the Exile who raised his children in Hungary for some time


His father, Edward the Exile, had mysteriously died shortly after being recalled to court by Edward the Confessor, to be his heir thus leaving Edgar’s claim unprotected by a strong male relative at the tender age of 6. His mother, Agatha, may have been related to the German Emperor but was far from assistance and before long would be surrounded by powerful men who were all set to devour each other in a violent contest of military strength in order to lay hands on the throne.


Edgar lacked a powerful protector and his position was unclear. Edward the Confessor’s failure to definitively nominate a successor was a major stumbling block in itself but combined with Edgar’s youth, inexperience and the threats posed by the rival contenders, he was left on the back foot when the crisis hit.

Ranged against Edgar’s claim through royal descent stood Harold Godwinson – charismatic, powerful, well-placed to persuade the Witenagemot to overlook a boy at a moment of national peril. Then there was William, Duke of Normandy – ambitious, skilled in warfare and anxious to contest his claim that Edward the Confessor had promised the English throne to him. As if that was not enough, Edgar also faced threats from King Sweyn II of Denmark and Harald III of Norway, who were also watching hawkishly from the wings, ready to seize an opportunity to launch an invasion fleet to attack a weakened country and exploit the situation to their own advantage.

Edgar must have been in despair when the Witenagemot predictably chose Harold Godwinson as the best possible candidate and he watched, helplessly, as his birth right was disposed of. Perhaps he thought that he might be able to watch from the side-lines as the contenders killed each other off and emerge at the end as the last boy standing. It was not to be!


1066 is sometimes known as the year of three kings but there was actually a fourth. In the dark days after the crushing defeat of Harold’s army at Hastings in October, the Witenagemot met at London and elected Edgar as King of the English in a last ditch attempt to counteract the Norman Invasion.

How likely was this to succeed? With the benefit of hindsight it seemed doomed to failure from the outset. The Witan had rejected Edgar only a few months before and his closest advisors were all men who had cheerfully overlooked him in favour of Harold Godwinson.

Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury; Ealdred, Archbishop of York and the two earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria were, at heart, realists. The resistance to the Norman advance was inadequate, disorganised and ineffectual. The people were terrified and reeling from the shock of the defeat at Hastings and the Norman’s brutal advance on London. Resistance was being crushed with merciless efficiency by a military force that Edgar could not hope to rival or contend with and led by a man who was determined to be king.

When William of Normandy reached the Thames at Wallingford, Stigand met him and submitted to him. Edgar’s support drained away as William bore down on London. His advisors were already negotiating with William and sensing the inevitable. Edgar submitted too at Berkhampsted and was to remain in custody for the next year, standing by as William was crowned at Westminster on Christmas Day 1066 and began to establish his regime.


Reading accounts of Edgar’s life, I am reminded of another fateful story of a boy who might have been king but was side-lined and of another year in English history where the crown sat on several heads. If you conflate the stories of Edward Vth and Perkin Warbeck there are many striking parallels with the next phase of Edgar’s life.

Like Edgar, Edward Vth was proclaimed king but never crowned. He was young and vulnerable, surrounded by perilous political manoeuvrings and out-played by powerful and ambitious men. It is tempting to wonder why Edgar didn’t disappear once he was in William’s custody and whether such a disappearance would have been that shocking in the circumstances of 1066? William was certainly ruthless enough to have disposed of any threat to his new regime; the times were uncertain and dangerous enough for Edgar to have been quietly done away with. Perhaps William had other plans for Edgar or feared the consequences of murdering an ‘aetheling’ prince. Perhaps he was anxious to appear magnanimous after his victory and wanted to establish his own authority without the taint of political murder. He was at pains to record that Harold had been a usurper and a perjuror and therefore a legitimate target by the rightful claimant to the throne. Edgar’s status was quite different and offered him a degree of protection from open violence, at least to begin with.

We know that Edgar was taken to Normandy in 1067 with the court and returned with William and that he may have been involved with the revolt of the earls Edwin and Morcar the following year. Historians speculate that he may have tried to flee to Hungary with his family during this period and been driven off course by bad weather but by 1068 he was at the court of King Malcom of Scotland and had begun the long, arduous battle to re-claim his lost throne and status.

This is where his story echoes the trials of that other young man who claimed to be the rightful heir of Edward Vth. Perkin Warbeck may or may not have been a royal prince of the blood but he employed the same tactics as Edgar in trying to garner support for his cause and sought an ally in Scotland.



‘Saint’ Margaret Aetheling arriving in Scotland to meet her husband to be


Edgar married his sister Margaret to King Malcolm and used the age old conflict between the kingdoms of Scotland and the English to his advantage. Malcolm’s children would carry the royal blood of the House of Cerdic in their veins, offering an alternative to Norman rule in the future, whilst Edgar would make use of Malcom’s armies to invade through Northumbria and attempt to stir up revolt against William.

Like the first Scottish backed campaign of Perkin Warbeck, Edgar’s revolt fizzled out quickly when they were defeated at York and he scuttled back to the safety of Scotland, leaving a trail of destruction behind them with little to show for all the suffering.

Edgar rallied again when King Sweyn of Denmark landed to try his luck. Forming a loose alliance with Sweyn’s men and the Northumbrian resistance, Edgar’s forced succeeded in taking areas of Northumbria from the overwhelmed Normans but his command of a disastrous sea raid in the Kingdom of Lindsey ended his run of luck.



King Sweyn II Demark coinage


William fought back, re-taking York and Harrying the North in the most brutal fashion. Predictably, William was able to buy off the Danes and then moved against Edgar’s forces at Holderness, driving them back once more to Scotland. Edgar was now in great danger as he knew that William would pursue his enemies and attempt to neutralise the threat from over the border.

Sure enough in 1072 William invaded Scotland, forcing Malcolm to submit to him as his overlord and Edgar was exiled to Flanders. Again, you might argue that Edgar was lucky to survive with his life. William might have been giving him enough rope to hang himself with or to have written him off as a failure but he was astute enough to know that Edgar was likely to foment further trouble from Flanders, so why did he not demand that Edgar be given into his custody? Was his status still a sufficient defence against imprisonment or assassination? What were William’s motives in allowing Edgar to remain at large?

In 1074 Edgar was back in Scotland, trying to find support for another attempt and was then approached by King Philip I of France with an offer of lands on the border with Normandy and a mandate for harrying William’s French holdings. It all came to nothing again and Edgar submitted to William’s rule once more. It must have been a bitter lesson in failure and powerlessness for Edgar. He simply didn’t have the resources or the support to reclaim his title. He seems a rather disconsolate figure. He could have been a contender but it never worked out. He lacked the essential tools to do the job that he felt was his destiny to undertake and perhaps also the charisma and driving force of will required to overcome the difficulties of his position. His military record was, at best, mixed and often seems to have been disastrous and he failed to make an alliance through marriage which might have brought him much needed resources in terms of landed wealth and military strength.

William was probably delighted to send him on his way when he tried to change his fortunes with a mission to Norman Sicily in 1086 to gain his fortune but again it failed and he was back in England, supporting Robert Curthose against his brother William Rufus in exchange for lands in Normandy. Defeat followed again in 1091 when he lost these lands and he was back in Scotland, assisting in Malcolm’s plans for war against Rufus which ended in a negotiated peace treaty. The terms were, as usual, not adhered to and Edgar followed Curthose to Normandy to lick his wounds.



Robert Curthose


With the same sense of inevitable failure as the account of Perkin Warbeck’s attempt to overthrow the English king, Edgar’s life followed a similar path of intrigue, feint and missed opportunity, minor disaster, poor planning, ineffectual effort and setback after setback. Was there ever any real chance that their plans were likely to have succeeded? Was it all pipe dreaming and posturing, at the end of the day, by boys who never really seemed to grow into men?

Edgar followed so many other opportunists and lost souls in seeking out a new purpose for himself on the First Crusade and was rumoured to have become one the Varangian Guard in Byzantium during his travels. He lived to see Henry I become king and lose his only legitimate son on the White Ship tragedy but when, at last, he died even the site of his grave has now been lost.

Did he father children? The record is unclear and whether or not he succeeded in passing on his royal blood, they never succeeded to the English throne. It was Margaret’s children who would carry the bloodline on to new generations.

So, was his life the story of a failure or of a survivor? There were several moments when his life seemed to be under clear and present danger yet he lived to fight another day. Did he fail his royal house? Cerdic’s descendants had dominated the Anglo-Saxon period and been responsible for the great resistance to the expansion of Viking influence in the region. He must have lived his whole life in the shadow of these great ancestors and been only too aware of his failure to live up to their deeds and legacy.

Could a small boy have possibly won through in the political climate of the times under any circumstances? Other kings had started off from this position but the particular circumstances in 1066 were perhaps too difficult to surmount.

It is tempting to write Edgar off as he seemed to live his life on the margins, surrounded by more powerful, aggressive and dominant men, yet he did manage to weave a pathway through the most turbulent of times and avoid the fate of other royal claimants who got between ruthless men and their ultimate goal.





One Response to “Edgar the Aetheling: Failure or Survivor?”

  1. giaconda Says:

    Reblogged this on murreyandblue.


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