The Life of Edgar the Aetheling

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The End of the House of Wessex

Edgar the Aetheling was the last male member of the House of Wessex. Edgar was proclaimed King in 1066, but never crowned.

The nephew of Edward the Confessor, Edgar was born in 1051, in Hungary to Edward the Exile, the son of King Edward’s brother, Edmund Ironside. Primary sources indicate that Edward the Exile was banished to Hungary in 1016, following the Danish Invasion under Canute the Great. Little is known for certain about Edgar’s mother, but she is believed to have been closely related to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV.

Edgar’s Childhood

In 1057, Edgar was brought out of exile by Edward the Confessor, who was childless. Curiously, Edward made no effort to entrench Edgar’s position as his successor to the English throne. The English crown was coveted by a range of powerful and highly ambitious contenders including Harold Godwinson, William the Conqueror and Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway.

Following the death of Edward the Confessor in 1066, Edgar was still in his early teens and too young to be an effective leader. This lack of experience had not prevented the crowing of other young kings, such as Eadwig, Edgar the Peaceful and Edward the Martyr, who had all come to the throne at a similar age. However, the failure of Edward the Confessor to declare a successor aroused the ambitions of a number of powerful nobles across north-western Europe and made a smooth hereditary succession impossible. War was inevitable and without experience or powerful adult relatives to champion his claim, Edgar was passed over in favour of Harold Godwinson.

Edgar ad The Norman Invasion

Following the death of Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings, in October, 1066, the nobles selected Edgar to succeed Harold as the King of England. However, there were few among the English nobility who were truly committed to supporting Edgar and mounted only a half-hearted, ineffectual attempt to stop William the Conqueror from claiming the English throne. After William crossed the River Thames at Wallingford, he was met by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who pledged allegiance to William. As the Normans prepared to lay siege to London, the rest of Edgar’s supporters began to waver. Sometime in November or December, 1066 they took Edgar to meet William at Berkhamsted and pledged their allegiance to William.

Edgar Goes into Exile

William took Edgar back to his court in Normandy in 1067, as a hostage, along with a number of other English nobles. Upon returning to England, Edgar is thought to have taken part in an uprising led by the Earls of Mercia and Northumbria in 1068. Later that same year, he fled to the court of Malcolm III, the King of Scotland. In 1069, another rebellion broke out in England and Edgar returned to England. After a number of early successes, the rebels were defeated near York and Edgar returned to Scotland. Later that summer, the arrival of a Danish fleet triggered a second wave of uprisings in England. The rebels were successful in dislodging William from his position at York, however, a small coastal raid led by Edgar along the Lincolnshire coast ended in failure and Edgar returned to Scotland in 1070, remaining there until 1072, when William invaded Scotland and forced Malcolm to submit. After attempting to seek refuge in Flanders, then France, Edgar was forced to return to Scotland, where Malcolm urged him to make peace with William.

Following the death of William the Conqueror, in 1087, Edgar supported William’s oldest son, Robert Curthose when he declared war on his younger brother, William II, the King of England. Following Robert’s defeat in 1091, both Robert and Edgar were captured by William II. Following this, Edgar returned to England in 1093, where he was sent to Scotland on a diplomatic mission by William II. Upon arriving in Scotland, Edgar found Malcolm preparing for war. Malcolm was dissatisfied because the terms of the treaty of 1091 had not been fully implemented.

In spite of Edgar’s best efforts, the dispute eventually led to war. Malcolm was able to successfully invade England, but both he and his heir were killed at the Battle of Alnwick in 1094. Following Malcolm’s death, his brother Donald became King of Scotland. Donald’s first act as King was to purge the Scottish court of Anglo-Norman influence, as most of Malcolm’s inner circle was composed of English or Norman nobles, which had aroused the jealousy of the Scottish nobility. In an effort to resolve the on-going dynastic strife and to restore Anglo-Norman influence, Edgar was sent to Scotland again, this time to place Malcolm’s son, Edgar the Valiant, on the Scottish throne.

Edgar’s death sometime in 1126 marked the end of the House of Wessex, England’s first royal dynasty.

Sources

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, ed. and tr. Michael Swanton, 2nd ed. (London 2000)

Donald Henson, The English Elite in 1066: gone but not forgotten (Thetford 2001)

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