We all know about the momentous events of 1066 where poor King Harold and his men achieved the impossible in marching up from London and defeating a massive Viking invasion led by Harald Hardraada at the Battle of Stamford bridge and then by total bad luck having waited all year for an invasion from then south, was surprised by the landings of William The Conqueror and having to march all the way south and come within a hairsbreadth of another legendary victory before losing late in the day at the Battle of Hastings.
It’s often said that King Harold was the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings and whilst he was the last crowned Anglo-Saxon King, there was a successor of sorts who is almost totally forgotten. His name is Edgar The Ætheling with Ætheling being rather like a Prince.
Despite being an Anglo Saxon, Edgar was born in Hungary and was only just an early teen when he was proposed as king of England after the death of Harold II in the Battle of Hastings (Oct. 14, 1066).
William The Conqueror or William The Bastard as he was known at the time didn’t find the conquest all his own way. He was thwarted on his passage through Kent and then when he reached the outskirts of London on the south side of the Thames, the men of London mounted a defence and he was unable to cross London Bridge. And so, William was forced to march his men westwards until he could find a point where the Thames could be crossed which was all the way in Wallingford.
Interestingly the young king had been elected by the Witenagemot which was rather like a council of elders, an indication of the deep roots of ‘democracy’ in Anglo-Saxon England that was set back centuries by the invading Normans. Before then it had been quite common for Kings to be elected in England.
Sadly for King Edgar he was in an almost hopeless position. For a start he was only a boy and in William he was facing a ruthless, cruel and duplicitous man even by the standards of the time. Additionally, thousands of the best fighting men had been killed at the two preceding horrendous battles and though re-inforcements were due to Hastings within hours, they were unable to settle and reform a credible force.
The River Thames crossing formed the last good chance for the Normans to be defeated before the majority of the country could be occupied. Sadly for Edgar and indeed us all, Wigod, the lord of Wallingford, was a known Norman sympathiser and welcomed William. One of William’s knights, Robert D’Oiley, married Wigod’s daughter, Aldgitha. For their co-operation, the people of Wallingford were given an extra hour before curfew – 9pm instead of 8pm – so the curfew bell still tolls just before nine, declaring the king’s ancient favour.
Betrayed as he was, there was little more Edgar could practically do and so he rode out to Berkhamsted Castle in Hertfordshire, about 40 miles NW of Central London and agreed terms of surrender with William later being coronated in Westminster Abbey.
Most Anglo-Saxon nobles fared terribly but surprisingly Edgar The Ætheling lived out a long life even though not the one he probably was hoping for in October 1066.
After the Norman Conquest, Edgar submitted to William I, although the new king was occupied until 1069 in crushing rebellions in favour of the aetheling himself in what is known as The Harrying of the North. During this time William possibly feeling he was unable to militarily defeat the north of England with its much more inhospitable terrain, instead decided to simply lay waste to the North by looting, burning and slaughtering its inhabitants whether they were peaceful or not in what today would be an act of genocide. It is thought 100,000 people starved to death there in the first winter alone and even contemporary supporters said it was “A Stain upon his soul”.
With all this going on, Edgar moved to Scotland (1068–72) with his brother-in-law, King Malcolm III Canmore, and then went into exile when William and Malcolm came to terms which resulted in his expulsion. In 1074 he submitted to William again, and in 1086 he led a Norman force sent by William to conquer Apulia, in southern Italy.
Under King William II Rufus, Edgar was deprived of his Norman lands in 1091, giving Malcolm an excuse for raiding the north of England. Edgar then mediated between the two kings. In 1097, acting on William’s orders, he overthrew Malcolm’s brother and successor, Donald Bane, a foe of the Normans, and installed Malcolm’s son Edgar on the throne of Scotland. About 1102 he went on a crusade to the Holy Land. He sided with Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, against Henry I in the struggle for the English crown. Edgar was captured by Henry in the Battle of Tinchebrai (Sept. 28, 1106), was released, and spent the rest of his life in obscurity.
Edgar Atheling retired from court circles, and lived quietly on the Hampshire/Sussex border, he died shortly after 1125. There is no evidence that Edgar married or produced children apart from two mysterious references to an ‘Edgar Adeling’ found in the Magnus Rotulus Pipae Northumberland (Pipe rolls) for the years 1158 and 1167.
This post gives me the chance to shine a light on a forgotten letter of old English. The Ædifying use of Æ and also some of the treasures of Anglo-Saxon culture with The Anglo-Saxon exhibition at the British Library