Edgar the Ætheling: A Case Study in Medieval Exile
Brandon M. Bender
After receiving many generous offers from the Greek and German emperors...he spurned all their offers in his longing for his native land. Some people are simply misled by the love of their country, so that they can enjoy nothing unless they can breathe familiar air.
- William of Malmesbury, on Edgar the Ætheling
Edgar the Ætheling, of 1066 fame, was one of the most prolific travelers of his era, spending years at a time in England, Scotland, and Normandy, while also making visits to Flanders, Italy, and the Holy Land. Sometimes he traveled on his own volition, but not all his travels were undertaken willingly. Despite his byname, Ætheling (meaning “throne-worthy”), Edgar never got to seize the English throne that had been taken from him by Harold Godwinson and William the Conqueror. As a consequence, he spent his life wandering – both to escape danger and to pursue his own fortunes. Edgar embodied the exile’s life, one that was simultaneously bleak and optimistic.
c. 1052-1066: From Hungary to England
Edgar was not born in England, the place from which he would flee so many times in his life. He was born in Hungary and was the grandson of the English king Edmund II and son of Edward the Exile. When the Danish prince Cnut had conquered England in 1016, Edward the Exile was whisked away from England, eventually ending up in Eastern Europe. Orderic Vitalis says that Edgar was the same age as Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, meaning Edgar was likely born in the early 1050s.
Back in England, the Danish line had died out in 1042, restoring the English House of Cerdic with the accession of Edward the Confessor. Edward was still childless by the 1050s, despite being married, prompting a search for any other relatives who could succeed him. Edgar and his father were located in Hungary and invited to the English royal court. Edward the Exile made the long journey to England in 1057, only to die almost instantly upon arrival.
The king’s hopes were not dashed, though. Tom Licence has argued convincingly that Edgar became the preferred successor. Edgar was also given his byname, Ætheling, around this time, a title normally reserved for sons of kings, whereas Edgar was only the grandson of one. Edgar was deliberately being connected to the royal family, while the “D” manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) also emphasizes his strong claim and is one of the best sources for his life.
1066: Almost King
Other powerful men had their eyes on the crown, though. Upon the king’s death, Earl Harold Godwinson took the throne in spite of the young Edgar’s superior claim. There is even an account from the chronicler Hariulf that Harold exiled Edgar in 1066. The well-known drama of 1066 played itself out, culminating in Harold’s death at the Battle of Hastings against William of Normandy.
At this low point, some of the English turned to Edgar to lead them. If Edgar had been in exile earlier in 1066, he was able to return to England quickly. The ASC says London proclaimed Edgar as the next king, with the support of Archbishop Ealdred. Edgar, acting in his capacity as proclaimed king, approved the appointment of an abbot of Peterborough. It was his only act of state. The ASC says that the monks of Peterborough had insulted William, whose grasp on England was still tenuous, by reporting to Edgar. This illustrates an important point: William only became “the Conqueror” when the English fully abandoned Edgar, not when Harold died at Hastings. Had the kingdom rallied around Edgar, 1066 could have seen more battles and skirmishes, just like those between Edmund II and Cnut in 1016.
But it was not to be. The momentum swung in William’s favor. Edgar acknowledged this by meeting William in 1066 and submitting to him. William allowed Edgar to remain in England and granted him land and honor.
1068-74: On the Run
By hosting Edgar at court, William was keeping his enemies close, but Edgar fled for Scotland in 1068. In Scotland, he was sheltered by Malcolm III, who then married Edgar’s sister Margaret. Meanwhile, rebellion broke out in Northumbria. Edgar seized the opportunity and ventured into northern England with “many hundreds of men,” according to the ASC, and occupied York. William drove him back into Scotland soon after.
The Ætheling then left for Flanders, possibly because William invaded Scotland in 1072. The ASC says Edgar was back in Scotland in 1074, but he did not stay long because Philip I of France offered him a single castle. This might seem like an insulting proposal for the last male of a distinguished line, but Edgar jumped at the opportunity. Unfortunately, he was shipwrecked and had to return to Scotland on foot. No further attempt was made to claim the castle in France. This period arguably represents the lowest point of Edgar’s long life. Despite being in his mid-20s, at the oldest, he had already done a lifetime of wandering.
1074-86: Stability at Norman Court
After the aborted French expedition, Malcolm instructed Edgar to reconcile with William the Conqueror. Edgar had been an appealing political pawn for Scotland, and his sister was queen, so there is little surprise that Edgar previously found a warm welcome there. However, now that Malcolm had made peace with the Conqueror, perhaps Edgar had little choice but to reconcile with William.
William again received Edgar with honor. William of Malmesbury claims Edgar was given an allowance of one pound of silver per day and gained a reputation for laziness during his decade at the Norman court. William of Malmesbury’s account should be treated with caution here, though, as he routinely assessed character based on one’s success or lack of it, so it may simply be a way for him to rationalize Edgar’s apparent lack of divine favor. Orderic adds some more positive details about Edgar’s character, though, calling him well-spoken and handsome.
1086-1100: Soldier, Diplomat, Kingmaker
In 1086, Edgar left William’s court because he felt he had not been treated honorably. John of Worcester records that Edgar went on an expedition to Apulia, a Norman territory in the boot-heel of Italy, but says little about what it entailed.
Edgar was dealt another blow in 1091 when he was deprived of his estates in Normandy. He had backed Robert Curthose against King William Rufus during one of their many quarrels and paid the price. Now landless and cut off from a powerful ally, Edgar was in exile yet again.
He turned to an old friend, Malcolm, and found refuge at the Scottish court once more. When Scotland and England were nearing war in 1093, Edgar helped negotiate for peace between them, representing the Scottish side, while his friend Robert Curthose negotiated for England. After this diplomatic success, Edgar was allowed back into Rufus’ favor, but wisely stayed closer to Robert in Normandy.
Edgar must have been devastated to hear of a slew of deaths in 1093 in Scotland: Malcolm died in battle, along with Edgar’s nephew. Edgar’s sister Margaret died three days later. The Scottish throne was seized by Donald III, who purged the court of English and Norman influences. In 1097, Edgar found himself in the unusual position of fighting for the English: he was tasked with leading an army north and installing one of his nephews, also named Edgar, on the Scottish throne. The ASC says he succeeded, having “conquered the country” in “a fierce battle.” His nephew succeeded to the throne, thanks to the efforts of his namesake uncle, and reigned until 1107.
1100-c. 1130: Holy Land, Final Battle, and Retirement
After his successful military venture in Scotland, Edgar left for the Holy Land. Orderic says he was the leader of an English fleet in the First Crusade, which would seem logical given Edgar’s recent military triumph, but the story has chronological issues and may actually be a misremembered account of a pilgrimage Edgar made to the Holy Land in 1102. Either way, medieval chroniclers knew that Edgar visited the Holy Land in some capacity, although exactly what he was doing there remains unresolved. He returned home via Greece and Germany, declining positions at foreign courts so that he could return to England.
Edgar’s final recorded action comes in 1106, when he took part in yet another conflict between the sons of William the Conqueror: Edgar, in his mid-50s, fought for Robert at the Battle of Tinchebray against Henry I of England. Robert and Edgar were defeated and captured. While Robert remained a prisoner until his death in 1134, Edgar was quickly set free. This may be because any lingering threat Edgar posed to the Norman dynasty had been removed in 1100, when Henry I married back into the House of Cerdic, rendering Edgar’s claim redundant.
Nothing is heard of Edgar for the following twenty years. William of Malmesbury knew Edgar was still alive in 1125, writing that the Ætheling was gray-haired and decrepit, living in obscurity in the countryside. His year of death is unknown, but it is likely that he died within a few years of this account.
Edgar’s life had been dominated by exile and travel. Despite being, by far, the longest-lived male of his line, he only had a few stretches of stability. Along the way, he was an exile, adventurer, diplomat, kingmaker, soldier, and pilgrim – one of the great travelers of medieval history.
Brandon M. Bender writes about medieval English history and medievalism. His articles for general audiences can be found in Camedieval and Medieval Warfare (forthcoming), while his peer-reviewed work has appeared in The Year’s Work in Medievalism and Rounded Globe.