Edgar Ætheling or Edgar the Exiled (1051 – 1126), king of England (1066), the last of the House of Wessex, was the son of Edward the Exiled and Agatha and grandson of Edmund the Ironmonger. He was proclaimed King of England but was never crowned, as England had already been conquered by the Normans under William the Conqueror. He was born in Hungary where his father spent most of his life, his family having been exiled since England was conquered by Cnut (1016). His mother was a relative of the German emperor but her identity has not been established. His parents had two other daughters, St Margaret of Scotland and Christina, but he was their only son.
The childless king of England, Edward the Confessor, half-brother of his grandfather Edmund, summoned his father Edward and his entire family to his court (1057) in order to anoint them as his successors to the throne of England. Edward in exile arrived in England in the same year but died soon afterwards under unclear circumstances. Edgar was then only 6 years old, Edward went to great lengths to ensure his succession in the face of a number of strong contenders to the English throne including Harold II of England, William the Conqueror, Sven II of Denmark and Harald III of Norway. Edward the Confessor died in January 1066, Edgar Etheling was then in his early teens too young to take the initiative in a military campaign. This fact cannot excuse him because there were kings of England who undertook campaigning for their accession to the throne at the same age or even younger such as Edgar I the Pacific, Edward the Martyr and Ethelred of Wessex. The rumours of Edward the Confessor’s death created alarm among all the powerful kings of northern Europe about his succession since he made the mistake while alive of not having Edgar Etheling signed into law to succeed him on the throne. War broke out fiercely between the claimants and Edgar did not have the right alliances to deal with them, the assembly elected the most powerful earl in the country at the time, Harold Godwinson, as Harold II, as the new king of England.
Immediately after Harold’s death at the Battle of Hastings against the Normans, the Assembly of Nobles in London unanimously proclaimed Edgar as the new King of England. The council of the regency included such powerful figures of English society and church as Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, Eldrid Archbishop of York, Edwin, Earl of Mercia, and his brother Morkar, Earl of Northumbria. The men vowed to do anything to stop the Norman advance on Edgar’s side and to fight William the Conqueror. William’s military superiority however was undeniable which forced the nobles to gradually acknowledge his dominance, when William crossed the Thames the first to declare allegiance by abandoning Edgar was Archbishop Stigard himself. When the Normans captured London all the remaining followers of Edgar declared their allegiance to William by abandoning the young king, in December of the same year Edgar Etheling himself accepted the coronation of the new king.
William the Conqueror kept young Edgar in his retinue with the rest of the English at his court in Normandy (1067) before returning to England. Edgar Etheling the following year (1068) probably found himself involved in the rebellion of the brothers Edwin and Morkar or made an attempt to return to Hungary, eventually finding himself at the court of Malcolm III of Scotland who married Edgar’s sister Margaret, asserting his rights to the throne of England. In a new rebellion that broke out in Northumbria in early 1069 Edgar, along with other escapees, assumed leadership of the rebellion, the rebels were defeated by William of York and Edgar escaped again to Malcolm. In the summer of the same fleet the arrival of a Danish fleet from King Sven sparked a new great wave of rebellions, Edgar arrived at Humber Bridge where he joined other rebels, nobles from Northumbria and Danes. The combined forces managed to take York and gain control of Northumbria but on his way to take Lindsay he was crushed and the largest group of his followers escaped from his army. William recaptured Northumbria by driving out the Danes and began his pillage of the region. The following year (1070) William decided to campaign vigorously against the rebels and Edgar once again escaped to Scotland.
He remained in Scotland until 1072, the same year William attacked Scotland forcing Malcolm to accept his submission, one of the terms of the peace was the expulsion of Edgar. He took refuge in the court of Robert of Frisia who was in conflict with the Normans, however in 1074 he managed to return to Scotland. He was soon received by Philip I of France who was also at enmity with William on the border with Normandy, but a storm drove his ships back to the English coast. Many of Edgar’s men were chased by the Normans but managed to escape, after this crash Malcolm was forced to declare his total allegiance to William. Edgar, frustrated by his failures with William, was forced to retreat with his escort to Norman Puglia. The Domesday Book in the same year records only two of Edgar’s estates in Hertfordshire. It is reported that before he departed for Italy he decided to leave England and all his property for good, the recording of the two estates is probably due to an error, however in a few years he returned to England again.
After the death of William the Conqueror, Edgar Etheling supported his eldest son Robert II of Normandy who was in conflict with his second brother William Rufus; Orderick Vitalis reports that he was one of Robert’s three key advisors. The war which Robert started in an attempt to overthrow William was eventually defeated (1091). As part of the treaty between the two brothers, Edgar was forced to surrender the lands that Robert had given him, these lands had been seized from William’s followers by Robert to give to his own followers like Edgar. The disgruntled Edgar returned again to Scotland to the court of Malcolm who was preparing for a new war with William, William marched north but eventually the two armies decided to negotiate rather than fight. Robert this time was with his brother and Edgar on Malcolm’s side, negotiations led to peace. After a while Robert, disappointed that William had not kept his promises, was forced to return to Normandy, taking Edgar with him.
After his return to England (1093) Edgar went to Scotland to negotiate with Malcolm who was unhappy because the Normans had not implemented the 1091 agreement. The negotiations led to war, in the same year Malcolm attacked England and was killed at the Battle of Alnwick along with his heir Edward the eldest of his sons with Margaret. Malcolm’s brother and heir Donald III of Scotland drove out the English and French who had taken high office and had caused the jealousy of the old Scottish aristocracy, this act brought him into conflict with the Anglo-Norman monarchy who lost their privileges in Scotland. William helped his eldest son Malcolm Duncan III of Scotland who had been a hostage for many years in William the Conqueror’s court to overthrow his uncle but Donald III managed to quell his rebellion and put him to death. In 1097 another intervention of the Anglo-Norman monarchy took place with Edgar’s campaign in Scotland, this time the campaign was successful, Donald was overthrown and replaced on the throne of Scotland by Edgar’s nephew Edgar of Scotland’s son Malcolm and Margaret.
Orderick mentions that Edgar was the leader of the English fleet who, in the First Crusade, burned the wrecked ships and proceeded by land to Jerusalem. The information is inaccurate judging by the fact that his fleet had arrived in Syria in March 1098 while he was fighting in Scotland in late 1097 because there was not enough time for such a long journey. It is more likely that Stephen Runciman’s information is that he travelled to the Mediterranean by land and then joined his fleet. William of Malmesbury records that Edgar made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (1102) and Orderick’s account is the product of confusion about the English fleet’s mission and the journey Edgar himself later made. Many later historians state that Edgar had served in the Byzantine emperor’s garrison of the Varangians but there is no evidence for this information. William of Malmesbury reports that Edgar received many offers on his way back from the Byzantine and German emperor for offices at their court, but he wanted to return home at all costs.
When Edgar returned to Europe, Edgar again supported Robert, this time in his dispute with his younger brother Henry I of England.Robert was defeated at the Battle of Tinsebrae (1106) and was taken prisoner for the rest of his life. Edgar was more fortunate, he returned to England and King Henry freed and forgave him. Edith’s niece Matilda of Scotland daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland and St Margaret of Scotland married Henry (1100), Edgar travelled once more to Scotland around 1120 this time for the last time in his life. In November 1120 he was alive when he witnessed the tragic death of the heir to the English throne, William Adeling, who was the son of his niece Matilda and Henry I of England. Edgar was still alive when William of Malmesbury wrote his biography (1125); most historians agree on the view that he died shortly afterwards; there is no strong evidence that Edgar married or left descendants.