The Misfortune of the Last Saxon King

In England all school children learn of the Norman conquest of 1066. The story is of a war between three claimants to the English throne: Earl Harold Godwinsson of Wessex, Duke William the Bastard (later known as the Conqueror) of Normandy, and King Harald Hardrada of Norway. The King of England, Edward the Confessor died childless. This was not essentially a problem in Saxon England as succession was not hereditary, but instead an election from the major families of the realm. William, however, claimed that he had been promised the throne (the evidence for which is dubious) and Harald sought to press the Norwegian claims to England on the grounds that Edward had usurped the throne from its Norse occupants (England had been conquered by the Danish King Cnut in 1016 and Edward had taken the throne from Cnut’s son, Harthacnut, in 1042). The Witan (the assembly of Saxon nobles) elected one of their own, Harold Godwinsson of Wessex to assume the throne prompting the other two claimants to invade. Harald landed first in the north but was defeated by Harold at the battle of Stamford Bridge (in no way connected to the stadium of Chelsea football club). Soon after William landed in the south forcing Harold to march his tired army to the other side of the country in a matter of days. The two sides met at the battle of Hastings on the 14th of October, Harold was killed and William was made King of England…or so we are taught in school.

Following Harold’s death the Witan met to elect another king. They elected Edgar (known as the Ætheling, a title used to denote Saxon princes) on the 15th of October as King Edgar II. Edgar was a boy of fifteen at the time (his date of birth is not exactly known but he is thought to have been born in 1051. His father had been Edward the Exile, son of Edmund Ironside who had lost his kingdom to Cnut in 1016, dying in the process. So it was that Edgar ended up being Saxon by blood but Hungarian by birth. Edward the Exile had fled there after Cnut had seized England, marrying Agatha a relative of the Holy Roman Emperor along the way. Edgar had seemed to have been the original heir apparent on Edward the Confessor’s death but the nature of the succession crisis had called for a warrior and not a boy as king.

Edgar rule lasted only a matter of months. The Saxon earl’s were unable to raise another army to fight William and all opposition melted before the Norman invaders. In December Edgar’s reign quietly ended as he was taken by the Witan to submit to William at the town of Berkensted in Hertfordshire.

William took Edgar into his care at his court in Normandy and then later in England. However, it was not long before Edgar tried to reclaim his right to the throne. Two years after Hastings, in 1068, Edgar was part of an abortive rebellion orchestrated by the Earls of Mercia and Northumberland after which he was forced to flee with his sister Margaret to Scotland (his sister married the Scottish King Malcolm III). The very next year Edgar raised a small force and joined a new uprising against the Normans in the north. This uprising was also crushed outside the walls of York. Edgar’s next attempt came in the summer of that same year, 1069, when he joined forces with King Sweyn of Denmark (who also had a claim stemming from Cnut). This uprising was initially successful with Edgar and Sweyn managing to seize York. However, William decided to “divide and conquer” his opponents: he bought off the Danes, smashed Edgar’s army and devastated the north so that they would never rebel again. Edgar was, once again, forced to flee to Scotland.

However, even in Scotland he was no longer safe. In 1072 William invaded Scotland to force the submission of the Scottish Crown. The Scots could not stand up against the Conqueror and submitted to English overlordship, one of the terms of submission was that Edgar be exiled from Scotland. Edgar was thus forced to flee to the continent and became the guest of the Duke of Flanders, an enemy of the Normans. However, two years into his exile he received word that the Scots had defied the English and that he was now welcome back in Scotland. Edgar took the offer and returned immediately to Scotland. No sooner had he arrived in Scotland he received a message from Philip I of France. Edgar was offered a castle and lands on the border with Normandy, from which he was given permission to raid the Norman homeland. Edgar embarked for France but the Fates had other plans and a storm shipwrecked Edgar on the English coast, forcing him to flee back to Scotland overland (whilst being pursued by the Normans). Following this calamity King Malcolm persuaded Edgar to submit to William’s rule and abandon his claim to England. William accepted the submission and gave Edgar a place at court.

The next twelve years passed and Edgar remained a loyal vassal of Normandy. In 1086 he even led an expedition to help the Norman colonies in Sicily although the expedition ended in failure and he was back just over a year later.

William the Conqueror died in 1087 which sparked a succession crisis between his eldest son Robert, who had inherited the Duchy of Normandy; and his second son William Rufus, who had inherited England as King William II. Edgar took up the cause of Robert and served as one of his principle advisers. However, once again Edgar had backed the losing side and lost all of his property in the ensuing war.

Without purpose and having lost everything he had ever owned Edgar did what many lost nobles did, he went on Crusade (as did Robert). Edgar joined the first Crusade to recapture the Holy Land; although unlike Robert, who served on the front line, Edgar took the easier task of commanding supply ships (he did however, join the land campaign for the capture of Jerusalem). This was the only successful venture he ever took part in.

On the way back to Europe Edgar served for a short time in the Varangian Guard, the bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperor which was mostly made up of Saxon exiles. By the time he returned to Normandy King William had died and England was now ruled by Henry I (William the Conqueror’s third son). Once again Robert of Normandy rebelled, once again Edgar joined him, once again they lost. Both Robert and Edgar were captured in 1106, Robert spent the rest of his life in prison. Edgar was, for once, lucky. Henry I, in 1100, had married Edgar’s niece, Matilda (daughter of King Malcolm and Edgar’s sister, Margaret) which explained the King’s leniency towards a man who had been nothing but a pain since the Norman Conquest. Edgar lived the rest of his life in Scotland and died in 1125 (it is unknown how or where he was buried).

Edgar had no children to carry on his line. However, through his niece Matilda (married to Henry I) his family would regain the throne although it took another civil war to do so. Matilda and Henry had a daughter (also called Matilda) who had to fight tooth and nail to have her son, Henry II crowned King of England.


One comment

  1. He was unlucky in one way, but very lucky he didn’t get executed by someone along the way. What an interesting life Edgar had – he must have been tough to survive the stress and travel – he lived longer than most of his enemies – let’s hope that gave him some solace!
    Thanks for another interesting post. Do you write history books? – you should – you turn history into an interesting story – a serious talent!

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