AS this is Bugle 1066, let’s take another glance at the year 1066. It is probably the most widely known date in English history – the humorists W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman, in their book 1066 and All That, said it was one of only two memorable dates in the whole of English history.
The Norman Conquest is a true watershed moment in the story of the British Isles but the year 1066 is remarkable for another reason – it is the only year when there were four kings of England.
Yet one of those kings is all but unknown today. His reign was brief, a matter of weeks, and he was never crowned, but he went on to live a long life at the heart of English politics and was involved in the affairs of Scotland, Europe and the Middle East.
His name was Edgar Aethling.
The year 1066 began with Edward the Confessor upon the English throne. The 11th century had seen great turmoil in the affairs of England, with a succession of Danish raids culminating in Danish kings ruling England for over a quarter of a century. But Edward had reclaimed the crown for the Anglo-Saxon royal house of Wessex in 1042. His reign brought relative peace and stability to an exhausted country and while he was celebrated for his piety, founding Westminster Abbey, his great failing was in not making adequate arrangements for his own succession.
Edward the Confessor had no children and in 1066 his closest blood relation was Edgar Aethling, grandson of Edward’s half-brother, King Edmund Ironside.
Edgar was born in Hungary in around 1051, the son of Edward the Exile, son of Edmund Ironside. Edward was sent into exile on the death of his father in 1016 by the Danish king of England Cnut (r.1016-1035) and lived in obscurity, with his wife Agatha and children Edgar, Margaret and Cristina, until recalled to England in 1057. It seems that Edward the Confessor planned to make his nephew his heir but Edward the Exile mysteriously died two days after arriving in England. Edgar was then lined up for the succession, he was raised at the royal court and given the title “Aethling”, meaning “throne-worthy”.
But Edward the Confessor did nothing else to secure Edgar’s position; he gave him few lands and did not involve him in government, and when Edward the Confessor died on 5th January, 1066, there were four powerful men vying for the crown in place of young Edgar.
Across the Channel the Duke of Normandy, William the Bastard, eyed the wealthy realm of England. He was a relative of Edward the Confessor, whose mother, Emma of Normandy, was William’s great-aunt, making them first cousins once removed, and he claimed that Edward had promised him the throne.
Sweyn Estrithson, King of Denmark, claimed the English throne as he was the nephew of King Cnut, while Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, had the most tenuous claim to the crown, as a successor to King Harthacnut (r.1040-1042). And in England, Edward the Confessor’s brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson, was also jockeying for the crown.
War seemed inevitable, with England surrounded by enemies and the crown destined for an untried teenage boy, so the Witenagemot, the assembly of Anglo-Saxon nobility, decided to pass over Edgar’s claim to the throne and instead elected Harold Godwinson to be king. Harold was crowned on 8th January, 1066.
The Godwin family had risen to prominence during Danish rule in England but maintained their powerful position in Edward the Confessor’s reign. Edward married Harold’s sister Edith, Harold became Earl of Wessex and his brothers also rose to prominence; Sweyn was Earl of Mercia, Tostig was Earl of Northumbria and Leofwine was Earl of Kent.
Crucially for events in 1066, Tostig fell foul of his brothers.
One of Edward the Confessor’s last acts as king was to exile Tostig, who then touted his services in turn to the rival claimants to the English throne before teaming up with Harald Hardrada.
Harald and Tostig invaded northern England in September 1066. On 20th September they defeated an English army at the Battle of Fulford but by that time King Harold had marched north to face them. He defeated and killed them both at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25th September.
Three days later William of Normandy landed his army at Pevensey.
Harold marched his exhausted army hastily southwards again. He met William in battle at Hastings on 14th October, where he was defeated and killed.
When the news of Harold’s death reached London the Witenagemot declared Edgar Aethling King of England; he was to be the last Anglo- Saxon monarch.
Edgar’s chief supporters were Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, Ealdred, Archbishop of York, Edwin, Earl of Mercia, and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria, but English forces had been severely weakened by three battles in quick succession and William was marching his victorious army towards London. Support for Edgar began to waver and when William crossed the Thames at Wallingford he was met by Stigand, who changed his allegiance. The Witenagemot met once more and decided to submit to William. On 10th December they met with William at Berkhamstead and handed Edgar into his custody.
William was crowned King of England by Archbishop Ealdred on Christmas Day, 1066.
Initially, William sent Edgar Aethling to Normandy before quickly bringing him back to England. William’s hold on England in those early years was far from secure and in 1067 the earls Morcar and Edwin rebelled and Edgar may have joined them. The earls were defeated and Edgar fled with his mother and sisters to Scotland.
In 1069 northern England rebelled against William and Edgar returned to lead the revolt. William defeated the rebels at York and Edgar again fled to Scotland but he returned once more later in the year. Sweyn Estrithson had sent a fleet to harry the English coast and Edgar took the opportunity to join the Northumbrian and Danish rebels. He defeated the Normans at York and took control of northern England but in early 1070 William drove him out again and Edgar went back to Scotland.
Later in 1070 King Malcolm III of Scotland married Edgar’s sister, Margaret, and Edgar remained in Scotland until 1072 when William invaded the country. As part of the peace treaty Edgar was expelled and he went to Flanders.
Edgar then courted William’s enemies, Robert the Frisian and Philip I of France, but eventually Malcolm III persuaded him to make peace with William and settle in England, but give up his claim to the throne.
In 1085 Edgar left England, with William’s permission and a retinue of 200 knights, to seek his fortune in southern Italy and Sicily. The venture failed and a few years later Edgar returned home.
William the Conqueror died in 1087, leaving his sons to squabble over his territories.
Edgar sided with William’s eldest son, Robert Curthose, who had succeeded as Duke of Normandy while his younger brother, William Rufus, had become King of England.
The brothers waged war until 1091, then Edgar returned to Scotland, where his brother-in-law was preparing to invade England.
War was averted with Edgar playing an important role in negotiations between Malcolm III and William II, but peace was not to last. Malcolm invaded England in 1093 and was defeated and killed at Alnwick.
Edgar Aethling then became a key player in the disputed Scottish succession.
Malcolm was succeeded by his brother Donald III but he was ousted by the English in favour of Malcolm’s son, Duncan II. Donald quickly regained the throne and murdered Duncan but in 1097 Edgar Aethling led an English army into Scotland. He overthrew Donald, had him imprisoned and blinded, and then installed his nephew and namesake Edgar on the Scottish throne.
Some medieval chronicles state that Edgar Aethling commanded the English fleet that supported the First Crusade but this is doubtful as it would have Edgar in two places at the same time, fighting in Scotland and off the coast of Syria. Other texts have Edgar taking a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1102, while some historians suggest that he served in the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Empire at that time. Edgar may have taken some part in the First Crusade, along with his close friend Robert Curthose, who was one of the commanders.
Whatever happened, Edgar seems to have returned to England with great wealth and gifts from the Byzantine and German emperors.
Meanwhile in England, in 1100, William II died in unusual circumstances and his youngest brother Henry seized the throne in Robert Curthose’s absence in the Holy Land. When Robert returned he waged war against Henry I and Edgar once more supported his old friend. Robert was comprehensively defeated by his brother at the Battle of Tinchebray in 1106 and spent the rest of his life a prisoner.
Edgar was also captured at the battle but was pardoned (his niece, Edith, was married to Henry I).
Edgar lived his remaining years in peace. It is thought that he travelled to Scotland once more in 1120 and he is recorded as being still alive in 1125, having long outlived his rivals of 1066. It is generally agreed that Edgar Aethling died a few years later, possibly in 1126 or 1127, but it is not known where he was buried. There is no evidence that he ever married or had children and so with him died the male line of the original English royal family.