Edgar Atheling

The story of Edgar Atheling

Background History – Ethelred the Unready, the Saxon king of England, died on 23rd April 1016 and was succeeded by Edmund (Ironside), his son by his first marriage, who continued the struggle against the Danish invaders. But on 30th November Edmund was assassinated and his brother Eadwig (Edwy) was driven out by a Dane, Canute, who thereupon took over the throne of England. Edmund had an infant son, Edward Atheling, but was smuggled out of the country to a safe home in Hungary.

The Danes ruled England for twenty six years, during which time Godwin, Earl of Wessex rose to a position of great power and influence in the country. He was a remarkable man who had come from a comparatively modest Sussex family. Also – in 1027 – Robert, Duke of Normandy had an illegitimate son William, who himself became Duke when only 8 years old, and who was destined to play a leading part in English history.

At the end of the Danish era in 1042, Edward (the Confessor) came to England from Rouen and took over the throne. He was the last surviving son of Ethelred the Unready, by his second marriage, and thus was an Anglo-Saxon. But he also had Norman blood, because his mother was Emma, a sister of an earlier Duke of Normandy.

No one gave much thought to Edward Atheling in Hungary, and for the next eleven years it was Earl Godwin who was ever involved in English affairs. His children all obtained positions of authority, and his daughter Edith married the king. Godwin had 5 sons – the eldest Swein was always in trouble and died before his father – next was Harold, then Tostig, Gyrth and Leofwine. Without doubt this family was the most powerful in the land, but they did not always have things their own way. Once the whole group was outlawed , but returned in triumph a year later , when it became clear that the ‘nobility’ preferred Godwin to some of the king’s Norman friends.

In Hungary in 1047 Edward Atheling had a daughter Margaret, and in 1050 a son was born, named Edgar. These two were the only true descendants of the Anglo-Saxon royal house, but in 1052 William, Duke of Normandy, now aged 24, made a state visit to England, and it is said that King Edward nominated him as his successor.

Earl Godwin died in April 1053, and the Earldom of Wessex passed to Harold, who increasingly exerted the same influence as his father – in fact, the government of the country was largely in his hands.
In 1054 attempts were made to persuade Edward Atheling to come back to England, but without success. However, two years later, Harold himself visited Flanders and was able to negotiate his return. He arrived in 1057, but died before he reached the court of King Edward. Some thought this was suspicious, but there was no evidence of foul play, and his family remained in England.

Tostig (Harold’s brother) had been made Earl of Northumbria, and although there was peace in that area for some years, Tostig was not popular in the north. However, the two brothers were brilliantly successful in a campaign against Wales in 1063.

1064 – Harold went on a state mission to the continent, but after sailing from Bosham he was shipwrecked on the shores of France, where he was arrested. However, he was rescued by William, Duke of Normandy, and in return it is said that he promised to support William’s claim to the throne of England. This may not be true, or the promise may have been made under duress.

1065 – While Tostig was at the King’s court there was a rebellion in Northumbria The local people asked for Morcar, the younger brother of Edwin, Earl of Mercia, to be their new Earl. Later when Edwin and Morcar marched southwards with their armed forces as far as Northampton, both the king and Harold had to agree to the appointment of Morcar. Thereupon Tostig went into exile with his family to Flanders, where he plotted against Harold and against his native England. The King was much distressed by these events, and his health deteriorated; He was unable to attend the consecration of his new Westminster Abbey on 28th December, and he died on the 5th January 1066.

January 1066 – King Edward did not have any children, and his last act was to nominate his wife’s brother Harold, Earl of Wessex, as his successor, and this was in spite of any earlier promises to William, Duke of Normandy. The government did consider the prior claims of Edgar Atheling, but he was thought to be too young, so Harold was accepted. Edgar was present at the funeral of the old king, and at the coronation of Harold which took place the next day at Westminster.

March 1066 – King Harold married Ealdgyth, the sister of both Earl Edwin of Mercia and Earl Morcar of Northumbria. Afterwards Edgar travelled with the King, and the bishop of Worcester, to the north to seek support against potential enemies of the kingdom. These included not only the Duke of Normandy and the King of Norway, but also Tostig supported by King Malcom of Scotland, with whom he was friendly.

May 1066 – Edgar Atheling was with the forces of King Harold when they moved into Kent to confront Tostig who had attacked with many ships. However, Tostig sailed away, moved northwards and landed near the Humber but he was driven off by Earl Edwin, and likewise further north by Earl Morcar. Then he took refuge in Scotland.

1st Sept. 1066 – After months of waiting along the south coast, King Harold had to disband many of his time-served defence forces, and his fleet returned to London. Edgar Atheling had previously gone north to warn Earls Edwin and Morcar to remain alert.

5th Sept. 1066 – The Norwegians under King Hardrada threatened to invade the north of England. They had moved to the Orkneys and thence to the mouth of the Tyne, where they were joined by Tostig who came from Scotland. Edgar Atheling was with the Earls Edwin and Morcar as they prepared for action.
10th Sept. 1066- Fast messengers brought news of the northern invasion to King Harold in London, and he made plans to move an army to Yorkshire. He left on the long march on 15th September.

Wednesday 20th Sept. 1066 – The combined forces of King Hardrada of Norway, and of Tostig had sailed up the River Ouse and after landing at Riccall had moved to York, ten miles to the north. On this day at Gate Fulford, two miles from the city, the invaders fought a bitter hand-to-hand battle against the army of Edwin and Morcar. The English were completely defeated, and when York surrendered to the invaders, Earls Edwin and Morcar withdrew their badly mauled forces. Edgar Atheling was sent south with a small bodyguard to meet King Harold.

Sunday 24th Sept. 1066 – After receiving news from Edgar about the loss of York, King Harold pressed on with his army of five thousand men, and this afternoon ha reached Tadcaster, nine miles south-west of York. In the evening he was told that the invaders had left York, and taken up a strong defensive position seven miles away at Stamford Bridge on the River Derwent.

Monday 25th Sept. 1066 – Leaving early in the morning, King Harold marched rapidly through the deserted town of York and completely surprised the Norwegians by the Derwent. The only bridge across the river was soon captured, and then Harold crossed over “and his forces went with him and there was great slaughter”. After both King Hardrada and Tostig were killed the routed invaders sued for peace, and the remnants of their army sailed away across the North Sea.

Tuesday 26th Sept. 1066 – King Harold began reorganising his forces, who were very weary after many exertions, and prepared to move southwards. Meanwhile in France, Duke William of Normandy had gathered together a large professional army with many ships and transports, and were waiting at St. Valerie at the mouth of the River Somme.

Thursday 28th Sept. 1066 – During the morning of this day William landed his forces at Pevensey Bay without opposition, after a night voyage across the Channel, and they set up a strong point within the ruins of the old Roman fort of Anderida (Pevensey).

Sunday 1st October 1066 – Some units of King Harold’s army were already on their way south, when in the evening of this day a messenger reached York to report that the Normans had landed in Sussex. The southward march now became of great urgency.

Monday 2nd October 1066 – Early today Harold left York with as many soldiers mounted on horseback as he could muster, and accompanied Edgar Atheling and other nobles. The rest of the army was to follow as fast as possible, including the forces of Earls Edwin and Morcar when they had been re-grouped.

Friday 6th October 1066 – Late today, King Harold reached London, and while he waited for his forces to arrive from the north, he organised reinforcements from the southern counties. Meanwhile Duke William had moved along the coast to Hastings, where his army built a castle of timber, protected by earthworks, and within easy reach of his fleet.

Thursday 12th October 1066 – A large English army left London and marched towards Hastings, under the chief command of King Harold, and the fleet sailed for the Channel to cut off the Norman line of retreat. A supply column followed behind the leading troops, and Edgar Atheling was with this section of the army.

Friday 13th October 1066 – Late today, after long marches, Harold’s forces reached a point nine miles from Hastings, and camped on a ridge 700 yards long with steep slopes on either side. They prepared to attack Hastings the following day.

Saturday 14th October 1066 – Norman patrols had reported the arrival of the English army, and very early today William moved out of Hastings. At 9a.m. he appeared unexpectedly on a hill opposite Harold’s position, just as he was about to break camp.

Morning – Harold rightly decided not to move from his strong position, and his forces were well equipped for a defensive battle, drawn up in long lines along the ridge. On the other hand, the Normans were more mobile, with archers in front of the infantry and many mounted knights with cavalry roaming in the rear. Bretons were on the left, Normans in the centre, and French on the right. Many attacks were made by William’s infantry who tried to get close quarters under covering fire from the archers. Cavalry charges swept in whenever possible, but all were repulsed.

Afternoon – Similar attacks continued, with heavy casualties on both sides. The English had considerable success, and when the Bretons on the left collapsed in disorder, the whole Norman front fell back. However Duke William (who had several horses killed under him) succeeded in rallying his men, and his cavalry managed to cut off the English who had persued them. During this period Harold’s last two brothers were killed.

Evening – The English lines gradually contracted towards the centre, under continuous attack from one quarter or another. King Harold planned to hold on until nightfall, when he could withdraw into the forests of the Weald to regroup and meet reinforcements. However, suddenly a stray arrow struck the King, and his death left the English army without a leader of any merit. The lines broke away, as the men sought shelter in the nearby woods.

Night -The situation was desperate but there was no great panic. One group of English inflicted a heavy defeat on a section of the Normans, and William himself was lucky to escape. The English eventually joined up with the rear-guard, and there was no pursuit by the Normans.

Sunday 15th October 1066 – William spent the day at the battlefield, and then returned to Hastings. King Harold was buried on the Sussex shore in unconsecrated ground. Edgar Atheling and the remaining commanders took the English forces back towards London.

November 1066 – William received reinforcements, then captured Dover without difficulty, and moved on to Canterbury (the Archbishop Stigand was in London). Here William fell ill for several weeks. The English government (the Witan) met, and decided that Edgar Atheling should be king. Earl Edwin and Earl Morcar had arrived with their depleted forces, and they promised their support, but did little to implement it. Nevertheless, the whole country apart from Kent remained under English control.

December 1066 – William left Canterbury, and at the approaches to London Bridge he inflicted a severe defeat on Edgar’s forces, but he was unable to storm the bridge. Instead he moved rapidly westwards through Surrey and Berkshire to Wallingford, where he crossed the River Thames, and there received the allegiance of Archbishop Stigand. William now rushed eastwards towards London, and it was clear that he could not be stopped. At Berkhampstead, the English government agreed to submit and Edgar Atheling swore allegiance to the Duke, together with Earls Edwin and Morcar, and many leading citizens and churchmen. On Christmas Day, William was crowned King by Ealdred, Archbishop of York.

March 1067 – William went back to Normandy, taking all potential antagonists with him, including Edgar Atheling and the Earls Edwin and Morcar. England was left under the oppressive control of two Regents, until William returned in December 1067.

1068 – Edgar, with his mother and sister, moved to the Court of King Malcolm in Scotland. The Earls Edwin and Morcar also left the English Court for the north, but their threatened campaign in the northern counties, together with Edgar and King Malcolm, came to nothing when King William marched with an army as far as York.

1069 – Northumbria was again in revolt, and Edgar came south from Scotland once more. York was attacked, but soon the invaders were dispersed, since Edgar did not have the strength to maintain a serious threat. King Swein of Denmark (a nephew of the late King Harold’s mother) sailed up the east coast of England with three hundred ships, and joined with Edgar. Once again York was attacked, and the Normans suffered their heaviest defeat, but the Danes were in no mood to press forward. King William marched north, and engaged in a deliberate war of devastation from which the countryside did not recover for over a decade. However, the Danish fleet was allowed to remain in the Humber for the winter.

1070 – The Danes moved their headquarters to the Isle of Ely, but King William made peace with them, and they all returned to their own country. Meanwhile, Edgar Atheling was in Scotland, and his sister Margaret was married to King Malcolm.

1071 – Earls Edwin and Morcar fled from the English court. Edwin was killed on the way to Scotland, while Morcar was captured by King William and imprisoned in Normandy.

1072 – William attacked Scotland and reached the Tay. King Malcolm had to submit, and in the process agreed to dismiss Edgar Atheling from his court. Edgar went to Flanders and contacted king Philip of France.

1074 – With the help of King Philip, Edgar attempted many raids into Normandy, but with little effect. Nevertheless King William was anxious to eliminate any danger from this source and when Edgar, then back in Scotland, sought a peaceful settlement, William received him honourably, as befitted the last direct heir of Anglo-Saxon royalty. He became a respected member of the English court, and never again caused any difficulty.

1081 – The Welsh border was now comparatively stable, and in this year, Edgar accompanied King William on a triumphal flag-waving expedition through South Wales to the far west at St. Davids.

1086 – After the Court meeting at Gloucester at Christmas 1085, the King gave deep thought as to how the land was peopled and by whom. This resulted in The Domesday survey, and Edgar Atheling played a part in the organisation of this enormous task. At this time, also, King William gave permission to Edgar to go on an expedition to Apulia, a Norman province in southern Italy, together with two hundred knights and their retinue of armed followers.

9th Sept 1087 – King William died in Normandy. He had controlled that country for forty years and had been King of England for twenty one years. A stern and sometimes cruel king, he held his possessions by military prowess, but he did bring order out of chaos and successfully carried England over from Saxon times into Norman. His eldest son Robert took over the Duchy of Normandy. His second son William Rufus became King of England, and Edgar Atheling attended his Coronation which took place immediately. A third son, Henry received no land, but gained considerable treasure.

Later years – As a respected member of the Court, Edgar was often in royal company. King William Rufus was frequently at odds with his clergy and with some of his barons, but Edgar never took sides, and managed to keep on good terms with everyone.

King Malcolm of Scotland had been forced to submit to William I back in 1072, and William II also made him do homage. However, when Malcolm died in 1093, Rufus befriended his widow, who was Edgar Atheling’s sister, and he supported her sons in their rule over Scotland, and her daughter was always welcome at the English court.

In 1095, Edgar was with King Rufus when he led an expedition into rebellious Wales, and in 1096 he helped him to deal with his old brother Robert of Normandy. The two brothers agreed that if either died childless the other would be the heir to the exclusion of their younger brother Henry. Then Robert mortgaged his Normandy estates to King Rufus in return for money to go on the first crusade to Jerusalem.

Edgar went with Duke Robert, and they travelled to Constantinople via southern Italy and Albania. Their forces took part in several battles against the Turks and crossed the bleak Anatolian highlands to reach the outskirts of Antioch (north of Syria) by October 1097. There they stayed until the town was betrayed into the hands of the Crusaders in June 1098.

As a result of disagreements among their leaders, it was another year before the forces of the Crusaders reached Jerusalem, which was taken by storm on 15th July 1099, amid great slaughter. Duke Robert and Edgar Atheling distinguished themselves during this campaign, and when a new Christian state was set up it was the Duke’s chaplain (Amulf) who became Patriach.

Robert and Edgar set out on the return journey, and in the Norman province of Apulia (southern Italy). Robert married Sybil of Conversano, from a very wealthy family. Edgar continued on and reached the English Court in May 1100, where the news that Robert was returning brought consternation, since he would be able to re-establish himself in Normandy and repay the mortgage. Perhaps Prince Henry was especially concerned because he and Gilbert Clare, Earl of Tunbridge may have been plotting against the king.

In July, Edgar went with William Rufus to Winchester with a number of nobles for a few days hunting in the New Forest. Edgar stayed at the Castle, but on Sunday 29th the others moved on to a hunting lodge near Cadnam. Among those with the King and his brother Henry, were Gilbert Clare and his brother Roger and his brother-in-law Walter Tirel of Poix in France,

Late on Thursday 2nd August, a hunt was arranged in which the men would have been stationed in a line some way apart in trees on the edge of a clearing. When startled deer appeared, it is said that Tirel drew his bow and shot. His arrow missed, and seconds later the King fell dead, shot by an arrow straight to the heart.

Welter Tirel always denied that he killed the King, and it may be true that he did not even see him. Moreover, if his arrow was deflected it is not likely that it had sufficient power to fly on and then kill instantly, But suspicion was attached to him, and apparently he was allowed, or even helped, to escape. In any event, he was able to cross the forest, and make his way safely back to France.

Meanwhile, at Winchester Castle as darkness fell, Edgar Atheling was shocked by the sudden arrival of Prince Henry and a few followers. No doubt, Edgar and many others were dismayed by the news and perhaps even suspicious, but when Henry insisted that he should take over the crown immediately, there was no one prepared to argue against him.

Early next morning the King’s body was brought to Winchester on a charcoal-burner’s cart, and a funeral was held. Then, with the status of king, Henry left hastily for London, to be followed later by Edgar and the other nobles.

In the capital, Henry succeeded in consolidating his position, and so he was crowned at a coronation ceremony held at Westminster Abbey on Sunday 5th August 1100. Edgar Atheling may well have been present and wisely he kept his thoughts to himself. In November 1100 King Henry married Matilda, the daughter of Edgar’s sister by the former King Malcolm of Scotland.

Thus was united not only the English and Scottish royal families, but also the ancient Anglo-Saxon line with the new Norman dynasty. While King Henry and his Court were busy elsewhere, Matilda spent many years at Westminster with her Uncle Edgar. She arranged the building of a stone bridge over the River Lea at Bow (London), founded a Leper Hospital at St. Giles and the Holy Trinity Priory, Aldgate in 1108. Later she became a nun at Wilton, near Salisbury, and died in 1118.

Edgar had little love for King Henry, who was a strong and cunning leader but was also cruel, greedy and sensual with a great many children, only two of which were legitimate – William and another Matilda. Edgar retired from court circles, and lived quietly with his family – usually on the Hampshire/Sussex border, which was within easy reach of Winchester, still an important centre of royal activity. He knew of the death of young William, who was drowned in 1120 while returning from Normandy to England, and of the marriage of Matilda to Geoffrey Plantagenet of Anjou in 1128 – a union which resulted in a long line of English kings from Henry II onwards.

Shortly afterwards, Edgar Atheling died. He had an exceptionally long life for the times in which he lived, and he was present at a great many important events during an exciting period in English history. He was a wise man, with the fortunate ability of being able to influence the affairs of kings without becoming involved himself.

10 Comments so far

Ronald AshPosted on8:15 pm - Apr 20, 2013

A great read and fascinating piece of English history, but I notice one error that must be a typo

Edgar continued on and reached the English Court in May 1700,

May seventeen hundred, wow that was a long journey

philPosted on10:27 pm - Apr 21, 2013

Thanks for pointing that out. It should of course be 1100 and I have now corrected the text.

JoePosted on7:06 am - Apr 23, 2013

Often you see where Edgar retired to Hertfordshire. You state “Hampshire/Sussex border”. Could he have had a retirement home at both?

    James FrankcomPosted on12:48 pm - Jun 6, 2020

    Yes I too am curious about this. I thought he had an estate at Berkhamstead in Hertfordshire. An estate on the Sussex/Hampshire border would make more sense given his Wessex background but I’ve never seen this written anywhere. What is the source of the Sussex/Hampshire detail and what was the name/village of the estate? Many thanks

philPosted on10:40 am - Apr 23, 2013

Or should that be ‘retirement hut’?

Brian AylingPosted on5:22 pm - Oct 2, 2014

Do I have a possible claim to the English throne,
When was the name Aetheling changed to Ayling

    Chris AylingPosted on3:51 am - Nov 1, 2014

    Kidding aside, the use of the spelling “Ayling” really didn’t settle out into its current form until the early 1700’s. If you review parish records, there are many variations before that, including Ayllinge, Ailing, Aylyng. If you go back further to, for example, the Sussex Susidy is 1296 (see
    http://www.british-history.ac.uk/search.aspx?query=Aelyng&rf=pubid:513) you get Aelyng, Ayluyng, Aillyng, Alyng, Aylyg and other possible variations. It could be that they are phonetic variations of Aethling. In other words, the name is passed on orally to the taxman who writes down what he hears.

Olle NaboPosted on11:56 am - Nov 12, 2014

I want to correct something right at the start of the article. Edmund Ironside had two infant sons driven out by Cnut to Sweden. One of them died as infant, the other was Edward the Exile. Most likely Edward the Exile ended up in Kiev at the court of Yaroslav and his wife Ingegerd, the daughter of the Swedish queen. Later he married a daughter of Yaroslav and Ingegerd, Agatha. They went to Hungary to support the king, married to a sister of Agatha. In Hungary Edgar Atheling was born 1052 or 1053. Edward the Exile came back to England in 1057 as a heir, but died only two days after the arrival, unclear of an assasination or of natural reasons. After this Edward Atheling became the candidate heir.

Chris AylingPosted on11:04 pm - Nov 15, 2014

Kenneth Ayling says that Nicholas III and Mabel Gray had “ten known children, most girls but including Thomas (1590) and Nicholas IV (1613)”. Nicholas and Thomas, sons of Nicholas III, appear to have been born in Woolbeding in 1593 and 1596 respectively, not 1613 and 1590. Possible transcribed from the original in error?

katePosted on6:35 pm - Dec 9, 2014

cool guy. i think he was brave

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