Stewart Binns on Edgar the Atheling

Part of the 1066 guide

The Great Survivor
Edgar the Atheling and 1066

It is difficult to decide whether Edgar the Atheling was fortunate or unfortunate to be only fourteen during the dramatic days of autumn, 1066. His tender years meant that he survived the cull of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy executed by the Norman victors, but it also meant he was denied a prominent place in history as the last King of the Saxons.

Edgar was born in Hungary, where his father, Edward the Exile, son of King Edmund II (Ironside), had spent most of his life, having been sent into exile after Edmund’s death and the conquest of England by the Danish King, Cnut in 1016. He was Edward’s only son, but had two sisters, Margaret and Cristina.
He returned to England with his father around 1057, but his father died in mysterious circumstances within days of setting foot on English soil, making Edgar the direct heir to Edward the Confessor. Several people have been blamed for the sudden death of Edgar’s father, including the Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinson, who would eventually succeed Edward the Confessor. Natural causes may well have been the reason, but rumours abounded about the unexpected death. Not for the first time, Edgar’s life must also have been in danger at this time.

Little is known of his life until the events of 1066, but it is presumed he spent his time at King Edward’s court perfecting his English and familiarising himself with his native people.

When Edward the Confessor died, there seemed to be no real appetite within the Witan to make Edgar king; pragmatism suggesting that the warrior prowess of Harold, Earl of Wessex, was a better bet, given the threats posed by the Normans, Danes and Norwegians.

Following King Harold’s death in the slaughter of Senlac Ridge (Hastings), Edgar was proclaimed King. But as soon as England’s new master, William Duke of Normandy, approached London, Edgar’s support melted away and he had no choice but to submit to the Normans.

His life then unfolded in a series of paradoxical, perhaps opportunistic, relationships with the Normans.

He rebelled more than once, possibly including the rebellion of 1069, was reconciled; befriended William’s first born, Robert Curthose, and twice acted as intermediary between the Normans and his brother-in-law, Malcolm Canmore, King of the Scots. He travelled to Norman Italy and Sicily, where he may well have fought in the campaigns against the Muslims and Byzantines and Orderic Vitalis tells us that he accompanied Robert Curthose on the First Crusade, although there is some confusion about dates in the accounts.

Nevertheless, he was still close to Robert and fought with him at the Battle of Tinchebrai in 1106, when the Conqueror’s surviving sons fought for his legacy. Robert’s defeat consigned him to confinement for the rest of his life by his younger brother, Henry I, the third Norman King of England. But Edgar was spared yet again.

It is known that Edgar, the last of the great Cerdician Dynasty of Wessex and England, was still alive well into the 1120s, living in obscurity somewhere in England. There is no record of any offspring, nor is there any record of the location of his grave.

Stewart Binns 2011