Edgar the Ætheling: the might-have-been king

It is strange to think that after Harold was killed at Hastings the crown of England might have gone not to a man of Viking descent born in Normandy but an Anglo-Saxon born in Hungary.

Edgar the Ætheling was the son of Edward, nephew of Edward the Confessor, who had fled – or been driven – into exile by Cnut. ‘Ætheling’ was an honorory title bestowed on him by the Confessor when Edgar returned to England in 1057; it means something between ‘of royal blood’ and ‘heir to the throne’. The date of his birth is unknown but he was still an infant.

When the Confessor died in January 1066, Edgar, perhaps because of his youth, was passed over for Harold. But after Harold’s death ten months later things were different. Edgar’s claim had the support of Ealdred, the archbishop of York, Edwin and Morcar, two powerful northern earls, and the people of London and perhaps elsewhere. Then the earls changed their minds.

Edgar took part in several rebellions around the turn of the decade, but then made his peace with William. Both William of Malmesbury and Orderic Vitalis, writing early in the next century, characterise Edgar as indolent. It seems a harsh judgement on a man who later spent time in Scotland, Flanders, Apulia and – almost certainly – the Holy Land. He seems more restless than anything, a one-man Anglo-Saxon diaspora.

William of Malmesbury, writing c1120, said Edgar was still alive and living quietly in the country in great old age. It was a fittingly anti-climactic end to a man whose whole life was one whole might-have-been.

This piece first appeared in the October 2021 issue of History Today.

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