Edgar the Atheling was around 14 years of age when King Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066. Some days later he was proclaimed the new King of England. His story is seldom told...
Common knowledge of the Norman Conquest begins and ends at the Battle of Hastings. The story goes that William the Conqueror came over from Normandy to fight King Harold because of a dispute over who should be king. The English, on the point of victory, chased the Normans down the hill and the Normans, on horseback, turned and routed the English while Harold copped an arrow in the eye and died. For the layman to sum up the 'Battle of Hastings, 1066', that is about it. Nonetheless, it still remains England's most famous battle, if only for the reason that it was the day a foreign foe defeated the English on English soil. It is stuck in the collective genetic psyche and it just won't go away. What is much less known, however, is that from the moment Harold died a five year period of insurrection, revolt and civil war began, and one of the leading figurehead's throughout was a young child, the little-known prince known to history as Edgar 'the Atheling'.
During the reign of King Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) England hurtled towards a crisis. Although married to the sister of the future king, Harold Godwinsson, the pious Edward remained celibate all of his life and by consequence did not produce an heir. Knowledge of his celibacy appears widespread and a number of claimants to the throne put forward their case. It is written that Edward pledged the succession to Duke William of Normandy in 1051/52 who claimed a bloodline through being grandson to Edward's uncle. Other foreign claimants included Harald Hardrada of Norway and King Swein of Denmark and, closer to home of course, Edward's wife's brother Harold. Harold spent the latter years of Edward's life acting in a viceroy capacity and on his deathbed Edward nominated Harold to succeed him. It is said that the wishes of Edward were approved by a council of nobles, known as the Witan. Famously, Harold's appointment outraged William the Duke of Normandy and led to William invading England and defeating Harold at the Battle of Hastings, thus becoming the first Norman King of England. There was however a genuine hereditary claimant to the English Crown who was overlooked at the time Edward died in early January 1066, and that was Edgar the Atheling.
Edgar was the grandson of King Edmund 'Ironside'. When Ironside died in 1016 his son Edward went into exile and settled in Hungary, and was called back to England by Edward the Confessor in 1057 as a possible successor, as his royal bloodline, descended from Alfred the Great, made him a genuine claimant from the Anglo Saxon House of Cerdic, the dynasty's supposed 6th Century founder. Within two days of his arrival in England in late August 1057 Edward 'the Exile' was dead, most likely murdered by someone with Harold's or William's interests at heart. Edward had arrived from Hungary with his family, including his young son, Edgar, aged four or five, who thus became 'atheling'; a young prince of royal blood who is 'throneworthy'. Overlooked in January 1066 in favour of Harold, by the time it reached the English nobles in London that William had defeated Harold Edgar was the only claimant the English could turn to, and some time shortly after the Battle of Hastings he was pronounced King of England.
Archbishop Aldred and the townspeople of London would then have child Edgar for king, as was his natural right; Edwin and Morcar promised they would fight for him. (Anglo Saxon Chronicle).
After defeating Harold, William withdrew to Hastings and waited about a week for submissions. None came. He then ordered an assault on Romney, where many Normans had been killed by Englishmen when they had landed there at the end of September, inflicting 'such punishment as he thought fit'. Then as the Normans advanced along the coast and into Kent, Dover, 'terror stricken at his approach', surrendered and swore fealty to him. Nevertheless, he burned down much of the town. It was at Dover where his army fell ill with dysentery, which delayed their progress for some considerable time. With the countryside in flames and much slaughter through continued resistance, William's army made for Canterbury and the city duly surrendered. Moving onto London and striking terror into English hearts wherever they went, William sent 500 knights into London Bridge and there they were met with strong resistance.
It was here at London Bridge that the nobles that had rallied behind Edgar made a valiant stand. He was pronounced King of England by Earl Edwin of Mercia and Earl Morcar of Northumbria and other nobles and notables whose wishes were 'to have no lord who was not a compatriot'. Having set up camp at Camberwell William's knights made for London Bridge where the English army under Edwin and Morcar met them south of the river. The knights were beaten back with many losses before the English themselves were driven back. The Normans turned and burned down Southwark before rejoining William's main army.
William then sent a detachment of troops to Winchester, the capital, and the city bowed to him. Rape, plunder and slaughter were left in the army's wake as it made its way to Wallingford on the Thames. It was here that Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury came to him as an emissary and as his army filed a path of devastation encircling London Child Edgar, Edwin, Morcar and 'all the great men of London' met him at Berkhampstead and bowed to him and recognised him as king. For Edgar this was the end of his brief reign as King of England, he had never been crowned, but it was only the beginning of his incredible story that saw him become a figurehead of rebellion and live to a ripe old age. (1 of 2).
Image: Seal depicting Edgar the Atheling.
The Lost King of England - Gabriel Ronay