Canute the Great, Edgar Ætheling, Edmund Ironsides, Edward the Confessor, Edward the Exile, Harold Godwinson, King Edgar II, King Harold II, King of England, King of the English, King William I, William the Conqueror, Witenagemot
Edgar Ætheling or Edgar II (c. 1052 – 1125 or after) was the last male member of the royal house of Cerdic of Wessex. He was elected King of English by the Witenagemot in 1066, but never crowned.
Edgar was born in the Kingdom of Hungary, where his father Edward the Exile, son of Edmund 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 Canute the Great in 1016.
His grandfather Edmund, great-grandfather Æthelred the Unready, and great-great-grandfather Edgar the Peaceful were all kings of England before Cnut the Great took the crown. Edgar’s mother was Agatha, who was described as a relative of the Holy Roman Emperor or a descendant of Saint Stephen of Hungary, but whose exact identity is unknown. He was his parents’ only son but had two sisters, Margaret and Cristina.
In 1057, Edward the Exile arrived in England with his family, but died almost immediately. Edgar, a child, was left as the only surviving male member of the royal dynasty apart from the king. However, the latter made no recorded effort to entrench his great-nephew’s position as heir to a throne that was being eyed by a range of powerful potential contenders, including England’s leading aristocrat Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, and the foreign rulers William II of Normandy, Sweyn II of Denmark and Harald III of Norway.
When King Edward the Confessor died in January 1066, Edgar was still in his early teens, considered too young to be an effective military leader. This had not been an insurmountable obstacle in the succession of previous kings.
However, the avaricious ambitions that had been aroused across north-western Europe by the Confessor’s lack of an heir prior to 1057, and by the king’s failure thereafter to prepare the way for Edgar to succeed him, removed any prospect of a peaceful hereditary succession.
War was clearly inevitable and Edgar was in no position to fight it, while he was without powerful adult relatives to champion his cause. Accordingly, the Witenagemot elected Harold Godwinson, the man best placed to defend the country against the competing foreign claimants, to succeed Edward.
Following Harold’s death at the Battle of Hastings against the invading Normans in October, some of the Anglo-Saxon leaders considered electing Edgar king. The new regime thus established was dominated by the most powerful surviving members of the English ruling class: Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, Ealdred, Archbishop of York, and the brothers Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria.
The commitment of these men to Edgar’s cause, men who had so recently passed over his claim to the throne without apparent demur, must have been doubtful from the start. The strength of their resolve to continue the struggle against William of Normandy was questionable, and the military response they organised to the continuing Norman advance was ineffectual.
On October 15, 1066 Edgar the Ætheling is elected and proclaimed King Edgar II of the of English by the Witan (Witenagemot); he is never crowned.
When William crossed the Thames at Wallingford, he was met by Stigand, who now abandoned Edgar and submitted to the invader. As the Normans closed in on London, Edgar’s key supporters in the city began negotiating with William.
In early December, the remaining members of the Witan in London met and resolved to take the young uncrowned king out to meet William to submit to him at Berkhamsted, quietly setting aside Edgar’s election. Edgar, alongside other lords, did homage to King William at his coronation in December.
Edgar is believed to have travelled to Scotland once more late in life, perhaps around the year 1120. He lived to see the death at sea in November 1120 of William Adeling, the son of his niece Edith and heir to Henry I, King of the English. Edgar was still alive in 1125, according to William of Malmesbury, who wrote at the time that Edgar “now grows old in the country in privacy and quiet”. Edgar died some time after this contemporary reference, but the exact date and the location of his grave are not known.
I do consider Edgar as a legitimate King of the English, albeit briefly, after the death of Harold Godwinson. Edgar was legally elected King by the lawful method of succession at that time.