In his work Gesta Regum Anglorum (“Deeds of the Kings of the English”), the medieval historian William of Malmesbury gives the last and endearing known detail of one of the most curious characters in British history: Now he grows old in the country, in privacy and quietness. He refers to the last male representative of the House of Cerdic, also called the House of Wessex, who is often nicknamed the lost monarch of England because, despite being chosen for the throne, he was never crowned, and both the exact date of his death and the place where he was buried are unknown: Edgar Atheling, the king who could never reign.

The truth is that Atheling was not his real surname, which as we saw is Cerdic or Wessex, but another nickname, in this case derived from the Anglo-Saxon expression Æþeling, which can be translated as “Noble” or “Of high birth” and was given to prince heirs.

And Edgar was one: he was the only son of Edward the Exile and Edith of Northumbria. His grandfather was King Edmund II Ironside, who had reigned in England for barely seven months in 1016 and to whom Edward could not succeed due to the invasion of the country by the Dane Cnut II the Great.

Medieval illustration showing Edmund II Ironside and his family: Edward the Exile, Edgar Atheling (bottom left), Margaret of Scotland, Edmund, and Christina
Medieval illustration showing Edmund II Ironside and his family: Edward the Exile, Edgar Atheling (bottom left), Margaret of Scotland, Edmund, and Christina. Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

When Edmund died, Cnut sent Edward—then a baby of a few months old—to Sweden, where he hoped King Olaf Skötkonung would get rid of him. However, he never reached the Swedish court; some loyalists put him to safety, first in Kiev and then in Hungary.

It was in this latter country that he grew up, married Princess Agatha (supposedly the daughter of King Stephen I), and together they had three children: two girls, Margaret and Christina, and a boy, Edgar, who by his sex was to be the heir to the succession rights.

Meanwhile, Cnut had died in 1035, leaving the Danish throne to his son, Cnut Hardeknut, who did not claim the English one and two years later left it to his half-brother Harold Harefoot. It was he who decided to restore the Wessex, designating Edmund II’s brother as heir; crowned in 1047, he was called Edward and has gone down in history with the nickname the Confessor for his naive character and religious devotion, which led him to remain celibate.

This scene from the Bayeux Tapestry shows the passage of Halley's comet over England in 1066
This scene from the Bayeux Tapestry shows the passage of Halley’s comet over England in 1066. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

This made him call his nephew, Edward Atheling, to give him the crown. Indeed, the Exile traveled from Hungary to England; but he died in 1057, so the only one left to take the mantle was his young son, Edgar, who was five years old. He had been born at the Hungarian court around 1050, so he was barely thirteen years old when the sovereign died in 1066. This was a major problem because a child did not offer guarantees as a ruler, especially in the face of the threat of a Norman invasion, ready to take advantage of the foreseeable succession chaos.

And so, despite being educated on English soil along with his sisters, the Witenagemot (an assembly of wise and notable men acting as a royal council and proto-parliament) considered an adult king preferable and chose Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, who was married to the sister of the late Edward the Confessor and owned the southern third of England. He seemed the perfect man, forty-four years old, an experienced military leader, and of recognized prestige. But things were not going to go as planned.

The passage of Halley’s Comet a few days after his coronation was already considered a bad omen, confirmed when the country was embroiled in a civil war because the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada also presented his candidacy, allying with Tostig, Earl of Northumbria and brother of the new sovereign, to take the throne and divide England. Hardrada lost the bid—and his life—at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, but this did not bring peace for Harold because just a few days later another contender appeared: the feared Duke of Normandy.

Speculation can arise about how the coin ended up in Innlandet. Could it be part of the salary that Harald Hardrada took to Norway after working in the Byzantine emperor’s guard in 1034? In Constantinople, Harald Hardrada was part of the emperor’s guard made up of northern Europeans, also known as “Varangians”

Rare Byzantine gold coin found in Norway, probably brought from Constantinople by Harald Hardrada

This was William the Conqueror, who, claiming that Edward had promised to designate him as successor, crossed the English Channel, landed on English soil, and crushed Harold at the Battle of Hastings, killing him in combat and thus leaving the kingdom orphaned. The two sons of the deceased, who were twins, were sent into exile and, as it is not known exactly what fate befell them, the Anglo-Saxons were left with only one person around whom to rally: the one they had previously postponed, the young Edgar Atheling.

Reunited again, the Witenagemot proclaimed him King of England, although the main supporters he had were of dubious loyalty, more out of necessity than conviction: Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury; Ealdred, Archbishop of York; the brothers Edwin and Morcar, Earls of Mercia and Northumbria respectively…

They had the mission to stop William the Conqueror‘s advance towards London, but they were unable, and as soon as the Normans approached, they were ready to negotiate.

Main episodes of the Norman conquest of England
Main episodes of the Norman conquest of England. Credit: Alonso de Mendoza / Wikimedia Commons

Finally, the Witenagemot persuaded Edgar to meet the invader in Berkhamstead and render homage to him. This he did, although William, aware that this hand was his, decided to remove him from England, taking him with him to Normandy. The following years are obscure; it is not clear whether Edgar joined a rebellion led by Edwin and Morcar in 1068 or was sailing to Hungary when the sea pushed him towards England. In any case, the insurrection failed, and he was considered an accomplice, so he sought refuge with his family in Scotland; something that was to be a constant in his life.

The Scottish king, Malcolm III, married his sister Margaret and provided him with help for a new revolt in 1069. Known as the Harrying of the North, it also ended in defeat, leading Edgar to seek more allies. He found one in King Sweyn II of Denmark, who was Cnut II the Great‘s nephew and therefore also believed he had a right to the English throne. Sweyn sent a powerful fleet that allowed the English to rise in several parts of the country simultaneously, putting the Normans in a tight spot.

Nevertheless, William once again flaunted his political and military skills, managing to turn the situation around: he bought off the Danes to make them leave and repressed the locals, who were weakened after an incursion by Edgar into the former kingdom of Lindsey ended badly, forcing him to flee to Scotland once more. That country ceased to be a sanctuary in 1072, when William, fed up, invaded it and forced Malcolm III to swear vassalage to him. He also demanded the expulsion of Edgar, who had to seek refuge in Flanders, where Count Robert I, the Frisian, also distrusted the Normans.

King Malcolm III receives Margaret on her arrival in Scotland, by William Hole
King Malcolm III receives Margaret on her arrival in Scotland, by William Hole. Credit: Kim Traynor / Wikimedia Commons

The same happened with the King of France, Philip I, the Amorous, who offered Edgar some lands bordering Normandy from which he could attack his enemy (and in passing, protect the French territory). Edgar accepted, but the ship he was traveling on from Scotland shipwrecked off the Norman coast, and the survivors were annihilated. Only he was able to escape with a handful of loyal followers, returning to Malcolm III’s court, who advised him to make peace with William and submit to his authority.

He did so, but the Norman did not offer him the dignities he expected and, consequently, in 1086 he decided to settle in Apulia, then a Norman territory in Italy. It was supposed to be a one-way trip, hence he disposed of his English properties in Hertfordshire, although within a year he grew tired of the Mediterranean and returned to take part in the fraternal war that engulfed William’s sons upon his death, supporting the eldest son Robert, to whom his father had bequeathed the Duchy of Normandy, against his brother William Rufus, heir to England as William II.

Once again, luck was against him; the other prevailed and confiscated all his properties. Edgar went to Scotland to collaborate with Malcolm III, who was preparing to face William Rufus. In the end, the two monarchs decided to negotiate, and Edgar was entrusted to represent the Scot while Robert, who had reconciled with his brother, represented the other side. This facilitated the negotiations, and afterwards, both marched to Normandy. He had to return in 1093 because Malcolm III rose up again, considering that William Rufus had not honored the agreement.

The Scottish army invaded England, but the sovereign fell at the Battle of Alnwick along with his heir, shifting the succession problems to Scotland. The new king, Donald III, brother of the deceased, was hostile to the Normans, which is why William Rufus supported Duncan, another son of Malcolm… who was assassinated, forcing him to sponsor another, Edgar, a son the late King Malcolm had with Edgar Atheling’s sister. He also defended the cause of his namesake nephew, this time successfully, as they managed to overthrow Donald III.

Edith, Edgar Atheling's niece married to Henry I of England, has gone down in history under the name of Matilda of Scotland (nineteenth-century engraving by W. H. Mote based on an earlier painting by J.W. Wright)
Edith, Edgar Atheling’s niece married to Henry I of England, has gone down in history under the name of Matilda of Scotland (nineteenth-century engraving by W. H. Mote based on an earlier painting by J.W. Wright). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The character’s adventures did not end there, as around the year 1098 he found a new and exotic setting for them: Syria, where he went following the call to the First Crusade made by Peter the Hermit and Pope Urban II. The chronological order of the events is not clear, as various sources give different versions. The aforementioned William of Malmesbury says he arrived in Jerusalem on a pilgrimage in 1102, which others might have confused with a naval campaign under the command of an English fleet.

However, this fleet departed when he was still in Scotland, so at most, he would have joined it later. It is possible he made this journey via Constantinople, which was common then, where, despite there being no evidence to support it, there is speculation that he might have been part of the Varangian Guard for a time, since by then this corps was being filled with English and Scottish volunteers, to the detriment of the Varangians who gave it its name. In that case, perhaps the fleet was entrusted to him by the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, with the objective of sending reinforcements to the crusaders besieging Antioch.

In any case, William of Malmesbury recounts that he returned from the Holy City enriched, thanks to the gifts he received along the way from both the Byzantine emperor and several German princes; all of them also offered him a position in their courts, though he declined the offers because he wanted to return to his country. He did so via Normandy, where he again intervened in the succession problems that pitted his friend, Duke Robert, against his younger brother, Henry I of England.

This dispute, which was not over the English throne but over the ownership of some Norman territories, was resolved in the Battle of Tinchebray in 1106, in which Henry’s army defeated and captured Robert. Among the prisoners was also Edgar, although his fate was different from his lord’s: while Robert remained captive for the rest of his life, Edgar was released after Henry pardoned him and allowed him to return. After all, they were related, as the House of Cerdic had linked with the Norman dynasty in his absence.

The shipwreck of the Blanche-Nef in a 19th-century illustration by Joseph Martin Kronheim
The shipwreck of the Blanche-Nef in a 19th-century illustration by Joseph Martin Kronheim. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, Edith, Edgar’s niece (another daughter that his sister Margaret had with Malcolm III), who has gone down in history with the name Matilda (also known as Maud) the Good or of Good Memory, had married Henry in 1100 and was now not only Duchess of Normandy but also Queen Consort of England. Thus, Edgar owed the tranquility of the final stage of his life to her, which took place, of course, in Scotland.

There he settled permanently around 1120, a year in which we know he was still alive because he was informed of the disaster of the Blanche-Nef, the ship that sank while transporting William Adelin, Henry I and Margaret’s son, from Normandy to England. It was a catastrophe because the prince drowned along with his entire court; there was only one survivor, and the king himself was saved because he did not embark, as several pending matters kept him on land. Likewise, William of Malmesbury asserts that in 1125 Edgar was still alive, as we mentioned at the beginning, between Hampshire and Sussex.

That is the last reference to him in life, as it is not known when he died or where he was buried. Only that, according to the Chronicle of the Priory of Huntingdon, and without certainty that she was his, since it is not known that he married, he left a daughter named Margaret Lovel who had two husbands: the first, Ralph Lovel II, lord of Castle Cary, and the second, Robert of London, a wealthy owner of numerous lands in the Scottish Lowlands. In sum, an uncertain, mysterious end, almost perfect for a king who could never reign.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 13, 2024: Edgar Atheling, el rey perdido de Inglaterra que nació en Hungría y fue a la Primera Cruzada

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