Edward Aetheling: Anglo-Saxon England's Last Hope

Gabriel Ronay traces the story of the 'forgotten' rightful heir to the throne of England – who could, perhaps, have saved Anglo-Saxon England from a Norman invasion in 1066.

Edward the Exile, from a pedigree of Edmund Ironside in 13th century manuscript1066 is probably the most famous date in English history, yet it may come as a surprise to laymen and historians alike that, but for the 'murder most foul' of an exiled Anglo-Saxon prince, the Norman conquest might not have taken place at all.

In the 1050s, the ageing and childless Edward the Confessor saw the succession issue divide the kingdom of Wessex. Earl Godwin's son, Harold, and William of Normandy, the King's kinsman, were the contenders for the throne. While Harold had the full backing of the influential Saxon faction, William had a formidable counter-claim, which cast a giant shadow over England.

The linchpin of the Confessor's compromise plan, intended to deny the crown to both and thus avert civil war and a Norman invasion, was Edward Aetheling. He was the son of the King's half-brother, the legendary Edmund Ironside, murdered at the instigation of Canute the Dane in 1016, after the Danish takeover. Edward and his elder brother Edmund were removed from England soon after their father's murder, and the rightful heirs to the Anglo-Saxon throne were eventually presumed dead and forgotten.

But in the 1050s, the Confessor learnt with joy that his nephew was alive and well in distant Hungary. Being of royal blood by direct male descent, yet untainted by the factional interests of the two main political forces in the realm, he was in the King's view the ideal compromise candidate for the throne who could avert a Norman intervention feared by the country.

But for his sudden death immediately upon his return to England after forty years of exile, the Norman conquest could in all probability have been averted, inviting speculation about one of the most crucial might-have-beens in British history.

In spite of their importance for British history – and, due to Edward's marriage in exile, for the roots of the present royal family – virtually nothing is known about Edmund's and Edward's Continental tribulations or how they escaped with their lives in 1017. Yet the drama of saving the lives of the two tiny royal princes – Edmund was about one or two, Edward an infant – after their father was murdered, greatly exercised the imagination of chroniclers who rated it among the most momentous events of the eleventh century. It was left to this present investigation to uncover their trail and piece together their amazing career in exile.

Canute, aware of the political consequences of having the sons of the popular Ironside murdered in their own country, opted for the old Nordic tradition of murder by proxy. The sending of an embarrassing heir abroad with a 'letter of death', ordering his destruction on arrival at his destination, was a stratagem well known in the Middle Ages in Northern Europe. In the case of Canute, who had just taken over the whole of England, it offered a neat solution to possible succession troubles. Furthermore, it had already been tried out by Canute's own family: another king of Denmark, immortalised by Shakespeare, used a similar ploy when he sent Amleth (Hamlet) to England with a 'letter of death'.

According to Florence of Worcester, writing in the following century, Canute thought that:

it would be a foul disgrace to him if the princes were murdered in England and he sent them, after a short time, to the King of Sweden to be put to death there; but although they were allies, that king was by no means disposed to execute his wishes.

Most of the twenty-nine near-contemporary Anglo-Norman chroniclers seem agreed that the Swedish king refused to play the role of executioner. So the aethelings escaped with their lives and, under the tutelage of Earl Walgar, a kindly Dane originally entrusted by Canute with the delicate task of disposing of the children, their odyssey in exile began.

Because of a complete lack of reliable information on the movements of Walgar and his two tiny charges after they reached Sweden, the chroniclers of the period turned their peregrinations while in exile into a vague composite account based on hearsay and confused, second-hand reports. But the emotive force of the Danish plot to have the royal princes murdered was such that, fired by righteous indignation, the chroniclers of the post-1066 era could not resist exploiting the story for political ends. And since historians of subsequent generations dutifully copied 'the facts' from their venerable elders without questioning their truth, the exile route of the aethelings and their Danish. guardian became lost.

Earl Walgar is recorded by Geoffrei Gaimar, an early twelfth-century Norman chronicler, to have moved from Sweden with Edward and Edmund around 1028. But where to? It certainly had to be a country outside Canute's reach yet close enough to remain in touch with developments in England to await the recall of the rightful heirs to the throne.

Bewilderingly, the eighteen chroniclers of English history nearest in time asserted confidently that the two princes were taken from Sweden to Hungary. Yet a direct move to that south-east European country, outside the Nordic orbit, would seem most astonishing, verging on the implausible. The north of Europe was the world of Walgar and the aethelings, a world made familiar by ties of kinship, similarity of customs and shared traditions. A move to Hungary with the heirs to the Anglo-Saxon throne would have made no political sense. On this point, therefore, the testimony of the great chroniclers cannot be taken on trust.

Furthermore, King Salomon, the purported kindly Hungarian host of the aethelings, was not even born in 1029. He only ascended the Hungarian throne in 1063, when both Edward and Edmund were long since dead.

An historical sleuth, wishing to uncover the aethelings' trail after nine and a half centuries must, therefore, turn back to the works of a handful of twelfth-century analists who were personally acquainted with some of Edward Aetheling's descendants still alive then or could draw on primary sources now lost. Geoffrei Gaimar's Norman chronicle, L'Estorie des Engleis , provides a good starting point.

Because of the prejudices with which the news value of rhyming chronicles written for amusement were viewed by successive generations of scholars, Gaimar's account has not been accorded the attention it deserves.

It has been overlooked that, because of his interest in society gossip, Gaimar was personally acquainted with the Anglo-Norman ruling elite, including King Henry I, the husband of Edward Aetheling's grand-daughter. Furthermore, Gaimar appears to have relied heavily on Northumbrian and Scandinavian sources which had an especial interest in Edward's son, Edgar Aetheling, who briefly rallied the resistance to the Norman invaders after 1066.

Gaimar also mentions the Washingborough Chronicle, now lost, as one of his sources. His northern sources and the fund of family information he succeeded in tapping may explain why Gaimar knew so much more about the aetheling's fate than the official monastic chroniclers of the time, whose circle of informants was infinitely narrower. Indeed, most of the information presented by Gaimar was completely unknown to the Anglo-Norman chroniclers who form the backbone of official British history.

His version provides an invaluable clue – the missing link – that none of the other chroniclers had: Walgar first took the aethelings from Sweden to Russia – not Hungary. Walgar, Gaimar wrote, put to sea in only three ships and 'he so well accomplished his journey that in only five days he passed Russia'.

Even though the chronology of the princes' eastward flight is much compressed to suit Gaimar's continuous narrative, there are persuasive pointers affirming the correctness of the account. Gaimar's information that the princes were taken to Russia makes sense because the links between the Scandinavian countries and the Russian principalities of Novgorod and Kiev were still very close at the time and people travelled with surprising ease between England, on the westernmost flank, and Russia, on the eastern limits of Nordic influence. This eastward route across the Baltic was the Norsemen's well-worn highway to Kiev, and in 1029 – the date pinpointed by Gaimar – King Olaf of Norway and his followers fled from Canute along the same route via Sweden to Kiev.

Considering that Ingegerd, the wife of the Grand Duke Yaroslav of Novgorod (who later became famous as Yaroslav the Great of Kiev), was the aunt of Edward and Edmund on their mother's side (being a half-sister of Ealdgyth, the aethelings' mother). Russia would have been a natural choice for an active exile, where the aethelings could await the call of England. And, of course, the social fabric and political traditions established in Russia by the conquering Norseman, Rurik, and his dynasty, were not so different from those obtaining in the Danelaw in England, providing a sense of continuity for the two exiled Anglo-Saxon princes.

In the search for corroborative evidence of the aethelings' Russian sojourn, the annals of the Hanseatic city states proved most useful. Adam of Bremen, the eleventh-century Archbishop of Hamburg and Christian watchdog of semi-heathen Norway and Sweden, bears out in his chronicle the fact that Edward and Edmund fled to Russia. In his Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificarum , the Archbishop recorded the murder of the aethelings' father and remarked in a throwaway line: 'The sons of King Edmund Ironside were banished to exile in Russia'.

The Russians themselves have, in their chronicles, made references to the sojourn of the two Anglo-Saxon princes in their country. Karamzin, the outstanding late-eighteenth-century historian, made the following entry in his comprehensive Istoriya gosudarstva Rossiyskogo :

The court of Yaroslav, famed for the reflected glory of his greatness, had served as refuge for unfortunate kings and princes... Edward and Edmund, the children of the courageous English King Edmund Ironside, as well as Andrew, Prince of Hungary, together with his brother Levente, had sought asylum in our country.

However, on further investigation of medieval Russian annals, it transpired that Adam of Bremen was their common source. The quest for contemporary corroborative sources in Russian drew a blank.

As if this were not enough, there was also a red herring of considerable proportion in Gaimar's telescoped version of the aethelings' eastward flight. His geographic description of the close proximity of northern Russia and southern Hungary seemed to pose some doubts, and the problems were deepened by the city where, according to Gaimar, Edward and Edmund made their landfall after their flight across the Baltic:

Walgar so well accomplished his journey
That in only five days he passed Russia
And came to the land of Hungary.
The sixth day he arrived
Beneath the city of Gazdimbre.

A search of all extant records and old maps in Hungary showed that there was no such city there. Furthermore, Walgar just could not have sailed from the Russian shores of the Baltic in the proximity of Novgorod to Hungary, let alone in one day.

Yet this puzzling piece of information, transposed from Hungary to Russia, proved a rare piece of linguistic proof that the quest to uncover the aethelings' trail was proceeding in the right direction; The Icelandic bard Sturluson in his Heimskringla Saga not only helped to resolve the geographic confusion created by Gaimar, but reaffirmed that Gaimar's unknown source was absolutely correct in giving Gardimbre as the spot where Walgar ended his sea journey.

For the Heimskringla Saga repeatedly refers to Russia as 'Gardar rike' or 'Gardar'. The name is derived from 'gardar' (from the Slavonic 'grad' meaning fort or town) and 'Rurike', the defensive settlement founded on Lake Ladoga by Rurik, the Nozse conqueror of Russia. The eleventh-century Russian chroricle of Nachalny Svod clearly identifies the Ladoga town of Gardarike as Rurik's seat, and Gaimar's 'Gardimbre' is a philologically easily recognisable Norman corruption of it.

That Gaimar's information about Gardarike as the landfall of the aethelings on their way to Novgorod was right – despite the carelessness in attributing it to a country where the aethelings eventually moved nearly two decades later – is underlined by Sturluson's intimation in the Heimskringla that Ingegerd, the Anglo-Saxon princes' Swedish-born aunt, made her marriage to Yaroslav conditional on the possession of this very town: 'If I marry King Jaresleif, I must have as my bride-gift the town and earldom of Ladoga', she told the Novgorod envoys sent by her suitor, 'and the Russian ambassadors agreed to this'.

Thus Gaimar's scenario for the aethelings' flight is correct save for their host country: Walgar indeed must have sailed across the Baltic in five days, then carried on up the river Neva and, on the sixth day, made his landfall at the Ladoga town of Gardimbre-Gardarike, Ingegerd's estate.

The clinching evidence of the aethelings' Russian exile was in the most obvious place – on the shelves of the British Library. A mildewed copy of a collection of Edward the Confessor's laws (Leges Edovardi Confessoris ed. Felix Lieberman: 'Die Gesetze der Angel sachsen', I-III Halle, 1898), without rhyme or reason contained in a section dealing with the Anglo-Saxon line's right to succession, a direct reference to Edward Aetheling's Russian exile.

This insertion of a reference to the exile years of the aetheling (though omitting Edmund) and the post-Conquest fate of his children in a collection of laws is of paramount importance not only because of the clearly privileged source of the information, but also because the anonymous Norman compiler of the work included the only firm pointer to Edward Aetheling's marriage in exile.

Since not one of the near-contemporary chroniclers of English history, including the compilers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle , knew about the Russian sojourn or the whereabouts of the aethelings between their flight from England in 1017 and Edward Aetheling's recall from Hungary to ascend the throne in 1054, the author of the Leges must have known personally a descendant of the aetheling's family – Christina the Nun, Edward's second daughter – because of the precise nature of his information about the Russian exile:

Edmund/Ironside had a son called Edward who, on the death of his father at the hands of King Canute, fled this land to the land of the Rugos, whom we more commonly call Russians. The king of that country... having learnt who the prince was, entertained him well. And there [i.e. in Russia] the prince married a lady of royal descent who bore him Margaret, the Queen of Scotland, her sister Christina and Edgar Aetheling.

(The failure of the author to mention Edmund Aetheling was in all probability due to the fact that he died in exile and left no descendants, while the author of the Leges was interested only in the legitimate Anglo-Saxon line's right to succession in Norman England.)

Thus the testimony of three independent chroniclers with wholly unconnected, separate sources of information, affirms that while in their teens, the two princes found refuge in Russia and that, on reaching manhood, Edward married there.

Although originally Yaroslav might have given the aethelings asylum because they were nephews of his wife or out of pity for two persecuted boys, his subsequent interest in the Anglo-Saxon princes had more cogent reasons. The presence of the heirs to the English throne at his court gave his Western-orientated foreign policy a very useful negotiating counter.

The broader strategy of Yaroslav's Baltic plans foresaw, as a first step, the containment of Canute and the eventual destruction of his menacing empire by a grand Continental coalition. In both phases the aethelings appear to have been allotted a crucial role.

But the changing face of European power relations and the ascent of Edward the Confessor to the throne of England after the deaths in rapid succession of Canute and his heir Harthacanute, led to a downgrading of the aethelings' usefulness. After all, with their uncle on the English throne, neither prince could expect to recover his heritage as a true representative of the Anglo-Saxon royal line. Edward Aetheling was then chosen for a second-rate dynastic alliance with a niece of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry, to secure the central and western flanks of an anti-Danish grand coalition.

The dogged tenacity with which Yaroslav pursued his idea of a grand Continental alliance, even after Canute's death, against a surmised new Danish menace, explains the Kievan marriage of Edward Aetheling with a relation of Henry III, the Salian. From well documented moves in the early 1040s it can be deduced that Henry found not unattractive Yaroslav's proposal to isolate Denmark and restore Continental balance with English support.

In 1043, after Edward the Confessor was crowned King of England, Yaroslav sent a high-powered embassy to Emperor Henry with proposals of galvanizing the alliance. This visit to Altstadt was recorded by Saxo. In the same year, Henry sent an embassy to England's new ruler, recorded in Vita Aeduardi Regis , offering a friendship pact. And to cement the triple alliance, the marriage in Russia was arranged between Edward and Agatha, the niece of Emperor Henry. Marriage as an instrument of foreign policy was highly thought of by Yaroslav and he used it – with consummate skill.

Inevitably, under the onslaught of the chilling political reality obtaining in the early 1040s, the princes' hope of a triumphant return home faded, and Kiev must have seemed like a perpetual banishment.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that when Prince Andrew of Hungary, the aethelings' fellow exile and friend in Kiev, was invited by Magyar rebels to return to Hungary and ascend the throne, the disenchanted Anglo-Saxon princes joined him in his military venture. Edmund and Edward reached Hungary in 1046 – not in 1017 as asserted by the nineteen leading Anglo-Norman chroniclers.

They arrived not as refugees but as comrades-in-arms of their friend in exile, who was crowned King Andrew the Catholic. The favours showered on them, mentioned by the chroniclers, were not hand-outs or alms to poor refugees but royal gifts for services rendered to a grateful sovereign.

There is circumstantial evidence that King Andrew gave huge demesne lands to Edward and his family in south Hungary near the village of Mecsek Nadasd. But if judgment about Edward's ownership of the lands around Mecsek Nadasd must be reserved, the fate of Edmund is beyond dispute. After a tempestuous love affair with a Hungarian princess, he died and was buried in Hungary.

Gaimar gives chapter and verse to the affair:

He was well favoured. The king's daughter took him for her lover. And he loved her, this was known. Before a whole year passed, the lady became pregnant. What shall I say? It went so far that the matter could not be concealed. The king heard about it, it was related to him. He was but little wrath. He even said he would agree to it – if he would take her, he would give her to him. The youth agreed, he kissed the king's foot, and he summoned his folk. The next day was the meeting: the king gave his daughter to Edgar (sic). Before his people he married her, and the king gave all to know that Edgar should be his heir after his days.

Unlike the author of the Leges , all the other Anglo-Norman chroniclers had one or the other aetheling married to various royal offspring of Hungary, creating a confusion about the origins of Edward's daughter Margaret – St Margaret of Scotland – that has endured to this day.

Only Florence of Worcester came close to recording the facts:

... Edmund died there [Hungary]; but Edward married Agatha, a daughter of the brother of the Emperor Henry of Germany, by whom he had Margaret, Christina and Edgar Aetheling.

As if wishing to emphasise the illustrious birth of Edward's wife, Florence laid great stress on Emperor Henry III specifically being Agatha's kinsman in the appendix of his work, the Regalis Prosapia Anglorum . However, even he laboured under the misapprehension, shared by all his peers, that Edward's marriage had taken place in Hungary.

But the precise statement contained in the Leges that Edward married in Russia, puts paid to the officially sanctioned view – contained in present-day reference books – that he married a Hungarian princess in Hungary . And this helps to resolve once and for all the mystery of the shadowy lady whom close on two dozen highly-regarded Anglo-Norman chroniclers named as Agatha without being able to shed any light on her ancestry.

By tracing the chain of borrowing among the chroniclers with the aid of textual comparisons and chronological verification, the candidates for Agatha's parentage can be reduced to five: the King of Hungary; a sister of Queen Gisela of Hungary; the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II, the Saxon; Emperor Henry III, the Salian; and finally, a kinsman (germanus ) of the two.

This Latin word germanus , from Florence's key sentence Eadwardus Agatham , filiam germani Imperatoris Henrici in matrimoniam accepit , was grievously mistranslated by later historians as 'German Emperor Henry', unintentionally introducing a further complication into the vexed question of Agatha's origins.

Florence, however, was clearly using the word to denote not nationality but the exact degree of relation. In medieval Latin germanus meant brother or cousin, even in the vaguest formulation a close blood relation, but never a relation by marriage. The historical context of the sentence makes it clear that was the intended precise sense of Florence's phrasing. And this narrows further the circle of Agatha's begetter.

Since the medieval use of the word germanus always referred to blood relationship and not ties by marriage, Agatha could not have been, on her mother's side, a niece of the Emperor Henry II, the Saxon.

Thus the field is left to a kinsman of Henry III, as indicated by Florence. Henry was the only son of Emperor Conrad II and Gisela of Swabia. However, he had three older half-brothers as his mother had previously been married to Bruno of Brunswick and Ernest of Swabia. And these elder half-brothers perfectly fulfil the meaning of germanus . Because of the chronology of established dates, the eldest of the three, Luidolf, Margrave of Miest-Friesland, could only have been the father of Agatha. She was indeed then the daughter of 'a kinsman of Emperor Henry', and, having been born at about 1025, she would have been around eighteen when she married Edward and twenty-nine when she gave birth to her son. This resolves the mystery surrounding the identity of Agatha and ends a centuries' old misconception about the Hungarian origins of her daughter, St Margaret of Scotland.

Meanwhile, in England, a mere decade after the ending of Danish rule and the restoration of Anglo-Saxon rule, the situation was going from bad to worse and the country was heading, it seemed to many, for catastrophe. The ageing King Edward the Confessor, the aethelings' uncle, was locked in a debilitating power struggle with the Godwin family which divided the country. His fervent confession of his faith, bouts of fasting and his chaste marriage earned him the epithet 'the Confessor' but his erratic government further eroded royal power. The reins of power were in the hands of Earl Godwin, England's premier nobleman, and his sons. The King, owing to his Norman upbringing, surrounded himself with Norman courtiers and filled the highest ecclesiastical posts with them rather than with his own kith and kin, the Anglo-Saxons. The King's preference for all things Norman was greatly worrying the traditionalist Saxon thanes.

With their backing, Earl Godwin, a one-time protege of Canute, was opposing the sway of the Normans, making much political capital out of the rising tide of popular anti-Norman feelings. Besides, he was immensely rich. Four out of England's six earldoms were in the hands of his family. His own fief stretched from Cornwall to Kent, and his daughter, Edith, was the King's wife, giving him a further not inconsiderable leverage of power.

Inevitably the Confessor and Earl Godwin fell out and the King sent the Godwins into exile. In 1051, during the Godwins' absence, William of Normandy, the King's cousin, paid a surprise visit to England introducing a new dimension into the succession issue. For as the Norman chroniclers of the time – William of Poitiers foremost among them – claimed, it was not the hope of a cosy family reunion but the promise of the crown of England that made William cross the Channel.

However, any promise regarding the succession made without the sanction of the Witan and the Godwins, was worth little, especially as the weak King was soon forced to pardon the Godwins, who became all powerful. Harold Godwinsson, who eventually took over the burden of practical govemment after his father's death, soon began styling himself as 'duke by the Grace of God'. With all the levers of power in his hands and the Norman faction at the court routed, Harold – though not of royal blood – was now a serious contender for the crown.

The country was split down the middle between the pro-Saxon and pro-Norman factions and the threat of civil war and a Norman intervention was becoming graver with every passing day. In order to defuse the explosive situation, the Confessor began to look for a compromise candidate for the throne who would be acceptable to the Witan. When in 1054 he learnt that Edward Aetheling was alive in Hungary, he proposed that he be invited home as heir-apparent. The Witan, also in search of middle ground, accepted Edward as the future king of England. Thirty-eight years after his banishment, Edward the Exile became once again officially Edward the Aetheling, the heir of his father's throne.

He was an admirable compromise choice: he was not only the son of the legendary Edmund Ironside but also of royal blood by direct male descent. And because of this, neither Harold nor William could openly challenge the joint invitation of the King and Witan that he ascend the throne of Wessex. For by tradition the Anglo-Saxons preferred to choose their kings from among the male descendants of their ruling house.

The aetheling's other great advantage in the public eye was that he was not tainted by Norman influence or culture, while even Harold Godwinsson was rumoured to have sworn fealty to William during a brief, enforced stay in Normandy. Thus, while William of Normandy could count on papal support against a 'perjurer' like Harold if he chose to enforce his claim to the crown of England with armed might, he could not bank on the approval of Christendom in the case of armed intervention against a royal prince of England groomed for the crown by the King and the Witan. With Edward Aetheling on the throne, a Norman invasion would have been unlikely, and the country wanted peace above all.

Nevertheless, the offering of the crown of England to a prince who had lived his entire life in exile, was an act of desperation, a gamble born out of the recognition that desperate situations needed desperate remedies. In the search for ways to ward off civil war and a Norman invasion, the recall of Edward must have seemed the most expedient in 1054.

In the summer of that year, the King sent a high-powered embassy headed by Bishop Ealdred of Worcester (afterwards Archbishop of York) to bring back his nephew to England. Owing to the obstructive attitude of the Holy Roman Emperor, it took over two years to arrange the aetheling's return.

He stepped on English soil again after forty years in exile and his home-coming was recorded in the August 31st, 1057, entry of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

Here comes Edward Aetheling
To Engla-land;
He was King Edward's Brother's son,
Edmund King,
Who Ironside was called...

But there were hostile forces at work, determined to prevent a meeting between the King and his intended successor. That something sinister was behind the obstacle put in the way of Edward's first official encounter with his uncle, the King, is clear from the almost identical account of this curious incident as recorded by the Worcester and Abingdon writers of the Chronicle.

We do not know for whatever reason that was done that the aetheling was not allowed to see his relation, Edward King.

In their terse, matter-of-fact chronicle there was no room for empty rhetoric, yet they appear to have felt impelled to depart from their traditional style and insert a rhetorical question, loaded with innuendo, asking why the heir-apparent was 'not allowed' to see the King?

They would only have resorted to this tortuous way of voicing their suspicions of sinister reasons behind the aborted formal reunion of King and successor because of fear of the people involved. Since the court and every level of government was packed with Harold Godwinsson's men after the expulsion of the Confessor's Norman advisers, the insertion of this innuendo became an accusation of certain unnamable men in the King's own retinue who were prepared to go to any lengths to interpose themselves between the King and his intended successor. For such a meeting would have resuIted in the formal confirmation of Edward Aetheling as the heir to the throne and these mighty men, with totally different plans for the crown of England, were not prepared to allow this.

Within forty-eight hours of his home coming Edward was dead. Significantly, not one of the contemporary chroniclers mentioned that he had been ill, including Abbot Ingulph of Croyland and Florence. His sudden death shook the kingdom. The popular outburst of grief over the death of the aetheling was spontaneous. 'Joy/over the homecoming/ turned into mourning, laughter into tears', this is how the chroniclers summed up the national mood.

And the Worcester monk, who welcomed Edward's return in his August 31st, 1057 entry, inserted the following in the Chronicle , writing dearly after the 1066 Norman invasion:

Alas, that was a rueful occurrence
And harmful For this nation
That he so prematurely
His life did end
After that he to Engla-land came,
For the mishap
Of this wretched nation.

His linking, in a cause-and-effect relationship, of the aetheling's sudden death and the Norman conquest, would seem today an unmistakable pointer that the aetheling's death was not accidental. With sickness as the cause of death ruled out by its omission from the otherwise detailed contemporary records, the rhetorical question of why uncle and nephew were not allowed to meet, became an accusation. This clear but thus far overlooked pointer, left by perspicacious chroniclers forced to exercise self-censorship, justifies a full murder inquiry.

For if it was Harold who hired the assassin, then it would have been unpatriotic to accuse – under the Norman occupiers – the last champion of Anglo-Saxon rule with murder. If, however, William and his Normans were behind it, then the inclusion of an open accusation of murder would have been suicidal. So the wise keepers of England's records resorted to innuendo.

The charge that Edward Aetheling was murdered by his own countrymen, not wild foreigners among whom he had lived for so many years, is so serious that most students of the Norman take-over have shied away from investigating it. Only a handful. of nineteenth-century historians Johann Martin von Lappenberg, Sir Francis Palgrave and Edward Freeman – dared to point a hesitant accusing finger in the direction of Harold without actually committing themselves.

But they laboured under two debilitating handicaps. They had no knowledge of the aetheling's career in exile and they judged, like everyone else before them, the fateful events that decided England's future either from William's or from Harold's point of view. They were not aware of the true position of the aetheling in the King's compromise plan and, therefore, they did not approach Edward's puzzling death from the 'third man's' point of view.

The natural question of an historical investigator reopening the case after a delay of over nine centuries – whom would the aetheling's death have benefited? – brings both Harold and William into the purview of the investigation. Suspicion, however, focuses on the faction which might have felt cheated out of victory by Edward and wanted to reopen the succession issue in more favourable circumstances.

The conclusion, supported by the muffled warning of the writers of the Chronicle, that whoever had prevented the meeting between the King and his intended heir would in the end, of necessity, have also killed in order to remove an inconvenient interloper between himself and the crown, is inescapable.

With so much of the power and prerogatives of government already in Harold's hands, supporters of his cause might reasonably have felt that he was incomparably better suited to rule Wessex than an exile. Harold had proved himself a brave warrior and able administrator, while the aetheling was an unknown quantity. But he had the advantage of being of royal blood and the choice of the King and the Witan.

However, if Edward were to be removed in secrecy and without scandal, the Saxon faction could naturally turn to the worthiest of Englishmen and make him king even though he was not of royal blood. The tradition of electing a king from Cerdic's royal house would have been of little consequence in the new situation in which the stark choice was between the Norman William and the English Harold.

And this scenario sounds the more convincing as Harold could not thwart the King's succession plan until after Edward's arrival in England but before his formal approval as heir-apparent. Harold, therefore, stood to gain a kingdom if Edward was to be cleverly disposed of. And there is a pointer to the poisoner's cup as the cause of Edward's death, for only poison can explain a death so sudden without any preceding sign of illness.

A detailed examination of all the available evidence, and the legal and de facto positions of Harold and William in the struggle for the crown, led the investigation to Harold and his followers. They had the motivation and the opportunity to prevent the crucial meeting and then do away with the aetheling.

William, on the other hand, with his powerful supporters expelled from the court and country, could hardly have prevented the important meeting between King and heir confirming Edward's right to the crown. Nor would his secret followers have had a chance to do away with the aetheling in the few hours available without arousing the suspicion of the solidly pro-Harold courtiers and government officials. For if that murder had not been in Harold's interest, they would most certainly not have hushed it up. Indeed, they would have made the most of it.

On balance, the case against Harold and his followers is very strong indeed. The poisoner's art was tailor-made for Harold. Nor is there any contradiction between Harold's proven probity as a warrior and the use of murder to remove an obstacle from his path. Ruthlessness ran in the family. His father in his time did not hesitate to betray and deliver to his executioners Alfred Aetheling when his interests so required, yet the prize for which he was prepared to pay with another man's blood was far more modest than the crown of England. Harold revealed a similar cruel streak and lack of moral scruples during his brief reign. With motive, opportunity and inclination pointing to Harold, no jury in an English court would today doubt that Harold had the will too to have the aetheling murdered.

Edward's murder was a setback to the Confessor's hopes of an orderly succession and for the country, the starting point of a calamitous chain reaction that soon swept away Anglo-Saxon England. One cannot escape the tantalizing conclusion that, had Edward Aetheling not been murdered, the Norman Conquest might not have taken place.

Gabriel Ronay is a journalist on The Times and the author of The Tartar Khan's Englishmen (Cassell, 1978).



In Print


The App