After over thirty years of stability under Malcolm III, the next few years would see chaos in Scotland with Edgar being the third to succeed his father when he came to the throne just 4 years later. With his evil uncle, Donalbain, still kicking around and a power-hungry Viking on the scene, Edgar would have a difficult job on his hands to keep the throne.
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The reign of Malcolm III, in partnership with his much celebrated wife (and later saint) Margaret of Wessex, was very successful for Scotland, bringing stability and a more cultured court. However, Malcolm’s untimely death whilst raiding Northumbria in 1093, which was soon afterwards followed by the death of his son and heir, Edward, and Margaret herself, left something of a power vacuum and uncertainty as to who would succeed.
Malcolm had a lot of children and an impressive total of five surviving sons – one, Duncan, by his first wife and the other four (Edmund, Edgar, Alexander and David) by Margaret. Despite this, he was actually succeeded by his brother, Donalbain, apparently on the back of a Gaelic reaction at the Scottish court due to a disenchantment with Margaret’s overly English culture and advisors. So, Donalbain became king and the sons of Margaret were shepherded into exile by their uncle, Edgar the Aetheling, and taken in at the English court of William Rufus.
Given that Rufus and Malcolm III were often at loggerheads, it might seem surprising that he would provide refuge to Malcolm’s sons. However, Rufus’s main concern was to shore up the Anglo-Scottish border and while Malcolm’s children might be compliant with his wishes, the Gaelic and hardy Donalbain was quite definitely not. So, initially Rufus threw his weight behind Malcolm’s eldest son, Duncan, who had been raised in England and Normandy since he was a child and was, to all intents and purposes, a Norman knight. So, in 1094, Duncan took an army north, expelled Donalbain from court and was crowned as Duncan II. Unfortunately, after facing a number of rebellions, he made a rather ill-advised agreement to send away his foreign troops, the result being that he was then left vulnerable enough to be assassinated after just a few months on the throne and Donalbain came back, this time in partnership with the next oldest of Malcolm’s sons, Edmund.
So, as a man with a lot of chips to gamble with, Rufus lined up his next candidate for the Scottish throne: Edgar.
Edgar was the fourth son of Malcolm III and Margaret of Wessex and thus the nephew of Donalbain and the half-brother of Duncan II. He was born in roughly 1074, meaning that he was about 33 when he came to the throne in 1097. He was given the epithet of Probus (the Valiant) though confusingly he is sometimes referred to as Edgar the Peaceable, resulting in him being mixed up with the Anglo-Saxon king who ruled 100 years earlier.
Very little is known of Edgar’s upbringing until 1093, when he was apparently besieged in Edinburgh castle by Donalbain, along with his younger brothers Alexander and David. According to John of Fordun, they were rescued in part by their uncle, Edgar the Aetheling (the last male of the Anglo-Saxon royal line) and also a miracle of subterfuge:
“Some, indeed, tell us that, during the whole of that journey, a cloudy mist was round about all this family, and miraculously sheltered them from the gaze of any of their foes, so that nothing hindered them as they journeyed by land or by sea.”
(John of Fordun)
Helped by this miraculous mist, Edgar the Aetheling took Edgar and his other nephews to the court of William Rufus, which was quite a risky tactic given that (as the sons of Margaret of Wessex) they had a claim to the English throne. A knight called Orcar even challenged the Aetheling to trial by combat for treason, but another knight called Godwin fought on his behalf and killed Orcar, thus clearing his name.
What Edgar got up to for the next few years is not entirely clear. Edgar apparently accompanied Duncan to Durham in 1094 and witnessed a charter that he released there, but it is not clear if he continued up to Scotland or if he returned to Rufus’s court. If he did stay with Duncan then presumably a few months later Edgar was forced to flee south for the second time in the space of a year when Donalbain returned to the throne. In 1095, Rufus took Edgar with him to see off a rebellion in Northumbria, invested Edgar as King of Scots (though in reality in name only) and gave him command of Lothian in southern Scotland.
However, Rufus apparently did not have the resources to spare to support Edgar in actually becoming king until 1097, when he put Edgar the Aetheling in charge of an army which saw Edmund expelled from Scotland and Donalbane captured, with Edgar (the Scottish Edgar, that is!) finally made king.
Unfortunately, the details of Edgar’s reign are rather sketchy. In 1098, there was the rather ominous arrival on the scene of Magnus Barelegs, a powerful King of Norway who raided all through the Western Isles of Scotland and Ireland. Edgar was said to have come to terms with Magnus and, in return for peace, ceded all Scottish claims to the islands. In 1099, Edgar was back in England, carrying the sword of state for Rufus in a ceremony inaugurating Westminster Hall. While he was away, Donalbain (surprisingly only imprisoned after 1097) plotted some form of rebellion, but Edgar was able to see it off and this time Donalbain was out of luck, being blinded and (as a not too surprising result) dying. In 1100, William Rufus was killed in a hunting accident and replaced as King of England by Henry I, who in a bid to shore up the legitimacy of his kingship married Edgar’s sister, Edith, thus making the English and Scottish kings brothers-in-law.
It is not clear what impact (if any) this had on Edgar and Scotland at this time but he did not appear again at the English court nor face any rebellion within Scotland. In fact, he does not seem to have done much at all until 1107, when (despite only being about 43) he died in Edinburgh.
Edgar may have accompanied his older brother, Duncan II, on his successful invasion in 1094 and seems to have played some involvement in William Rufus’s campaign to put down a northern rebellion in 1095 (after which he took control of Lothian). However, the big success was when he took the throne from his uncle, Donalbain, in in 1097. John of Fordun provides a typically colourful account in which St Cuthbert, the northern Saxon saint buried at Durham Cathedral, came to Edgar in a dream promising victory:
“Fear not, my son; for God has been pleased to give thee the kingdom. And this shall be a token unto thee: When thou shalt have taken my standard with thee from the monastery of Durham, and set it up against thine adversaries, I shall up and help thee; and thy foes shall be scattered, and those that hate thee shall flee before thy face!”
(John of Fordun – quoting St Cuthbert in Edgar’s dream!)
Edgar awoke full of excitement, told his namesake uncle, Edgar the Aetheling, and committed himself and his army to march under the banners of St Cuthbert. As a result, Edgar was victorious!
“When, afterwards, the armies met, and Saint Cuthbert’s standard was raised aloft, a certain knight of English birth, named Robert, the son of the aforesaid Godwin, and the heir and rival of his father’s prowess, being accompanied by only two knights, charged the enemy, and slew their mightiest, who stood out, like champions, in front of the line of battle. So, before the armies had neared one another, Donald and his men were put to flight; and thus, by the favour of God and the merits of Saint Cuthbert, Edgar happily achieved a bloodless victory.”
(John of Fordun)
This is the best we have for Edgar in battleyness and, when you look at it, it’s not all that impressive. John of Fordun’s account suggests that no actual real battling went on beyond the champions and even if this is dismissed as a fanciful account designed to indicate Edgar’s inherent right to rule, if there was a battle then it should be Edgar’s uncle, the Aetheling, who gets the credit:
“In the year 1097, king William sent Edgar Aetheling into Scotland with an army, to drive out Donald, and establish king Malcolm’s son Edgar as king; and this also he did.”
(Chronicle of Melrose)
And if the Aetheling gets the credit for the battle, William Rufus was clearly the man pulling the strings. Nothing happened to advance Edgar’s cause from 1094-97 until Rufus could afford to spare some soldiers and (as with Duncan II) Edgar had to do homage to Rufus and was invested by him as king, effectively acknowledging Rufus as his superior (and, by implication, England’s overlordship regarding Scotland). In 1095 (when Edgar first asserted his claim) he issued a charter which demonstrated he was by no means above sucking up to his powerful ally:
“I, Edgar, son of Malcolm, King of Scots, holding the whole land of Lothian and the kingdom of Scotland by gift of my lord, William, King of the English, and by inheritance from my father, with consent of my foresaid lord King William.”
Perhaps the main criticism of Edgar’s martial prowess is the treaty he made with King Magnus Barelegs of Norway (so named due to following the fashion of the Western Islanders in wearing nothing over his legs). Magnus launched a major campaign reasserting Norse dominance over their settlements in Ireland and the Western Isles of Scotland, installing his son as Earl of Orkney before raiding Lewis, Uist, Skye, Tiree, Mull and Islay (he also went to Iona but oddly just paid a respectful visit without raiding!) Rather than take the fight to Magnus, Edgar made a treaty with him in which he ceded the Western Isles in return for Magnus departing in peace, though according to the Orkneyinga Saga he gave away more than he bargained for:
“King [Edgar] would let him have all the islands off the west coast which were separated by water navigable by a ship with the rudder set. When King Magnus reached Kintyre he had a skiff hauled across the narrow neck of land at Tarbert, with himself sitting at the helm, and this is how he won the whole peninsula.”
In Edgar’s defence, he became king after several years of civil war and internal division with four changes of ruler since 1093 and it was unlikely that he had sufficient resources to fight a war over territory that had in reality been out of Scottish control since the ninth century. Even more in his defence, this whole escapade may have been invented in the 13th century when Norway’s rule over the islands was threatened by Scotland and they were keen to “discover” historical precedent to justify their position!
Although Edgar took the throne by force, his military record is not actually all that impressive – he owed his throne to the King of England, the battle was fought by his uncle and he then gave away territory to the Vikings!
Score = 4/20
There is very little evidence to go on but worth mentioning is that after initially imprisoning his uncle, Donalbain, in 1097 he then had him killed by blinding in 1099. In Edgar’s defence, Donalbain had sent him into exile in 1093, killed his brother in 1094 and planned a rebellion in 1099 while Edgar’s brother, Edmund, who allied with Donalbain had received mercy by being sent to an English monastery. However, blinding your rivals is pretty brutal!
Score = 5/20
Despite not being around for very long, chroniclers seem to have had a good impression of Edgar. The Chronicle of Melrose described him as “valiant” while Ailred of Rievaulx (a friend of the family) compared him to his ancestor, Edward the Confessor: “sweet and lovable, employing no tyranny, no harshness, no greed against his people, but ruling his subjects with the greatest charity and benevolence”
After the chaos of 1093-97, Edgar’s reign does represent a return to stability in Scotland and the people were probably quite glad not to have been dragged into a war with Magnus Barelegs. While Duncan II had failed to make it to Christmas and been harassed by his own subjects, Edgar made a success of his reign and restored the line of Malcolm III. The stability was shown by a return to the policies of his mother, Margaret, writing to Anselm (the Archbishop of Canterbury) to have new monks sent to the priory at Dunfermline (the old ones presumably having been banished by Donalbain) and he made other church grants during his reign.
Although Edgar’s submission to Rufus was not the most dignified of experiences for a Scottish king, it was nevertheless a vital diplomatic encounter which got him onto the throne and he continued to enjoy favour from Rufus. When one of Edgar’s men in Lothian was imprisoned by the Bishop of Durham, Ranulf Flambard, Edgar was able to appeal to Rufus to secure his release, despite Flambard being one of Rufus’s senior advisors. Similarly, the treaty with Magnus Barelegs ensured peace and stability even if it was not the most glorious of approaches from a military perspective.
Perhaps the most intriguing piece of diplomacy, however, was with the High King of Ireland, Muirchertach, who may have been allied with Magnus Barelegs. Edgar had made peace with Magnus and he chose a rather bizarre way of improving relations with Muirchertach:
“In this year, the elephant (which is a beast of marvellous bigness) was given by the king of Scotland to Muirchertach Ua-Briain.”
(Annals of Inisfallen, 1105)
How exactly Edgar came to have an elephant in medieval Scotland is not entirely clear! Not many Scots had been on the recent Crusade but perhaps one of them had returned home with a rather sizeable memento. Alternatively, in 1100 Henry I became king in England and he established a menagerie – no meeting between the two men is recorded but it may well have involved an elephant! Or, bizarrely, a camel – apparently “camel” is the literal translation but for some reason historians seem to be pretty convinced that it should be an elephant. Either way, Edgar does not seem to have had any trouble from Muirchertach so presumably he enjoyed his humongous present!
Some have criticised Edgar as being too English (or, more precisely, too Norman). His seal depicts him in the Norman style: a crowned king with a sceptre and orb. The writs and charters that he issued were in the Norman style as well in terms of their phrasing. What’s more, Edgar was a child of Saint Margaret and had been expelled by his subjects for being too English and only returned thanks to the possession of a Norman army.
Also, there is actually very little evidence for anything that Edgar did. The sees of St Andrews and Glasgow remained vacant throughout his reign so beyond Dunfermline and a spot of elephant-gifting, we only really have the absence of events to report.
Given the chaos that preceded him, Edgar seems to have done a pretty good job as king – his reign was stable and peaceful (sometimes no news is good news!) and won the praise of the chroniclers. Plus he gave the High King of Ireland an elephant.
Score = 10.5/20
Edgar ruled from late 1097 to 08 January 1107, which according to John of Fordun was 9 years and 3 months, giving him a total score (when converted to be out of 20) of 3.21.
Alas, Edgar had no children and instead named his brother, Alexander, as heir and granted an appanage to David I in southern Scotland, giving him a score of 0 for Dynasty and a total score of 22.71.
When examined purely in bullet point form, Edgar looks like a sure-fire candidate to join the greats on the Rex Factor mountain:
- Won the throne by battle, defeating the evil uncle
- Restore peace and stability after dynastic chaos
- Gave the High King of Ireland an elephant
However, in reality his achievements are not so incredible – he was won the throne by the King of England and his own uncle and submitted to all the powerful figures that he encountered. His reign was certainly better than the previous two but leaves nothing much to go on apart from the elephant.
Our Verdict: No, Edgar does not have the Rex Factor.
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