The lost figure of the Bayeux Tapestry: where is Edgar Ætheling?
David Musgrove and Michael Lewis consider why the Bayeux Tapestry doesn’t tell the whole story of the Norman Conquest – and why Edgar Ætheling, a prince who inconveniently returned from exile, is completely overlooked
It’s 70 metres long, tells a tale that stretches over land and sea, covers a crucial piece of history, and has a wide cast of characters. Yet the Bayeux Tapestry does not relate the whole story of the Norman Conquest of 1066. It vividly records the head-to-head clash between England’s King Harold II “Godwinson” and Duke William of Normandy, placing these two protagonists firmly in the thick of the action. But it omits pivotal parts and players, notably the other battles of the Conquest year that took place in northern England – Fulford and Stamford Bridge – and one man in particular, Edgar Ætheling, who might have been king in 1066.
The Bayeux Tapestry is a unique survival of medieval embroidery (it’s not a true tapestry, despite the name) and undoubtedly one of the most famous sources for the Norman conquest of England. Its scene-by-scene cartoon approach lends it an accessibility that no contemporary written account can match. When the story broke in 2018 that the Tapestry might be loaned to Britain from Normandy for a temporary exhibition – probably at the British Museum – while its museum in Bayeux is redeveloped, it hit the news worldwide.
Because the Bayeux Tapestry plays out with the clash between Harold and William as its key narrative, and because it is so globally famous, the bits that the embroidery overlooks have to a greater or lesser extent been excluded from broader understanding of the Conquest story.
So, what does it show? Briefly, the Bayeux Tapestry starts with King Edward “the Confessor” in conversation with his leading earl, Harold; the year is probably 1064, the location likely Westminster, possibly Winchester, and the topic presumably Harold’s forthcoming trip to the continent – though none of that is spelt out. Earl Harold leaves for the coast, crosses the Channel, and after a short misadventure at the hands of a local lord (Count Guy of Ponthieu), ends up at the court of Duke William in Normandy. The pair then head off on a military campaign against rebels in Brittany. According to the Tapestry, the campaign is a success for William, and Harold acquits himself well – even saving Normans from certain death in the river Couesnon (which divides Normandy from Brittany).
Harold makes an oath of some sort to William, which has been assumed to be in support of William’s claim to England’s throne – that claim being based, according to the Norman chroniclers William of Poitiers and William of Jumièges, on a supposed promise made by King Edward to William some years earlier, probably in about 1051.
The earl promptly returns to the court of King Edward, where the aforementioned monarch proceeds to die in short order after a deathbed scene and is buried in his new abbey church of St Peter at Westminster. Harold swiftly takes the throne, seemingly in breach of the oath he made in Normandy. William gets wind of this perfidy, builds a fleet, assembles an army, crosses the Channel and waits for Harold to arrive for a fight. Harold duly brings his own force to Hastings, where he is killed and his army is defeated, and thus William takes the throne for himself – crowned in the Confessor’s abbey at Westminster on Christmas Day 1066.
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This is a pretty easy narrative to follow. It’s William v Harold. Harold puts himself in the wrong by reneging on a sacred oath, and though both men are shown as worthy warriors, William wins the day with right and might on his side – perhaps with God deciding the victor’s and vanquished’s fates. William’s claim is justified and justifiable, and the logical progress to his victory is easy to see.
However, this straightforward story is not all that it seems. The images do not speak for themselves because though they are accompanied by captions, these are generally terse and leave much room for interpretation; even in 1066 there might have been confusion, and certainly divergence, about the circumstances of events that led to the Norman conquest of England. Ambiguity in the Bayeux Tapestry is rife, so we need to rely on and reference the other documentary sources of the time to understand what’s going on, or at least have an idea of what its designer intended us to presume. It is the unique nature of the Tapestry that it never makes a categorical statement, including, for instance, the oath that Harold made to William; we see the oath performed, but we are not told any details.
What is not ambiguous in the narrative are the omissions. Anyone familiar with the drama of 1066 will know that we are missing a couple of key moments in the Tapestry’s sketch of events. When Duke William landed at Pevensey on 28 September, King Harold was otherwise engaged in the north. He had recently fought another contender for his throne, the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada, who in alliance with Harold’s own brother Earl Tostig, had already defeated one English army at the battle of Fulford on 20 September. Harold had then crushed Hardrada and Tostig five days later at the battle of Stamford Bridge; a great victory, but one later overshadowed by his own defeat at the battle of Hastings on 14 October.
Earl Tostig appears to have been a favourite of Edward the Confessor and was installed by the king as Earl of Northumbria by 1055. But his rule in the north was not a happy one. The inhabitants of Northumbria rebelled against him late in 1065, probably because he was trying to introduce new taxes – albeit ones similar to those in the south – highlighting the fact that though England was technically one realm, the north was semi-autonomous. In the recent past this had been the Danelaw – as the name implies, this was a large region of England that was under the jurisdiction of the Vikings. Harold had been tasked by King Edward to sort out the problem, but in the event sympathised with the rebels, or at least saw the logic of their cause, and Tostig was forced overseas. Tostig was clearly aggrieved, first setting out for the lands of his wife in Flanders, and then to the king of the Scots, before ending up joining the cause of Harald Hardrada – a legend in his own time as a fierce warrior and adventurer, and a man with his own (albeit loose) claim to the English throne.
But none of this, or even Harold’s long march down south to Hastings, is shown in the Bayeux Tapestry. It is understandable that these clashes do not figure in the embroidery since it is quite possible that the Normans simply weren’t interested in these conflicts, but probably more importantly, it might not have suited the Norman narrative to have stressed the fact that the English were coming off the back of one hard fight and a long march before they faced William. Even though the way the battle of Hastings was fought depended on local men fighting locally, would Duke William have wanted it to be advertised – even within a textile narrative – that he had defeated a potentially depleted and tired enemy in his great victory? That aside, the inclusion of these battles would certainly have clouded the straight Harold v William narrative.
The exiled Ætheling
Fulford and Stamford Bridge are relatively well-known battles today, so they have not suffered from their exclusion in the Bayeux Tapestry. Yet there is one important 1066 figure who is missing from its narrative – and more generally from the wider understanding of the Conquest story. He is Edgar Ætheling, and we need a bit of context to introduce him.
A Norman king would not have been palatable to the English elite in 1066, many of whom, like Harold himself, were part Danish. England had after all been ruled by the Danes, under King Cnut, from 1016 until 1035, and thereafter his sons. So, as Edward’s reign progressed, from 1042, the absence of an obvious heir (though married to Harold’s sister, Edith, Edward had no children) would have caused disquiet among them. Indeed, by 1054 efforts were being made to seek out the kin of Edward’s half-brother, King Edmund “Ironside”, who had reigned briefly in 1016, before being defeated in battle by Cnut, the kingdom shared, and then – upon Edmund’s death soon after – his family fleeing abroad.
In 1057 Prince Edward Ætheling, Edmund Ironside’s son, was brought back to England from exile in Hungary – likely not speaking a word of English – and promptly died before even meeting King Edward, his half-uncle. Even so, foul play is not suspected. Fortunately, with Prince Edward came his son, Edgar, aged about five, who was – it seems – recognised as Ætheling (throne-worthy). The implication appears to be that King Edward brought him up as his eventual successor.
Edward and Edgar’s backstory is not portrayed at all in the Bayeux Tapestry. All we see in the embroidery that alludes to it is the deathbed scene of the ailing king with the caption “Here King Edward in bed addresses his faithful friends”, which shows Edward touching hands with a man we assume to be Earl Harold, as his wife (and Harold’s sister) Queen Edith weeps at the bottom of his bed.
You could read this as showing King Edward, content that Edgar would succeed him as king, promising the “protection” of the kingdom to Earl Harold in line with the story in the roughly contemporary Life of King Edward, attributed to Edith’s patronage, in which the king is said to say: “I commend this woman [Edith] and all the kingdom to your protection.” Or you could take the view that this shows something more in accord with an account offered by the late 11th–early 12th-century historian Eadmer of Canter-bury, who says Harold succeeded Edward “as he had before his death provided”.
Whether regent or ruler, the Bayeux Tapestry next shows Harold being offered the crown by two men, assumed to be members of the witan (council of ministers). He is then crowned, or at least anointed king. But Edgar is nowhere to be seen – he has been stitched out of the Tapestry altogether.
Invasion and war were on the cards. Was a teenage prince, brought up in Hungary, up to the task of saving England?
So, what do we make of this? It is possibly the case that Prince Edgar was seen as too young or otherwise unworthy. In January 1066, after the death of the old king, England was on the edge of a crisis. Whatever the nature of any promise to Duke William by King Edward in 1051, which might have been affirmed by Harold himself on the voyage to Normandy in 1064 (perhaps depicted in the Tapestry oath scene), it was probably clear to most Englishmen that William would seek to claim the crown by force if he needed to. Furthermore, it was also well known that King Harald Hardrada, with or without Tostig, might try to take lands claimed through his Scandinavian roots in northern England.
So, invasion and war were on the cards – and was a teenage prince, brought up in Hungary, up to the task of saving England? It is easy to think not. But it is known that after King Harold’s death at Hastings, and the advance of the Norman army north, the citizens of London chose Edgar as king (albeit a short-lived affair). So maybe Edgar was excluded from the Bayeux Tapestry for another reason – perhaps it was politically expedient to remove him.
Pulling the strings
It’s helpful here to note who probably had the Bayeux Tapestry made. Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William’s half-brother, plays an important role in the embroidery, both as an advisor and participant in the Hastings campaign. In the written sources, Odo is much less prominent than he appears in the Tapestry, and this is the most compelling of several reasons why Odo is seen as the most likely person to have been its patron. Though the actual needlework was likely done by English women working in Canterbury, it was probably carried out under Odo’s orders or patronage, in part to glorify his role in proceedings, and in part to honour King William. It may well have been that the Bayeux Tapestry was actually made for the consecration of Odo’s cathedral in Bayeux in 1077, though not necessarily for display.
If the Bayeux Tapestry was to glorify Odo and his role in the Norman conquest, then it perhaps suited not to show Prince Edgar in his account. As stated before, the conflict between Harold and William is clearly set out as a binary one, and to add Edgar muddies the water and detracts from the key message. Any student of modern politics will tell you the importance of having one clear argument and sticking to it, whatever the reality of the situation on the ground. Duke William claimed the kingdom of England based on promises made both by Edward the Confessor and (perhaps) Harold himself, with the latter having perjured himself by going back on his oath to William and seizing the throne for himself. But if Edgar was actually supposed to be Edward’s successor, then it is he who has been usurped. It would hardly have been politically expedient to have shown Edgar Ætheling having any place in the story.
The role of King Harold “Godwinson” in the Bayeux Tapestry is an interesting one. Certainly, there is no doubt he lost the conflict with William, but he is not shown as an anti-hero, or even a baddie. Indeed, the Tapestry takes care to show his status, religious devotion, strength and bravery. He does not run away from battle, but dies a hero’s death, much like Beowulf or Byrhtnoth in earlier epic Anglo-Saxon poems.
It’s not surprising that Edgar, a man of transient loyalties who might yet inspire English rebels, would be left out of the Tapestry
However, our view of Harold might be somewhat different if Edgar was lurking in the shadows, reminding us that he was Edward’s chosen heir, not Harold or William. Perhaps then it suited the patron and the designers of the Bayeux Tapestry to show a conflict between two men of immense quality, both believing they had a right to rule and both claiming it through King Edward, with their dispute ultimately being resolved by God’s will. Including Edgar in the Bayeux Tapestry would have confused the message, but more than that (and here it doesn’t matter who won) not allowed closure.
Commentators on the Bayeux Tapestry have remarked that it shows a narrative of the Norman conquest that suits a situation soon after 1066, when the Normans were trying to appease the English, not dominate them. But by 1069–70, when the north was harried, William’s patience with the English had run dry. Perhaps that even explains why the embroidery was taken to Bayeux, as its version of the Conquest was no longer fashionable in England.
The Bayeux Tapestry is firmly rooted in the politics of the aftermath of the battle of Hastings, a time when Edgar wasn’t a helpful figure in a simple narrative. It’s interesting to note that after the Conquest, Edgar did submit to William, in late 1066, and was seemingly accommodated with him briefly, before joining the northern rebellion against his rule in 1069–70. After a period in the court of King Malcolm III in Scotland, and then Flanders, he once more submitted to William and is recorded as being back in his court, where he became close friends with the king’s son, Robert Curthose – himself a thorn in the Conqueror’s side. Given that this is the period in which the Tapestry was likely being worked on, it’s not surprising that a man of transient loyalties who might yet still form a focus for English rebels (though his leadership qualities seem to have been questionable) would not figure in the Norman-backed, though English worked, embroidery.
Left out of history
So Edgar is written out of the Bayeux Tapestry, and because of the Tapestry’s general domination of the narrative even today, he does not take his place in the line-up of likely contenders for the English throne in the generally-known story of 1066. That is a shame, because his life is a fascinating one. There aren’t many princes exiled to Hungary who make a claim on the English throne, then rebel against the incumbent and still survive to tell the tale. Only one in fact!
Remarkably, the story doesn’t end there. After the death of William the Conqueror, Edgar gets further embroiled in Anglo-Scottish politics, inciting King Malcolm to invade England in 1091, and then in 1097 leading an English army into Scotland, with King William II’s backing, and having his own nephew (his sister Margaret had married Malcolm in 1070) installed on the throne there. After that, he became a crusader and went to the Holy Land, returned via the Byzantine and German emperors, and finally in 1106 is recorded as fighting at the battle of Tinchebrai with his old friend Robert Curthose against King Henry I of England. It’s not known for sure when or where he died, but he is recorded as still being alive in 1125 – long after Harold and William had died.
And yet, despite that exciting life of war, politics and intrigue, Edgar remains an elusive figure. He has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and one academic article from 1985 exploring his life, but aside from that, he doesn’t get much attention. That’s just one of the many legacies of the Bayeux Tapestry, a source that continues to dominate the narrative almost a millennium after it was stitched. And one that will certainly hit the headlines again if it travels back across the Channel in the next few years. Perhaps, then, Edgar’s importance will finally be remembered.
Michael Lewis is head of portable antiquities and treasure at the British Museum, and an expert on the Bayeux Tapestry. David Musgrove is BBC History Magazine’s content director and a doctor of medieval archaeology
The Story of the Bayeux Tapestry: Unravelling the Norman Conquest, by David Musgrove and Michael Lewis, is available now
This article was first published in the March 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine