The Princes of Wessex Exiled in Hungary:
Of the three grandchildren of the Saxon King, Eadmund Ironside, the name of Margaret is the most marked by place and time. Her importance lies not only in the fact that the reforms started in the ecclesiastical and political life of Scotland during the reign of Malcolm (Canmore) were due to Margaret’s gentle influence, but also that she ennobled the still austere morals and customs of the kingdom. Indeed, according to the contemporary evidence of both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Simeon of Durham, she also civilized her adoptive country. However, her importance to her paternal country, England, has been underestimated.
England, or rather the loosely allied Saxon kingdoms which the Kings of Wessex had unified in resistance to Scandinavian invasions and encroachments, from Alfred the Great to Edward the Confessor, was once more divided by the Norman Conquest after 1066, losing its short-lived independence. Ealdred, the Bishop of Worcester who had arranged for Edward’s return to claim the throne, continued to support the rights of Edgar after the Battle of Hastings. He only abandoned his cause when Edgar himself showed no desire to resist William usurping the throne.
Accepting the hopelessness of Edgar’s case, Ealdred was himself among those who crowned William I at Westminster Abbey, as Archbishop of York (from 1060). It is said that he died of a broken heart in 1069, due to the desperate state of the Saxon cause in the North, following yet another Danish incursion.
The Norman land grab and their tight system of feudal dues, which was later mythologised by the conquered Anglo-Saxons as ‘the Norman Yoke’, was resisted by the thanes, among them ‘Hereward the Wake’ in East Anglia, and many of the commoners followed them, often in open rebellion, and even to the point of civil war. William responded by resorting to terror tactics in his well-known ‘harrying of the North’. Although initially proclaiming him king on hearing of Harold Godwinson’s death at Hastings, the Saxon Witenagemot had been disappointed in the teenage Edgar, and he was never crowned. There was no other male descendant of the House of Wessex, though the rule of the foreign conqueror was all but unbearable.
William kept Edgar in his custody and took him, along with other English leaders, to his court in Normandy in 1067, before returning with them to England. Edgar may have been involved in the abortive rebellion of the Earls Edwin and Morcar in 1068; in any case, in that year he fled with his mother and sisters to the court of King Malcolm of Scotland. Malcolm married Edgar’s sister Margaret and agreed to support Edgar in his attempt to reclaim the English throne. When a major rebellion broke out in Northumbria at the beginning of 1069, Edgar returned to England with other rebels who had fled to Scotland, to become the leader, or at least the figurehead, of the revolt. However, after early successes the rebels were defeated by William at York and Edgar again sought refuge with Malcolm. In late summer that year the arrival of a fleet sent by King Sweyn of Denmark triggered a fresh wave of English uprisings in various parts of the country. Edgar and the other exiles sailed to the Humber, where they linked up with Northumbrian rebels and the Danes. Their combined forces overwhelmed the Normans at York and took control of Northumbria, but a small seaborne raid which Edgar led into Lindsey ended in disaster and he escaped with only a handful of followers to rejoin the main army.
Late in the year William fought his way into Northumbria and occupied York, buying off the Danes and devastating the surrounding country. Early in 1070 he moved against Edgar and other English leaders who had taken refuge with their remaining followers in a marshy region, perhaps Holderness, and put them to flight. Edgar returned to Scotland. He remained there until 1072, when William invaded Scotland and forced King Malcolm to submit to his overlordship. The terms of the agreement between them probably included the expulsion of Edgar. He therefore took up residence in Flanders, whose Count, Robert the Frisian, was hostile to the Normans.
However, in 1074 Edgar was able to return to Scotland. Shortly after his arrival there he received an offer from Philip I of France, who was also at odds with William, of a castle and lands near the borders of Normandy from which he would be able to raid his enemies’ homeland. He embarked with his followers for France, but a storm wrecked their ships on the English coast. Many of Edgar’s men were hunted down by the Normans, but he managed to escape with the remainder to Scotland by land. Following this disaster, he was persuaded by Malcolm to make peace with William and return to England as his subject, abandoning any ambition of regaining his ancestral throne.
The continuing tension was finally brought to an end by the marriage of Margaret’s daughter, Matilda, to King Henry I of England, son of William of Normandy (11 November 1100). The marriage produced the conditions necessary for the reconciliation of the Normans and the Saxons: through it the Norman usurpers became rightful claimants to the English throne. In the course of English history, perhaps British history, no marriage was more important than that of Henry I and the daughter of Margaret of Wessex and Scotland, at least until that of Henry Tudor and Margaret of York nearly four hundred years later, which brought together the rival houses of Lancaster and York, ending Plantagenet rule and bringing about the union of England and Wales.
Another consequence of Matilda’s marriage was that the crown of Alfred the Great passed through Margaret to the Plantagenet dynasty. Margaret’s granddaughter, also named Matilda, was the mother of the first Plantagenet king, Henry II (1154-1189), so that the blood of the Anglo-Saxon kings continued to flow in the veins of the Kings of England through to the end of the Middle Ages.
The story of the flight of the Anglo-Saxon princes to Hungary via Sweden, the return of the rightful heir and his family to English shores and the love match of Margaret with Malcolm Canmore is the stuff of legend and romance which remains unmatched in the annals of British, perhaps European history. I have detailed this in my previously-posted article. The story caught the fancy of one of the writers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to the extent that he related the return of Edward’s family from their Hungarian exile in verse form.
However, there are two points on which these romantic legends and the literature which they inspired do not transfer clearly into historical narrative. Firstly, some writers have suggested that, after leaving Sweden, the young Princes of Wessex found refuge in Russia, before eventually returning to Hungary with its King Andrew I, ‘the Catholic’, in 1046.
Certainly, Edmund and Edward had to be hidden away, especially while they were still in their infancy, having been born only a few months before being sent to the Swedish Court by Canute. Their whereabouts had to be kept a secret while the Danish King of England was still alive (he died in 1035) or even while his dynasty remained (1042). From 1017 on Conrad II was Canute’s ally; his son Henry III was the latter’s son-in-law, and although Gunhilda, Canute’s daughter and Henry II’s wife, died early, loosening the ties between Canute’s family and the German Emperor, it may be that the English princes could not have been allowed refuge in Transdanubia, exposed as it was to attacks from the Emperor’s armies. Sándor Fesk, writing in 1940, believed that the Princes lived in Hungary somewhere near the Russian border, hence the confusion of the German chronicler who claimed they were domiciled in ‘Ruzzia’. At that time there was a frontier between Russia and Hungary and the region where the Hungarian, Russian and Polish territories touched was not so well-defined as to exclude the possibility of chroniclers confusing their geographical and political data. The Princes of Wessex may have spent their early years, if not decades, of their exile in the north-east of Hungary in the County of Zemplén, near the Russian frontier, where they first met the future wife of Andrew I, the daughter of Yaroslav, the Grand Duke of Kiev.
However, although they may have lived near Russia initially, the Princes enjoyed the hospitality of the Hungarian king and, probably following the death of Canute in 1035, Edward (his brother having died) moved to the Court of István, where he married the Princess Agatha. They had two daughters, Margaret, born in 1045, and Christine, and a son, Edgar, born in 1051. Therefore, Edward must have been at the Hungarian Royal Court before this and probably before István died in 1038, because the King considered making him his heir.
In the event, he chose Peter Orseolo, his nephew. Popular belief has it that, on their marriage, István gave Edward and Agatha a region in the County of Baranya as their home, in the hills close to the cathedral city of Pécs, which became known as ‘terra Britannorum’ . As Edward the Confessor did not return to the throne until 1042, this was probably considered remote enough within Hungary from the Royal Court to provide a home for Edward and Agatha to raise a family, safe enough from Canute’s successors. Margaret is said to have been born there, and if this was the case probably Christine also, a few years later, in Mecseknádásd, but Edgar may have been born at Court, to which the Royal couple returned to aid Andrew I in gaining control of the country and consolidating the Catholic Church.
(to be continued…)