SPOILERS for the Crimson Flower and Azure Moon routes of Fire Emblem Three Houses.
In every route of Fire Emblem Three Houses except one, Edelgard is the primary antagonist. Her war against the Church of Seiros forces the squabbling factions in Fódlan to unite and fight against her Empire. In the first half of the game, she conspires with those Slithering fellas to turn innocent people into demonic beasts and have Byleth’s father killed. Her lowest point comes in Dimitri’s route, where she abandons all of her humanity and turns herself into a demon to get revenge on her old friends. But why did she go so far? What was her war all about, really? It’s only when you play the “secret” route of the game, Crimson Flower, that you get to side with Edelgard and see her side of the story.
When you meet her, Edelgard appears dignified, but aloof. She takes her studies very seriously and keeps others at arm’s length. Her classmates in the Black Eagle House have complicated relationships with her: her retainer Hubert is fanatically loyal, the boisterous Ferdinand sees her as a rival that he constantly tries (and fails) to beat, and poor Bernadetta is terrified of her initially. She’s always respectful, of course, but it’s hard to get chummy with someone with so much power and influence. She’s also great in combat, almost too good. Like, why is this 18-year-old, 5’1” princess so freakishly strong with an axe? (Besides the fact that this is a JRPG.)
Things start to come together as you learn Edelgard’s backstory and all the atrocities our warrior princess has gone through. Edelgard von Hresvelg was born as the ninth child of Emperor Ionius and heir to the throne of the Adrestrian Empire. When she was just a child, her Slithering-allied uncle Volkhard launched a coup-de-e’tat. The emperor was made a puppet, Edelgard was exiled to the Kingdom of Faerghus, and her mother fled there in secret to marry King Lambert and start a whole bunch of drama over there. Her only friend was the young Prince Dimitri, who has his own complicated relationship with Edelgard in the Azure Moon route.
But even after she returned home, Edelgard wasn’t safe from the Slithering. They locked her and her ten siblings away and performed twisted experiments to implant a magic Crest into each of them. Every single child died or went insane – except Edelgard, who survived with a whitened head of hair and a drastically shortened lifespan. Similar to the mage prodigy Lysithea, Edelgard is so driven because she wants to make the most of the short time she has left.
Edelgard’s traumatic experiences largely shaped her personality and worldview. She hates Crests due to the torture she and her family went through, and distrusts both the Church and the nobility for being complicit in this abuse. Throughout the game, her only goal is to destroy the Church of Seiros and the oppressive caste system that governs all of Fódlan. And she will stop at nothing to achieve it – whether that means plotting with her enemies in Slithering, betraying her friends, or bring the entire continent to war.
The key catalyst for all this is you, the player, as Byleth. If you choose another house or side with the Church against Edelgard, she becomes a tragic and ultimately doomed villain. But if you spend enough time with her to trust you, you’ll unlock a cutscene that gives you the choice to take her side after she reveals herself as the Flame Emperor. It’s kinda funny; the easiest way to max out your supports with her is to give the young warlord a bunch of adorable stuffed teddy bears.
After the time skip, Edelgard relies on Byleth and the rest of the Black Eagles for support, and to keep her from going over the edge. She grieves for five years when her dear professor goes missing, and confesses that she would have become a “harsh ruler with a heart of ice” without them. Her position weighs on her, and she sometimes wishes she could spend her days eating sweets in a more peaceful world. But no matter what route you play, she never stops her war of aggression until the bitter end. For her, a swift and bloody revolution is better than letting a corrupt system continue and having more people die in the long term.
Although Edelgard’s cause gains popular support, it also makes her bitter enemies with the new King Dimitri. He falsely believes Edelgard caused the genocide of Duscur, and swears revenge against her and her people. When they finally clash at the snowy plains of Faerghus, he curses the empress for her violent actions. All Edelgard can do is stare, confused, not sure why this bright and strong young man has become so obsessed with killing her all these years.
But if Edelgard’s path brings out the dark side of Dimitri, it really sends Archbishop Rhea off the deep end. She takes Byleth’s betrayal of the Church personally, and becomes increasingly paranoid and megalomaniacal. In the final battle, she sets the Kingdom castle on fire, killing her own followers, just to slow down Edelgard’s advance. But it still fails, and her defeat brings all of Fódlan under the Imperial banner and ends the war, and a thousand years of Church hegemony, for good.
So did Edelgard do the right thing? Was the world she created worth the blood she spilled to achieve it? Well, of course, there’s no easy answer. What you think of her will probably depend on your own beliefs and how much you sympathize with her. Personally, I think she was justified in trying to change the status quo, but her methods were still short-sighted and selfish. The Church of Seiros was obviously corrupt, and Rhea was executing anyone who questioned them. But the goal of Edelgard’s war is to replace a continent run by the Church with one run by the Empire, which is just trading one oppressive system for another. She does genuinely want to help people who are suffering, but she also wants to hold the power she sees as her birthright. But that’s just, like, my opinion, and I still think she’s an amazing character regardless.
Although the Crimson Flower route is the shortest in the game, it’s also the most unique, story-wise. Claude’s route harkens back to the swashbuckling adventure of early Fire Emblem games, and Dimitri’s is full of the complex and morally grey antiheroes common in modern fantasy. But Edelgard’s route, to me, feels almost more like a historical epic. It’s less about rooting for good guys vs. bad guys than it is about watching a story unfold and trying to make sense of why people did the things they did. Edelgard is probably the most morally complex character in Fire Emblem, and depending on the choices you make, you and her can be friends, rivals, enemies, or even lovers. Edelgard’s biggest strength is that she will do anything for what she believes in. Tragically, that’s part of the reason we have war in the first place.