Winchester Cathedral is currently hosting an archaeological team from the University of Bristol. Under study are the contents of six mortuary chests containing the remains of some of England’s early royals. Scattered among the bones of ancient kings are those of a single queen, the 11th century Emma of Normandy.
Emma was queen consort to two kings of England: the Anglo-Saxon Æthelred Unræd, who clung to his throne despite decades of Viking assaults; and the Danish Cnut, who was Æthelred’s bitter enemy and eventually England’s Viking conqueror.
Emma’s marital history alone suggests that she was made of pretty stern stuff. The daughter of the Duke of Normandy, she was herself descended from Vikings and born into an aggressively ambitious family. In 1002 they arranged her marriage to Aethelred to solidify a treaty; part of the deal was her anointing as queen – something still rare in England at that time.
The marriage could not have been an easy one. The king’s sons from an earlier union surely greeted Emma with resentment, and the English elite would have eyed a foreign bride with suspicion. Nevertheless, she forged a place for herself as queen and royal mother. She raised three children as well as her younger step-children, managed her dower lands, and secured allies among England’s nobles in a kingdom ravaged by repeated Viking attacks and internal strife.
Emma’s long life, though, would be marked by numerous reversals of fortune, the first one occurring in 1013 when the Danish king Svein Forkbeard conquered England. Emma, Æthelred, and their children fled to Normandy, followed by another reversal two months later when Svein died. An unpopular Danish army still occupied England, and a secret embassy led by Emma’s nine-year-old son resulted in Æthelred’s return. The family politics behind the boy’s pivotal but dangerous role remain a mystery, but the Norman duke likely had a hand in it.
The next two years in England were marked by reciprocal treachery between Æthelred and his nobles, by the arrival of yet another Danish army led by Svein’s son Cnut, and by the rebellion of Æthelred’s eldest son, Edmund. In 1016 Edmund and Cnut battled for England’s crown as Æthelred lay dying. Emma sent her children to safety in Normandy, but she remained at the king’s side. She had interests to protect and sons, Edward and Alfred, who might yet have an opportunity to rule. No matter who was victor when the dust settled, there would be negotiations to conduct and alliances to forge.
By mid-1017 Cnut was England’s king, and Emma his queen. She had much to offer him: ties to her Norman kin, knowledge of the politics and culture of England, and relationships with the English elite forged over the previous fifteen years. Whether she struck a deal with Cnut or whether she was a spoil of war, she ended up with a crown. Meantime her sons remained in Normandy – a circumstance that would significantly impact England’s future.
For the next eighteen years Emma was a member of Cnut’s inner council and a patron of the arts and the church; she bore him a son, Harthacnut, and a daughter, Gunnhild. But although she was Cnut’s only queen, she was not his only wife. When he’d wed Emma he already had sons by Ælfgifu, the daughter of a powerful northern family that had helped Cnut in England’s conquest. He couldn’t put Ælfgifu aside – or chose not to; and Ælfgifu was as ambitious for her sons as Queen Emma.
In 1035 fate threw another curve when Cnut died unexpectedly. Emma promoted her son, Harthacnut, for England’s throne, but he was in Denmark settling affairs there. It was Ælfgifu’s son Harold, backed by his mother’s northern faction, who immediately claimed England’s throne. When Canterbury’s archbishop refused to crown Harold, there was a stalemate. For two years Emma held England’s southern shires for Harthacnut while Harold ruled the north. Amid this contentious state of affairs, Emma’s son Alfred landed from Normandy to stake his own claim. Harold had him captured and murdered, and the English magnates, horrified and perhaps intimidated, recognized Harold as full king in 1037.
Emma had to flee. She still had money, though. She still had powerful friends, and she still had two sons with claims to the English throne. Emma wasn’t done. Once again the sudden death of a king – Harold this time – provided an opportunity. By 1041 Emma was back in England with both sons at her side. Harthacnut wore the crown; his half-brother Edward was the designated heir; Emma was Queen Dowager, more English now than either of her sons and probably pulling all the strings. The court, though, was split into bitter factions of Normans, Anglo-Saxons, and Danes, with plenty of mistrust all around and some of it aimed at the powerful queen. To bolster her approval rating she commissioned a book that recounted her version of the turbulent events of the previous forty years. Known today as the Encomium Emmae Reginae, it is unquestionably political spin and a testament to Emma’s political savvy: here was an 11th century woman using the written word to manipulate opinions and events.
But fate changed the game again. In 1043 Harthacnut died. Edward took the throne but the rapport that Emma had with Cnut would not be repeated with her thirty-eight-year-old son. Although he owed his crown to her efforts, Edward stormed Emma’s chambers with an armed escort, seized the royal treasure she guarded, and barred her from court. He would change his mind about that last bit, but eventually Emma retired to Winchester where she died in 1052.
Edward the Confessor ruled England for twenty-three years, but the ties he’d forged in Normandy with his mother’s kin remained strong. Upon his death they drew his cousin William across the Channel, and in 1066 a Norman tide engulfed Britain. The first Norman wave, though, had swept ashore decades before when, in 1002, an adolescent girl named Emma stepped on to England’s soil to become one of its most formidable queens.
Patricia Bracewell is the author of the Emma of Normandy Trilogy. The latest, The Price of Blood is out now.
- Queen Emma, wife of Ethelred II and Cnut, watched by her sons Harthacnut and Edward (King Edward the Confessor), mid 11th century © British Library Board
- Emma fleeing England, Detail of a 13th-century miniature.