Who Was Emma of Normandy?

This entry is part [part not set] of 1 in the series Kings of Denmark
This entry is part [part not set] of 12 in the series Intriguing Women
  • Who Was Emma of Normandy?

Emma of Normandy, twice Queen of England.

Emma of Normandy was yet another of those intriguing Medieval women of whom there is only a small account in the modern chronicles of history but whose presence and actions spawned a new period of English history.

Queen Emma was born in about 990 AD and reigned at the end of a period now known as the Early Medieval or the Dark Ages but Emma’s life was anything but dark. She was born into a whirlpool of different cultures and aspirations. Her life is a tale of intrigue, politics, power, sex, love, female authority and male dominance.

So who was Emma of Normandy?

Emma was the daughter of Richard I of Normandy, her mother was a Dane called Gunnor.  Normandy had been founded by her great grandfather, a Viking called Rollo. Emma was therefore a Norman but also a Viking and her early years were spent living apart from her closest family, such was the lot of aristocratic children of that time. In 1002, when she was about twelve years old she sailed from France to England. She was going to marry King Aethelred II (Ethelred) of England. This young woman sailed to a foreign land to marry a king who was at least twenty years older than her. King Aethelred was physically and mentally stretched to breaking point, by the Viking raids upon his lands. He was much older than her and had already fathered ten children. How would this foreign child / woman cope in such circumstances? This was a powerful alliance for the house of Normandy and it had fallen tothe young Emma to bear an English Norman child and gain whatever she could for the house of Normandy.

Queen Emma and Richard of Normandy

Queen Emma and Richard of Normandy

Why would King Aethelred marry Emma?

Although Emma was Norman and thus Viking, King Aethelred wanted to prevent the Normans from joining forces with the Vikings, to totally squash the Anglo Saxon kingdoms. It would have been a possible last desperate move on the part of the Anglo Saxon king. The Normans were busy trading and offering safe harbour to their kin, the Vikings. Emma was meant, in part, to be the peacemaker. Her legacy is however not one of mild peaceable virtues, far from it, if anything, her presence sets in motion more aggresive Viking raids than before.

King Aethelred met his young bride to be and escorted her to Canterbury, where they were married and she was consecrated Queen. The kingdom over which she was set to rule, was, once again, under heavy Viking attack. Following the victory of King Alfred the Great and the dominance of Wessex, the Viking raids had abated but a resurgence of these raids was disrupting the life of the population. Instead of growing food they were growing armies and defences, their settled existence was under threat.

Emma and the court

Aethelred had a large court of maybe a hundred or so people. This court travelled throughout the kingdom, escorting the king as he moved from royal estate to royal estate. It was a tightly knit band and Emma and her small Norman entourage, speaking little of the old English tongue, would have had to be very determined and resolute to be accepted into the royal fold. Aethelred and Emma had a Christian marriage, fully legitimate. Aethelred desperately needed to prove to his people that he could overcome the Viking threat. He had the reputation of being a weak ruler, earning himself the nickname of Aethelred the Unraed (meaning of bad counsel) and this became, ‘Aethelred the Unready’. Emma herself was given a new English name, she was to be known as ‘Aelfgifu’ after the kings late grandmother. (There are several Aelfgifu’s in this tale, so we will continue to use her Norman name of Emma throughout).

The role of women in this early Medieval period is perplexing. They seem to have, if not absolute power, then the respect of those around them and would seem to a certain degree, to be included in court business, in an affirmative or supporting role. Emma’s name appears as a witness to several documents, her presence was deemed important, although she may well have had little understanding of what was written in the documents in those early years.

The massacre of the Danes

Hundreds of years of Viking raids meant that a substantial number of the English population were Danes. They married Anglo Saxons and were part of the fabric of society. Not long after his marriage to Emma and possibly buoyed up her presence, Aethelred  announced a massacre of the Danes living on English soil. Thus on St Brices day, the 13th November 1002, Danes living as English men and women, were murdered. The Viking response, when it came, was brutal and Emma herself was caught in the middle of it all. Swein Forkbeard, well known to Emma, inflicted a harrowing destruction of Exeter. The Normans were suspected of giving harbour to the raiders and hence Emma, was held some way responsible. However Exeter was the Queens property and so by extension one could assume the raid was meant to point at her collaboration with the English. Emma and her reputation among the English, was to be pulled this way and that by the event.

Emma and her step children

Emma had six step sons and four step daughters, she was no older than Aethelred’s eldest sons. How would they have reacted to Emma and what they quite possibly considered an interloper, a threat to their dynasty? It cannot have been an easy role for Emma to play. She bore her first child, a son named Edward, at Islip near Oxford. This child though, still came lower in the order of succession than his step siblings. She produced two more children with Aethelred, a daughter Godgifu and another son Alfred.

The king continued to mismanage those around him. He alienated and had killed, Aelfhelm, an ealdorman of Northumbria and then on his order had his sons blinded also. The family of these men retaliated in a clever way, they married Aelfhelm’s daughter Aelfgifu to Swein Forkbeard’s (the Dane) son. This marriage would become a problem for Emma going forward. The Vikings then set about preparing for the most concerted and massive attack on England and by the end of 1009, all men were called upon to defend the land. Despite their efforts, by 1011 the Vikings had overrun much of southern Britain.

Queen Emma of Normandy

Queen Emma fleeing England

Still,  Aethelred and Emma continued to hold court and the King granted Emma a small plot of land in Winchester. She built a house upon it, ‘Godbegot’, a house free of taxation and therefore a good source of income for Emma. The troubles of the King and Queen seemed never ending as Swein Forkbeard and his son Cnut arrived in the north of the country and the northern ealdormen submitted to him. Emma persuaded the king to move the court from Kent and place her children in safety. As Swein swept south they moved the court to loyal London. Emma sensed the end (or knew) was near and demanded to be put under the protection of her brother Richard, in Normandy. She escaped and then sent for her children to follow. Aethelred fled to the Isle of Wight. Emma was deeply humiliated by her situation. Her mother still carried great authority in Normandy, her sister likewise in Belgium and her brother has been forming alliances with the very men who had placed her in this situation. She was the wife of a failed king. Swein and his sons Harold and Cnut, pushed aside the Aglo Saxon dynasty and became the first Viking rulers of England.

In 1014 Swein died and Aethelred returned to salvage what he could in a country ravaged and whose society was in complete disarray. In 1016 King Aethelred died.

Emma the widow

However much Emma disliked her husband, his death placed Emma in a very precarious position. Who would she turn to? Her remaining step children? However much she might have desired it, her own children were not going to claim the crown. Aethelred’s son Edmund Ironside was sure of the succession. Her only hope was to keep close to his side and try to keep control of her estates. Cnut the Dane seemed poised to defeat Edmund but they came to a settlement carving the country in two. Edmund did not live to complete this deal. His death brought to an end nearly four decades of Viking raids and Cnut became overlord of England. And what of Emma? She had been kept under siege, in the fiercely pro, Anglo Saxon London. Cnut then demanded Emma as his queen. She would be his trophy and his link between the old regime and the new. For Emma, it at least gave her the prospect of a future for her and any children she might bear. Her children by Aethelred were safely in Normandy at this point. Her decision to remain in England during the period before Cnut’s victory, may seem odd but in England she had estates, in Normandy she did not. Her children were born here and she knew and understood the Anglo Saxon people and they her. Certain chronicles have asserted that she was willing to hand her sons over to the Danes, if her own life would be spared and she was able to maintain her estates. By this time, Emma was certainly beginning to acquire something of a reputation for making tough decisions.

Cnut already had a wife.

The thorn in the side of Emma’s new prosperity was the wife Cnut had taken in 1006. She was Aelfgifu, daughter of the slaughtered Aelfhelm, whom Aethelred had seen fit to murder. Cnut did not abandon her or their sons when he married Emma but it is alleged, Emma negotiated a deal in which Cnut swore he would support only their sons, in a claim to his throne. Would he have agreed to such a deal? It seems unlikely. Cnut himself was busy putting to death any that he considered might get in the way of his rule. Edmund Ironside, Cnut’s adversary to the throne, left behind two sons. They appear to have been whisked out of the country, to eventually appear in Hungary. Emma was married and consecrated Queen of England once again.

Having eradicated his opponents, Cnut began stitching his divided people together.

Emma seems to have been at his side, as Cnut worked hard to bring the Anglo Saxons and Danes together. She represented something of the past but also hope for the future and Cnut relied upon her good judgement. As time passed it would seem that the two formed a close working relationship and even a mutual appreciation of each others talents. In matters of the church she seems to have had particular influence and one of her most trusted advisors, Stigand, would become Archbishop of Canterbury. But it was the powerful Earl Godwine, close and trusted advisor to Cnut, that Emma needed to be watchful of.

Emma had children with Cnut.

Emma gave birth to a son Harthacanute and a daughter Gunnhild. They were added to the pot of possible contenders for the crown of England, when Cnut eventually died. On the death of his brother, Cnut had to rule Denmark as well. He was travelling extensively, leaving Emma to watch his state in his absence. She was a woman who had learnt to think clearly and quickly and had to assume a dominant role if she was to hold her position, as others weaved their webs around her. She gifted many precious items to the church, gifts of relics and land were bestowed by her. The gift Emma and Cnut gave the New Minster at Winchester was one of the most precious. A golden cross, a gift of enormous value. The image of Cnut and Emma giving this gift can be seen in the front of the Liber Vitae of Winchester and re-enforces the way this King and Queen worked together.

Queen Emma of Normandy

King Cnut and Queen Emma present the gold cross. Their gift to the Minster at Winchester.

Emma’s son Edward styles himself ‘King of England’

Emma’s son Edward was kicking his heals in Normandy. He was King Aethelred’s son, penniless, lacking property or position he was, nonetheless, fretting over his lost kingship. His cousin Robert demanded that Cnut returned to Edward and his brother Alfred, that which was rightfully theirs. Cnut of course dismissed the idea and an enraged Robert prepared a Norman attack on Cnut. How would Emma have viewed all this? Her sons and her family on one side, Cnut on the other, Emma yet again in the middle. Robert then died, leaving his son William as Duke of Normandy and Norman support for the two Anglo Saxon brothers fell away.

In 1035 King Cnut died.

King Cnut was thirty eight years old and died in Shaftsbury where the body of Aethelred’s brother, Edward the Martyr lay. It is said his heart was cut from his body and laid to rest by Edward’s tomb, his body was taken to Winchester. For Emma, the loss of her powerful husband had left her in a very vulnerable position, for Cnut had not named his successor.

What Emma did next.

Emma collected all Cnut’s goods and possessions around her and settled into the royal quarters at Winchester, waiting for her son Hardecanute to arrive from Denmark. Did she fear for her life? Without Cnut by her side she must have been uncertain of how she would be received by both people and lords, not just in England but across northern Europe. Cnut’s first wife, the other Aelfgifu, promoted her son, Harold Harefoot as the new King. She rallied support and demanded Cnut’s treasure. It is thought he was looked upon favourably as a possible successor. Meanwhile, Hathercanute remained in Denmark. The two women stood to gain or lose a great deal from the outcome of the succession battle of their sons. The noble lords were split, many claimed Harold was not Cnut’s son and indeed the Archbishop refused to crown him king. Earl Godwine was for the time being, on Emma’s side. The noble lords met at Oxford to resolve the problem. It seemed the northern half of the country was for Harold, the southern for Hathercanute.  Hathercanute however, seemed reluctant to come to England to claim his throne. After waiting eight months, Emma turned to her sons by Aethelred, Edward and Alfred, whom she has had little to do with since her marriage to Cnute, to see if they have plans to snatch the crown. Whether encouraged by their mother or not and there is some dispute about this, Edward and Alfred returned to England. Edward sailed to Southampton with a large number of troops and rode to his mother in Winchester. Alfred sailed into Kent, also with a large number of troops.

Things go badly wrong for Alfred and for Emma.

The Earl Godwine intercepted Alfred and his men. He told Alfred that he was to accompany him to Winchester to meet with his mother and brother. Alfred and Godwine overnight in Guildford but Alfred and his troops are set upon and Alfred is taken to London, where he is accused of acts against the Anglo Saxons. He was then taken to Ely where his eyes were gouged out and he died of his wounds. Was this the work of Godwine or a trap set by Harold Harefoot or were they working together? The murder of Alfred was a stunning blow to Emma and a sure sign of the enormity of the challenge that she faced. Edward possibly with his mother’s help, fled back to Normandy. And where was Hathercanute whilst all this was going on? Still in Denmark. Emma’s fortunes plummeted, she was held responsible for Alfred’s death because she sent for him but did she? She is also held responsible for the absence of Hathercanute. The country turn to Harold Harefoot the other wife was in the ascendancy.

Emma was forced into exile, to the Flemish court.

What must Emma have thought as she left England in 1037? How had her fortune changed so radically and so rapidly? She did not return to Normandy, which itself was in a state of political upheaval. It was time for Emma to reassess her options. Edward refused to play along with her ambitions, the death of his brother laid clear to him how the English felt about their claim. She turned back to Harthacanute and convinced him it was time to return. However as Harthaanute set sail, Harold Harefoot lay dying, his three years as King of England ended abruptly. Harthacanute returned to England with his mother and was proclaimed King of England.

Emma’s Book.

In 1040 Emma commissioned an resoundingly exaggerated and  flattering biography of Cnut and herself. The ‘Encomium of Queen Emma’. A copy remains and is part of the British Library collection.  The frontispiece shows Queen Emma receiving the book from its author, a monk of St Omer. Along with her, her two sons, Hathercanute and Edward, look on. It is an odd book, weaving a story that wavers and side steps the truth. Its purpose may have been to convince those who still doubted that Emma’s intentions were sound. Edward has been invited to share the kingdom with his half brother Harthacanute, was this meant as a positive statement to support Emma’s sons?  She also wanted sainthood conferred upon her dead son Alfred. Emma was working hard as a mother to ensure her sons were seen through rose tinted glasses. Harthacanute however was an unpopular leader. Did Emma therefore, encourage him to except Edward as a balm on troubled Anglo Saxon waters? Whatever hand she might have played, the outcome was settled by the sudden death of Harthacanute. He was buried at Winchester alongside his father.

Queen Emma of Normandy

‘The Encomium Of Queen Emma’

Edward becomes King of England but what of Emma?

Earl Godwine fought off the claims from the descendants of Swein Forkbeard and Edward was crowned King of England on the 3rd April 1043. Emma the Queen Mother settles herself into Edward’s household at Winchester where she takes command of the treasury. Her assumption is that the King will be happy with this arrangement but King Edward, supported by that political giant, the Earl Godwine, has other ideas and arrives at Winchester, demanding the presence of his mother from whom he removes the treasury keys. Not only that, but he also informs her, he will remove her of much of her property and suggests she removes herself from Winchester castle, to live elsewhere. It is a mighty and harsh blow to Emma, bound still to Bishop Stigand, who himself was stripped of office. Had she overplayed her hand or was this the backlash for abandoning her son when he was very young? Emma had been taught a lesson and so had her advisor Stigand. Within a year both had been restored to dignity. Stigand eventually became Bishop of Winchester. Tales and chronicles abound with stories of Emma’s fall and its cause. The Earl Godwine is most likely behind the fall. He has placed himself solidly beside Edward and married his daughter Edith to Edward. Emma must have been devastated by such a turn of events. Edith daughter of Godwine now became Queen of England.

The final years of Queen Emma.

Emma withdrew and lived quietly until she was nearly seventy years of age. Quite possibly she continued to live close to Winchester. She witnessed the collapse of the Godwine family, as they fell out with the King in a spectacular political stand off. They of course return to fame and glory but Emma was, by then, dead. She died in 1052 and her remains were put to rest with those of her second husband, Cnut in Winchester.

The Emma effect was not yet over though.

King Edward did not have children. Who then, would succeed him? Edward would possibly have been pulled in many directions. His sister’s sons were his closest blood relatives, Cnut’s nephew Swein may have been promised the throne but the case for Edward promising the succession to the Duke of Normandy, Emma’s great nephew, seems to hold water. There is evidence that as early as 1051, Edward entered into a binding oath with William and as surety offered into the hands of the Norman, Godwine’s son and grandson. If this is the case then it is quite likely that Emma was party to the choice. How strong the case is for this scenario is not clear. What is more certain is that King Edward made contact with his nephew, Edward the exiled son of Edmund Ironside and invited him and his children to England. Not long after he arrived, the nephew Edward died and was buried without meeting the King. His children however were shown a measure of kindness by the King and Queen. Edward however like Cnut before him failed to settle the matter of his succession. On the death of the old Earl Godwine, his son Harold became ever closer to the King and it was to him, that Edward, on his death bed in 1066, supposedly passed on the succession. Whether he did or not is a matter of speculation, certainly Emma would have been horrified to see a Godwine anointed King but he was, the day after King Edward died.

Emma has one more roll of the dice.

October 1066, one of the most significant dates in English history saw Emma’s great nephew William Duke of Normandy successfully conquer England and put in place such change that it is apparent around us every day of our lives. The Norman bloodline, Emma’s own put in place a succession of monarchs that lasted for nearly a hundred years. Emma of Normandy was possibly one of the most influential women in the history of England.


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