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Emma of Normandy

Emma of Normandy

Emma, daughter of Richard, Duke of Normandy, married Ethelred the Unready in 1002 and the couple later had a son, Edward the Confessor. In 1013 Emma and Ethelred were forced to flee to Normandy after the country was invaded by Sevin Haralsson, the king of Norway.

In 1017 Emma was summoned to England to marry Ethelred's successor, Canute, by whom she had two children, Hardicanute and Gunnhildr. This marriage created a dynastic link between the royal families in England and Normandy.

Emma was a generous patron of churches and monasteries such as those in Winchester, Ely and Ramsey. She also provided money for churches in Bremen (Germany) and Poitiers (France).

After Hardicanute died in 1042 Edward the Confessor became king. The following year Edward deprived Emma of all her estates. Anglo-Saxon chroniclers claimed that Edward had done this because he felt he had been neglected by his mother as a child. Emma of Normandy died in 1052.

Emma of Normandy

Emma of Normandy (d. 1052), queen of Æthelred II and of Cnut. Emma played an important role in the confused succession to the English throne between 1016 and 1066. Early in life she became the second wife of Æthelred II (1002). Her first son, Edward, succeeded to the English throne in 1042: her great-nephew was William the Conqueror. After the death of Æthelred in 1016 she married Cnut. On his death in 1035, Emma tried to obtain the kingdom for their son Harthacnut, who was then about 16. In 1037 she was obliged to take refuge in Flanders but returned with Harthacnut in 1040. When he died two years later, her first son, from whom she was alienated, took the throne. Much of her property was seized and she lived in retirement at Winchester, where she was buried with her second husband, Cnut. Henry of Huntingdon called her ‘the gem of the Normans’.

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Coming 31st May

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword Books.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword, Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

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Tag: Emma of Normandy

Patricia Bracewell is the author of The Emma of Normandy Trilogy and March 2nd marks the release of the last novel of this trilogy: The Steele Beneath the Silk. It’s a story “brimming with treachery, heartache, tenderness and passion as England’s queen confronts ambitious and traitorous councilors, invading armies and the Danish king’s power-hungry concubine.” With that as context, we can be assured that Patricia knows a thing or two about conflict – her topic for today.

Drama, conflict and change—things that cause such agonizing disruptions in our own lives—are what make the imaginary world of a novel utterly compelling. Conflict, in particular, is the engine that drives a story, no matter the genre. But unlike writers in other genres, historical novelists must reach into the past, must root the conflicts portrayed in their novels within the history and culture of their chosen historical periods. Conflict then becomes a tool to not only move the story forward, but to immerse readers in that other time and place.

There are three types of conflict that should be in every novelist’s toolbox: Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, and Man vs Himself. And because a writer cannot rely on just one type of conflict to carry a story all the way through to the end, all three should appear within the pages of any novel. The historical novelist, though, mines the past to find them.

In my trilogy set in 11 th century England, I found plenty of Man vs. Man conflict in the decade-long Danish effort to conquer England. Big men with swords emerging from dragon ships appear in the early pages of my first book, Shadow on the Crown, and the viking invasion of England is the overarching background of all three novels.

But although I was writing about war, my main interest was not in men and battles, but in the women who lived through that conflict yet made only rare appearances in historical documents of the time. So I kept battle scenes and skirmishes to a minimum, and often described them through the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle—the contemporary account of events in 11 th century England. In The Steel Beneath the Silk I quoted a Chronicle entry that described a viking attack on Canterbury and was probably written by a monk in that city within living memory of the incident:

They beset Canterbury, and seized Archbishop Ælfheah…and they overwhelmed him with bones and horns of oxen and one of them smote him with an axe-iron on the head, and his holy blood fell on the earth.

It seemed to me that this account by someone who quite possibly knew the murdered archbishop would be just as moving as anything that I could invent.

War, though, is only one kind of Man vs Man conflict. Ambition, resentment, suspicion, and rivalry can lead to conflict that is far more subtle and is conveyed through dialogue and internal monologue. For example, knowing that the two central historical figures of my story, Emma of Normandy and Elgiva of Northampton, would be pitted against each other in a struggle for power in England many years after the time period of my trilogy, I imagined how that later conflict might have begun decades earlier, and I brought it into the pages of my novels. Here Emma and Elgiva face off in The Steel Beneath the Silk:

For a long moment Elgiva continued to regard her old enemy in brooding silence. Emma was far too arrogant, she decided. She still thought herself a queen, and that was Cnut’s fault. He had foolishly made her imprisonment much too pleasant, and it was long past time to do something about it.

She said, “I wish to talk to you about your sons, Emma. I have seen Edward.” And she watched with satisfaction as Emma put aside her needle, dropped her hands into her lap and turned to face her.

“You saw him—where?” Emma asked icily, her green eyes appraising Elgiva as if trying to determine the truth of her claim.

No swords in that scene. Only a needle, resentment, suspicion, sharp words and frosty glances. Conflicts within the family, within the court, and within the realm and the wider world are the base metals that a historical novelist can, like an alchemist, transform into gold.

As for Man vs. Nature—sickness, foul weather, the very real hazards of getting somewhere on a ship, a horse, a cart or on foot—especially if time is a factor—all of these add drama and tension to any story. The characters in my novels suffer miscarriages, pestilence, terrible weather, filthy roads and dangerous sea voyages, all pulled from my research. A good example: in The Steel Beneath the Silk a tidal wave wreaks havoc on the English coast:

Merchants arrived with stories of harbors that had been devastated by a great wave of ships that had been swept inland and left, battered and broken, far from the sea of countless bodies of men, women and children lying like bundles of rags on the beaches or floating off shore. Even the larger towns on the English coast had been savaged by the sea, while numerous small villages had been entirely swept away…and no one left behind to even tally the dead…All had been destroyed by a tide that many believed had been directed by the hand of a wrathful God.

I didn’t make that up. The tidal wave that hit Britain in 1015 was attested to by chroniclers in Wales, England and the Low Countries. My description, though, was based on images of the tsunami that devastated Thailand in 2004—history repeating itself.

As for Man vs Himself, that conflict is usually portrayed through internal monologue as the author slowly reveals a character’s personality. But because the king who appears in my novels had been described by a 12 th century historian as “haunted by the shade of his brother” I decided to use that ghost as the embodiment of the king’s guilt, fear, and indecision:

…looking warily into the middle distance before him, he could see the air rippling like water as his brother approached, every wound on his body gaping like a bloody mouth.

Forced to stare into his brother’s burning eyes he silently cursed the horror that held him in thrall. The martyred Edward, he knew now, would never settle for a golden shrine, nor even for a king’s son consecrated to his service. An eye for an eye, the Bible said. A crown for a crown. His brother and his God demanded restitution, and nothing less. There would be no forgiveness, no peace, until he relinquished the crown that should never have been his.

And that he would never do.

Fear, guilt, indecision, frustration, forbidden passion—these all lead to inner turmoil with which to torment our characters. And torment is the operative word here. The last thing a writer wants to do is to make things easy for the characters in a novel. Torment and conflict are the spurs that drive characters into action. However much we love them, we have to make them suffer until almost the very last page.

In the year 1012 England’s Norman-born Queen Emma has been ten years wed to an aging, ruthless, haunted King Æthelred. The marriage is a bitterly unhappy one, between a queen who seeks to create her own sphere of influence within the court and a suspicious king who eyes her efforts with hostility and resentment. But royal discord shifts to grudging alliance when Cnut of Denmark, with the secret collusion of his English concubine Elgiva, invades England at the head of a massive viking army. Amid the chaos of war, Emma must outwit a fierce enemy whose goal is conquest and outmaneuver the cunning Elgiva, who threatens all those whom Emma loves.

Many thanks, Patricia. I’m sure readers will be captivated by The Steele Beneath the Silk.


Elfgifu (c. 963–1002)

Queen of the English. Name variations: Aelfgifu or Ælfgifu Elfled, Elfreda, Elgifu. Born around 963 died in February 1002, in Winchester, England daughter of Thored, sometimes referred to as Ethelbert, and Hilda became first wife of Aethelred or Ethelred II the Unready (c. 968–1016), king of the English (r. 979–1013, deposed, 1014–1016), in 985 children: Athelstan or Ethelstan the Atheling (d. 1015) Egbert (d. around 1005) Edmund II Ironside (c. 989–1016), king of the English (r. 1016) Edred (d. around 1012) Eadwig (or Edwy, d. in 1017) Edgar (d. around 1012) Edith (who m. Edric Streona and Thurkil the Tall) Elfgifu (c. 997–?, who m. Uchtred, earl of Northumberland) Wulfhild (who m. Ulfcytel), and two others. Ethelred II's second wife was Emma of Normandy (c. 985–1052).

Both medieval and modern writers have suggested that Emma did not love Ethelred and her children by him. For example, the Worcester version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes for the year of Edward's accession:

[T]he king was advised to ride from Gloucester, and [with] earl Leofric and earl Godwine and earl Siward and their band came to Winchester and took the Lady unawares, and deprived her of all the treasures which she possessed which were innumerable, because she had been too strict with the King, her son, in that she had done less for him than he wished, both before his accession and afterwards.

However, there is no clear evidence of Emma's private feelings—or lack of them—for her first family indeed, Ethelred's bestowal of towns, goods, and estates on her throughout their marriage indicate that the union contained some affection. For example, Emma was given Winchester and Exeter, as well as other properties, up to the end of Ethelred's reign.

The Viking threat to Anglo-Saxon England intensified in the time after 1002. By 1013, the situation was so dangerous that Emma fled to her brother's court in Normandy, and Ethelred sent their children soon after to join her. Although none of the sources detail her activities during the period 1013–1017, she perhaps strove to use her position as Duke Richard II's sister to enlist assistance for her husband and sons. However, the powerful forces of the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard and, after the latter's death in 1013, his son Canute, resulted in a dangerously chaotic atmosphere in England. From 1014 to 1016, Ethelred and Edmund II Ironside, a son by his first marriage, disagreed as to what actions should be taken against Canute's Danes. When Ethelred died on April 23, 1016, his oldest surviving son Edmund Ironside came to the throne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Edmund reached an agreement with Canute that divided England between them. However, by late 1016, Edmund died, and shortly after, in 1017, Canute was proclaimed king of England.

Emma faced a predicament: her son Edward was far too young to mount an effective campaign against the Danish king of England, and she herself was still in Normandy. Canute's proposal of marriage in the summer of 1017, then, must have seemed not at all preposterous to the widowed queen mother: rather than viewing Canute as her late husband's mortal enemy, she saw him as a vehicle to re-establish her own position as the leading lady of England. Presumably, she could either create a new dynasty with her new husband, or remain in a position to press the claims of her sons by Ethelred. Several contemporary views of her marriage to Canute are provided by the various chroniclers. The Encomium puts a favorable face on the marriage:

In view of her distinguished qualities … she was much desired by the king, and especially because she derived her origin from a victorious people, who had appropriated for themselves part of Gaul, in despite of the French and their prince.

Although the encomiast does not dwell on the more practical aspects of such a proposal, it is important to consider that Canute must have been well aware that Emma's sons by Ethelred, Edward and Albert, were potential recipients of assistance from their powerful Norman uncle, Richard II by marrying the boys' mother, Canute might expect Richard II to withhold such support from his nephews.

Before Emma agreed to marry Canute, however, she insisted on a mutual agreement that their children by previous unions would be set aside in the line of succession in favor of any offspring they might have together. The Encomium relates that:

[S]he refused ever to become the bride of Knútr, unless he would affirm to her by oath, that he would never set up the son of any wife other than herself to rule after him, if it happened that God should give her a son by him. For she had information that the king had had sons by some other woman so she, wisely providing for her offspring, knew in her wisdom how to make arrangements in advance, which were to be to their advantage.

The "other woman" who had borne sons to Canute was Elfgifu of Northampton (c. 1000–c. 1040), an English woman who apparently was Canute's concubine rather than wife. Despite the questionable legitimacy of Elfgifu's sons Sweyn and Harald Harefoot, Canute seems to have considered them credible candidates for the throne, even though he agreed to Emma's stipulation that their own children should have precedence.

Emma and Canute were married in July or August of 1017, and within a few years their son Hardicanute was born. The Encomium records that they sent away their other children (from their previous unions), "while keeping this one with themselves, inasmuch as he was to be the heir to the kingdom." They had another child, a daughter named Gunhild , who married the German emperor Henry III in 1036.

By examining the position of Emma's name on official documents, it is possible to speculate on the degree of her influence. For example, the most recent editor of the Encomium suggests that the low placement of her name on royal documents early in her marriage to Canute signifies her initial uninfluential status at the court, but the more prominent position of her signature after 1020 reflects her enhanced standing as the mother of Hardicanute, the new heir. Emma's position as queen and queen-mother also allowed her to make many charitable donations to churches throughout England during her second husband's reign.

When Canute unexpectedly died in 1035, Emma faced an extremely challenging situation. Her sons with Ethelred, Edward and Albert, had remained in Normandy since 1017 all of her ambitions for the throne of England were centered on her son with Canute, Hardicanute. Despite his young age, Hardicanute was ruling in Denmark at the time of his father's death. His half-brother, Harald Harefoot, was the only one of Canute's three sons who was present in England at the time of his father's death, since Elfgifu of Northampton had accompanied her elder son Sweyn to Norway, where he was trying to maintain order. Emma immediately claimed England for Hardicanute, but her claim was ineffectual without the actual presence of her son. Hardicanute faced political difficulties in Denmark: he needed to remain there to prevent a Norwegian attack, for the Norwegians under their king Magnus had expelled Elfgifu and Sweyn, and these two took refuge with Hardicanute late in 1035. When Sweyn died at Hardicanute's court shortly thereafter, the field of competition for Canute's kingdoms narrowed: Elfgifu of Northampton's son Harald Harefoot considered himself his father's heir in England and Hardicanute, unable to join his mother, was forced to rely on Emma's on-the-spot efforts on his behalf.

The Peterborough version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the English nobles acted quickly to secure stable government in England after Canute's death, and notes that factions soon developed around the two royal candidates. The northern English supported Harald Harefoot as regent for himself and his half-brother, but:

Godwine and all the most prominent men in Wessex remained in opposition as long as ever they could, but they could put no obstacle in the way. Then it was decided that [Emma], Harthacnut's mother, should reside in Winchester with the housecarles of the king her son, and hold all Wessex in trust for him, and earl Godwine was her most trusted supporter.

The powerful earl Godwine (father of Harald Godwineson, the English king who was defeated by William the Conqueror in 1066) proved to be a treacherous ally to Emma, for the following year, as Harald Harefoot's power steadily grew, Godwine switched his allegiance. Emma in 1036 appealed to her sons in Normandy to come to her assistance. Alfred arrived in England to join his mother in Winchester, but Godwine captured and blinded the young prince, and Alfred died of his injuries soon afterward. Godwine's betrayal reflects the increasing strength of Harald Harefoot the latter was the beneficiary of his half-brother Hardicanute's preoccupation with Danish affairs.

When in 1037 the English recognized Harald Harefoot as their king, Emma was driven out of the country and sought refuge in Flanders with her relative, Count Baldwin V. Her exile in Bruges lasted from the late autumn of 1037 until 1040. During this time, according to the Encomium, Emma contacted her son Edward in Normandy and invited him to join her at Baldwin V's court. When she suggested that he take action in England, "the son declared that he pitied his mother's misfortunes, but that he was in no way able to help, since the English nobles had sworn no oath to him." The implication was that only Hardicanute had the potential support to unseat Harald Harefoot. By 1039, Hardicanute was able to join Emma in Flanders, and the two planned an invasion of England. But Harald Harefoot's death in March of 1040 eliminated the need for an invasion, and in June of 1040 Hardicanute and Emma landed at Sandwich. Emma and Canute's son was at last recognized as king of England.

The Encomium, written during Hardicanute's brief reign of 1040–1042, holds that after his accession to the throne, he sent for his half-brother Edward to join him in ruling England the encomiast ends his work with the optimistic observation that:

the mother and both sons, having no disagreement between them, enjoy the ready amenities of the kingdom. Here there is loyalty among sharers of rule, here the bond of motherly and brotherly love is of strength indestructible.

The briefness of Hardicanute's reign did not allow for fraternal rivalry in June of 1042, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Hardicanute died "as he stood at his drink."

Thus, Emma's son with Ethelred, Edward the Confessor, was chosen king in 1042. Emma's status as queen-mother took a dramatic turn for the worse: months after his coronation in 1043, Edward deprived his mother of her properties and wealth. Although the sources do not clearly specify the reason for Edward's action against his mother, two versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle hold that the despoliation occurred "because she had been too tight-fisted with him." In addition, Edward may have resented Emma's previous actions favoring Hardicanute over his and Alfred's interests resulting from Emma's 1017 marital agreement with Canute.

However, Emma and Edward were reconciled shortly afterward, for in 1044 and 1045 she witnessed royal documents. But in 1045, when Edward married Edith (c. 1025–1075), Godwine's daughter—the same Godwine who had been responsible for the blinding and death of Emma's son Alfred—Emma's influence over Edward ended. Her name does not appear on any other royal documents, and she lived quietly at Winchester until her death on March 6, 1052.

It is rather ironic that Emma, who worked so hard throughout her life to exert her royal influence through her husbands and sons, produced sons who were dynastic dead-ends: Alfred and Hardicanute were unmarried and fairly young when they died, and Edward, who ruled until his death in January of 1066, remained childless despite his marriage to Edith. Emma's 50-year career as queen and queen-mother produced, in the long run, a Norman conqueror on the throne.

Tag: Emma of Normandy

There is very little historic information on King Cnut even though he was the most powerful king in northern Europe in the early eleventh century. He was King of Denmark and England, for a time King of Norway and possibly lord of part of Sweden.

England had suffered from the weak and ineffectual reign of King Aethelred the Unready for nearly thirty-eight years. The kingdom of England was in ruins and the people were ready for peace. After the death of King Aethelred’s son Edmund Ironside, the English people endorsed the Dane Cnut as their king. Cnut began his rule with fear. He didn’t hesitate to kill those who tried to question his authority. Eventually he loosened his grip. He legitimized his authority by removing native rivals, marrying his predecessor’s queen, maintaining the continuity of government and acting in every way as a just and equitable king. In this way he garnered the support of the Danes and the English and could arguably be called the first king of the English.

The Viking attacks during the reign of King Aethelred started in the 980’s. In November of 1002, Aethelred ordered the massacre of all the Danes in the area of northern England known as the Danelaw. Unfortunately, the sister of King Sweyn of Denmark was killed during the slaughter. In a possible personal vendetta, Sweyn began a long lasting campaign against Aethelred and the English.

Sweyn had a son named Cnut, whose birthdate is estimated to sometime between 988 and 995. Cnut’s mother was most likely an unnamed sister of the Polish king Boleslaw I. The records tell us nothing about Cnut’s childhood but the sagas say he was tall, strong and handsome. When Cnut was old enough, he may have joined his father on campaign in England. We know he came to England in 1013 and was left in control of the Danish fleet in the north. It was during this time he took a wife in a possible bid to strengthen his position. She was named Aelfgifu, the daughter of Aelfhelm who had been ealdorman of Northumbria until his murder in 1006. This union was never recognized by the church and by 1017 the couple had two sons, Sweyn and Harold (Harefoot).

King Sweyn managed to overrun most of England and by late 1013, the English had submitted to him and he was named King of England. Aethelred, his second wife Emma of Normandy and their sons were forced into exile in Normandy. Sweyn’s reign had only lasted a few months when he died on February 3, 1014. The army proclaimed Cnut king but the English people invited Aethelred back if he promised to rule better than he had before.

Aethelred acted uncharacteristically with speed and strength and drove Cnut and his forces out to sea. Cnut decided not to press the point at this stage and returned to Denmark. On the way back he dropped off some hostages he had in his possession minus their ears, noses and hands.

Cnut decided to invade England in September of 1015. Aethelred was sick and his son Edmund was raising and leading the English army to fight the attacks. By Christmas, the people of Wessex recognized Cnut as king and paid tribute. On April 23, 1016, King Aethelred died and the men of the king’s council, along with the citizens of London elected Edmund king. But there were other councilors, bishops, abbots and ealdormen that elected Cnut as king at Southampton.

Edmund Ironside fights King Canute at the Battle of Assandun on October 18, 1016 (Image in the public domain)

It was time for a showdown between the two men. Cnut began an unsuccessful siege of London and at the same time had marauding armies which engaged Edmund in several battles. The final engagement occurred on October 18, 1016 at Assandun and Edmund was defeated. Many of the English nobility died in the battle but Edmund would live to raise another army. Cnut decided to negotiate a temporary truce and the two men met at Alney. Edmund would retain the kingdom of Wessex and Cnut had the rest of England. By November 30, Edmund was dead. He was either poisoned or stabbed on the orders of Cnut or Eadric Streona of Mercia or he may have been injured at Assandun and died of his wounds. The consequence of his death was that Cnut was now master of the whole of England.

Cnut was young and inexperienced at government. He divided England into four parts and gave control of these kingdoms to important men. East Anglia went to the Danish Thorkell the Tall. Eadric Streona kept Mercia. Northumbria was held by Eric of Norway and Cnut kept Wessex for himself. Initially Cnut’s rule in England was harsh. Before the end of 1017, Cnut had Eadric Streona murdered along with four other ealdormen. But he didn’t wipe out the Saxon nobility because he recognized he needed them to maintain the established apparatus of government that existed in England.

In order to keep Aethelred’s sons Edward and Alfred from challenging his authority, he married their mother Queen Emma in July of 1017. Marrying Emma kept continuity with the prior dynasty and he came to rely on her experience and political acumen. The fact that he was already married may have caused embarrassment but he didn’t dismiss his first wife. Perhaps Aelfgifu was his mistress or his “hand-fast” wife in the Scandinavian tradition. It was assumed that the children by Aelfgifu were heirs to the thrones of Denmark and Norway while Emma’s children by Cnut would be the heirs to the throne of England. Emma had two surviving children with Cnut, a son Harthacnut and a daughter Gunhilda.

Drawing depicting Queen Emma (Aelfgifu) and King Cnut (Image in the public domain)

In 1018, Cnut fought off about thirty Viking crews who had entered English waters. Cnut wasn’t going to keep a large and dangerous army and fleet in England and needed cash to pay them off. Because the English government had the mechanism in place to collect taxes, he was able to raise 82,500 pounds and pay off the army so they could return to Denmark. He reduced the naval fleet to forty ships. He then called a council of Englishmen and Danes at Oxford. Relations were normalized between the Danelaw and the rest of England. All agreed to live in peace and Cnut agreed to rule according to the traditions and laws in place at the time of King Edgar the Peaceable, Aethelred’s father.

Cnut’s brother, King Harold of Denmark died in 1018 so Cnut traveled there to claim the throne for himself and settle affairs there. There was little trouble in England while he was gone. He stayed in Denmark over the winter of 1019-1020. While there he composed and sent a letter to the English people promising to keep them safe from invaders and to carry out and enforce the laws of the land.

In 1020, Cnut called a council at Cirencester. He banished Aethelweard, ealdorman of the western provinces. We don’t know why but he may have been conspiring against Cnut. There was trouble between Cnut and Thorkell the Tall in 1021. Cnut proclaimed Thorkell an outlaw and banished him to exile in Denmark. In 1022-3, Cnut made another trip to Denmark where he reconciled with Thorkell and made him regent and foster-father to his son Harthacnut.

In 1023, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the festivities of a week-long ceremony where the remains of the sainted Anglo-Saxon Archbishop Aelfheah of Canterbury were translated from London to Canterbury and reburied. Aelfheah had been murdered by the Danes eleven years before. Cnut had now atoned for the atrocities from the past and was reconciled with the English people.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle then goes very quiet regarding the reign of Cnut. What little bits we have mention events from far away. Cnut invaded Sweden in 1026 and fought in the battle of Holy River. It’s unclear if he won or lost the battle but it seems he did rule part of Sweden for a time. In 1028, he conquered Norway and in 1030 he placed his son Sweyn and his wife Aelfgifu as king and regent there. But Aelfgifu was bad at governing and by the time Cnut died in 1035, she and her son had been driven out of Norway by King Magnus.

In 1027, Cnut made a trip to Rome to attend the coronation of the Emperor Conrad II. Conrad’s son Heinrich would marry Cnut’s daughter Gunhilda in 1036. While Cnut was in Rome, he was accepted and treated as an equal with the other rulers. His trip was a resounding success. He would travel to Rome again in 1031.

Cnut realized he needed to establish good will with the church in England and did what he had to do to get along with Archbishop Wulfstan of York and Archbishop Lyfing of Canterbury. He became more pious and gave lavish gifts to the church to garner favor. Wulfstan and Cnut worked on the already established law codes of the Saxon kings, augmenting and improving them.

Around 1031, Cnut attempted to impose his authority over Scotland and Wales. He apparently wasn’t too successful in Wales but he did visit Scotland. It is unclear if he took an army or if it was a diplomatic mission. He came to an agreement with King Malcolm II of Scotland and two other sub-kings and gained control of Bernicia.

Toward the end of his reign, Cnut began to rely more on English as well as Danish noblemen. He had made Godwin earl of Wessex and Leofric was in control of Mercia. He reduced the number of ships in his fleet from forty to sixteen. He had significantly raised taxes to pay for his army and fleet and bodyguard of housecarls. The English people suffered from the heavy tax burden but in return enjoyed peace and economic prosperity. He had earned the support of the people by ruling according to Anglo-Saxon tradition and enforcing the laws. He was respected and admired.

After a reign of nineteen years, Cnut died at Shaftesbury on November 12, 1035. He was buried in Winchester Cathedral. His policy of dividing the kingdom may have weakened the monarchy, giving the earls great power during his absences from England. He most likely intended for his son Harthacnut to succeed him. At the time of Cnut’s death, Harthacnut was in Denmark entangled in a struggle with Magnus of Norway and couldn’t leave without possibly losing his kingdom. Queen Emma and Earl Godwin wanted Harthacnut to become king of England while Aelfgifu and Earl Leofric were advocating for Harold Harefoot. The two sons of Aethelred, Edward and Alfred also had a claim to the throne. Because Harthacnut was delayed and Edward and Alfred were in exile in Normandy, the English elected Harold Harefoot king but the stage was set for another struggle for the English throne.

Further reading: “Cnut: England’s Viking King 1016-1035” by MK Lawson, “British Kings and Queens” by Mike Ashley, The Kings and Queens of Anglo-Saxon England” by Timothy Venning, “The Fall of Saxon England” by Richard Humble, entry on King Cnut in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by MK Lawson

Emma of Normandy

Emma of Normandy was a very pivotal character in the transition from the rule of Saxons in England to that of the Normans. She was a Norman noble who was wife of two English Kings, and the mother of two others. She was also the great-aunt of William the Conqueror, and greatly influenced evolution of power from Saxons, to Danes, and finally to the Normans.

Emma was a Norman princess who was sought in marriage by two Kings of England—first Aethelred the Unready, and later his Danish archrival Canute the Great. In both cases the match was politically important because Normandy had risen in power and influence to the point that it was the most powerful region of France, and a critically important ally. In the ongoing wars between the Saxon and Danish kings of England, both sides sought Normandy as an ally, and feared it as an enemy. In both cases, however Emma was taken as a second wife, and sons existed from a previous marriage, so the right of her sons to rule England could not be assured. In the case of her marriage to Canute, she insisted that any sons born to her and Canute be given predominance in succession over his older brother, but this guarantee was of limited value, since Hardicanute was still a boy when his father died, and his elder half-brother insisted on asserting his claim.

Emma's previous marriage to Aethelred the Unready had produced two sons, Alfred and Edward. While they were still boys however, military reversals in England caused the whole family to take refuge at the court of their Norman relations. Alfred and Edward were therefore, raised in Normandy, very influenced by Norman customs, and well acquainted with the family of their younger cousin, William the Conqueror. On the death of Aethelred, Emma married Canute and in the process repudiated the claims of her own Saxon sons to the crown of England in favor of future sons born to her and Canute. This naturally alienated her existing sons, and there was never again trust or closeness in their relationship.

Emma reigned as Canute's queen for eighteen years, both on his death, there was contention for the crown between her son Hardicanute and his elder brothers. After considerable conflict, both sons of Canute, as well as Alfred, her Saxon son were killed, and Edward the Confessor, who had taken no part in the conflicts, and never sought the throne, was crowned King of England. By this time, however, he had been living in Normandy for nearly thirty years and was thoroughly Normanized by custom. Since he died without issue, he preferred to leave his kingdom to his Norman cousin, William the Conqueror, and so England fell into the hands of the Normans more by the neglect of Emma, than by her attentions or design.

On the Life & Early Death of the Ætheling Athelstan

Athelstan was the eldest son of King Æthelred II of England. One of at least 9 brothers and sisters, Athelstan was born sometime in the mid-to-late 980s—we don’t know the exact year—and he died on 25 June 1014 at about the age of 28. His name never appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, although for most of his brief life he was recognized as the presumed heir to his father’s throne.

All of the king’s sons were named after earlier kings of Wessex, and all were considered throne-worthy. Athelstan had been named after the king’s great-uncle, King Athelstan (d.939), who had been the first king of Wessex to unite all of England, at least for a time. In the 11 th century King Athelstan would have been perceived as the most renowned and important of the royal forebears—even more so than his grandfather Alfred the Great, so it is significant that the king chose that name for his first-born son.

Athelstan’s mother, Ælfgifu, was the daughter of Thored, the ealdorman of Northumbria, and her marriage to Æthelred likely served to strengthen ties between the king and his northern lords. As a result of these northern relations, Athelstan and his brothers would, throughout their lives, have some natural affinity with the nobility of the northern Danelaw.

Their mother Ælfgifu was never crowned queen of England nor, apparently, was she responsible for the upbringing of her sons. Athelstan and his younger brothers seem to have spent their early years with their paternal grandmother at her estate of Æthelingdene in West Sussex. They don’t appear on the historical record until 993, when Athelstan was about 7. In that year he and three of his brothers signed charters for the first time. Their grandmother, the Dowager Queen Ælfthryth, signed just ahead of them. Presumably, he and his siblings accompanied her to court that year for the first time. On all of the numerous witness lists that follow over the next 20 years Athelstan’s name appears first among his brothers, giving him precedence over them. Nevertheless, upon the death of their mother in 1001, change was in the wind. The king remarried, and the king’s new wife, Emma of Normandy, gave birth to a son, Edward, in 1005. Athelstan would have been about 19, and it is quite likely that the arrival of this new sibling gave rise to certain doubts and questions among the king’s elder sons about the line of succession.

Historian N.J. Higham suggests that although Athelstan perceived himself as the accepted heir to the throne, it is not clear that the king agreed with him. With the birth of Emma’s son, there may have been a serious movement to promote young Edward as next in line for the throne. If so, Athelstan and his brothers would have had good reason to oppose it, possibly causing a rupture between the king and his eldest sons.

Nevertheless, Athelstan was a wealthy young lord. He owned land in at least 10 counties of south-eastern England, and he was a donor to religious houses at Winchester, Canterbury, Shaftesbury and Ely. He had a household and retainers, and he was friends with a number of significant men in Sussex, Yorkshire, East Anglia, the Five Boroughs and southwest Mercia. And although from 1006 onwards the king excluded some regionally powerful northern kindred from his court, Athelstan retained strong links with them.

Athelstan’s Estates, as mentioned in his will.

Over the next 7 years, increasing military pressure by viking armies led to turmoil in England and disrupted the royal family even more. Athelstan and his brothers would have been involved in their father’s military planning, while their younger half-siblings would have been associated with Emma’s household. By the year 1012 three of Athelstan’s younger brothers had died. In 1013, when Swein Forkbeard and his army overran English defenses—probably with the aid of a secret accord between Swein and the northern lords—Emma and her children fled to Normandy. King Æthelred followed them, but his eldest sons did not.

Emma’s biographer Pauline Stafford suggests that the elder æthelings remained in England, and that when Swein Forkbeard died in early 1014 Athelstan may have made a bid for the empty throne. As it turned out, King Æthelred returned that spring to drive out the Danes and punish the northerners who had supported them. And on the 25 th of June, Athelstan died. We don’t know the cause of his death. We only know that his brother Edmund was at his side, and that Athelstan had time to make a will. It is the will that tells us what little we know about the ætheling.

The first thing that he did in that will was to free his slaves—men who were penally enslaved and under his jurisdiction. He bequeathed to various friends and relatives a coat of mail, two shields, a drinking horn, a silver-coated trumpet, a string of fine horses, and eleven swords. One of those swords was apparently a valued family heirloom—the sword of Offa perhaps the sword that Charlemagne had sent to King Offa of Mercia in 796. It went to Athelstan’s brother, Edmund, who would take his place as the eldest ætheling. Athelstan left properties and estates to his father, to Edmund, to his chaplain, his foster-mother, to various servants and friends, and to several religious houses. I think the bequest that says the most about him was this one: “And I grant to Godwine, Wulfnoth’s son, the estate at Compton which his father possessed.” King Æthelred had confiscated that estate from Wulfnoth and I can’t help thinking that in bequeathing it to Godwine, Athelstan believed that he was righting a wrong.

Athelstan was buried at the Old Minster in Winchester. He was the first non-king to be buried there in over 90 years. It’s possible that his remains are among the royal bones that lay for centuries in the mortuary chests above the cathedral altar and that are now under study. If so, we may one day learn more about this royal son who never became king.

The mortuary chests in Winchester Cathedral.

Æthelred the Unready, Levi Roach
The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, Ed. Michael Lapidge
The Death of Anglo-Saxon England, N. J. Higham
English Historical Documents, D. Whitelock
Queen Emma & Queen Edith, Pauline Stafford

Emma of Normandy

Can you believe we’ve made it through another season? Yes! We are coming to an end of season four and we are going out with a BANG, y’all.

Emma of Normandy has entered the chat

This time we’re taking it back. Way back to the pre-Norman conquest when England was inhabited by the Anglo-Saxons. Among those people was a king. And he wasn’t ready (for this jelly).

Sorry, y’all. Art wasn’t good yet circa 980.

Ethelred the Unready has not gone down in history as like a particularly popular guy. And lucky Emma got to be his second bride in 1002 at the ripe old age of 16 (12 according to some sources) (ew). But Emma was ready to put her mark on the country by setting a new standard. She was not going to just be the king’s wife. She was going to be a Q U E E N . And yes. There was a big difference.

Emma’s time as queen was not a particularly peaceful one during the reign of her first husband and she had to witness war, genocide and even exile. But things turned around for her when her unready husband died and she got to upgrade to a hot, young Danish conquering king who in turn made her queen of three countries.

Emma and Cnut: couple goals

For many women of that time, that would be the end of her story. But after becoming the dowager queen for the second time in her life, her story was actually just kicking off!

In this two-parter season finale you’re going to go on a rollercoaster of events with us in the life of Emma of Normandy as she sets the stage for modern queenship in the early medieval period.

There are few women in late Anglo-Saxon England for whom we have as much information as Emma of Normandy. The wife of two kings, we find her name in charter witness lists, mentioned in chronicle entries and histories, and she also leaves to history the earliest biography of a secular English female political figure – the Encomium Emmae Reginae. That she commissioned it herself and that it is most often characterised as propagandist praise-narrative is, no doubt, problematic. But it remains a fascinating historical document that reveals glimpses of the events she operated within and sought to control and, perhaps more importantly, gives us a window into her political thought and strategies.

Now, my intent here was to write the marriage of King Cnut and Emma of Normandy in 1017. Historians tend to treat it with a somewhat casual acceptance, yet their marriage is somewhat surprising to the initiate in late Anglo-Saxon history. Emma’s first husband, King Æthelred II (the Unready), had died in London in April 1016, besieged in the city by the invading Cnut who sought to wrest the English crown from him. When Cnut ultimately did obtain the English kingship of his own right, the newly widowed Emma married him.

While it would be tempting to suggest that this was forced on her by the conquering Danish king, to do so would be to underestimate Emma. She was a savvy political player and appears to have formed a close relationship with Cnut that allowed her to increase her own political agency. During their marriage, Emma became the richest woman in England took an interest in ecclesiastical appointments (perhaps for a price) increased her land holdings was given equal prominence to the king contemporary portraiture (a unique development) became queen consort of Denmark and Norway and we even have some slight indications she may have performed as regent during Cnut’s overseas absences. Emma of Normandy is rightly remembered as a towering figure of late Anglo-Saxon political culture.

As interesting as that all sounds, when I got halfway through writing this post, I realised that half the damned thing was spent on her life with Æthelred, plus I’d feel pretty incomplete if we didn’t cover her fall from grace. Emma’s life was, you see, in many ways dictated by the Scandinavian raids and invasions of the early eleventh-century, and the responses to these taken by the ruling men around her. This is not to say that she lacked her own political agency – we’ve seen she could hold her own – yet it remains that her political fortunes rose and fell in line with the affections that the English king of the day held for her. And Emma’s political career in England lasted through five kingships. This becomes particularly problematic after Cnut’s death in 1035. However, I am getting ahead of the story here – but suffice it say, we’re not just sticking with Emma and Cnut, but will sketch out some of the more dramatic events of Emma’s political life.

Marriage to Æthelred II

Emma enters the historical record in 1002 when, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, she was sent from the court of her brother, Duke Richard II of Normandy, to marry the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred II. We can only speculate as to their ages, but Emma was Æthelred’s second wife, and our best guess was that he was around 10 years old when he took the throne in 978 – so around 34 at this time. Emma, in contrast, is thought to have been born in the 980s, so as much as half the lad’s age. This was not a particularly unusual arrangement. Culturally, at 16 or 17, Emma would have been understood to be of marriageable age and, politically, the marriage was intended to normalise relations between the English and the Normans. Things had been tense throughout the past decade as the Normans provided safe harbourage to the vikings plaguing England’s shores. Although a treaty had been arranged with Duke Richard I in 991 in which he agreed to deny Æthelred’s enemies aid, his son Richard II came to the ducal throne in 996 and seemed to feel he was not bound to the treaty. Yet, it is something of an oversimplification to suggest that the wrangling between Æthelred and Richard II that brought Emma to the English court was just about the Scandinavians. Certainly if the main intent here was to force Normandy to stop allowing viking raiders to over-winter, it did not work. The vikings would be back.

Rather, as a reasonably new duke, Richard was apparently seeking to recast alliances with all his neighbours. While allowing the vikings to access Norman ports again could be evidence of a new ruler who was not yet in full possession of his powers, it could also be the act of a wily politician seeking to renegotiate the terms of the Anglo-Norman treaty. Within this context, we find Emma married to the Anglo-Saxon king as part of the negotiations – the first foreign-born consort in nearly a century. Yet Emma’s is just one of a series of political marriages Richard organised for his sisters with neighbouring powers, and her marriage to Æthelred should be read in this light.

Emma appears to have settled in well. She was given the English name Ælfgifu and, while Emma still appears as her name in some places, Ælfgifu is used in all official documents (with the exception of one slightly dodgy charter). Confusingly, Æthelred’s first wife was also an Ælfgifu, so small wonder that historians normally stick to Emma for our queen consort. Emma jumped right in, the first extant charter she witnessed dating to 1002, the same year as her marriage. Here she appears after the king and the archbishops, but before Æthelred’s sons and the bishops – so a bit of respect being accorded the teenage queen. A similar arrangement in found in another of 1004, in 1005 she appears before the archbishops, but behind the sons, and then from 1006 she is accorded the second witness position after the king. By this stage she had given birth to two sons and a daughter.

Her daughter, Godgifu, married into Norman nobility. Her son Alfred Ætheling would be caught by his political enemies, blinded, and later die in Ely around the year 1036. While her other son Edward, later known as ‘the Confessor’, would gain the crown in 1042 – which isn’t quite as happy an event as you would think for Emma.

Marriage to Cnut the Great

Now we must get on, otherwise this will turn into one of my epics again!

We’ve already noted the political context of Æthelred’s death and Cnut’s rise to power and, surprising as it may seem at first, his marriage to Emma was probably an intelligent political move. Firstly, Cnut was Danish. To rule his new English kingdom, it was in his interest to have someone well acquainted with Anglo-Saxon politics by his side. Secondly, dowager queens seeking to place their sons on the throne is something of a medieval trope. In fact, it will come up here in a moment. By bringing Emma into his confidence, and by having new heirs with her, he separated Alfred and Edward from the person who would have been their most potent support. Thirdly, it gave a sense of continuity to the political regime, which would have been important granted the year of fighting that had characterised the political discourse into 1017. Fourthly, it allowed Cnut to establish ties with Normandy, just as Æthelred had sought to do (Cnut in fact marries his own sister to Richard to cement that relationship). Lastly, for Emma it was a way to retain power. Her position as the wife of the ex-king and mother to rival claimants for the throne made her particularly vulnerable so long as she remained in England. Either she returned to Normandy to fade into obscurity or stayed with Cnut at the centre of English politics.

Cnut had to set aside his first wife in order to take up this political union. Her name was also Ælfgifu. Yep. Her marriage to Cnut had produced a potential heir, Harold Harefoot, who will be about to cause problems in a moment.

The Encomium describes a loving relationship between Emma and Cnut. Make of that what you will. They did have two children together though, Gunhild who became queen consort in Germany, and Harthacnut who would go on to claim both the crowns of Denmark and England. Emma continued to sign charters and exercise political power as noted above. Indeed, her partnership with Cnut was undoubtedly the pinnacle of her political career, but that is all about the change.

Now we’ve covered the political context of Emma’s two marriages, and that should really be enough for us here today. It will allow me to build some more detailed articles on Emma in the future, and we can keep moving through the chronology of Cnut’s reign in our Cnut-centred series of articles. But for the sake of completeness, let’s see how things end up for Emma.

It’s complicated and more than a little messy, so let’s skim through it.

Dowager Queen and Queen Mother

In 1035 Cnut died. Harthacnut was in Denmark, Alfred and Edward in exile in Normandy, guess who was around though? Ælfgifu and Harold. Harold quickly made a grab at the throne, while Emma, seeing political agency slip away from her, made a grab at the treasury in Winchester. Unfortunately for her, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Harold sent men to relieve her of those treasures shortly thereafter.

Technically Harold and Harthacnut reigned jointly until 1037, with Emma protecting Harthacnut’s interests from her base in Winchester. This was a formal decision made in council, though men like Godwine, the over-mighty earl of Cnut’s own making (and father of the future king Harold II Godwineson), resisted the division. Walking into this seething political stew came Alfred and Edward, Æthelred’s sons. Edward managed to escape back to Normandy, but Alfred was captured by Godwine and suffered the aforementioned fate. There is little reason to believe that Emma was anything but distraught at her son’s death, and she too would soon escape the turmoil and treachery of England. Whether or not she was the one who encouraged them to return in order to try shore up her position remains open for debate – I’m personally unconvinced. Yet, it is unlikely she sat passively in Winchester as the Encomium implies, and no doubt she manoeuvred to try retain power and undermine Harold (including being the likely originator of rumours around his legitimacy). Nonetheless, for the first time in three decades she lacked proximity to the throne and, unless Harthacnut returned to England, her political agency would lack potency.

And so it was that in 1037 Emma was driven into exile. But fast-forward three years, Harold is dead (of natural causes), Harthacnut returns to claim his throne, Emma is back! Edward is summoned to his brother’s side, no doubt in part to ensure the succession with Harthacnut childless at this time. But something is weighing on Emma’s mind. It is at this time the Encomium was composed – she was apparently nervous about the future, and the narrative of the text seeks to justify her behaviour and actions from the time of Cnut up until Harthacnut’s kingship. It takes particular interest in condemning Harold and laying Alfred’s death on him (distracting from the accusations levelled at her sometime ally Godwine). Harthacnut in turn is portrayed as an obedient son and worthy king, generous in sharing his power with his brother Edward. Not only justifying the past it seems, but laying out her hopes for the future. If, however, Emma’s vision in the Encomium was to shape that future, things did not turn out as she planned.

In 1042 Harthacnut died and her son Edward came to the throne. She appears to have witnessed one charter near the start of his reign, but then something happened and history is unkind to us here. In 1043 Edward moved against his mother, depriving her of all her wealth, all her lands, and her freedom of movement. Surely what she had expected, yet avoided, upon the death of her husbands, but likely something of a surprise with her son on the throne. And, unfortunately, we can only speculate why. Later chroniclers give something of an avaricious nature to her throughout her life, seeking the accumulation of wealth, and suggest that Edward was acting as a corrective to this. That rather plays into the ‘wicked mother’ trope so common in Anglo-Saxon saints’ lives, combining rather neatly with Edward’s later saintly reputation, and I don’t place to much stock in it. Other theories state that it was indeed by her encouragement that Edward and Alfred returned in 1036 to make a play for the throne, and that Edward therefore blamed Emma for his brother’s death. But it could be as simple as Edward, who came to the throne in his forties, having no need for a powerful mother creating an alternative political locus in his kingdom. Yes, he took her wealth, but left her enough to live on, repurposing the remainder to the use of the crown. Perhaps unkind, but not necessarily unwise. In the end, who knows?

And that, my friends, is the rise and fall of Emma of Normandy. She lived her remaining life with little of the power she had had in earlier decades, dying in 1052. She was, nonetheless accorded a royal burial in Winchester.

Please let us know if there is any aspect of her life on which you’d like us to go in-depth on for a focused future article.

  1. Feature image: Feature Image: King Cnut the Great, BL MS Stowe 944, f. 6 r.
  2. Alistair Campbell, ed., Encomium Emmae Reginae,reprint, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998 (1949).
  3. Stacey S. Klein, Ruling Women: Queenship and Gender in Anglo-Saxon Literature, Note Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.
  4. Levi Roach, Æthelred the Unready, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.
  5. Pauline Stafford, Queen Emma and Queen Edith, Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.
  6. Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.
  7. Dorothy Whitelock, Anglo-Saxon Wills, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930.

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