While on tour in England in 2008, our British tour guide mentioned “We don’t do much medieval here”. My husband and I were standing in Salisbury Cathedral later in the day and I was thinking to myself, why not? That lovely spire that was the highest in Europe for many years was built in 1358 and it’s still standing! This got my imagination going and when I returned to the States, I began studying medieval British history with a vengeance.
The period of British history from the exodus of the Romans until the Norman Conquest has always been shadowy and mist filled for me. My first thoughts were of Alfred, the only English king to be called “The Great” (871-899). In reading about the successors of Alfred, I came across a Queen, Emma, who really intrigued me. It was because of her, the course of English history was sent into a completely different direction.
Emma was born in 985 and was the sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy. While AEthelred the Unready was King of England from 978–1013 and again from 1014–1016, he was under attack by the Vikings on all coasts, all the time and his first wife had died. He was badly in need of cash, resources and men to fend off these attacks. In looking for alliances, he turned to Normandy. Emma could bring a dowry and the necessary resources to fight the Vikings, so AEthelred offered her marriage. When Emma arrived in England she was given the name AElfgifu, a typical Anglo-Saxon name.
Emma was given numerous properties belonging to AEthelred’s first wife and also was allowed to witness charters, a sign of great responsibility for a woman of that time. She also fulfilled her greatest responsibility as Queen by having two sons, Edward and Alfred. When the Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard invaded England and took over as King of part of England in 1013, AEthelred sent Emma and her children to Normandy for safety. Over the next three years, AEthelred died, all the sons by his first wife died and King Sweyn died. Sweyn’s son, Cnut, invaded in 1015 and became King of all England. In an effort to save her sons and herself, Emma married Cnut leaving Edward and Alfred in Normandy.
This marriage was by all accounts successful. Emma gained power and responsibility as the years went on and had a son named Harthacnut, who became her favorite child. Although Cnut was ten years younger than Emma, he died in 1035 and once again the succession to the throne of England was thrown into chaos. Cnut had children by a mistress and his eldest natural son by her, named Harold Harefoot, claimed the throne. Harthacnut was in Denmark and took his time returning to England despite Emma’s entreaties to come as soon as possible.
Emma’s sons Edward and Alfred returned to England while Emma awaited Harthacnut’s return from Denmark. While in England, Alfred was blinded and killed so Edward fled back to Normandy while Emma went into exile in Flanders. It was during this time she commissioned a biography of her life, written by a monk and finished around 1042 called “Encomium Emmae Reginae”. This is the primary source of information regarding Emma’s life.
Harold Harefoot was to die in 1040. Harthacnut prepared an invasion force and picked up Emma in Flanders. He asserted his position in England and ruled for a short time before dying at a drunken wedding celebration. Emma held the kingdom until Edward returned from Normandy to claim the throne. During her regency, Emma had taken the keys to the treasury in Winchester. Edward, for various reasons, ousted Emma, took the treasury keys and sent her away from court. There is evidence he allowed her to return to court and also witness charters after 1044. She died in Winchester in 1052 at the age of 67.
Emma’s son Edward ruled England from 1040 to 1066 and was canonized in 1161. He was known as Edward the Confessor, died childless and had no direct heir. While Edward was in Normandy, he may have promised the throne of England to his cousin, William, Duke of Normandy. He may also have promised the throne to others, including Harold Godwinson, son of the powerful Earl of Wessex. Harold was crowned the same day King Edward died in the newly built Westminster Abbey. In October 1066, William, Duke of Normandy invaded England on the pretext that he was promised the throne and was the true heir. King Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings and the Duke became King William, known as the Conqueror. Thus the history of England was changed forever by the great nephew of Emma of Normandy.
Further reading: “Queen Emma and the Vikings” by Harriet O’Brien, “Emma The Twice Crowned Queen: England in the Viking Age” by Isabella Strachan, “Queen Emma & Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh Century England” by Pauline Stafford