Emma of Normandy, Queen of England

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

31 responses

  1. Pingback: Ten Medieval Royal English Weddings

  2. Pingback: A Study in Queenship ~ How Queens Exercised Power « The Freelance History Writer

  3. Pingback: Ten Medieval Royal English Weddings « The Freelance History Writer

  4. Thanks for amazing post really this life of Queen Emma was so many important to the English History. I thought for several years about King Harold Godwinson was an Anglo-Saxon hero fell fighting in the Battle of Hastings against Norman invaders. However William seems me today had all rights to the English crown may be MANY more than Harold because he was cousin of Edward and grand-nefew of Emma. However William seems me today had all rights to the English crown perhaps MANY more than Harold because he was cousin of Edward and grand-nephew of Emma both. Not forgeting his historical greatness but Harold hadn’t any kinship with true Royal family !


  5. Susan, I know your focus is England and in today’s world it might be more significant that she was Queen of England, but in the 11th century it was equally important she was Queen of Denmark and Norway, no?


    • Hi Regan, Yes of course she was Queen Consort of Norway and Denmark as the wife of Cnut. However, other than some contacts with ecclesiastics on the continent, her sphere of influence in Scandinavia was negligible. In fact, Cnut sent his other wife Aelfgifu and her son Sweyn to Norway to rule in his absence, which didn’t go well by the way. Also, Emma and Cnut’s son Harthacnut went to Denmark to rule. In my articles, I try to focus on the personal lives of the woman and also base them on what little historical evidence there is. Emma’s influence as queen was more dominant in England. Thanks for reading Regan. Susan


  6. I understand what you say about learn more of what you are visiting it is something that grab you from the soul… I love it !!!!! This lady Emma, I like your post !!!! ❤


  7. Hey I’m an assessment on Emma and I just have two question
    in the shortest form how was she important and what were some significant things done around her time:) Please help thank you


  8. Hi Susan. I’m delighted to see this wonderful post about Emma of Normandy. I had an experience similar to yours, bumping into a reference to Emma, a queen of England I’d never heard of before, and then reading everything I could get my hands on about her. Now I’m working on the second book of a historical fiction trilogy that’s all about her. (The first book, Shadow on the Crown, will be released next year.) You’re exactly the kind of person I was thinking about as I was writing the book. I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts. It was the one about Edith that brought me to this one!


  9. Emma is fascinating. I’m ashamed to say that I know very little about English history, having emigrated from England with my family to the U.S. at age 7, but now your well-written and oh-so-interesting blog will go a long way towards rectifying that. I also wanted to say thank you for liking my post on Turkey: Where to Park your Camel, and for following my blog.


    • Jennifer: Thanks so much for reading about Emma. I find her quite fascinating myself. The more I read about her the more I admire her spunk! Am working on a new blog about Queen Edith, wife of Edward the Confessor. Coming soon.


  10. Thanks for writing about Emma! I’m a huge fan of early medieval history, and find it so disappointing that Emma isn’t more widely known: she was remarkable, and a great corrective to the popular view that the medieval period did women down! Have you read about (a few hundred years earlier) the wonderful Abbess Hild(a) of Whitby? She was probably the most powerful and remarkable of a series of incredibly influential abbesses, who helped to shape England’s idea of itself, history, Christianity, and society 650s-1000s, when the Benedictine Reform started to reduce female power in the Church.


    • Thanks so much for reading about Emma. I too find her fascinating and very powerful. Would like to know more about her relationship with Edward and Alfred and how it shaped them. I have not heard of Hilda of Whitby but will check her out. I like that you mentioned the Benedictine Reform. My next medieval Queen will be St Margaret of Scotland, who reformed the Scottish church with Benedictine principles.


      • St Margaret of Scotland helped to make Christianity accepted by the pagan Scots. she is my ancestor, and I’ve made a pilgrimage to Dumfermline in her honor. Looking forward to your blog about her.


  11. Reblogged this on The Templar Knight and commented:
    I’ve blogged before about medieval queens like Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Empress Matilda – but here is one I’ve singularly missed from the early Middle Ages. So thanks for this information on Queen Emma – and enjoy!


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Mimi Matthews

Mimi Matthews

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