Biography

Emma of Normandy. She is arguably the most famous woman of the Viking Age. A noblewoman, not of royal birth, will connect the two most important royal houses in northern Europe in the eleventh century. She will fight for her children’s claims to the English throne. Wittingly, and perhaps sometimes involuntarily, much revolves around her actions. She is the daughter of a duke, the wife, mother and grandmother of kings. She lives well into her sixties, but not without enduring her fair share of good and dire times.

Life and Viking Times

Charters that Emma or Normandy signs as Queen (consort) of England are proof of her existence.1 There might be additional archaeological evidence if the bones found on May 2019 in Winchester cathedral, are indeed her remains.2

Other medieval chronicles and texts mention Emma, too. But these should be used with more care as they can be biased. For example, she was the patron of Encomium Emmae Reginae3 which is naturally positive about Emma and her direct family. Then there is the Vita Ædwardi Regis about the life of Edward the Confessor, Emma’s son by Æthelred the Unready. His wife was Edith, and she was also the patron of this work. The first of two books is about her and her family, the second about Edward’s life until his death. Edith, like Emma, actively took part in creating the text.4 Then, there is an older text, by Dudo of St Quentin, a chancellor for Richard II, on the history of the Normandy dukes. Among his patrons were Richard I and Richard II, Emma’s father and brother.5

Childhood in Normandy, c. 985 – 996

Emma of Normandy is probably born around 985. Most modern accounts about her life start with her marriage to Æthelred the Unready. That is understandable, since we know little about her childhood. Even the Encomium is silent on this issue.6 It is most likely, though, that she grows up at the ducal court in Normandy near her parents and siblings.

Duchy of Normandy (Source: Wikipedia)

Her father and mother are strong characters. Richard I ‘the Fearless’ becomes a duke at a young age after his father murdered. As a young man, he fights to regain the duchy and succeeds with help from his Scandinavian allies. This Norman-Danish alliance will be an important thread throughout his 54-year rule and beyond. Richard allows the Vikings to set up camp in Normandy and raid England. The English king Æthelred the Unready asks the Pope to negotiate a peace treaty with Richard. Early 991, the two parties sign this pact. But it is broken just six months later when the Vikings attack again in several places, leading up to the battle of Maldon.7 Richard dies in 996 and his son Richard II ‘the Good’ succeeds him.

Emma’s mother Gunnora is likely of noble Danish origins. She is often mentioned by Dudo of St Quentin. He describes her as a formidable woman. She outlives her husband and continues to live at court and sign charters during her son’s rule. She dies in 1031. 8

In her brother’s care, 996 – 1002

A third influence in her early life, is Emma’s brother Richard. He has to rule and maintain the strong duchy his father left behind. One important task is to ensure good positions for his brothers and advantageous marriages for his sisters. He makes good arrangements, but the biggest scoop is the marriage of Emma to Æthelred, making her a queen.9 Even if it is out of necessity, rather than a pre-arranged deal. After his father didn’t keep his bargain with Æthelred, the latter is fed up when the attacks increase again toward the end of the first millennium. Æthelred invades Normandy, but Richard defeats him and responds with a new peace treaty and his sister’s hand in marriage to strengthen the deal.10

Queen of England, 1002–1016

Normandy coast (Source: Pixabay / kidsinlyon).

In 1002, Emma leaves Normandy and becomes the queen of England and a stepmother to Æthelred’s children. Edmund Ironside, the eldest, is about her age. Emma seems to make work of making herself at home quickly. She takes the name Ælfgifu and Æthelred gives her properties in England, including Wessex. Not long after her arrival, St Brice’s Day massacre occurs, but the sources do not mention if this affects her in any way. Within the next three years, she bears Æthelred two sons and a daughter, and starts to engage herself in the Anglo-Saxon political affairs.11

The sources are again quiet until Sweyn Forkbeard successfully invades England by 1013 and exiles Æthelred and his family. Emma flees with the children to Normandy and Æthelred to the isle of Wight. But shortly after his coronation, Sweyn dies in 1014. The Anglo-Saxon ealdormen ask Æthelred to return. But the king is careful and sends his son Edward first, to get oaths to prevent further treachery that has forever plagued his rule.12

Cnut, Sweyn’s son, is still in England. But Æthelred defeats him and he leaves the country.13 Not much later, Æthelred and his eldest son Edmund Ironside argue when Edmund kidnaps and marries the widow of a northern jarl against the king’s wishes. Moreover, Edmund secures the northern regions in England for himself.14

But their strife comes to an end when Æthelred dies in 1016 and Cnut successfully invades England. Where Emma and her children have been all this time, is not clear. It is likely they stayed in Normandy – for when Cnut comes courting in 1017; she is still in Normandy.15

Queen of England, Denmark and Norway, 1016–1035

In the marriage deal for Emma, Cnut offers his sister Estrid as a bride for Richard II. But Richard turns the deal down and Estrid marries jarl Ulf instead.16 And then Emma has a mind of her own, and does not immediately agree to Cnut’s offer. She knows he has children with his first wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton. So, instead of accepting him straight away, she first settles the future of her unborn children with Cnut and has him recognise them as full heirs to the throne.17

Cnut marries Emma for the legitimacy for the English throne, though their marriage seems to work, too. “Emma’s gifts to churches during her marriage to Cnut were particularly significant in restoring peace and establishing confidence in her husband’s position as a Christian ruler.”18 They will have two children, Harthacnut and Gunhilda. Gunhilda is sent to the court of Conrad II of Germany, the Holy Roman Emperor, at a young age and will marry his son Henry III. Her children by Æthelred – Edward, Alfred and Goda – are left behind in Normandy with their uncle. Only Harthacnut remains at the Anglo-Saxon court.19

Meanwhile, Cnut seeks to secure his Danish kingdom. In the 1020s, he sends Harthacnut to Denmark with jarl Ulf as a regent and foster father. When Ulf defies Cnut, however, several years later, Cnut goes to Denmark. He kills Ulf and makes Harthacnut king of Denmark in 1028.20

Succession Issues, 1037–1040

Yet, Harthacnut struggles to hold on to the wider Danish kingdom. In 1030, the battle of Stiklestad takes place in Norway. A peasant revolt supported by Cnut results in the death of the Norwegian king Olaf II ‘the Saint’. Cnut then sends his first wife Ælfgifu of Northampton and their son Sweyn Cnutsson to rule over Norway. Their heavy taxes and restrictive laws cause locals to rebel again and in the end, Ælfgifu and Sweyn lose Norway to Magnus I, the son of Olaf the Saint.21 The Heimskringla suggests that Harthacnut and Sweyn had a deal that would divide Cnut’s kingdom between them, but this is not to be.22 Sweyn dies around the same time as Cnut, in 1035.23

This means that Harthacnut cannot immediately go to England for his coronation. The witan chooses Harold Harefoot, another son by Ælfgifu of Northampton, as regent or co-ruler in Harthacnut’s absence.24 It is agreed that Harold will rule the north, and Earl Godwin and Emma hold the south in Harthacnut’s name.

A change of plans

Emma requests the presence of her sons Edward and Alfred, but on their way to Harold, they are betrayed and attacked. Some scholars believe by Godwin’s hand, at the instigation of Harald. This does not sound far-fetched as, by this time, Godwin transferred his loyalty from Harthacnut to Harald.25 Alfred is blinded and dies of his wounds. Edward flees back to Normandy.26

Bruges, Flanders (Source: Pixabay / leonhouben).

Harold wastes no time to and is crowned king of England. With her position now uncertain, Emma flees, too. Not to Normandy, though. After her brother Richard dies, his two sons fight each other for the title and cause civil war and political unrest. It is not a safe place for Emma to go and she turns to the court of the Count of Flanders in Bruges instead.27

She asks for Edward once more. He has proven himself a warrior in the skirmishes in Normandy. But he has no means to raise an invasion force, nor seems very interested in wearing the English crown. Instead, Harthacnut comes to her with an invasion force in 1039. But they wait as soon as it is clear that Harold is dying.28

A Dowager Queen in England, 1040–1042

After Harold dies in 1040, Harthacnut and Emma sail for England. After his coronation, Harthacnut performs cold vengeance on Harold’s body which does not endear him to the people.29 Unsurprisingly, Godwin’s loyalty switches back to Harthacnut. Godwin is put on trial but escapes a sentence by paying for a ship so expensive, that it amounts to his own wergild.30 He then marries Gytha, the sister of jarl Ulf (yes, the same).31

Harthacnut isn’t a popular ruler. He imposes heavy taxes and there is much unrest in the witan. Perhaps Emma’s influence is visible when he invites his brother Edward to England to be his co-ruler. As Æthelred’s son, Edward is well-received, even if he has lived most of his life in Normandy.32 For the Scandinavian part of his kingdom, Harthacnut has a treaty in place with Magnus I who will inherit his realm upon his death (though this was made when Harthacnut was king of Denmark only).33 With his inheritance secured, and without a family – Harthacnut dies of illness at a young age in 1042.34

An Ending, 1042–1052

Magnus interprets his treaty with Harthacnut differently and claims the English throne upon Harthacnut’s death. But Edward is installed quickly as the new king of England.35 Perhaps Emma was not the greatest influence here, but rather Earl Godwin.36

Whatever Godwin’s actions in the past, Edward chooses to rely on his council. This probably is the reason behind him taking his mother’s lands and properties in 1043. Meanwhile, Godwin’s sons are raised to be earls in their own right, and Edward himself marries Godwin’s daughter Edith of Wessex in 1045. Even though there is a strong connection between the families, Edward does not always follow Godwin’s advice, as at the time when he refuses to offer help to Sweyn Estridsson of Denmark (son of Ulf) in his fight with Magnus I.37

Amid all the new political upheaval at court, with factions of Godwin and his sons, and Edward’s Norman advisors, Emma is no longer heard. She dies in 1052 in Winchester, having survived all her husbands, and all her children but one.38

Find a Grave

Coffin of Emma of Normandy in Winchester Cathedral (Source: Wikipedia).

In May 2019, six coffins were found in Winchester cathedral with many bones believed to be of the royal medieval families. In particular, they expect to find Emma of Normandy among them.39

Further Reading and Viewing

Patricia Bracewell – Trilogy on Emma of Normandy.

BBC Radio 4 – Sue Cameron on Emma of Normandy.

References


  1. One resource I could not get a hold of, is Pauline Stafford’s Queen Emma and Queen Edith. (Wiley, 2001). I hope to add more footnotes from this work to this article in the future!
    Emma 2,’ PASE. Last Accessed 14 September 2019.  ↩
  2. The Riddle of Winchester Cathedral’s skeletons,’ BBC. Published 18 May 2019. Last Accessed 13 September 2019.  ↩
  3. Alistair Campbell and Simon Keynes, Encomium Emmae Reginae. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. xiv, 98.  ↩
  4. J.L. Grassi, ‘The Vitae Ædwardi Regis: The Hagiographer as Insider,’ in: Anglo–Norman Studies: XXVI. Proceedings of the Battle Conference 2003 edited by John Gillingham (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2004), pp. 88 [pp. 87–102].  ↩
  5. Dudo of St Quentin, History of the Normans, Transl. and notes by Eric Christiansen (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1998), pp. xxiii–xxiv.  ↩
  6. Alistair Campbell and Simon Keynes (1998), Introduction.  ↩
  7. ‘The Battle of Maldon,’ The Viking Archive. Published 2 July 2017. Last Accessed 14 September 2019.  ↩
  8. Elisabeth van Houts (ed. and transl.), The Normans in Europe. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000) pp. 56, 58–59, 90–96.  ↩
  9. Charles Crawley, ‘Emma,’ FMG.ac. Last Accessed 15 August 2019.  ↩
  10. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Richard II | Duke of Normandy.’ Encyclopædia Britannica Published 28 August 2008. Last Accessed 13 September 2019.  ↩
  11. Anonymous, “The Anglo–Saxon Chronicle | 1002.” The Avalon Project | Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Yale University. Last Accessed 14 September 2017.  ↩
  12. Æthelred the Unready,’ The Viking Archive. Published 3 August 2019. Last Accessed 14 September 2019.  ↩
  13. Æthelred the Unready,’ The Viking Archive. Published 3 August 2019. Last Accessed 14 September 2019.  ↩
  14. Anonymous, “The Anglo–Saxon Chronicle | 1015.” The Avalon Project | Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Yale University. Last Accessed 14 September 2017.  ↩
  15. Alistair Campbell and Simon Keynes (1998), pp. 33.  ↩
  16. Emma,’ FMG.ac. Last Accessed 15 August 2019.
    Lesley Abrams, ‘Early Normandy,’ in: Anglo–Norman Studies. Volume 35 (2013), pp. 47, 61–64 [pp. 45–64].  ↩
  17. Elizabeth M. Tyler, England in Europe: English Royal Women and Literary Patronage, c.1000–c.1150. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), pp. 131 [pp. 101–134].  ↩
  18. Leoni Hicks, ’Norman women: the power behind the thrones,’ History Extra. Published 16 May 2019. Last Accessed 13 September 2019.
    For more on the political advantages of Cnut keeping Æthelred’s children in Normandy and Emma in England: Matt Firth, ‘Queenship and Power: The Political Life of Emma of Normandy,’ The Postgrad Chronicle. Published 4 April 2019. Last Accessed 11 September 2019.  ↩
  19. Alistair Campbell and Simon Keynes (1998), pp. xxviii.  ↩
  20. Charles Crawley, ‘Cnut,’ FMG.ac. Last Accessed 15 September 2019.  ↩
  21. Kelly DeVries, The Norwegian Invasion of England in 1066. (Woodbridge; The Boydell Press, 1999) pp. 41.  ↩
  22. Snorri Sturlason, Heimskringla | Saga of Magnus the Good | 4. King Svein’s Flight. Project Gutenberg Last Updated 6 February 20013. Las Accessed 14 September 2019.  ↩
  23. Charles Crawley, ‘Cnut,’ FMG.ac. Last Accessed 15 September 2019.  ↩
  24. Kelly DeVries (1999) pp. 78.  ↩
  25. Alistair Campbell and Simon Keynes (1998), pp. xxx.  ↩
  26. Anonymous, “The Anglo–Saxon Chronicle | 1036.” The Avalon Project | Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Yale University. Last Accessed 14 September 2017.  ↩
  27. These sons are Richard III and Robert I ‘the Magnificent’. To read more about Robert, who eventually becomes duke of Normandy, see: The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Robert I | Duke of Normandy.’ Encyclopædia Britannica Published 28 July 2017. Last Accessed 13 September 2019.
    Anonymous, “The Anglo–Saxon Chronicle | 1037.” The Avalon Project | Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Yale University. Last Accessed 14 September 2017.  ↩
  28. Alistair Campbell and Simon Keynes (1998), pp. Lxv.  ↩
  29. Elizabeth M. Tyler (2017), pp. 102.  ↩
  30. Kelly DeVries (1999) pp. 84.  ↩
  31. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Godwin | Earl of Wessex .’ Encyclopædia Britannica Published 11 April 2019. Last Accessed 13 September 2019.  ↩
  32. Elizabeth M. Tyler (2017), pp. 102.  ↩
  33. Snorri Sturlason, Heimskringla | Saga of Magnus the Good | 7. Reconciliation between Hardaknut and King Magnus. Project Gutenberg Last Updated 6 February 20013. Las Accessed 14 September 2019.  ↩
  34. Anonymous, “The Anglo–Saxon Chronicle | 1042.” The Avalon Project | Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Yale University. Last Accessed 14 September 2017.  ↩
  35. Anonymous, “The Anglo–Saxon Chronicle | 1043.” The Avalon Project | Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Yale University. Last Accessed 14 September 2017.  ↩
  36. Kelly DeVries (1999) pp. 86.  ↩
  37. Kelly DeVries (1999) pp. 88–89.  ↩
  38. Kelly DeVries (1999) pp. 92.  ↩
  39. The Riddle of Winchester Cathedral’s skeletons,’ BBC. Published 18 May 2019. Last Accessed 13 September 2019.  ↩

One thought on “Emma of Normandy”

  1. Overall detailed post on Emma of Normandy. I’m writing a TV series based on the life of Aelfgifu of Northampton, first wife of King Knut, and have also done a considerable amount of digging in the sources relative to Emma, who is also a main character. The historical impression — up until the present — of Emma has been positive, influenced heavily by her self-approved Encomium, and, I believe, a good-faith modern effort to reappraise the contributions of women in the past. However, my need to understand the whole person behind the events of 1002-1052 has revealed other, darker, forces at work in Emma’s life. Emma was unquestionably a strong, intelligent woman bound up in the political realities of the early medieval world. But so was her lifelong rival, Aelfgifu, who — most significantly — came first in Cnut’s affections, and descended from one of the most powerful Mercian families in England. That Aelfgifu was the survivor of a shocking “palace coup” described even in the Welsh Annals which killed her father, blinded her brothers, and destroyed her family’s wealth and position is critical to understand her future actions as Cnut’s wife and mother of his oldest, legitimate sons. She willingly allied herself with the Danish invaders, representing both Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Danes who had been oppressed by King Aethelred. Cnut later married Emma to ally his fledgling Danish rule of England with the great power across the Channel — the Normans, not to gain any substantial English support.

    During her marriage to Aethelred, Emma appears connected to Eadric “Streona,” the notorious traitor who shot from ordinary thegn to Earl of Mercia as the henchman and beneficiary of the 1006 “palace coup.” Roger of Wendover says that Eadric even accompanied her in exile to her family base in Normandy for two years, and “entertained her in magnificent style.” In addition, modern historians have noted a decided improvement in the treatment of Eadric in the Encomium versus other contemporary sources. It may also be noted that Eadric was much closer in age to Emma than her husband. Whether any of these hints amount to a real personal connection, is, of course, open to debate, but in the light of Emma’s later actions, remains tantalizing.

    According to Theitmar of Merseberg, Emma was willing to sacrifice the infant sons of King Edmund “Ironside” to protect her own male issue’s path to the throne. Though not usually considered reliable, as I’m sure you are aware, there is an interesting story in the Jomsviking Saga that makes Thorkil the Tall (Cnut’s foster father) and Emma the center of a scheme to persuade Cnut (then about 21) to marry Emma. Chillingly, Emma in her Encomium, some twenty-three years later, describes the marriage thus, “Perhaps there would never have been an end of the fighting if he had not at length secured . . . a matrimonial link with this most noble queen.” Her “at length” was, in reality, very short: Cnut married Emma just 7 months after being declared King of England.

    Emma was also seriously involved in the attempted overthrow of Cnut in Denmark. She plotted with Jarl Ulf, perhaps even provided the nobles with a forged letter sealed with Cnut’s signet ring, to place her 8-year-old son Harthacnut on the throne. Obviously, she and Ulf would rule as regents. Cnut had to fight the united Swedes and Norwegians at the Battle of the Holy River, and they had prepared — with Ulf’s knowledge — a surprise attack by water for Cnut and his ships. A huge wave of water was released into the tidal lake by breaking a temporary dam on the Holy River, thereby swamping the longboats. But the Swedes had not adequately accounted for the enormous size of Cnut’s drakkar, and he rode over the wave and survived, with a few of his men. Ulf came back and fought at his side to a draw. Only in the aftermath of this battle did Cnut’s rage at the open betrayal of his wife and his friend (and brother-in-law) spill over into the execution of Ulf. Cnut quickly forgave his young son, but Emma was sent packing back to England, Winchester specifically, there to stay for the rest of Cnut’s reign. A gilded cage, perhaps, with considerable local authority, but Emma was lucky to survive. Henry VIII would not have been so forgiving.

    So these events become the backdrop to the death of King Harold I in 1040, who — along with his mother — was excoriated in the Encomium. Emma clearly hated her Anglo-Danish step-sons and refused to claim them as legitimate sons of Cnut, though Cnut knew just the opposite. When Harthacnut was freed up in Denmark to claim the English throne, he and his mother schemed to assemble a huge invasion fleet in Flanders — before Harold was known to be ill. Harold was called to a meeting of the Witan at Oxford, very near Emma’s former power base of Winchester, and there he suddenly sickened and died, by asphyxiation, quite possibly from arsenic poisoning. Monks coming from Canterbury to settle a dispute witnessed his turning blue on his death-bed even as he gave them a favorable settlement.

    Edward, knowing of these and possibly other events associated with his mother, plus stinging from her personal neglect of him as a child, sent her into exile early in his reign. Emma may also have strenuously objected to Edward’s upcoming marriage to Eadgyth. By the time she was allowed to return to England, she was near 60. As you mentioned, the skeletal remains of Emma have a great deal of information to offer in regards to her life. I also look forward to discovering more about this fascinating woman.

    I realize this comment has been long, but I wanted you to have the sources and directions of inquiry that have riveted me in my examination of Emma as a person. My hope is that they will provide many additional hours of interest for you also. My apologies for not including source notes and italicizing of sources in this comment form.

    The Viking Archive is a tremendous web source within its own right and I applaud you for assembling it and maintaining it.

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