Emma of Normandy,
Twice-Crowned Queen of England
By Sharon Bennett Connolly
Two years ago, in 1016, the story of the Norman Conquest was all over the news – it was the 950th anniversary of the fateful year, when Halley’s Comet was seen in the skies, three kings died on English soil (2 in battle), one invasion was repelled and a second succeeded. I remember watching the progress of the English Heritage re-enactors, who marched from Stamford Bridge near York to Hastings in Sussex. They were following in the footsteps of King Harold II himself, marching from victory at Stamford Bridge to defeat and death at Hastings.
And I remember thinking, what about the women?
The focus was always on the men, the soldiers and kings. However, men didn’t do this alone.
No, the women didn’t fight, and it is often hard to discern their presence and influence on events; but they were there and so I determined to discover their stories and place them in the context of the events of, not only, 1066, but also in the years leading up to and following that fateful year.
One woman, in particular, stands out as the matriarch of the period: Emma of Normandy.
Detail of a miniature of Queen Emma before an altar. British Library
As wife of both Æthelred II and King Cnut, Emma of Normandy was the lynchpin of the story of the 11th century. As a Norman, and the mother of both a Danish king of England and a Saxon King of England, it was Emma who bound all three sides together in the conflict of 1066. Her story is suitably dramatic; with exile, tragedy and scandal all playing their part, starkly contrasting with the wealth and privilege of her role as the only twice-crowned Queen of England.
Emma was the daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, and his wife, Gunnora. Born in around 985/987, she was married to Æthelred at Winchester on 5 April 1002, at which time she was given the English name Ælfgifu, although in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle she is often referred to, simply, as ‘The Lady’. Her marriage with Æthelred was an attempt to seal a peace between England and Normandy, and to persuade the Normans not to allow the Viking raiders to winter in their lands between raids into England. Although the Vikings continued to shelter in Normandy during the winter, and raiding into England continued throughout the early years of the 11th century, the marriage was a success in that it produced two more sons and a daughter for Æthelred; a second family considering he was the father of as many as thirteen children by his first wife, Ælfgifu of York, including at least six sons.
Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings: Detail from the roll of Cnut, king of England, Denmark, and Norway, and his sons Harald Harefoot and Harthacnut. British Library
Of Emma and Æthelred’s two sons the eldest, Edward, would eventually succeed his half-brother, Harthacnut, to the English throne in 1042, ruling until his death on 5 January 1066. Edward’s younger brother, Alfred, was cruelly murdered during the reign of his step-brother, Harold I Harefoot. Harold was the son of Cnut by his first, handfast wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton. Alfred had arrived in England in 1036, ostensibly to visit his mother, though there are also theories that he intended to mount a challenge for the throne, and was welcomed by Earl Godwin of Wessex. However, his party were ambushed whilst being entertained by Godwin and Alfred was seized and taken to the abbey at Ely in Cambridgeshire, where he was later blinded and either murdered, or succumbed to his wounds. Either way, he died on 5 February 1037 and was buried in Ely Cathedral. Edward and Alfred’s sister, Goda (or Godgifu), was married firstly to Drogo, Count of Mantes and, secondly to Eustace II, Count of Boulogne. One of her sons by Drogo, Ralph, was made Earl of Hereford by his uncle, Edward, but earned himself the insulting nickname Ralph the Timid after fleeing the Welsh in battle.
As the Viking raids increased throughout the 1010s, Æthelred’s position on the throne proved precarious and he sent his wife and her young sons to Normandy for safety, before being forced into exile there himself in 1013, when Sweyn Forkbeard seized the throne. Sweyn’s death in 1014 offered Æthelred a way back and he sent Edward to England to negotiate his return with the English Witan, who invited Æthelred to resume the throne ‘if he would govern them better than he did before’.  Despite his promises, Æthelred proved just as inept before, failing to defeat the Danish invaders, led by Cnut. Æthelred died just two years later, on 23 April 1016, and was succeeded by his oldest surviving son by his first wife, Edmund II Ironside. Although Edmund put up a valiant fight against the Danish invaders, led by Cnut, a summer of fighting took its toll and he died on 30 November 1016.
Cnut took control of the whole of England and one of his first actions was to send for Emma, who he married on 2 July 1017. Although Emma appears to have had little influence during the reign of her first husband, her marriage with Cnut appears to have been more of a partnership. She was a more visible figure in public, enjoying considerable influence at court and offering substantial patronage to the church. She gave Cnut three children including a son, Harthacnut, and two daughters, one who’s name is lost, died aged 8 and is buried in Bosham, Sussex. A second daughter, Gunhilda, married Henry III, Emperor of Germany. When Cnut died in 1035 Emma was in England and retired to her manor in Winchester, taking the royal treasury with her in the hope she could pass it to her son, Harthacnut. However, Harthacnut was in Denmark and it was Harold Harefoot, one of Cnut’s sons by Ælfgifu of Northampton, who seized the initiative. An agreement was reached whereby the half-brothers ruled as co-kings with Emma acting for Harthacnut and ruling in Wessex. However, two years later Harthacnut had still not returned to England and Harold took the crown for himself, driving Emma into exile with Count Baldwin in Flanders.
|Miniature of King Cnut and Emma of Normandy before a large gold cross on an altar. British Library.|
Harthacnut appears to have been, by far, Emma’s favourite child. It was for his accession to the English throne that she schemed, rather than for her eldest son, Edward. In the early months of 1040 she and Harthacnut were preparing to invade England when they heard of Harold’s death. Harthacnut succeeded to the English throne without a fight and a year later invited Edward, who had spent almost 25 years in Norman exile, to join him in England as his successor.
Harthacnut reigned for just ten days short of two years, he died after collapsing during a wedding celebration at Lambeth. He was buried alongside his father in the old minster at Winchester and Emma gave the head of St Valentine to the new minster for her son’s soul. Emma’s relationship with Edward, however, was more strained than that she experienced with Harthacnut. Years of separation and a strong sense of abandonment on Edward’s part cannot have helped the situation. Following his coronation in 1043, one of Edward’s first actions was to ride to Winchester and take charge of the Treasury, which had been left in his mother’s hands by Harthacnut. Accompanied by the three greatest earls of his realm – Siward, Godwin and Leofric – ‘they deprived her of all the treasure that she had; which were immense; because she was formerly very hard upon the king her son, and did less for him than he wished before he was king…’ 
Emma’s friend and close adviser, Bishop Stigand, was deprived of his bishopric, although he was later reinstated and created Bishop of Winchester. He eventually rose to be Archbishop of Canterbury but was removed from office by William the Conqueror. However, at the time of her disgrace, Emma and Stagand’s close relationship gave rise to a later legend that they were more than friends and that Emma was accused of adultery with Stigand (although the 13th century story claimed the bishop’s name was Ælfwine). There is no contemporary evidence of the story, however, and it first appears around 200 years later. The story went that Emma was accused of adultery and required to walk across red-hot ploughshares in order to prove her innocence. Being neither cut nor burned by the instruments she was declared innocent. As a consequence, Emma was welcomed back into the royal circle by a contrite Edward.
Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings: Rollo, Duke of Normandy, and his descendants, and William the Conqueror. British Library
Although the story is almost certainly a fabrication, Emma was eventually reconciled with Edward, although she enjoyed a much less exalted position as the king’s mother than she had when Harthacnut reigned. She eventually retired to her own estates, living away from the limelight until her death on 6 March 1052. She was buried in the old minster at Winchester, alongside her second husband, Cnut and her favourite son, Harthacnut. Emma’s story forms the basis for the book Encomium Emmae Reginae, which provides a significant insight into English politics for the first half of the 11th century.
Winchester Cathedral, Anne Marie Bouchard
Emma had played a pivotal role in English politics in the first half of the 11th century, the effects of which would lead to the fateful events of 1066. She helped to shape the events from which the unique situation of the Norman Conquest would arise. A prominent figure, particularly in the reigns of Cnut and Harthacnut, she was the most distinguished woman of her time. More than any other single person, Emma’s story provides the background to the Norman Conquest through the political and personal relationships formed in the first fifty years of the century.
Footnotes:  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram;  ibid.
Heroines of the Medieval World
These are the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. The lives and actions of medieval women were restricted by the men who ruled the homes, countries and world they lived in. It was men who fought wars, made laws and dictated religious doctrine. It was men who were taught to read, trained to rule and expected to fight. Today, it is easy to think that all women from this era were downtrodden, retiring and obedient housewives, whose sole purpose was to give birth to children (preferably boys) and serve their husbands. Heroines of the Medieval World looks at the lives of the women who broke the mould: those who defied social norms and made their own future, consequently changing lives, society and even the course of history.Some of the women are famous, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was not only a duchess in her own right but also Queen Consort of France through her first marriage and Queen Consort of England through her second, in addition to being a crusader and a rebel. Then there are the more obscure but no less remarkable figures such as Nicholaa de la Haye, who defended Lincoln Castle in the name of King John, and Maud de Braose, who spoke out against the same king’s excesses and whose death (or murder) was the inspiration for a clause in Magna Carta.Women had to walk a fine line in the Middle Ages, but many learned to survive – even flourish – in this male-dominated world. Some led armies, while others made their influence felt in more subtle ways, but all made a contribution to their era and should be remembered for daring to defy and lead in a world that demanded they obey and follow.
Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest
Everyone knows about the events of 1066, the story of invasion and conquest. But what of the women? Harold II of England had been with Edith Swan-neck for 20 years but in 1066, in order to strengthen his hold on the throne, he married Ealdgyth, sister of two earls. William of Normandy’s duchess, Matilda of Flanders had, supposedly, only agreed to marry the Duke after he’d pulled her pigtails and thrown her in the mud. Harald Hardrada had two wives—apparently at the same time. So, who were these women? What was their real story? And what happened to them after 1066? From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.
Sharon Bennett Connolly
Sharon Bennett Connolly has been fascinated by history for over 30 years. She has a BA honours degree in History, Business and Law and has worked as a tour guide at historical sites. Her blog, History … the Interesting Bits, concentrates on (but is not confined to) the medieval period and the lesser-known people and events of history. Her first book, Heroines of the Medieval World was released in September 2017 and her second book, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest is out November 2018.
Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog, Mary Anne. It is always such a pleasure!💜ReplyDelete
It is my very great pleasure, Sharon. I have been reading a lot about Emma recently. Such a fascinating woman.Delete
Sharon, you have got me hooked! I love reading about the women of history who have previously been disregarded, and it sounds like you have done some incredible research to discover their stories. Silk and the Sword will be going on my read list.ReplyDelete
Thank you Penny. I really hope you enjoy it. These women are incredible, they were fascinating to research and its a privilege to be able to tell their stories. Best wishes, SharonDelete
These women haven't been previously disregarded. Who told you that?Delete
I would have to agree with you, Anonymous, I have certainly heard of Emma of Normandy. In fact I am reading a book about her at the moment.Delete
A very interesting post.ReplyDelete