Saturday, October 3, 2015

Queen Emma - One of the Neglected Figures in English History

by Helen Hollick

This is part of an essay I wrote in 1997 for a history degree course at Birkbeck College, University of London. Unfortunately I never found the time to complete the degree!
The full, original essay is here:

The first chapters of the Norman conquest of England began in the spring of 1002, with the marriage of Emma of Normandy to Æthelred, King of the English. She was a daughter of Richard of Normandy, great grandfather of William I of England. Although of Scandinavian (Viking) descent, these "Northmen" were, by the early eleventh century, mostly Christian, and an alliance would prevent Vikings from using Norman ports from which to harass England. Henceforth, the Counts of Normandy would have a considerable interest in the English crown, with the ambition being that a son of Emma's would succeed to the throne. Two, Harthacnut and Edward, did rule, but both were childless, thus eliminating the prospect of Norman rule by direct succession. Considering that the alliance was to bring security from Viking raiders, it is ironic that when Æthelred died in 1016, Emma then married one of the most prominent Vikings of this period, Cnut, who conquered England and became King.

Emma became a queen who carved for herself a significant position within the political estate of England. Her first son, Edward, was born circa 1005 with a second son, Alfred, a year or so later. The succession to the throne however, was disrupted in 1013 by an invasion by Svein Forkbeard of Denmark and his son, Cnut. In the autumn, Emma and her sons, at her initiative, fled to Normandy soon followed by Æthelred himself.

In the spring of 1014 Æthelred dispatched ambassadors to England, with his young son Edward accompanying them, to negotiate a return to the English throne. Shortly after Æthelred's reinstatement, his son by a first (common-law) wife, Edmund Ironside, began to act independently of his father. Emma, it seems, was also dissatisfied with her husband’s failures, for she apparently transferred her support to Edmund. In the Encomium Emma Reginae (her biography written during her lifetime) Æthelred is not merely omitted as her husband, but his existence is significantly suppressed. Emma was a strong and determined women who knew her own mind, what she wanted, and was ruthless in her ambition to obtain it. It is doubtful that she would have chosen to ‘forget’ her first husband because of infidelity; more likely she was dissatisfied with his failures and weakness as a king.

A Hollow Crown cover
depicting the frontispiece of the Encomium
showing Emma, Harthacnut and  Edward
(fourth person unknown, possibly the Encomum's author)
Æthelred died in 1016. Edmund Ironside occupied the throne and withstood Cnut, with the boy Edward, who was possibly no older than thirteen, at his side. That Emma had deliberately sent her eldest son to be with his half-brother is typical of her character. Edward would have been too young to stand against Cnut on his own; her only chance of recovering her position, wealth, and estates would have rested on Edmund's success - with Edward as his successor. Unfortunately for Emma, Edmund died in 1016, and Cnut became King of England.

Cnut turned to securing his position and took Emma as his second wife in July 1017. He had a reputation of paganism and needed to establish his Christianity. The degree of involvement that Emma herself had in the betrothal negotiations is unknown, but she was certainly shrewd and politically wise. As Queen, Emma had acquired expertise in English politics, and marriage to her diverted support away from the two royal English sons, neutralizing them as potential opponents. The master plan of the sixth or seventh century usurper had three stages: murder the king, get the gold, marry the widow. Since the widow usually sat on the gold, the two went together.

Emma achieved a position of prominence under Cnut that she had not enjoyed under Æthelred. She benefitted from her second husband's control of three kingdoms, and by Cnut she had a third son, Harthacnut, reducing Æthelred's sons who were again in exile in Normandy to little more than pawns. When Cnut died in 1035, Harthacnut was ruling in Denmark, and Emma pressed for his succession, not Edward's. Harthacnut would retain for her, as King of England and Denmark, her wealth and status and would be more likely to receive support from the Angle-Danish aristocracy who had risen to power under Cnut. Her main ally proved to be Earl Godwine of Wessex. When Edward and Alfred arrived in England in 1036 to make a claim for the throne, there was virtually no support for either brother, including none from Emma herself.

Emma was a woman of considerable wealth and because of that, she held great political power. She held three types of property which would provide her with revenue. The possession of the royal treasury was crucial. It would contain essential royal documents, such as tribute lists, gold, silver, precious stones and weapons. Possibly also, the royal insignia. By having control of the treasury, Emma was able to attract - and hold - support. Harthacnut, however, remained in Denmark and when Godwine, the crux of Emma's success, unexpectedly switched sides to support Cnut’s illegitimate eldest son, Harold Harefoot, Emma fell swiftly from power and went, once again, into exile.

Harefoot died in 1039 which gave Harthacnut opportunity to renew his claim on England. It may have been during her exile that Emma commissioned the Encomium Emmae Regina to be written; a work of praise for herself and a demonstration that Harthacnut was the right choice as King of England. It shows that Emma was literate and of distinguished learning.

Harthacnut's reign was brief; he died in 1042. After all her struggles Emma must have been devastated; the crown passed to Edward, but it was of little comfort to her. For most of his life Edward had lived in exile in Normandy. His mother had abandoned him, and there was no love between son and mother. Soon after his consecration in 1043, Edward rode to Winchester to accuse Emma of treason and to dispossess her of lands and movables, although he stopped short at exile. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, "They came unexpectedly upon the lady and deprived her of all the treasures …because she had been very hard to the king, her son...”

Whether by her own strength of character or her son's remorse, she was soon reinstated into favour, although at a lower scale. He took Earl Godwine’s daughter, Edith, as wife – although the marriage produced no children, and Emma retired to Winchester, an indication that her influence had decreased. She died on 6th March 1052 and was buried in the Old Minster, Winchester near Cnut and Harthacnut.

Post 1066 queens of England are discussed at length, appreciated or condemned, depending on their worth, while those of pre-Norman history are considerably neglected - even ignored. Emma was the only woman in British history to have been Queen twice, the wife of different ruling kings. This makes her unique. She was an intriguing woman, on a par with the later Eleanor of Aquitaine, and she has a significant place in English history.

Pauline Stafford
Queens, concubines and Dowagers: The king's wife in the early middle ages
Henrietta Leyser
Medieval Women: A social history of women in England 450- 1500
Christine Fell
Women in Anglo-Saxon England
Frank Barlow
Edward the Confessor
Translator, Anne Savage:
 The Anglo Saxon Chronicles


Helen Hollick is the author of A Hollow Crown (UK edition)/The Forever Queen (US edition). 
The Forever Queen was a USA Today bestseller.
Emma's story continues in Harold the King (UK title) / I Am The Chosen King (US title)

For more information  about Queen Emma : click here 

Buy the book in paperback or on Kindle: Amazon


  1. Fascinating. You are certainly right, most people tend to considerate on English history after William's conquest. But here you show where, in a sense that conquest began, how the claim was established ....besides the era's interesting people/players . Thank you for posting!

  2. Thank you Anne - I wrote Harold the King (UK title its I Am The Chosen King in the US) before writing Emma's story - although she features heavily in the first part of 'Harold'. And I wrote Harold because I was fed up with English history always starting at 1066! I'met' Emma while researching 'Harold' - and found her so fascinating I just had to go back and write a 'prequel' about her life.

  3. Great work. All the intermarriages certainly confused things as to the legitimate succession. No doubt this is true for ever (former) throne in Europe. You made me Google Emma for further information. It would have been interesting to see how the situation would have developed between Hathacnut and Edward once Emma was gone. Alas, Harthacnut didn't live long enough for that situation to fully develop.

  4. A fascinating history of an early queen I had never heard of. I enjoyed the post.

  5. A fascinating history of a queen I had never heard of. Thanks for posting.


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