I posted recently about Matilda of Scotland, a woman who famously changed her name on becoming queen of England An earlier queen also changed her name for political reasons. We know the woman who was the queen of both Aethelred II and Cnut as Emma of Normandy, but to her contemporaries in England, she was always the Lady Aelfgifu.
Emma of Normandy was the eldest of the nine children of Richard I, Duke of Normandy and his second wife, Gunnor and was born between 980 and 990. Gunnor ruled as regent for her son Richard II following his accession as Duke of Normandy in 996. The Normans, who were descended from Scandinavian settlers, had a good deal of sympathy for the Viking raiders who harried England during the period, leading the duchy into conflict with the English king, Aethelred II. In a bid to enjoy friendlier relations, a marriage alliance was proposed between Emma and the widowed English king early in the eleventh century.
In late 1001, Aethelred moved his court to Kent to await Emma’s coming. She arrived a few weeks later, early in 1002, and the couple married that spring at Canterbury. Unusually for an Anglo-Saxon queen, Emma was crowned. She also took the popular English name of Aelfgifu in order to demonstrate that she had become an English queen. Aethelred was considerably older than Emma and had a number of adult children. The couple never became close and Emma bore her husband only three children in a marriage of fourteen years. She was based at Winchester, where she owned property. She is likely to have been responsible for the upbringing of her stepdaughters, and also for raising her own children: Edward, born in 1004 or 1005, Godgiva born in around 1007 and Alfred, born by 1013. Emma rarely appears in sources for Aethelred’s reign and, with the large age gap between herself and her husband, it would have been difficult for her to establish herself politically. She was also perceived in England to have Danish sympathies. In 1003 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that the city of Exeter was destroyed by the treachery of Emma’s French reeve who helped the Vikings gain access to the city. Emma did witness some of Aethelred’s charters, an honour that was not granted to his first wife, but, in the main, she had little public role.
Aethelred’s long reign was continually troubled by Viking raids. The biggest crisis came in 1013 when Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, landed in England, intent on conquest. Aethelred sent Emma to Normandy with her daughter, Godgiva. This was both for Emma’s own protection and in order to allow her to appeal personally to her brother for aid. She was soon joined by her sons, Edward and Alfred and, shortly afterwards, by Aethelred himself who had abandoned his kingdom to Sweyn. It was a relief, in February 1014 when, following the sudden death of Sweyn, the family were invited to return to England and Aethelred recovered his throne. It cannot have been an easy homecoming and, within a year, Aethelred’s eldest son, Edmund, was in open rebellion against his father. Sweyn’s son, Cnut, was also active in the kingdom. Aethelred died quietly in London on 23 April 1016, beset on all sides. Emma was with him.
Aethelred’s death left Emma in a perilous position whilst Cnut and Edmund fought over the country. She, at first, threw in her lot behind her stepson, Edmund, who was immediately proclaimed king. In spite of this, she was under no illusions about the danger that she faced and, soon after Aethelred’s death, her children returned to Normandy. Edmund’s death late in 1016 left Cnut as king of the entire kingdom and, in mid 1017, he ordered Emma to be ‘fetched’ as his wife.
While Emma was effectively Cnut’s prisoner at the time of their marriage, she was valuable to him: marriage to the English queen helped cement his position as King of England and neutralised Norman support for her sons. He was not, in fact, entirely free to marry, as Cnut already had a wife, Aelfgifu of Northampton, who he did not repudiate. However, it was Emma who took the role of queen and she shared Cnut’s coronation. In Cnut’s charters of 1018-1019, Emma’s name often appeared low down in the list of witnesses. After 1019, she tended to witness directly behind the king himself, demonstrating her rapidly increasing political power.
Emma bore Cnut two children, Harthacnut and Gunnhild, between 1018 and 1020. Harthacnut was Cnut’s favourite child and, in 1023, he was sent to Denmark to be raised as the future king of his father’s ancestral kingdom. Gunnhild made an advantageous marriage to the eldest son of the Holy Roman Emperor. For Emma, her time as Cnut’s queen was much more satisfying than her marriage to Aethelred and she was given much more freedom to act. She and Cnut were often together and they jointly took part in conspicuous patronage, together presenting a shrine to Abingdon Abbey, for example. They are depicted as jointly presenting a cross to the New Minster, Winchester, on the frontispiece of the manuscript, the Liber Vitae. In 1023 Emma was present at the most important church event of Cnut’s reign, the reburial of St Alfheah at Canterbury. She and Cnut acted together throughout Cnut’s reign in their attempts to establish a new Danish dynasty in England.
Emma was at Winchester when Cnut died suddenly at Shaftesbury on 12 November 1035. She was entirely unprepared for the death of her still young and, apparently, healthy husband. Cnut’s surviving son by Aelfgifu of Northampton, Harold Harefoot, was his only son present in England and he took the initiative, rushing to Winchester and taking Cnut’s treasure from Emma before attempting to secure the crown for himself. Emma immediately threw her support behind Harthacnut and a council at Oxford agreed that her son, as the son of his legitimate wife, was Cnut’s heir, offering the compromise that Harold should rule as regent until his half-brother returned from Denmark. Emma set about trying to protect her own child’s position, both by slandering Harold and his mother, Aelfgifu, and by buying support in England. Harthacnut, however, had no desire to leave his primary kingdom of Denmark and, by 1036, with Harold’s position daily increasing in strength, Emma decided to take drastic action and recall one of her elder sons to England to take up the throne in their half-brother’s stead.
A letter exists, summoning Edward and Alfred to England from Normandy. Emma herself, in a book she commissioned called the Encomium Emmae Reginae, maintained that this letter was a forgery produced by Harold in order to trick her sons into leaving the safety of Normandy. This is not impossible, but it is more likely that the summons came from Emma herself, desperate to maintain her position in England at any cost. Emma wrote:
‘Emma, queen in name only, imparts motherly salutations on her sons, Edward and Alfred. Since we severally lament the death of our lord, the king, most dear sons, and since daily you are deprived of more and more of the kingdom, your inheritance, I wonder what plan you are adopting, since you are aware that the delay arising from your procrastination is becoming from day to day a support for the usurper of your rule. For he goes round hamlets and cities ceaselessly, and makes the chief men his friends by gifts, threats and prayers. But they would prefer that one of you should rule over them, than that they should be held in the power of him who now commands them. I entreat, therefore, that one of you come to me speedily and privately, to receive from me wholesome counsel, and to know in what manner this matter, which I desire, must be brought to pass. Send back word what you are going to do about these matters by the present messenger, whoever he may be. Farewell, beloved ones of my heart’.
This was the first direct contact that Emma had had with her elder sons for twenty years. While Emma requested that only one of her sons come to her, Edward and Alfred, who had spent their entire adulthoods in exile and as the penniless guests of their family in Normandy, were both determined to make an attempt on the English throne. Edward arrived safely with Emma in Winchester but Alfred fell into the hands of Godwin, Harold’s advisor, who had him blinded on Harold’s orders. On hearing of his brother’s death soon afterwards, Edward returned to Normandy, leaving Emma alone in Winchester. Alfred’s death and Edward’s departure signalled the final blow for Emma’s hopes and, in 1037, Harold seized the crown, exiling Emma to Flanders.
Following her exile, Emma turned once again towards Harthacnut for support and, finally, in 1040, he sailed from Denmark, bringing a large fleet to Flanders in preparation for an invasion of England. Before they could sail, word arrived that Harold had died and that Harthacnut had been proclaimed king. Harthacnut and Emma sailed at once and Emma was able to establish herself as the power behind the throne, always witnessing immediately after the king in charters. During the reign Emma commissioned what is, essentially, her autobiography, the Encomium Emmae Reginae, which she used to justify her actions throughout her lifetime. Emma became increasingly concerned about her youngest son’s health and, loath to find herself alone and unprotected as she had been in 1035, in 1041 she persuaded Harthacnut to recall Edward to England to share in his rule. When Harthacnut died suddenly in 1042 Edward was proclaimed king in his place, just as Emma had hoped.
Edward the Confessor, who had spent most of his life waiting to become king of England, was in no mood to share his throne with his mother. Soon after his coronation in 1042 he deprived her of all her lands and treasures. According to William of Malmesbury, this was something that Edward had been planning for some time and his ‘royal spirit was woken to hostility against his mother by the memory of past events. She had not been very generous in her treatment of her son, while he was passing through his teenage years, and so he ordered all his mother’s effects to be ransacked, down to the last pennyworth’. After 1043 Emma virtually disappears from the sources. Her last public appearance was at London in 1045 when she witnessed a charter granting privileges to Westminster Abbey.She died at Winchester on 14 March 1052 and was buried beside Cnut in the Old Minster there.
Emma is discussed in my books England’s Queens: The Biography (Amberley, 2011) and She Wolves: The Notorious Queens of England (The History Press, 2008). She is also the subject of several recent biographies. She is not the only woman to have been the wife of two English kings however and her predecessor, Judith of Francia, will be the subject of a later blog post...