Queen Emma, Jewel of the Normans: England, 1002–42

When Emma set foot in England in early 1002, she must have been daunted by the prospect awaiting her. She was to wed Æthelred, the powerful (yet mercurial) king of the English – a man she’d never met, who spoke a language she didn’t understand. Emma had been brought up in expectation of a dynastic marriage of some sort, but nothing could have quite prepared her for this. As a daughter of Duke Richard I, she would have anticipated wedding a northern French magnate – a count of Flanders or Anjou perhaps. The match with Æthelred was considerably more exalted but also considerably riskier. In England, Emma had few supporters and even fewer friends.

The grounds for the union are to be sought in the political difficulties of Æthelred’s reign, which had seen the Vikings return to England’s shores in force. The aim of such an alliance was to close the Norman ports to Viking raiders, who had found shelter there in 1000. In this respect, the union was also a new departure for the West Saxon royal family that ruled England. Its members had long married their daughters and sisters off to continental rulers, but had rarely (if ever) taken foreign brides in return. The only exception was Æthelwulf, Æthelred’s great-great-great-grandfather, a precedent long since forgotten.

The office of queen was itself a new creation. For reasons which remain obscure, West Saxon royal consorts had traditionally been styled ‘wife of the king’ or ‘mother of the king’, titles which underlined their dependence on (and subservience to) their menfolk. This only started to change in the 960s with Æthelred’s mother, Ælfthryth. She is the first royal spouse to be styled ‘queen’. She is also the first royal consort of the dynasty to be formally crowned and consecrated into her office, and she appears prominently in dispute records, petitioning the king and supporting lawsuits.1

At the time of his union with Emma, Æthelred was in his early to mid-thirties and had at least six sons and three daughters from a previous marriage. But if Emma was not Æthelred’s first wife, she does seem to have been his first queen. For Æthelred’s first consort is almost invisible in the sources: she is never mentioned by name and we only know that she was (probably) called Ælfgifu thanks to much later accounts. Some of this silence may be put down to the traditional misogyny of medieval chroniclers, but by no means all of it. Ælfthryth had attracted comment in a range of sources in the 960s and 970s, as would Emma.2 In fact, Ælfthryth may have been part of the problem. There could only be one true queen at a medieval court. And as long as Ælfthryth – who only died in late 1001 – remained present as queen mother, there was little room for a second leading woman.

When Emma arrived in England in 1002, shortly after Ælfthryth’s death, the scene was thus set for the emergence of a new familial matriarch. Like many a medieval bride, Emma was young – no more than twenty and perhaps only in her mid-teens.3 Like her father and brother, Emma was culturally (and linguistically) French. She may have been conversant in Old Norse, which was probably her mother Gunnor’s native tongue, but she would have known little (if any) Old English, the vernacular of her new realm. Emma’s response to these cultural and linguistic hurdles was to adapt to her new circumstances. She adopted (or was given) a suitably English name, Ælfgifu, and started making alliances with local noblemen. The fact that her new name (meaning ‘elf-gift’) had been the name of Æthelred’s first wife may raise the odd eyebrow. But where a modern pyschologist would have had a field day, the historian must satisfy herself with observing that this was the most popular female aristocratic name of the era.

In Emma’s first year on the throne, she can already be observed witnessing Æthelred’s charters (in her new name) – an honour notably denied to her predecessor. And the next year, we see further signs of political activity. In 1003, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – our most detailed narrative of the period – reports that Exeter was sacked by the Vikings, on account of the Norman (or ‘French’) follower Emma had appointed to the city. This is veiled criticism of the new queen and her entourage, and the man in question is called a ‘churl’ (i.e. peasant) – a term of abuse within aristocratic circles.4 Still, criticism implies power, a power which would grow in later years.

That all did not welcome Emma should hardly come as a surprise. Medieval courts were cosmopolitan and polyglot places, but they were also riven by faction and intrigue. This was certainly true of Æthelred’s. Since 991, the English realm had been subjected to repeated Viking attacks of increasing size and severity. By 1002, the strain was starting to take its toll. A first sign of Æthelred’s growing desperation is the infamous ‘Massacre of St Brice’s Day’ of this year, one of the first major political events Emma would have witnessed there. According to the Chronicle, the king ordered ‘all the Danish men who were in England to be slain’ on the feast day of the French saint Brice (13 November), orders given in response to rumours of a plot. This was less an act of ethnic cleansing in the modern sense than a strike against the king’s own Viking mercenaries, who’d proven notably unreliable in recent years. But it was hardly the move of a monarch in charge of his own destiny.5

The Vikings were, however, only half the problem. For as pressure mounted, Æthelred’s regime began to unravel from within. One of the complicating factors here was Emma herself. As her star rose, that of Æthelred’s elder sons from his first marriage fell. And once Emma had given birth to her own first son, Edward, at some point before 1005, there were competing lines for the throne. These divided the court, as different factions vied to back different candidates. Emma would have to keep her wits about her, if she were to survive.

But Emma did more than survive – she flourished. Despite, or perhaps rather on account of, these factional divides, she soon established herself as a regular presence by Æthelred’s side. Emma may have been among those who counselled the St Brice’s Day Massacre, not as a snub to her former countrymen but rather as a necessary (if extreme) measure to master the Viking threat. She was almost certainly one of those who advised Æthelred to part ways with his established counsellors a few years later in the event modern historians have dubbed the ‘palace revolution’ of 1005 and 1006. Emma’s position was further strengthened by the birth of a second son, Alfred, around this time (c.1008). And at some point she also gave birth to a daughter, Godgifu (meaning ‘gift-of-God’). A key moment came in the winter of 1013/14. Realising the English throne was ripe for the picking, the Danish king Swein Forkbeard had led a massive invasion that summer. By December, Æthelred’s position had become untenable; and so he, Emma and their children fled into exile at the court of his brother-in-law in Normandy.6 The Norman alliance may not have been able to prevent Swein’s conquest, but at least it offered a safe haven from which to plot Æthelred’s return.

Soon enough, luck landed Æthelred and Emma back in England. On the feast of the Purification of Mary (Candlemas, 2 February) 1014, Swein was struck down by illness – by Saint Edmund, according to later English legend – and Æthelred was able to exploit the resulting uncertainty and re-establish himself on the throne. He returned to England and ejected Swein’s teenage son Cnut, whom the Danish army had sought to elect king in his father’s stead. Respite, however, proved brief. Cnut returned at the head of a large army the following year (1015). And Æthelred, who’d been ailing for some time, died in the spring of 1016 (on 23 April), with Cnut’s forces still on the prowl.

This placed Emma in a difficult situation. With Æthelred dead, her position in England was at risk. Emma’s primary interest lay in the eventual succession of her sons, Edward and Alfred. Yet here Æthelred’s elder children posed as much of a threat as the would-be conqueror Cnut. Initially, the eldest of these, Edmund Ironside, led a spirited resistance. But Emma’s emotions must have been mixed; and in the event, Edmund would die on 30 November 1016, probably of wounds incurred in battle with Cnut. The way was now paved for the accession of the Danish conqueror – the first of a long line of foreign monarchs on the English throne.

Given these uncertainties, Emma’s children sensibly sought refuge at the court of their uncle, Richard II of Normandy. The queen herself seems to have remained behind in London, perhaps against her desires. Edmund had every reason to keep a close eye on his stepmother, who’d been part of a rival faction at court, one angling for the succession of her own sons with Æthelred. And Cnut had even less reason to let her go. For if Emma were to leave and wed again, her new husband would have his own claim to the throne as her spouse (the husband of the rightful queen). Perhaps more worryingly, she might seek to back her exiled sons, Cnut’s main rivals. It was for this reason that Cnut now sought Emma’s hand in marriage. Accounts vary as to the details – some claim Cnut wooed Emma, others that she was pressured into the match – but all agree that she eventually consented.7 For Cnut, this was an important victory. He could win England by conquest, but he could not rule by force alone. Marrying the previous king’s wife allowed Cnut to present himself as an heir (of sorts) to Æthelred. The union thus took the edge off hardnosed Realpolitik. Most importantly, by bringing Emma on side, Cnut had neutralised the threat presented by her sons, the eldest of whom, Edward, was now nearing maturity and had little reason to be grateful to his new stepfather.

If Cnut had much to gain from the match, Emma had just as much to lose. Her future in England now depended on rapprochement with the new regime. But marriage to Cnut, particularly if it produced heirs, risked barring her own sons from the succession (as indeed was Cnut’s intention). Faced with an impossible choice – and probably a degree of coercion – Emma plumped for Cnut and career over sons and exile. The decision cannot have been easy, and Edward and Alfred never forgave her. The resulting strains would define English politics for much of the next half century.

That Emma took no pride in her actions is revealed by the account of the period she later commissioned. This propagandist work, appropriately entitled ‘In Praise of Queen Emma’ (Latin: Encomium Emmae reginae), was written by a Flemish cleric in the early 1040s. Significantly, the author avoids all mention of Emma’s first marriage to Æthelred, despite the narrative contortions this entails. The existence of Edward and Alfred could not be ignored so easily, but the nature of their birth and parentage is passed over in judicious silence. Evidently, some things were best left unsaid.

However, if Emma had been a force in Æthelred’s later years, under Cnut she came into her own. Precisely because the union was so central to the legitimation of Cnut’s regime, Emma was placed in a position of unusual power and dignity. She attests his charters more often and more prominently than she had Æthelred’s (and she’d been no shrinking violet then). And there are signs that she was entrusted with important political duties. Many documents are addressed to Cnut and Emma jointly; and the pair can be seen undertaking acts of cultural and religious patronage in tandem.8 Perhaps the most enduring monument to their cooperation is the striking image at the front of the Liber Vitae (‘Book of Life’) of the New Minster in Winchester. This is a record of those for whom the monks of the New Minster prayed. It was produced at the monastery in Cnut’s reign and the opening illustration depicts Emma (here given her English designation, Ælfgifu) and Cnut jointly presenting a cross to the abbey. Not only are the two figures of equal size and prominence, but Emma is placed on the right-hand side of the composition (i.e. the left as you look at it). It was a well-established convention that the most important individual was placed on the right (or in the centre) of an illumination; and Emma is thus given pride of place over Cnut.9 Here she more than warrants her later epithet, ‘jewel of the Normans’.10

Emma’s integration into the new Anglo-Danish regime may have been eased by her own Scandinavian origins and (possible) acquaintance with Old Norse. Certainly it was further encouraged by the birth of two children with Cnut, Harthacnut and Gunnhild. For his part, Cnut had to strike a careful balance between rewarding his Scandinavian followers and winning over the native English aristocracy (or at least elements thereof).11 On the one hand, he promoted loyal followers to key earldoms across England. On the other, he sought to reach out to elements of the established local elite. It was here that Emma proved invaluable. Marriage with her provided an important link to the previous regime.

This was but one of a number of olive branches Cnut offered the English. Another was the foundation of a religious house at Ashingdon (Assandun), the site of Cnut’s definitive victory over Edmund Ironside. As significant was a gathering at Oxford in 1018, at which Cnut pledged to uphold the ‘laws of Edgar’. Edgar was Æthelred’s father and was synonymous with law and justice in England. Cnut’s willingness to work with the grain of local politics is further illustrated by the fact that the decrees issued at Oxford were composed by Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. c.1023). Wulfstan had been a leading adviser in Æthelred’s later years, entrusted with all major acts of law-making; now he did the same for Cnut.12 The specific decision to embrace the ‘laws of Edgar’ is also noteworthy. This not only aligned Cnut with earlier English law and government; it also specifically identified him with the father of the ruler he’d replaced. The message is clear: Edgar is a source of legitimacy, not his son – nor, by implication, the latter’s heirs.

Wulfstan and Emma also brought practical know-how to the new Danish regime. Cnut continued to have interests in the wider North Sea world and needed trusted place-holders to rule England during his repeated absences. In the winter of 1019/20 he was already in Denmark, securing succession to his brother there. And he was away again in 1023, 1025 to 1026, 1027 and 1028 to 1029, seizing control of Norway and parts of Sweden. Cnut’s son with Emma, Harthacnut, had a part to play here, and he was sent to Denmark to be Cnut’s regent, perhaps soon after his first public appearance in England in 1023. There Harthacnut was to represent his father and learn the art of statecraft.

If Emma was more prominent under Cnut than she had been under Æthelred, she soon found herself confronted with similar problems. For like Æthelred, Cnut came into the marriage with baggage. He had two older sons, Swein and Harold (named after their grandfather and great-grandfather), both born to Ælfgifu of Northampton. Sources close to Emma paint Ælfgifu as a lowly concubine and Swein and Harold as bastards – indeed, the Encomium even claims that the latter’s birth had been faked and he was not Cnut’s true offspring – but they clearly protest too much. Ælfgifu was actually a leading noblewoman from the Midlands, whose father and brothers had fallen foul of Æthelred’s regime. There is every reason to believe that the union was a bona fide marriage, struck in 1013 or 1014 in order to secure the support of a powerful region. (Though the Church frowned on divorce and remarriage, it would be another two centuries before it was in a position to dictate terms to monarchs and aristocrats.)13

Emma was right to feel threatened by Swein and Harold, and the Encomiast (as her pet historian is known) claims that a condition of her marriage to Cnut was that any son of theirs would be preferred for the succession. Such a deal is certainly conceivable. But as the Encomiast is Emma’s mouthpiece, we must treat his statements with care. He writes after Harthacnut had finally succeeded to the English throne in 1040 for an audience at his court. It was in his interest to paint Harthacnut as Cnut’s natural heir – and Swein and Harold as usurping upstarts.

What is certain is that Emma worked tirelessly to secure Harthacnut’s interests – if need be, at the expense of his half-siblings. She may well have been the one who pushed for Swein to be placed in charge of Norway in the early 1030s (under Ælfgifu of Northampton’s tutelage), an act which conveniently removed two rivals from court. And when Cnut died of unknown causes at Shaftesbury in 1035, Emma was quick to agitate for Harthacnut’s succession against the claims of his elder half-brother Harold. Emma was joined here by the powerful earl of Wessex, Godwin, who owed his meteoric rise to Cnut’s patronage. Godwin’s main competitor for power and influence, however, Earl Leofric of Mercia, backed Harold (known to posterity as Harold ‘Harefoot’).14 Harold had two main advantages: he was older than Harthacnut and, most crucially, he was at hand in England, when Cnut unexpectedly died.

The situation was further complicated by Harthacnut’s slow reaction. Harthacnut had ruled Denmark on Cnut’s behalf for over a decade. But here as in England, Cnut’s death raised questions about the succession. In particular, Magnus Olafsson, who had recently secured the Norwegian throne, was angling to reconfigure Cnut’s North Sea empire from this northern base (as he would briefly do in the 1040s).15 Under these circumstances, Harthacnut could ill afford a speculative trip to England, a land he knew little of. Despite his absence, Harthacnut’s claims were taken seriously. It was initially decided to divide the realm between Harold, who would take north of the Thames (Leofric’s sphere of influence), and Harthacnut, who would rule to the south (Godwin’s earldom). But as it became clear that the latter could not prize himself away from Denmark, his supporters started to get jittery. Emma now reached out to her sons with Æthelred – Edward and Alfred – who remained in exile in Normandy. Relations between them must have been frosty, but the prospect of a crown is enough to warm even the coldest heart. Soon, both Edward and Alfred were on their way to England, the former sailing to Southampton and the latter making his way north via Flanders to Kent.

Godwin, however, had other plans. He had little to gain from the return of the West Saxon line. If he could not see Harthacnut on the throne, Godwin would back any son of Cnut over one of Æthelred. As earl of Wessex – a region which now encompassed all of southern England – Godwin was uniquely well-placed to rebuff the English princes. Edward faced armed resistance as soon as he landed and was forced to retreat to Normandy. Alfred, on the other hand, was welcomed by the earl, before Godwin killed and scalped or enslaved his companions, then packed him off into the monastery of Ely (apparently at Harold’s behest). There Alfred was blinded, dying shortly thereafter of the wounds. The earl had timed his defection to perfection. He may have been an enemy of Harold up until then, but one good turn deserved another – and few turns are better appreciated than removing a would-be rival.

The Encomiast is keen to absolve Emma of any involvement in these events. He claims, rather implausibly, that the entire affair was an elaborate trap sprung by Harold. It was Harold who sent a letter in Emma’s name to Edward and Alfred, designed to lure them to England; and it was at his orders that Godwin then violently opposed them. The story is about as credible as a Cold War-era Pravda article. But it says much about the shadow cast by these events. Emma desperately wanted to wash her hands of any involvement.16 Sources close to Godwin, including the later Life of Edward and one of the versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, similarly seek to downplay the earl’s part, trying to pin as much of the blame as possible on Harold.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of these events, the succession was now settled. Harold would be king. For his good services, Godwin would remain the dominant earl. Emma was the only one to lose out. Not only had Harthacnut been blocked from the succession; she’d lost one of her other sons (Alfred) and damaged relations irreparably with the other (Edward). No longer able to sustain her position, she now fled into exile in Flanders.

Just across the Channel from Kent, Flanders had long enjoyed close social, political and economic ties with England.17 It was, nevertheless, a most strange place of exile for Emma. The obvious option would have been to return, as she had in 1013, to her native Normandy, where Emma’s relatives continued to hold the ducal throne. The reason for her reticence must have been the presence of her son Edward there. Edward had long been welcomed at the ducal court, where he was treated as a king in exile – an alternative to the Anglo-Danish line Emma had embraced. After the tumultuous events of the previous year, Edward must have returned with tales of Emma’s perfidy. No succour was now to be found for her there. In Flanders, by contrast, Emma was welcomed warmly. The region lay directly on the sea routes between Harold’s England and Harthacnut’s Denmark. From here, Emma could plan her return.

She did not have to wait long. In late 1039, Harthacnut was finally in a position to make his move. He sailed to the Flemish port of Bruges to join Emma. They hoped to strike at Harold’s regime in the New Year.18 In the end, force was unnecessary. In mid-March 1040, Harold died and the leading English magnates sent for Harthacnut, offering him the crown. He readily accepted. With Harthacnut came his mother, who once more established herself as the power behind the English throne. Yet Emma’s moment of greatest triumph soon became a mounting crisis. For Harthacnut insisted on antagonising the local Anglo-Danish elite, demanding exorbitant taxes and publicly desecrating the body of his predecessor Harold. To make matters worse, there may already have been signs of the unknown affliction which would carry Harthacnut off two years later.

It was in this awkward situation that Emma reached out once more to Edward. He had visited his mother during her exile in Bruges, but relations remained strained. Then, there’d been little he could (or would) do for her; now, with Harthacnut’s regime tottering, she hoped Edward would heed her call and return to his native land. The idea was to install Edward as co-ruler, that he might succeed Harthacnut when the time came. One son of Emma would thus follow the other – and she would continue to pull the strings behind the scenes. It was a bold plan, but a good one. It was in this connection that Emma probably commissioned the Encomium, a work designed to smooth ruffled feathers. Symbolic of the desired accord is the striking opening image of this work, in which Emma sits enthroned in majesty with her sons Harthacnut and Edward waiting in the wings – a natural triumvirate if there ever was one! – while the Encomiast presents his work to her.19

However, Emma had turned her back on Edward more than once already. Not far beneath the surface lurked the jealousy, anger and resentment generated by years of fierce factional politics. Would he really come to her rescue now?

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