Twice a Queen: Emma of Normandy

Much is known of England’s powerful queen consorts, from Eleanor Aquitaine to Elizabeth Woodville to Anne Boleyn but little is known about the woman who arguably was one of the first of England’s powerful queen consorts, along with her mother in law Ælfthryth. Emma of Normandy was queen consort of England twice, first to Æthelred the Unready and secondly to Cnut the Great. She was the mother to two kings of England, Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor.  Her continued hold on power was due to her determined will which saw her survive the death of both husbands and several sons. The Encomium Emmae Reginae written in honour of her recorded her as a central figure during this period and is one of the major sources. Her position as a daughter of Normandy has also led to her marriage to Æthelred being considered as one of the main events leading to the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Born to Richard I, Count of Rouen, and his wife Gunnor, Emma was born sometime during the 980s. Her brother Richard was Duke of Normandy and another brother Robert was Archbishop of Rouen. Her family’s position was what led to Emma’s marriage to Æthelred in 1002 as a result of an arrangement between the two territories against Viking raids. Emma dutifully provided 3 heirs for Æthelred but her power was limited during her marriage to him. While she seems to appear more during Æthelred’s reign compared to his first wife, such as appearing prominently on witness lists of Æthelred’s charters, William of Malmesbury reported that the pair never got along. Emma was forced to return to Normandy with her two sons in 1013 after her husband lost control of England to Swein Forkbeard and was only unable to return upon his death the following year. By 1016, Æthelred himself had died and Emma had been unsuccessful in convincing him to pass over his sons from his first wife in favour of Edward.

Æthelred’s heir Edmund Ironside however did not survive long, dying at the end of 1016 after struggling to hold off Cnut. Emma soon married Cnut in a mutually beneficial marriage. She retained her position as queen as well preserving the life of her two sons while Cnut benefitted from Emma being seen as symbol of continuity and quelling the threat from Normandy. Emma was afforded a far greater position as Cnut’s wife than she was during her marriage to Æthelred. Sources refer to the couple as pair and Emma also appears in royal imagery such as in the Liber Vitae which includes an image depicting Emma and Cnut presenting their gift of a cross on the altar of the New Minster of Winchester. The Encomium Emmae Reginae also comments that while the marriage began as one for political means, that the marriage became affectionate. By the time Cnut died in 1035, the marriage had provided two children, including Cnut’s heir Harthacnut.

Upon Cnut’s death Emma did not cede her political power. She focused on ensuring that her son with Cnut, Harthacnut could maintain power. Harthacnut however was in Denmark and made little attempt to come to England. Emma was forced to appeal to her sons from her marriage to Æthelred, Edward and Alfred, to come to England to help support her against her opponents. However upon their arrival they were betrayed by allies leading to the death of her son Alfred who died after having his eyes gouged out. Emma was forced to flee to Flanders as her stepson Harold Harefoot took control of England. Upon Harefoot’s death in 1040, Harthacnut had finally joined his mother and the two set sail to England to reclaim the throne.

Harthacnut’s reign was not popular according to the C and E texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Emma is believed to have convinced Edward to return to England to help reduce tensions but to also strengthen her position. It was during Harthacnut’s reign that she commissioned the Encomium Emmae Reginae, to present her version of events and create a lasting legacy of her life. Emma firmly places the blame for her son Alfred’s death on Harold the Harefoot. Despite the work’s biases, it is considered an important source for 11th century English and Scandinavian history.

Upon the death of Harthacnut’s in 1042, Emma’s power began to decrease. Despite having helped secure Edward’s position, perhaps as a result of her favouring Harthacnunt as heir, their relationship soured. Edward came to Winchester seizing the treasure held there, if it was Emma’s own or the royal treasury is not clear, as well as her advisor Bishop Stigand who was stripped of his office. While Emma would later return to court, and Stigand would also be promoted, it was the end of her influence. In her place the Earl Godwine gained her political power, despite his probable role in the death of Edward’s brother, Alfred. Emma would see him become exiled before she died in 1052 but after her death he returned to power and his son became the ill-fated Harold Godwinson.

When Emma died in 1052, she was buried at Winchester next to Cnut and Harthacnut. She had been queen consort of England twice over, as well as when married to Cnut, queen consort of Denmark and Norway. Two of her sons had also successfully obtained the English throne. In the case of her second husband and her two sons she had been instrumental in their success. Despite not being of English birth and being a woman, Emma navigated the dangers of the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish courts in securing a position for herself. For a queen consort with such an interesting life, Emma deserves much more than a footnote in the history books.

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