Emma of Normandy: not just a two-time queen consort of England

Emma of Normandy was queen consort to two of England’s best known pre-Conquest kings, Æthelred the Unready and Cnut the Great. But she was also a savvy political player who came into her own as queen mother, writes Dr Cat Jarman

A page from The Encomium, a flattering account of the reign of Cnut written in the early 1040s and commissioned by his mother Emma of Normandy to show her powerful position

Who was Emma of Normandy?

Emma of Normandy is best-known as being queen consort to two kings – Æthelred the Unready and Cnut the Great – and the mother of another, Harthacnut. She was the daughter of Richard I (the Fearless) of Normandy and the Danish-descended Gunnor.

Advertisement

Emma was one of nine children and most likely born in the AD 980s. A daughter of the Norman dukes, she was the great-granddaughter of the Viking warrior Rollo, the founder of Normandy who hailed from either Norway or Denmark. This made her of Scandinavian ancestry on both sides of the family. She was also the great-aunt of William the Conqueror.

In the words of Godfrey, prior of Winchester’s cathedral monastery, writing in the 11th century: “She had kings as sons and kings as husbands; she shone forth in the glory of her progeny of kings; she excelled in virtue even the ranks of her glorious ancestors.”

First marriage: Æthelred the Unready

In 1002, probably aged in her late teens or early 20s, Emma was sent to England to marry King Æthelred, as his second wife.

The marriage was clearly a strategic one, aiming to strengthen an alliance between England and Normandy in light of harrowing attacks on both English and Norman shores by Scandinavian raiders. Æthelred had apparently accused Emma’s brother, Duke Richard II, of harbouring the Vikings and enabling their attacks, and the marriage was designed to ensure his allegiance.

Their union was an unusual one, as although several English princesses had been married off to French and German rulers historically, no English king had married a foreign wife for almost 150 years.

Upon her arrival in England, Emma was given the name ‘Ælfgifu’. The marriage resulted in three children: two sons, Edward (later known as Edward the Confessor) and Alfred, and a daughter, Godgifu. Few sources say much about Emma’s political activity in these years, and it seems her role was mainly one of being a wife and a mother: the most common description of her at the time was as the conlaterana regis: “she who is at the King’s side”.

Emma and Æthelred's union was an unusual one – no English king had married a foreign wife for almost 150 years

This first decade of her career was the one in which she was the least powerful, and one source, William of Malmesbury, suggests that she and her husband were never on good terms. The England that Emma found herself at the beginning of the 11th century was one marked by ongoing trouble and threats of Scandinavian attacks.

In 1013, this came to a head when the Dane Swein Forkbeard successfully invaded England. Emma and her children were sent into exile in Normandy, later followed by her husband. Swein’s rule of England was to be short as he died the following year, and a messy two years of political disputes ensued even after Æthelred was restored to the throne.

Second marriage: Cnut the Great

In 1016, Æthelred died. More turbulence was to follow, and later that year England fell to Swein Forkbeard’s son, the Danish King Cnut. The following year, he is reported to have asked for Emma to be fetched to be his wife.

Emma became queen of England, once again, but this time also of Denmark and Norway. As with her first marriage, this was a strategic one as it cemented Cnut’s role as king of England. Taking the widow of one of his predecessors as his own wife no doubt helped mark his superiority. At the same time, the union might be seen as symbolising friendship and alliance.

While it is unclear what Emma herself really thought of it at the beginning, she later stressed that not only did the marriage bring peace but it was an equal union that she entered into with her own consent.

Her ancestry may well have affected her feelings. After all, her mother was the daughter of recent Danish settlers in Normandy, and northern origins were a key part of Norman self-identity. Emma likely spoke Danish from childhood and apart from her family connections, she was clearly important to Cnut – not least because of her knowledge of English politics.

It seems likely that the partnership between the two grew over time, helped by the fact that they were more or less of the same age. In a document from the New Minster in Winchester, illustrating the monastery’s loyal benefactors, the two are depicted either side of an altar as a double act. This depiction – one of several – emphasises Emma’s political importance. Their marriage lasted until Cnut’s death in 1035.

How many children did she have?

As well as the two sons and one daughter Emma had with Æthelred, she went on to have two more children with Cnut: Harthacnut and Gunnhild. Cnut also had two sons by his first wife, Ælfgifu (confusingly, the same name that was given to Emma), Swein and Harold Harefoot.

At the time of Cnut’s death, Swein had been sent to rule in Norway along with his mother, while Harthacnut was ruling in Denmark. That left Harold as the only of Cnut’s sons still in England. Emma remained at Winchester, where Cnut’s military household was based, and was left in charge of the Royal Treasury and in a position of power.

Harthacnut was the legitimate heir and should have ascended the English throne, but he could not return from Denmark to claim the crown so Harold ruled in his stead as either regent or co-ruler.

Competition for the throne was to continue. Emma’s sons with Æthelred, Edward and Alfred, had been in exile in Normandy and returned to England in 1036. Alfred was soon killed, after being captured and blinded under suspicious circumstances, and Edward may have briefly joined his mother in Winchester before returning again to Normandy.

Eventually, Harold was recognised as sole king in 1037. Emma was exiled to Flanders, where she stayed with a distant relative, Count Baldwin and his wife Adela. But her ambitions for herself and her sons remained.

Emma as England’s queen mother

Emma’s career in England can be divided into three distinct parts: the first two relating to her marriages, and the third to this period after Cnut’s death. Now, Emma worked to manoeuvre her sons into kingship, taking an active part in the political sphere as queen mother. When Harold died in 1040, Emma returned from Flanders and Harthacnut finally took the throne.

The role as queen mother was clearly an important one, and she was recognised as an authority: she is listed as mater regis in witness lists during these years. Emma may have learnt about queenship from her mother, Gunnor, who was later hailed as the matriarch of the Norman aristocracy, dubbed the ‘mother of the dynasty’ in the 12th century.

Emma worked to manoeuvre her sons into kingship, taking an active part in the political sphere as queen mother

Harthacnut ruled for only two years, with Emma by his side, until his death in 1042. He was succeeded by his half-brother Edward. But the new king appears to have turned against his mother, arriving in Winchester a few months after his coronation and taking away her treasures of silver and gold, as well as most of the land she owned.

Emma was allowed to stay in Winchester and eventually regained her position at court, though without her former status. The precise reasons for this are unclear: Emma was later accused of having been too harsh on Edward; of offering aid to Magnus of Norway for an invasion of England; and even of having had an affair with Ælfwine, the bishop of Winchester.

It seems none were true. Edward most likely wanted to reduce her political involvement back to a simple status as the widow of the former kings, leaving him to rule independently. As far as we know, she lived the rest of her life in Winchester.

What was Emma of Normandy’s legacy?

Our actual information about Emma’s life is sparse, Much of what we know comes from the Encomium Emmae reginae, the Praise of Queen Emma. This narrative was written down in 1041/2 by a monk from St Bertin, in what is now France, and was commissioned by Emma herself.

The Encomium, however, is not a straightforward biography, but an account – modified in several later versions – of the role she played in English politics during the reign of Cnut and his successors. A famous illustration shows her seated on a throne, a kneeling character handing the book to her, with her sons Harthacnut and Edward watching from the wings. The Encomium conjures the position she was in at the height of her power, aimed at her sons and written to influence the future.

Despite her remarkable political career, her best known legacy is no doubt her Norman link to William the Conqueror, enabling the events of 1066 to run their course. In the words of 12th-century historian Henry of Huntingdon, describing her marriage: “From this union… the Normans were justified according to the law of peoples, in both claiming and gaining possession of England.”

Emma’s death and burial

Emma died of an unknown cause on 6 March 1052. She was buried next to Cnut and Harthacnut in Winchester Cathedral.

In 2019, a team from the University of Bristol announced that among the 1,300 bones mixed up in six mortuary chests from Winchester Cathedral were the remains of a woman who matched both the date and age of death of Emma. There are no records of other women of similar status buried there at the time and DNA work is in progress in an attempt to identify the remains more definitively.

Advertisement

Dr Cat Jarman is an archaeologist, broadcaster and author of River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads (HarperCollins, 2021)