29 January 2019
Queen Emma: wife of two kings, mother of two more
Emma of Normandy was one of the most significant figures in the turbulent politics of 11th-century England. She was queen to two kings of the English (Æthelred the Unready and Cnut), and mother to two more (Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor) as well as being an influential figure in her own right. We know more about her than other women in Anglo-Saxon England thanks to a variety of charters, illuminated manuscripts and a biography written during Emma's own lifetime.
Detail of Emma from the New Minster Liber Vitae (Winchester, c. 1031): Stowe MS 944, f. 6r
Emma was born in Normandy in the early 980s. Her brother, Richard II, duke of Normandy (d. 1026), sent her to marry the English king, Æthelred the Unready, following a dispute regarding Viking forces that were attacking England and Normandy. When in England, Emma was sometimes known by the English name Ælfgifu. With Æthelred, she had at least three children: Edward the Confessor (who ruled England from 1042 to 1066); Alfred; and Godgifu.
When King Æthelred died in 1016, he was succeeded by Cnut, bringing England into an empire that stretched to Denmark, Norway and into the Baltic. Emma married King Cnut sometime in 1017, and they had at least two children: a son, Harthacnut; and a daughter, Gunnhild. The children from her first marriage (Edward, Alfred and Godgifu) went into exile in mainland Europe.
Emma persuades Cnut to give land to Archbishop Lyfing (Canterbury, 1018): Stowe Ch 38
Emma seems to have been a crucial figure in Cnut’s government, with surviving documents showing her advising the king. A charter on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (at the British Library until 19 February) emphasises that Cnut gave land to the archbishop of Canterbury at Emma’s request. In the early days of Cnut’s reign, Emma may have helped him establish alliances with important English institutions, such as the church at Canterbury.
It is quite fitting that the only surviving manuscript portrait of Cnut also features Emma at his side. This portrait can be found in the Book of Life of the New Minster, Winchester. The couple are shown standing on either side of the altar at that monastery, where they were remembered as major benefactors.
Emma and Cnut from the New Minster Liber Vitae: Stowe MS 944, f. 6r
After Cnut’s death in 1035, Harald Harefoot, his son by a previous wife, succeeded to the English throne. In 1036, Emma’s sons from her first marriage, Edward and Alfred, invaded England to challenge Harald, believing that they had their mother's support. Their coup was unsuccessful, and although Edward escaped, Alfred was captured, blinded and killed. Edward never seems to have completely forgiven his mother for what he perceived as her role in Alfred’s death.
When Harald Harefoot died in 1040, Harthacnut, Emma’s son by Cnut, became king of England. However, in 1041, Harthacnut’s half-brother, Edward, became joint ruler of England, perhaps facilitated by Emma.
Opening miniature from the Encomium Emmae reginae: Add MS 33241, f. 1v
Around this time was written the text known as Encomium Emmae reginae (‘In Praise of Queen Emma’). This is the earliest surviving account dedicated to a female political figure from England (excluding saints’ Lives). This work was probably composed for Emma by a monk of Saint-Bertin, in Flanders, who appears to have re-framed history to justify Emma’s actions. Emma’s first husband, Æthelred, is not mentioned in this work, with Cnut being portrayed as the rightful ruler of England.
Emma may have used the Encomium to shape both the present and the future. The earliest surviving manuscript (Add MS 33241) ends with an account of Edward and Harthacnut ruling jointly: ‘here the bond of motherly love and brotherly love is of strength indestructible’. In 1042, Harthacnut died and Edward the Confessor became the sole king of England. At this stage, the author re-wrote the final part of the text.
Ending of the earliest surviving copy of the Encomium Emmae reginae: Add MS 33241, f. 67r
In 2008, a later medieval copy of the Encomium emerged at auction. This copy is now held at the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen. The ending in this manuscript praised King Edward, and suggests that it was written when Edward had become sole king after Harthacnut’s death in 1042. Although Edward’s father, Æthelred the Unready, was not mentioned at all in the earlier version of the text, Edward and his lineage were praised in the new ending.
Edward’s relationship with his mother did not necessarily improve. At the beginning of his reign, Edward deprived Emma of much of her wealth and banished her for a period from his court. She died in 1052 and was buried at Winchester.
Emma’s political influence had far-reaching consequences. She both stabilised Cnut's Anglo-Danish dynasty and provided the man who supplanted it, Edward the Confessor. Later chroniclers even suggested that Emma’s marriage to King Æthelred the Unready led to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, since it gave her great-nephew, William of Normandy, a claim to the English throne.
You can view several of the manuscripts connected with Queen Emma, including the New Minster Liber Vitae and the oldest version of the Encomium Emmae reginae, in the British Library's once-in-a-generation exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. It's on in London until 19 February 2019, and we strongly advise (due to high demand) that you buy your tickets in advance.
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