Emma of Normandy

Queen Emma
Queen Emma as depicted in the work entitled ‘In Praise of Queen Emma’ (Add MS 33241, f. 1v)

Biography

Emma of Normandy was the wife of two kings of Anglo-Saxon England – Æthelred the Unready (reigned 978–1016) and Cnut (reigned 1016–1035) – and she was the mother of two other English kings. She was a key political figure in her own right and a major force in the turbulent politics of 11th-century England.

The wife of King Æthelred

Her brother, Richard II, duke of Normandy (reigned 996–1026), had a tense relationship with the English king, Æthelred the Unready, who accused him of harbouring the Viking forces that were attacking England. In the wake of Scandinavian attacks on both England and Normandy in 1001, Emma was sent to England to marry Æthelred, whose first wife had died. In England, she was sometimes known by the English name Ælfgifu.

With Æthelred, Emma had at least three children: Edward the Confessor (who ruled England from 1042 to 1066); Alfred; and Godgifu. These three went into exile in mainland Europe before Cnut, king of Denmark, conquered England in 1016.

Emma had a good relationship with the new regime. After Æthelred’s death in 1016, she married King Cnut sometime in 1017, and they had at least two children: the future King Harthacnut (reigned 1040-1042); and Gunnhild, who married the son of the Holy Roman Emperor.

The wife of King Cnut

Emma was an important figure in Cnut’s government. Surviving documents describe her advising the king. The only surviving manuscript image of Cnut, found in the Book of Life from the New Minster, Winchester, also features Emma. They are shown standing on either side of the altar at that monastery, where they were remembered as major benefactors.

The mother of two kings

After Cnut’s death, Emma continued to influence Anglo-Saxon politics as she tried to make one of her sons, Harthacnut or Edward, king of England. However, their claims to the throne were challenged by Harald Harefoot, Cnut’s son with [his first wife] the Englishwoman, Ælfgifu of Northampton. Harthacnut and Harald ruled England jointly between 1035 and 1037. Emma may also have encouraged a failed invasion of England in 1036 by her sons Edward and Alfred, in which Alfred died. 

In 1037 Emma and Harthacnut were driven into exile. Harald Harefoot died in 1040, at which point Harthacnut became king. Harthacnut does not seem to have been popular. In 1041 Emma possibly arranged for his older half-brother, Edward, to become joint ruler in England. In 1042, Harthacnut died and Edward the Confessor became the sole king of England. Despite her efforts on his behalf, Edward was not entirely sympathetic to his mother, and he deprived Emma of much of her wealth. She died in 1052 and was buried at Winchester.

In Praise of Queen Emma

An unusual manuscript from this period reveals some of Emma’s political strategies. Entitled In Praise of Queen Emma, it is the earliest surviving account dedicated to a female political figure from England (excluding saints’ lives). The first version of this work was probably composed for Emma by a monk of Saint-Bertin, in Flanders, between 1041 and 1043. The author re-framed history to justify Emma’s actions. For example, ‘In Praise of Queen Emma’ vilifies King Harald Harefoot, and particularly his involvement in the murder of Emma’s son, Alfred.

Emma’s legacy

Emma’s political influence had far-reaching consequences. Later chroniclers suggested that Emma’s her marriage to King Æthelred the Unready led to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, since it meant that the dukes of Normandy became related to the Anglo-Saxon kings of England, gaining a hereditary claim to the English throne.

Emma’s political alliances may also have contributed to the rise to power of Earl Godwin, father of King Harold II (reigned 1066), the opponent of William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings.

Emma is a good example of someone involved in politics on both sides of the English Channel and in Scandinavia before the Norman Conquest, as well as setting the scene for the Conquest. She is also an important example of a powerful medieval English woman.

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