History of Emma of Normandy

On the Tuesdays in between the release days of my short stories, I will post additional details about the culture and historical figures featured in the preceding tale. 

Here is more of the truth, as one might best determine it, about:


(as seen in Emma the Queen)

In the tale “Emma the Queen,” most of the characters are real. My short story was based on a legendary tale of Emma of the last few years of her life. The truth of it is speculative. One way or another, Emma of Normandy is an intriguing woman of England’s history who merits a great deal of consideration and study. While writing the Sons of Mercia series, I was often tempted to make her a more important character, and only wished that I had more time to do so. It was with great pleasure that I could revisit the complex events of her life and feature her in the short story, “Emma the Queen.”

When looking at the last years of Emma’s life, one primary question arises: where did Emma’s loyalty lie? In the end, there are so many possibilities; she had strong connections to practically every warring country and leader scrambling for control of England before 1066. Her ancestors were Scandinavian, while her birth-place was Normandy. William the Conqueror was her own nephew.  She had sons with King Ethelred the Unready of the English and sons with King Canute the Great of the Vikings. Her sons were mostly civil to each other, but also rivals for power. So when King Edward the Confessor accused his own mother of betraying him, how right might he have been?

When looking at the details of Emma’s marriage to King Ethelred in 1002, it is easy to deduce that she had no long-standing affection for him. For starters, she was about twelve years old when shipped from her native country to marry the king of England. “Ethelred was much older than Emma, being about thirty-four years of age at the time of his second marriage, and in some respects exceedingly unsuited to win the affections of the young and lovely bride whom he had selected” (Hall 396). Young Emma seemed to take her situation in great stride, playing her role with grace and nobility. She was married in Winchester and returned to Lundenburg for festivities. But her tolerance was probably stretched too far when, shortly after her own marriage, she witnessed the horrible massacre of Danes throughout England at Ethelred’s hand (the Saint Brice’s Day Massacre). Hall compares Ethelred’s behavior here to that of his cruel mother, who killed Edward the Martyr to obtain the throne for Ethelred, and also beat her son with waxen candles. Might Ethelred have used the same method to keep his wife in check?

“‘There were other causes for trouble in the mind of Emma, who, though possessed of unrivalled beauty, had failed in securing the affections of her husband. From the time of their marriage, the King had neglected her company, and associated with unworthy favourites, both male and female.’ Emma felt this deeply: she had been idolised by her own countrymen, and was beloved by her new Saxon subjects. Young, lovely, learned, and highly accomplished, she felt that the treatment of Ethelred was so degrading to her merit, that she resolved at length to return to Normandy. Roger of Wendover seems to infer faults on her side, as well as on that of her husband; but he acknowledges that ‘the King was so petulant to his wife,’ that he would scarcely admit her to his intimacy; and she, on her part, ‘proud of her high descent, and irritated against him, blackened him in no small degree to her father.‘”

— Hall 398

However miserable she might have been, Emma played her part as Ethelred’s wife dutifully enough until his death in 1016. By then she had bore him three children: Alfred, Edward, and Goda. Then Canute conquered England and took Emma for himself.

At first glance, one would probably assume that life with Canute would be even more miserable for Emma than life with King Ethelred. Canute already had a wife and two sons. He acquired Emma, as it were, like other spoils of warfare. But he was a man much more intelligent and courageous than Ethelred. He was also the younger of the pair, being around the age of nineteen to her thirty, and wildly ambitious. His seizure of Lundenburg and the Queen did not conclude without a battle of wits between them, in which Emma secured the safety of her sons and future sons. These negotiations probably founded a mutual admiration for each other.

Additionally, Canute took great care to show respect to Emma in the eyes of her people and Norman relatives. He became a Christian officially, despite having followed various pagan practices in the past. William of Malmesbury writes that “‘In dismissing the Danish army and navy by request of his Queen, the King reserved for his own use forty vessels only, the crew or Thingmanen of which were intended for his body-gaurd” (Thingamen=huscarls). Canute became a Christian with a whole heart, or at least in all manner of appearances, for he and Emma regularly gave riches and jewels to the churches.

It might have further charmed Emma that, like most Danes, Canute was more majestic and groomed than his Anglo-Saxon predecessor. Danes combed their hair regularly, bathed at least once a week, and took special care to fashion. Of Canute’s appearance, the Sagas say describe Canute as “large in stature and very powerful, fair, and distinguished for his beauty; his nose was thin, prominent and aquiline; his hair was profuse, his eyes bright and fierce.”

I certainly don’t mean to imply that Emma’s marriage with Canute was all wine and flowers; I have made my own judgments on Canute’s character based on his behavior in history, and my interpretation should be clear enough in my stories. I certainly doubt he was an easy man to live with. But at least he was smart, driven, and tactful when necessary. It seems evident enough by her later actions that Emma respected him for this.

After Canute’s death, Goodwin–the scheming earl of Wessex–tried to cut Emma off from power and seize Canute’s riches. Emma bided her time. First she “devoted her whole time to the occupation of visiting the churches, as though her thoughts had been entirely bestowed on a future state and the salvation of her soul. In this, much also of sincerity was combined; for Emma was naturally pious, and deeply mourned the loss of a beloved and affectionate husband” (Hall 422). She also began recalling her sons to England, and the first one she contacted was Harthacanute, suggesting her affection for him trumped her loyalty to her older sons with King Ethelred. But Harthacanute was busy in Denmark, so Alfred and Edward came back first. Strangely enough, it was Harold Harefoot (the son of Canute by his first wife) and Goodwin of Wessex who wrote the letter calling for Emma’s sons, seemingly with Emma’s approval.

After this, a tragedy befell those two brothers, one that would profoundly affect Edward’s relationship to Emma later on. Emma wrongfully trusted her sons to Goodwin’s care, and even worse, she sent them to Goodwin one at a time, so that she could visit with the other in the meantime. Goodwin took this opportunity to take out both Alfred’s eyes and cruelly kill him after Alfred refused to marry one of his daughters. Harold Harefoot became king of England and Emma went into exile.

Upon Harold’s death (perhaps due to poor health, perhaps due to an assassination arranged by Goodwin as in Godric the Kingslayer) Emma returned to England and Harthacanute finally claimed his father’s throne. Emma helped counsel Harthacanute a great deal, and helped him win the favor of the people by virtue of her own presence. Harthacanute gave his mother a great deal of power and Emma might have been very happy, if not for the fact Harthacanute gave Goodwin an equal share of power. The man who had killed her son swore he had only done it because Harold Harefoot had forced him to. Amazingly he returned to royal favor, though Emma would not forget what he had gotten away with. After Harthacanute’s death, Edward submitted to Goodwin for help and advice, perhaps because Goodwin managed to convince Edward that Emma arranged the death of Alfred herself.

Perhaps at this point you can appreciate the complexities of Emma’s loyalties, and the reason her own son turned against her. One can only speculate, of course, whether any of Edward’s and Goodwin’s accusations were true. Might she have been so bold as to support Magnus the Good in Denmark over her own son? Might she have engaged in an affair during the many unromantic years of her life? Probably not. But neither should we accept everything the chroniclers tell us without accounting for some unknowns.


Several sources have culminated in my knowledge of Emma over the last few years, including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, the Chronicles of Florence of Worcester, and the Chronicles of the Kings of England as written by William of Malmesbury. See the full bibliography listed on the bottom-right column of my blog.

Special thanks to these particular sources for this essay:

Hall, Mrs. Matthew. Lives of the Queens of England before the
Norman Conquest. Blanchard and Lea, 1854. http://books.google.com/books?

O’Brien, Harriet. Queen Emma and the Vikings. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005. Print.


Published in: on May 22, 2012 at 6:01 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. good

  2. Which saga particularly gives such a description of Canute as your quote here? I cannot find the original source. This was a quote from the Lives of Queens of England Before the Norman Conquest by Ms. Matthew Hall, but in her book for a reference all she gives is: “Sagas.” That isn’t helpful for a historian.

  3. I have found the original source. It is the Knytlinga Saga, p. 148.

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